Herodotus outlines the fundamental arguments at the very core of governance in a discussion on the merits and shortcomings of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. In The Histories (3.80-83) the eternal debate is given voice from among the seven conspirators for the throne of the Persian Empire in 522BCE.Otanes argued for popular government. He said that monarchy fosters the vices of envy and pride; it allows a ruler to do as he pleases with little responsibility. Even the best men would be corrupted by their own power, and would no longer perceive things as they used to. Worst of all a monarch may abuse his citizens and break up the structures of law. In contrast, the rule of the people avoids the problems of monarchs, it brings equality under the law and enables open debate.
Megabyzus agreed with Otanes’s arguments against monarchy, but warned that in transferring power to the people, that power would be in the hands of the fickle, the irresponsible and the ignorant. Instead, power should be given to the best men who would naturally produce the best policy.Darius agreed with Megabyzus’s criticisms of democracy, but said that, in having a group of men competing for distinction from within an oligarchy, rivalries would develop that would lead to violence and civil war. Even in a democracy corrupt associations will develop. The cliques of power in an oligarchy or democracy would only be broken when a people’s champion comes forward and this person will be entrusted with absolute power. And so it is, argued Darius, that the people’s freedom and best form of government is ultimately derived from monarchy.
Darius won the debate, and it was agreed that the new king would be whoever’s horse among the conspirators neighed first at dawn. Otanes withdrew from the contest. Darius used the scent of a mare to encourage his stallion to neigh; and so it was that the use of guile won power for Darius. A reported flash of lighting from a clear sky was acknowledged as a divine sign of approval. Nevertheless, the issues of effective governance remain.
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