“Constitution” through the Millennia

Word Count: 500

The Greek word πολιτεία or in English alphabetics, politeia, is translated in Kennedy’s version of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, as “constitution”.[1] Other potential meanings include “state, administration, government, or citizenship” which is more literally faithful with the etymology of politeia.[2] The word, politeia, is derived from the Greek, polites, which means “citizen”.[3] This in turn arose from the word, polis, which translates as “city” or “state”.[4]

Roman dialect maintains this similar etymology with the Latin word for “state” or “civil administration” being politia.[5] Modifying the Latin, English then derived our words policy and subsequently police. These, of course, refer to a “way of management [and] government administration” and a tool of “civil administration”.[6]

This etymology does not lead us as close, as one would perhaps expect, to what constitution is defined as being in contemporary times: a document establishing the specific mechanics of government. In fact, our word constitution is derived from the French term constitution.[7] This term then originated from the Latin, constitutionem, meaning “anything arranged or settled upon, regulation.” Related also is the Latin adjective, constituere, meaning “set up, fix, place, [or] establish.”[8]

The bridge between the Greek word politeia and our word constitution exists in the following historical perspectives. Correctly, politeia references the established form of Greek government. It provided the guidance for the mechanics of government. Therefore, Kennedy’s translation is admirable in order to enlighten contemporary readers. However, in contrast to America, Greek “constitutional law” had no more authority or “staying power” then did “regular laws”.[9] Therefore, similar to our concept of establishing or changing government policy a Greek constitution could be altered by the governing body as easily as making new legislation.

Moving towards our concept of a more permanent and virtually unchanging constitution, the Roman constitution, as seen above through its etymology, was a little more fixed and settled. While it was not entirely in written form there was a cultural sense of inherent authority and superiority of it to ordinary statutes. [10] It could not be just “arbitrarily” changed.

The Greco-Roman historian Polybius, having experienced both forms, declares that one reason for Rome’s success is because of its politeia. Specifically, he credits that success to the “resilience” or consistency of its constitution in times of crisis.[11] America has taken heed and not only constructed our own written and authoritative document; we also exported the concept to other countries including: Japan, Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Today the term politeia is a symbol of democratic thought rather then representing the mechanics of government. US examples include, Calvin College’s Political Science Department’s newsletter[12] and Norwich University‘s Political Science club[13] are both named Politeia. Internationally, the South African Journal for Political Science and Public Administration[14], a British think-tank[15] on the role of government in everyday life, the University of Milan’s Annual Forum[16] on business and social responsibility, a Social Network for Democracy in Europe[17], and an Association[18] for democratic education in Brazil all have the namesake, Politeia. Today, politeia is an umbrella term for civil discourse.


[1] Aristotle. (2007). On rhetoric (G. Kennedy Trans.). (Second ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 73 and 74.
Hanson, M. H. (1991). The athenian democracy in the age of demosthenes (J. A. Crook Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell, p. 365.
Barker, E. (1960). Greek political theory (Fifth ed.). Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay and Company, Ltd., p. 51.
[2] Hanson, 1991, p. 365
Harper, D. (2001). Online etymology dictionary: Politeia. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from
[3] Harper, Politeia
[4] Harper, Politeia
[5] Harper, Politeia
[6] Harper, D. (2001). Online etymology dictionary: Politia. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=politia&searchmode=none
[7] Harper, D. (2001). Online etymology dictionary: Constitution. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=constitution&searchmode=none
[8] Harper, D. (2001). Online etymology dictionary: Constitutus. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=constitutus&searchmode=none
[9] Hanson, 1991, pp. 165-167
[10] Linott, A. (1999). The constitution of the roman republic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 1-8.
[11] Millar, F. (2002). The roman republic in political thought. London: University Press of New England, 33-35.
[12] http://www.calvin.edu/academic/pols/news/politeia/2005/newsletter2005fall.pdf
[13] http://www2.norwich.edu/jjageman/club/club.html
[14] http://www.unisa.ac.za/default.asp?Cmd=ViewContent&ContentID=1625
[15] http://politics.guardian.co.uk/thinktanks/page/0,10538,527156,00.html
[16] http://www.politeia-centrostudi.org/forum/index.html
[17] http://politeia.net/
[18] http://www.democraticeducation.com/org-politeia.htm


Nicole Baxley said...

I really love your exploration of this pivotal term throughout civil histories. I agree that this has come to represent any form of civil discourse, no matter how far that may stray from its original intention. However, I wonder what your opinion would be of successful governments that have no written authoritative document, or Constitution, such as Britain?

jrfoust said...

Funny you should ask . . . in the initial research for my thesis I have found that England's Constitution is more of a Roman model. Part written part unwritten. Also, similar to the Roman Republic's constitution; England's constitution has been compiled over several centuries. Documents such as the Second Act of Supremacy (1558) and the English Bill of Rights (1689) are some of the written elements of their "Constitution". Overall, I feel that the quasi-written constitution is second to a fully written constitution. I think part of England's success has been due to its geography. There are less diverse forces tugging on its Constitution. Therefore, there Constitution has held up quite nicely.