The Difficulty in Forming the State

August 25, 2016

One can easily imagine two things: first, that this religion proper to each city must have formed the city in a powerful and almost unshakeable way—it is, in fact, marvelous how this social organization has endured, in spite of its faults and chances of ruin; secondly, that this religion must have had the effect, over a period of centuries, of rendering impossible the establishment of a social form other than that of the city.

The Old Temple and The Fountains Painted by Hubert Robert

Each city, through the exigencies of its religion, had to be absolutely independent. Each had to have its own special code, since each had its religion and it was from the religion that the laws were derived. Each had to have its own sovereign justice and could have no justice higher than that of the city. Each had its religious holidays and calendar; the months of the year could not be same in two cities, since the series of religious acts was different. Each had its own currency which, originally, was stamped with its religious emblem. Each had its weights and measures. No one believed that there should be anything in common between two cities….

Libation scene on a terracotta, which was used to hold offerings.

Greece never succeeded in forming a single state; nor were the Latin cities, Etruscan cities, or Samnite cities ever able to form a compact unit. The incurable division of Greeks has been attributed to the nature of their country, and people say that the mountains that cross it created natural lines of demarcation between men. But there were no mountains between Thebes and Plataea, between Argos and Sparta, between Sybaris and Croton. Nor were there any between the cities of Latium, or between the twelve cities of Etruria. Physical nature no doubt plays some role in the history of a people, but man’s beliefs play a more powerful role still. Between two neighboring cities there was therefore something more impassable than a mountain: It was a series of sacred obstacles, the differences of cults, the barrier each city erected between strangers and its gods….


For this reason the ancients could not establish nor even conceive of a social organization other than the city. Neither the Greeks, nor the Italians, nor even the Romans for a very long period of time, had the idea that several cities could unite and live with equal rights under the same government. Between two cities there may well be an alliance, a temporary association with an eye toward a profit to be gained or a danger to repel, but never was there a complete union. For religion made of each city a unit which could not join to any other. Isolation was the law of the city.

The Chariot of Zeus

With the beliefs and the religious practices that we have seen, how could several cities merge into a single state? People did not understand human association, and it did not seem right unless it was based on religion. The symbol of this association had to be a shared, sacred repast. A few thousand citizens could easily, if necessary, gather together around the same prytaneum, recite the same prayer, and share sacred foods. But just try, with these customs, to make a single state of the whole of Greece!

To join two cities into a single state, to unite the vanquished population with the victorious one and merge them under the same government, this is never seen among the ancients, with one exception [Rome]….

The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, engraved by B.Barloccini, 1849

This absolute independence of the ancient city could only cease when the beliefs upon which it was based had completely disappeared. Only after the ideas had been transformed and many revolutions had taken place in ancient societies could one begin to conceive of and establish a larger state ruled by other laws. But for this it was necessary for men to discover other principles and a social bond other than those of ancient times. (Foustel de Coulanges, La Cité Antique, book 2, pp. 237-241 passim).

Nobility Book

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Documents VII, pp. 500-501.


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