Tafterjournal n. 95 - LUGLIO AGOSTO 2017

When the Greeks Loved the Germans: The Political Economy of King’s Otto Reign


Rubrica: Luoghi insoliti

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This article has been first published on German-Greek Yearbook of Political Economy, vol. 1 (2017) [1]



In 1832 Prince Otto Wittelsbach of Bavaria was appointed King of the newly founded independent Greek state. Otto’s reign was a momentous period for Greece, initially under Regency then under Otto as an absolute ruler and from 1843 as a constitutional monarch until his expulsion in 1862. Using the historical record the paper focuses on three political economy questions, namely, the rationale for the foundation of a state, which relates to the provision of public goods and rent distribution, the constitutional order of the state regarding the choice between monarchy or republic, and the emergence of democracy by revolution or evolution.




An aspect of the ongoing multifaceted Greek debt crisis has been a strain in the relations between Greece and Germany, where members of the German cabinet have been caricatured as heartless fiscal disciplinarians and of the Greek cabinet as delinquent fiscal rule breakers. A moment’s calmer reflection reminds us that in modern times the relations between Greece and Germany have been long standing and steeped in mutual respect. A case in point is the reign of King Otto of Greece from the Bavarian royal house of Wittelsbach. Modern Greece rose formally as an independent nation state in 1832 with the seventeen year old Otto as its ruler. Otto was welcomed in Greece with jubilation. An overwhelming majority of Greeks loved their German sovereign, who dreamy–eyed from ancient Greek glories and heroic acts during the 1821 Revolution against the Ottoman Empire arrived to build a new state. None of the parties involved could have imagined what followed culminating in Otto’s expulsion in 1862 after a turbulent thirty year reign. Founding state institutions after its people broke free from their previous master to be governed by alien rulers raises fundamental political economy questions including an explanation of the origins of the state, the role of the government in providing public goods, creating and distributing rents, the choice between monarchy and republic, revolution, political compromises and democracy. The present essay explains how Greece dealt these, partly overlapping, questions during the reign of King Otto.


The next two Sections describe the historical developments during Otto’s reign, the government of the Regency (Section 2) and Otto’s rule first as an absolute and then as constitutional monarch (Section 3). Using the experience of Greece Section 4 inquires the origins of the state, that is, whether a state emerges by individuals joining to produce public goods or it is imposed by a ruler looking to maximise the surplus that can be extract from the subjects. Section 5 discusses the emergence of constitutional monarchy and its relevance to Greece, while Section 6 investigates how far revolution and constitutional evolution may explain the foundation of democratic government. Section 7 concludes.


Greek Independence and the Bavarian Regency


In 1821 the Greek subjects of the Ottoman Empire revolted against their rulers [2]. Initial military successes of the rebels were followed by heavy defeats but after the united fleets of Britain, France and Russia destroyed the combined Turkish–Egyptian fleet in the sea battle of Navarino of 20 October 1827 independence beckoned.


The nascent state confronted grave challenges including uncertainty about its territory, a ruined post–war economy, an illiterate population, and a divided society where different groups engaged in civil war and vied for control.


In 1832, following intense diplomatic manoeuvring between the three “Protecting Powers” of Britain, France and Russia, with each one pursuing its own interests and the former two being suspicious of Russian intentions after it won the Russo – Turkish war of 1828–29, two international treaties were signed. Interestingly, the Greeks did not participate in either of the two treaties. The first treaty, signed with the Ottoman Turks, recognised Greece as an independent state. The second treaty signed with the King of Bavaria, Ludwig I of the House of Wittelsbach (an admirer of ancient Greece and a philhellene), installed his second son Otto (born in 1815) as King of Greece; Otto’s selection was ratified by the Fifth National assembly of Greece in 1832. According to the treaty, Otto was appointed absolute hereditary monarch and was granted a force of 3500 Bavarian troops to oversee his safety while the Bavarian officers would also train the Greek army. The new state was given loans of 60 mils franks, to be paid in three instalments and guaranteed by the three powers, to help manage the government finances and build the economy.


The news of Otto’s selection was received by his new subjects with great joy; he received a rapturous welcome when he arrived in the then capital city Nafplion in January 1833. Exhausted by the war effort and in the midst of another civil war (that broke out after the 1831 assassination of the Greek Governor, I. Capodistrias), the Greeks saw Otto as a messiah. Not only did he embody the hope for domestic peace and progress, but as a king he was also conferring Greece equal international status with the rest of the European states. As Otto was not yet 18 years old, a Regency of three men ruled in his name. Count Joseph von Armansperg, exercised executive control, Law Professor Ludwig von Maurer, was responsible for designing the system of central and local government and civil and criminal justice, and General Karl Wilhelm von Heideck, administered the army.


The romantic view inspired by the marvels of ancient Greece and the admiration for the heroism during the Revolution along with the optimism and goodwill of the Bavarians must have been in sharp contrast to the picture of devastation and impoverishment that met them when they arrived in 1832. Setting up a new state and establishing an effective government was a daunting task. To adopt Weber’s conception of the state, the ability of the new state to monopolise violence and impose law and order was at first limited.


A national army had to be built from the revolutionary fighters. A pressing problem was to integrate the armed irregulars who having fought in the war of liberation against the Ottomans expected to be rewarded and turned to criminality like extortion and brigandage when aggrieved. Inducements were offered by way of pensions to older fighters and enlistment of younger ones to the regular army and the gendarmerie, but few fighters considered those rewards as sufficient. To establish its authority, the government had to wrestle control from the local political magnates (mainly big landowners) who acted as chiefs of clans and had administered public life during the Ottoman rule. Public administration was then organised by dividing the country to newly drawn prefectures, provinces and demes.


Mayors in particular were given responsibility over a number of functions including education, law and order, and infrastructure works. The heads of each local authority were appointed by the crown from a list of candidates compiled by a local selection council whose members were elected in a restricted franchise and non secret vote. The new administrative structure broke traditional forms of exercising power and was met by local resistance which sometimes took the form of refusal (often violent) to pay taxes and refusal of conscripts to serve in the national army. Nevertheless, recognising the power and influence that could be exercised in the new administrative structure, local elites strived for control of the local authorities. As a result and until the end of the 19th century, local population was interested more in local authority than national elections.


Since the majority of the peasant population were landless solving questions of land ownership and redistribution were most demanding. Legislation was passed in 1835 giving all those who had fought in the war credits that were then used to buy smallholdings from the national lands (formerly land held by the Ottomans) to be held in perpetuity after paying off a 36 year mortgage.


The land bought with such credits however could provide no more than subsistence, while tax and mortgage payments had also to be paid, implying prolonged poverty for those families that had no additional means. The system failed to achieve its goals of creating a large class of independent smallholders and securing tax revenues. [3] The dire state of an economy was compounded by the presence of thousands of destitute Greek refugees from lands where the revolution had been suppressed. Further political ramifications followed from the support of the latter group for an irredentist policy of renewed war to liberate the Greeks still living under Turkish rule. An additional economic handicap was that fertile lands where the majority of the population was Greek, and prosperous commercial centres remained under Ottoman control and sovereignty. Nor were affluent Greek merchants based in the European centres of commercial activity willing to resettle in the liberated Greece and apply their talents and assets to its economic regeneration.


The relationship of the Orthodox Church of the independent Kingdom to the “Mother Church” of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was a serious concern. Liberals advocated the independence of the Greek Church but conservatives opposed it. This dispute was important not only because Otto, the titular head of the Church, was king “by the grace of god” but also because of his catholic denomination. In the end a compromise was formally accepted by the Patriarchate in 1852 by which the Church of Greece was recognised as administratively autonomous but spiritually united with the Patriarchate.


Justice and education too required urgent attention. Until the publication of a formal code, civil law would be based on the Byzantine Code and supplemented by customary law norms that had developed during the Ottoman times. A criminal law code was published based on the Bavarian code, while for commercial issues the Napoleonic code, which was already in use in the eastern Mediterranean basin, was adopted. The Bavarians also set up a system of primary, secondary and tertiary education upon taking control of rudimentary schooling that was carried out by the church, the traditional provider. German architects, urban planners and engineers were also brought in to design the buildings that would enrich and decorate Athens which was named the capital city in 1834.


In the diplomatic realities of the post Napoleonic Europe, the representatives of the three Protecting Powers held considerable influence on the political life and diplomatic relations of the new kingdom, so much so that each domestic political faction allied itself with either the French, English or Russian foreign ministers in Athens. The “Russian party” was the largest group; it was supported by conservatives and the Orthodox hierarchy. The “French party” was a collection of warlords from Continental Greece, primates from the Peloponnese and island ship owners. The “English party” combining men of commerce, bureaucrats, intellectuals and city dwellers was the smallest. Though called “parties” they had nothing to do with the parties of modern representative democracies.


Lacking a domestic power base and distrusting the locals the Regency appointed to key posts in the state administration a number of Bavarians to the bitter disappointment of the Greeks. Not unreasonably, the Regency tried to set up the institutions of a modern European state familiar from Bavaria. They went about it by centralising decision making commanding their wills to the local population, who nevertheless lacked the relevant know–how, rather than involving it. Educated Greeks returning from the diaspora were also appointed to positions of authority, opening up a new cleavage between the “indigenous”, those born and grown up in Greece, and “non–indigenous” Greeks, those who migrated from abroad after the liberation war ended. A modern commentator might have characterised the new kingdom as a “failed state.” Yet this would have been premature if not plainly wrong: there was no state that had failed; a new state was being set up, virtually from scratch. As it turned out, state capacity was eventually established.


The reign of King Otto


By a special law Otto came to age in 1835 but Count Armansperg, who had emerged as the dominant man of the Regency, remained influential as Otto continued the authoritarian modus operandi of the Regency. That year also marked the official visit of King Ludwig to Greece, who won the affection of the Athenians. In 1836 Otto married Amalia daughter of the Grand Duke of Oldenburg. At first, the queen enjoyed great popularity. It was hoped that Otto, a catholic, and Amalia, a protestant, would bestow their adopted country a royal prince that would be raised as an orthodox.


In 1837 Armanperg was dismissed and after a brief interlude by Ignaz von Rudhart, Otto himself assumed the presidency of the ruling council. Even after the departure of the last Bavarian troops in 1838, Bavarian officials continued to be prominent, and although there was some participation by Greek politicians, their role in policy making remained largely peripheral. Over the years, Queen Amalia assumed an increasingly active role in government, advising the King and acting as Regent when he was absent (although such regency was not provided by the statutes).


Otto’s absolute rule and exclusion of the local elites from the high offices of the state could only heighten tension especially since a number of the former had fought for the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. Resentment grew when the failure of the royal couple to sire an orthodox heir became apparent opening questions of succession. During the first decade of Otto’s reign the economy recovered driven by the growth of seaborne trade as Greek ships handled the transit trade between Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe. Public finances however remained precarious. Debt repayments and spending on administration and the military had claimed the loans guaranteed on Otto’s appointment, while tax revenues remained meagre.


In the meantime, Britain was using every opportunity available to press the government to fulfil the schedule of its debt servicing obligations. Popular dissatisfaction was high in 1842 and all three parties were asking Otto to grant a constitution. Unable to repay the 1832 loans, in July 1843 Greece defaulted on the external debt prompting a settlement with the three Powers that required substantial cuts of public spending. The latter hit particularly hard civil servants and military staff who along with disaffected politicians contrived an uprising against Otto. On 3 September 1843 large crowds and the garrison of Athens staged a demonstration in front of the palace demanding Otto to grant a constitution. It was a bloodless uprising and Otto obliged appointing a new council of ministers consisting of politicians from all three factions and elections were called for a national assembly to write a constitution. The events described showed the importance of two factors that became endemic in the political life of Greece. The first is the pivotal role of the military in politics.


The period 1843 – 1967 witnessed twelve military revolts, putsches and counter–putsches, interventions with far reaching political and constitutional consequences. [4] The second is the strategic importance of Athens, the capital city, in the success of a military uprising. Control of Athens was vital for achieving political aims while rebellions in the provinces could be suppressed unless the forces challenging Athens were willing and able to start a full–blown civil war. For example, in 1962 Otto contained the rebellion of garrison of Nafplion (see below). [5]


The 1844 Constitution, based on the 1830 French and 1831 Belgian constitutions, provided for the protection of individual rights and established constitutional monarchy referring to Otto as “King of Greece by the Grace of God”. The legislative power was exercised by the King, who had the right to ratify legislation, by the elected parliament, and by the senate, whose members were appointed for life by the king. Both the parliament and the senate were self–standing and had to approve taxes. The king had the right to dissolve the parliament and call for elections. He also retained the right to choose and remove ministers. The king was the source of judicial power and appointed the judges. The constitution mandated that the next king of Greece had to be Christian Orthodox. No provisions were included for the amendment of the constitution. [6] Remarkably for the European standards at that time, the electoral law that followed introduced universal suffrage for men above the age of 25 years in possession of land or exercising a profession. In effect, the constitution recognised a division of powers between the king and the leading social groups and entitled political elites to a share of power. The crown however retained substantial privileges for it was nowhere mandated that it had to select as prime minister the person that commanded a parliamentary majority.


Otto and his subjects were united in the pursuit of foreign policy goals and specifically the so called ‘Great Idea’ of liberating the unredeemed Greeks living under the Ottoman yoke. Otto based his reign on the popularity of the Great Idea and sought to align himself with the foreign power most amenable to this end. However, he failed to realise that the Protective Powers were not prepared to disturb the international peace achieved through their balancing acts for the benefit of Greece at the expense of the Ottomans.


At the time of the foundation of the Greek state, Europe was recovering from the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and the monarchy had been restored in France, with the Quintuple Alliance of Austria, Prussia, Russia, the UK, and France holding the peace settlement and the political status quo. Yet, as more Greeks lived under Ottoman rule than the approximate three quarters of a million inhabitants of Otto’s kingdom, breaching the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire was an aspiration shared by the king and his subjects, while it also made economic sense. An opportunity to pursue the irredentist cause arose during the 1839–41 War of the Ottoman Empire against Egypt, as the Empire seemed on the verge of collapse after defeat in the hands of the Egyptian Mehmet Ali. Tension between Greece and the Ottomans escalated, but after British intervention the Egyptian challenge collapsed and Otto had to fall in line with the wishes of the Protecting Powers. This set the pattern of Great Powers intervention in Greek affairs that became typical of Greece’s attempts for territorial expansion.


In 1853 the outbreak of the Crimean War was seen as offering another opportunity to fulfil the Great Idea. Anticipating a Russian victory against the Ottoman Sultan, Greek irregulars crossed the Greek–Turkish frontier with the blessings of Otto and support of the people. Britain and France however, fighting the war against Russia, intervened decisively in favour of the Sultan and a joint Anglo–French expedition occupied the port of Piraeus from 1854 to 1857 forcing Greece to a policy of neutrality. At the same time with Greece unable to repay the 1832 loan, a commission was appointed to administer the Greek finances. Otto’s stance saw his popularity soaring during the foreign intervention period (which also brought an outbreak of cholera in Athens and Piraeus), but when the foreign troops withdrew the old political fissures reappeared.


After the introduction of constitutional monarchy, Otto chose his prime ministers on the basis of their loyalty to him, so that he could control policy. Election outcomes did not decide the appointment of prime ministers, while the electorate process fell short of free and fair. This was possible because the parliament was in command of the electoral process; hence, the faction with parliamentary majority could annul the election of candidates that did not approve, and ex post declare its actions as legal (for details see Kostis 2013, pp. 280–281). Party alteration in office was the result of shifting royal inclinations and expediency in the light of the demands of the foreign powers. As a result, after the election of 1844, all sitting prime ministers won the elections they contested (see the Appendix), since they could intimidate the electorate with immunity.


Rigging the 1859 elections fed an anti–Otto wave which also included student unrest. The younger generation had no first–hand experience of the revolutionary war and was growing politically restless. A failed assassination attempt against Queen Amalia took place in 1861. Otto’s popularity suffered more when he appeared to support Austria in the struggle against the Italian nationalists with whom most Greeks had identified. In addition, fearing that naming a successor might reduce his own prestige and authority Otto was dodging the issue of succession adding to uncertainty.


In February 1862 the crown rode another storm by suppressing the revolt of the garrison of Nafplion. However, in October 1862 when the royal couple was touring the Peloponnese, the garrison and people of Athens rose up again and a new provisional authority (consisting of a number of politicians with a wide range of different convictions) took over and declared an end to Otto’s reign. On the advice of the ambassadors of the Protecting Powers, and despite Queen Amalia’s opposition, Otto did not resist and left Greece. George Glücksburg, a Danish prince was later appointed king of Greece and arrived in 1863. Otto did not officially abdicate nor did he complain against his adopted countrymen. He died in 1867 at the age of 52 without ever returning. The news of his death were received in Greece with sadness. Amalia died in 1875 at the age of 57.


By the time the royal couple left Greece, in comparison to 1833, the economy had improved significantly with real per capita GDP increasing by almost 50%, although at a highly volatile pace – see Figure 1 in the Appendix. A steady increase in the volume of shipping, maritime trade and agricultural production made possible from an increase in cultivable land account for this. Nevertheless, the country was still afflicted by serious structural problems from the burden of the national debt, lack of industrialisation, underdeveloped land markets and heavy taxation of farm production.


The origin of the state: state of nature, anarchy and autocracy


The 1821 Greek revolution was a movement for national liberation. In terms of political economy, the Greeks set up a new state to provide a range of public goods including to freely uphold their national identity, practice their religion, administer their affairs and manage the size and distribution of economic resources. [7] Not unlike the USA, during the Revolution a number of Greek assemblies (convened in 1822, 1823, 1826, 1827 and 1832) envisaged a republican system of government with an elected parliament exercising legislative power. On the contrary, as was described above, an absolute hereditary monarchy was established upon independence following the military intervention of the Protecting Powers against the Ottoman Empire and long civil war amongst the Greeks. Obviously, the Protecting Powers chose and imposed the institutions of governance that best suited their interests during a climate of restoring the political and diplomatic order that prevailed before the French Revolution, which had no room for political liberties, and aimed to preserve the balance of powers as they could not agree on how to carve up the ailing Ottoman Empire. Otto, a prince not related to any of the royal families of Britain, France and Russia, fitted the bill and was appointed as the sovereign.


The type of regime installed in Greece by Britain, France and Russia was compatible with the predictions of selectorate theory of Bueno de Mesquita et al (2003). The theory argues that if a victorious power finds costly to takeover a defeated adversary (the Ottoman Empire), or impose a puppet government on it, it opts to change the political institutions so that the foreign policy of the adversary serve the policy interests of the victor. That is, the controlling powers set up a new state, Greece, with an acquiescent government, as Otto was expected to be, given the financial weakness and lack of the military ability to challenge the diplomatic status quo.


Greece in 1831 was as close as any real world situation to the state of nature as described by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan (1651) [8], where life is poor, nasty, brutish, and short, and therefore an absolute monarch seemed a suitable solution. Having won independence after a bloody war the Greeks were divided along several dimensions. There was a geographical division between the Peloponnese, Continental Greece and the Islands. In addition there was a civilian–military division. The civilian group included local magnates who had assumed the role of political elites during the Ottoman period, and ship owners who often bankrolled the military struggle; the military group included the military chieftains who led the fight against the Ottomans.


The various factions sometimes in alliance with each other fought to control the state. This conflict reaffirms the enormous power of the state as a creator, distributor and protector of rents: At a time when the old order had collapsed and the economy was devastated, control of the state was vital for defining property rights, securing access to resources (land most significantly), paying for war reparations, and acquiring government jobs as government service offered lucrative opportunities for rents. [9] Like the ship–owners, some groups were seeking compensation for the losses suffered during the Revolution; others aimed to advance their material and ideological interests by offering different visions of the new state including its international orientation, while after bearing the brunt of fighting, the military chiefs claimed their right to control the state. Unproductive rent seeking was intense. Centralisation of power was an essential requisite for the state to operate.


A foreign prince, not linked to any of the competing domestic factions, was acceptable to the local population as it was hoped that he would bring an end to the civil war and lead to economic recovery. The king of the new state would guarantee the provision of certain public goods, most notably social peace. We may cast the situation that the locals confronted in terms of the prisoner’s dilemma: a faction benefits from peace when all factions refrain from attacking each other, but it enjoys an even higher benefit if it defects from peace by taking over the state, while the rest of the factions keep the peace.


However, when all factions behave like that, they end up fighting a civil war. In this circumstance installing a sovereign king with the power to impose peace could solve the prisoner’s dilemma and secure a cooperative solution. However, the Regency and then Otto failed to do so; instead they became players in the game of resource distribution. In mitigation, it was not clear what the different groups would consider as equitable, and therefore acceptable. Otto must have found himself on the receiving end of different and contradictory demands. At the same time, he repeatedly failed to project himself as a neutral arbiter. Distrustful of the qualities and loyalties of the local Greeks the Regency introduced governance structures that were alien to the locals and disregarded them in making appointments to positions of power. Otto engaged the locals a lot more than the Regency, but his policy choices and appointments of people to positions of influence alienated a wide range of domestic political players, who were backed by foreign powers and came together in opposition against him. A lack of leadership is detected here, or at least, a failure of leadership to inform about its vision and unite social groups around it. Seen from a different vantage, Otto came to rule a weak state, virtually one without state capacity, where Besley and Persson (2011) define state capacity as the institutional capability of the state to carry out various policies that deliver benefits and services to households and firms. Partly to satisfy a thirst for territorial expansion and preparation for war required building an effective state. In building the state, the temptation to erect extractive institutions was not resisted.


The rule of the Bavarians and Otto’s autocratic tendency shares common characteristics with Olson’s (1993) “stationary bandit” theory of the origin of the state, which posits that an external conqueror violently forces his will on a local group and rules as an autocrat. Contrary to a roving bandit who maximises short–term payoffs by raiding and plundering, a stationary bandit adopts a long horizon and invests in public goods, in the form of protection from enemies, law and order, and infrastructure, to maximise output and therefore tax revenues for him. [10]


In comparison to being preyed upon by roving bandits, his subjects receive a double benefit, from moderate tax and from public goods. In this line of thought the stationary bandit emerges as a dictator out of anarchy. Obviously, Otto was not an external raider who occupied an unwilling Greek population. Nevertheless, he was imposed by the Protecting Powers at a time when the Greeks were unable to resist even if they wanted to. Describing the Bavarians and Otto as rulers who maximised their own benefits instead of giving in to majoritarian demands better explains the observed pattern of behaviour. It bears noting that the stationary bandit is not necessarily a peaceful ruler. An uncertain but victorious war brings him benefits, like higher revenues, prestige and a historical legacy, while the cost of fighting falls mainly on the population.[11] An autocratic ruler may therefore have strong incentives to be belligerent at the expense of the population. Again this is consistent with Otto’s record in office.


We can see therefore that the set up of the Greek state lends credence to important aspects of more than one theory of state formation. One hopes that future research will shed more light into this question.


The choice of the constitution: monarchy versus republic


When looking at the governance of a state we distinguish between two separate dimensions, namely, the form of government, autocracy or democracy [12], and the rule for selecting the head of state, that is, hereditary, as in monarchy, or by some form of selection as in a republic. States, like all organisations that outlive their founders, face problems of succession. Upon the death of the ruler rival groups may fight for his position imposing severe losses on themselves and the population. A ruler may try to avoid such problems by appointing a successor.


However, by doing so the “successor’s dilemma” arises: On the one hand, the sitting ruler risks his own survival by designating a successor who in term builds his independent support to ensure his succession against his rivals; on the other hand, if the designated successor fails to build a power base, his rule will be at risk and so will the legacy of the sitting ruler.


Hereditary succession according to family lines reduces that risk significantly. Perhaps more importantly (and echoing Hobbes) it brings additional benefits to the subject of the king: a fixed rule of hereditary succession upon the death of a sovereign minimizes uncertainty and violence that may follow when rival groups fight for control. Hereditary succession is however subject to genetic risks where heirs lacking the relevant talents inherit the throne. An absolute monarchy combines hereditary succession on the throne and autocratic government by the king for life. A democratic republic is headed by a president (whose legislative and executive powers may vary from constitution to constitution) serving for a fixed term and is governed by means of elections and voting. A constitutional monarchy combines a hereditary king as head of state and a parliamentary government.


Otto found himself reigning over a people considered the intellectual heirs of ancient Hellas and Christian Byzantium whose political philosophy and actual experience included various forms of kingship. In addition to the democracy of Athens, ancient Hellas also made significant practical and theoretical contributions to kingship.


Sparta, the formidable military power and rival of Athens, inaugurated an embryonic form of constitutional monarchy (Finer, 1999): Two hereditary kings coming from two different royal houses ruled jointly. Each king acted as a check on the other but more importantly they were both checked by the five ephors who were appointed by the oligarchic Council of the Elders.


The kings carried out religious and judicial duties but their main functions were to lead the army, although during military campaigns only one king was in command. After the defeat of Athens by Sparta (404 BCE) and the disillusion with democracy, Greek authors also developed a theory of monarchy where contrary to Eastern empires the monarch was not legitimised by religion. [13]



The philosopher Plato famously argued for philosophers to become kings, or kings to become philosophers, to release mankind from political troubles. The historian and essayist Xenophon argued in favour of a benevolent king on the basis of his charisma, while Aristotle wished for an exceptionally virtuous king.


The fourth century Athenian orator and speechwriter Isocrates advocated monarchy arguing that a king, even if a less talented individual, is unencumbered by short office horizons, and as such he acquires the relevant experience, pursues the long–run interests of the community, focuses on good administration instead of pandering to parochial expedience, and achieves military prowess. [14]


After the death of Alexander the Great in 323BCE, his extensive empire split into separate states ruled by men who had served as his generals and took the title of king. Like the stationary bandit, their rules were based on military conquests and established dynastic succession. Royal rule was less objectionable in Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, where monarchy was the traditional form of government, rather than mainland Greece with the tradition of free city–state.


The power of the king was maintained through his control of the army, whose loyalty was secured by paying soldier wages, gifts of land and the king’s appeal as a leader. These kings sought to legitimise their rules by adopting one form or another of divine protection by the gods and goddesses and claims of mythical and heroic ancestry. In order to facilitate the transition from one ruler to the next, kings often gave their eldest sons independent commands and elevated them to co–rulers during their own lifetimes.


Hellenistic authors of the time justified rule by the king on the king’s personal qualities. The ideal king had to be victorious in the battlefield, protect his people from the enemies, just, pious towards the gods, accessible, generous, magnanimous and affectionate towards his subjects, and avoid excesses and hedonistic behaviour. These were normative views rather than descriptions of what actual kings were like.


In medieval polities the chief role of the king was to defend the country, secure law and order, and provide justice. The Greek–speaking Byzantium, successor of the Roman Empire in the East, was an Orthodox Christian autocracy ruled by an emperor legitimated by religion, heading a standing army and served by a complex bureaucracy. For a millennium (395–1453), the imperial regime was stable but who was sitting on the throne was highly and violently contested. Of the 107 emperors in that period, 64 were in one or another way deposed. According to Finer (1999) the main reason was that there was no fixed rule for succession, as lineage did not secure ascendance to the throne. Ambitious generals could mobilise troops against the sitting emperor.


The dogmatic view was that whoever was on the throne had been chosen by God, while the emperor who was overthrown had been abandoned by God. In order to bring stability to imperial succession sitting emperors often followed the practice of appointing the designated successor as co–emperor. The tradition of a Byzantine emperor ended with the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. In Medieval Europe the Church sanctified the king (epitomised by the coronation and anointment of Charlemagne in 800), but after the Reformation that shrank papal power, lay monarchs could claim that their divine rights came directly from God which further legitimized hereditary succession. In France absolutism culminated under King Louis XIV of (1643–1715) when royal rule was paramount. [15]


The English Glorious Revolution of 1688 established constitutional monarchy where the king reigns but does not govern, so that he is substantively and procedurally constrained, breaking the link between hereditary rule and autocratic rule. One hundred years later, in 1789, the French Revolution heralded a complete break from preceding systems of royal government, so that the nineteenth century witnessed the birth of the nation–state, where the state belongs to the nation, identified with the people, and not a royal dynasty. At the same time, liberalism in the sense of protecting the political freedoms of the individual against the state was unequivocally on the march. Objection to monarchy originated from monarchy’s denial of liberty and equal opportunity.


During the Greek Revolution and even before, the Greeks had envisaged founding a democratic and republican state. [16] However, the turn of events was that the Revolution succeeded with the military and diplomatic support of the Protective Powers, so that the Greeks were not in a position to enforce their preferred constitution and the new state ended up an absolute hereditary monarchy, the prevailing European norm. At a deeper level, founding a kingdom played an important credibility role.


A royal dynasty signalled the existence of a perpetually living state which would bind the future generation of leaders and could be trusted to behave in the mould of the rest of the European states. Public euphoria surrounded the arrival of King Otto, but given the intellectual and political currents of the period it is not surprising that Otto’s absolute rule gave way to constitutional monarchy. The 1844 constitution granted by Otto after the 1843 revolt gives credence to John Locke’s view that the state emerges through the consent of the governed and, contrary to Hobbes, the government derives its authority from a social contract which guarantees and protects the natural rights of individuals to life, liberty and property. Instructively, in his speech to the assembly Otto explicitly stated “let us conclude a treaty with each other” (quoted in Markesinis, 1966, p.171). Locke rejected the divine right of kings. On the contrary, the king is bound by the social contract and if he fails to honour it he loses the allegiance of the people. In a constitutional monarchy, the role of the king as head of state is limited to constitutional duties in appointing the prime minister and countersigning laws, ceremonial functions that project the power of the state, and symbol of the nation (see Tridimas 2016).



Otto was treading a thin line as he was exercising both a constitutional and a political role, not only being the head of the state but also actively involved in government while unwilling to share power with groups strong enough to challenge him. Being childless and of a minority religious denomination he also confronted a severe successor’s dilemma that he never resolved. At the same time monarchy in Greece lacked two essential elements that were pivotal for its endurance in contemporary European kingdoms: It lacked both a pre–existing popular tradition that would have made it acceptable to the nation and a local aristocratic class with strong links to the royal family. The institution of monarchy was new and had not had enough time to form the sentimental bond between the king and the people that advocates of monarchy consider as vital for the legitimacy of the dynasty.


The popular feeling was fickle. Further, there was no traditional aristocracy with the authority and experience to manage public affairs sharing policy making powers with the crown, and the ability to advise and assist the new king. The absence of an indigenous Greek aristocracy may also explain why bicameralism did not prosper in Greece.


The king–appointed senate provided by the 1844 Constitution demonstrated Otto’s wish to retain control. It was abolished in the 1864 Constitution after Otto’s overthrow. On the contrary, European upper chambers with veto powers manifested the power of the aristocratic class in a system of divided government whose consent was necessary for the king to raise taxes (Congleton, 2011). The retention of the upper house, amongst other things, made the transition to parliamentary government more acceptable to the ruling elites. As Mueller (1996, p. 198) put it: “The upper house was to protect property from the masses … bicameralism emerged as a form of compromise in which the aristocracy agreed to share power with the commoners.” Otto violated his constitution repeatedly and was eventually overthrown. But it must be emphasised that the revolt was against Otto, the person on the throne, not against the institution of monarchy which survived his reign. [17]


Revolution, democracy and constitutional exchanges


The bloodless rebellion of 1843 resulted in the introduction of constitutional monarchy but not of representative government. In fact, democracy deteriorated. From a value of –3 for each year during the period 1833–43, the POLITY index for Greece fell to a value of –4 for each year of the period 1844–61 (scores of –10 and +10 respectively indicate full autocracy and full democracy; data available from http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html) chiefly as a result of the few earlier formal limits imposed on the policy making powers of the hereditary king.


The 1844 Constitution is best seen as a stage in the development towards representative government. Broadly speaking, the political economy literature on democratisation can be divided into two branches, “big–bang” or revolutionary [18] theories and “evolutionary” or reform theories. The former contend that democracy in the West emerged suddenly, typically as a result of revolutions or constitutional conventions (or a combination of the two).


Revolutionary accounts emphasise that violence or the threat of violence are the crucial factor in the establishment and change of government (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2006). The American Revolution of 1776 is a good example of the revolution–cum–convention creation of government. Constitutional conventions focus on how assemblies can aggregate preferences of different constituencies and agree on institutions of governance (Buchanan and Tullock, 1962).


Evolutionary theories of constitutional reform (Congleton, 2011) emphasise that the emergence of western democracy was a gradual process accomplished in a number of steps over a long period of time. It unfolded by building on the existing architecture of the “king–and–council” template, where policy making power is divided between the king and a council that was first dominated by the aristocracy, but with the extension of franchise it turned to represent the entire citizenry.


The king (chief executive) and the council (legislative body) are engaged in a game of constitutional exchanges whereby authority to approve taxes and decide policy is reassigned between them as and when preferences and external circumstance change. This was accomplished through formal revisions in the law that reflected shifts in the ideology and the interests of the enfranchised classes who had the authority to reform the existing system of government.


Over the 19th century policy making authority moved gradually and mostly peacefully away from the aristocratic chamber towards the elected chamber as the cumulative result of a series of minor liberal reforms that reduced the control of the sovereign. England offers the archetypical example, but also constitutional developments in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, the USA and Japan fit this general model of gradual evolutionary change (Congleton, 2011; see also Tridimas, 2012, for a review of Congleton’s theory). Similarly, and contrary to Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), North et al. (2009) argue that in the transition to democracy opening political and economic access to the disenfranchised classes was not forced on elites but it was in part driven by them who found in their interest to expand access.


The gravest theoretical weakness of the revolutionary explanation of democratisation is probably that it is not in the interests of a successful rational revolutionary to establish democracy. A revolutionary aiming to change the existing government must overcome a severe collective action problem (Olson, 1965). If the revolution succeeds in establishing a better government, all citizens will benefit from the revolution.


A rational individual realizes that he will not be excluded from the benefit of a successful revolution but also understands that he benefits even more by not participating in revolutionary acts that incur severe costs in the form of resources (own time and money) and risks of punishment if arrested (see Tullock, 1987, and Olsson-Yaouzis, 2012). He would then not participate but free ride. But this implies that the revolution will never materialise for lack of revolutionaries. It follows that rational actors will become revolutionaries only if after the revolution they gain private and excludable benefits like rents from office.


To resolve the collective action problem revolutionary organisations try to indoctrinate their members and offer private exclusive inducements and limit them to a small circle of members. However, it is doubtful that the revolution leads to democracy. According to Bueno de Mesquita et al (2003) the revolutionary leader is subject to a time inconsistency problem: Before a revolution against an autocrat he promises that he will establish democracy but after the revolution prevails, his incentives change and prefers to establish an authoritarian system of government sharing the spoils from office with a small coalition of supporters. It then follows that successful revolutionary leaders who relied on bands of close collaborators and operated in the shadows of legality before they attacked the established order, are more likely to keep control of the government, restrict rents to a close circle of confidants, and continue the revolutionary organization’s hierarchical decision making, secrecy and discipline, instead of permitting rival ideas and allowing competition for the offices of the state. [19]


That the 1843 rebellion did not lead to representative government was due to Otto’s subsequent violations of the constitution rather than that the rebels establishing autocracy. The rebels, led by politicians, army officers and intellectuals had little in common apart from the interests in extracting concessions from the crown. In truth, it is more appropriate to consider that bloodless rebellion as a piece in the jigsaw of constitutional negotiations between the sovereign and the groups with a stake in policy making as described by Congleton.


As already argued, the 1844 constitution manifested a step towards a new division of powers between the king and leaders of an emerging Greek political elite, of the type theorised by Congleton. The next step in that process was the 1862 uprising that deposed Otto; then (as in 1832) the Protecting Powers chose a new foreign born king, who subsequently approved a new more liberal constitution which came into effect in 1864. Constitutional evolution continued with the introduction of the principle that the government must enjoy the “manifest confidence” in 1875 and extension of suffrage to all adult males in 1877.




In sum, the following developments marked the first thirty years of the Greek state, 1832 – 1862: King Otto of the Bavarian royal house of Wittelsbach was at first received with unremitting joy as a saviour to heal and lead the country; he and his Queen returned the affection to their adopted country.


The new kingdom was severely handicapped by the policy interests of Britain, France and Russia, the Protecting Powers, who guaranteed its independence but aimed to cut Otto down in size in order to preserve the balance of powers, and by its severely limited human and financial resources.


Otto fused in himself the activities of the head of state and head of government playing an openly political role even after granting a constitution. Although no credible republican movement existed at the time, Otto failed to cement loyalty to his dynasty. The reason for this failure were lack of manpower with expertise in administering the state institutions set up by the Bavarians, lack of financial resources to satisfy local claims, and Otto’s failure to share power with the local elites. Intriguingly, chance may also have played a role: had Otto sired a child his dynasty might have lasted longer.









[1] An earlier version was presented to the Adam Smith Seminar, Munich, in October 2016. I wish to thank seminar participants for various comments. I am also grateful to Manfred Holler for his many insightful thoughts during the preparation of this work.

[2] In presenting the historical narrative of Otto’s reign I rely primarily on Markesinis (1966) and Kostis (2013). Excellent brief accounts in English can be found in Clogg (1986), Gallant (2001) and Koliopopulos and Veremis (2010).


[3] The issue of granting land ownership to the peasants was finally settled in 1871.


[4] See Tridimas (2015) for a review, and Veremis (1997) for the changing motives and objectives of military over that period.


[5] For details of the significance of controlling Athens when challenging the central government see Markesinis (1966).


[6] The very last sentence of the text provided that “the observance of the constitution is devoted to the patriotism of the Greeks”, a declaration of the responsibility of citizens to protect the constitution, which has been repeated in all subsequent constitutions, but proved a dead letter given the number of times the constitution was violated.


[7]   See Mueller (2003) for a formal discussion of the origins of the state based on the economic analysis of public goods and redistribution. Mueller (2010) reviews positive and normative accounts of the state and how they may explain the emergence of Sumer, China, ancient Athens and the USA.


[8] For an analysis of the opposing perspectives of the origins of the state by Hobbes, who endows the sovereign with absolute powers, and Locke, who argues for restricting the sovereign according to natural law, see Rowley (2005).


[9] A rent is the surplus that a person receives from a particular activity beyond the necessary incentive to perform that activity. Government policies that affect the distribution of income through regulation, taxation or public spending motivate actors to seek rents. Successful rent seekers benefit from favours and privileges. In the contest to obtain rents resources are used unproductively instead of creating wealth. For an informative and wide ranging introduction to the rent seeking literature, see Hillman, 2013.


[10] For details and formal analysis of the ruler as maximizing personal consumption from the control of office see Tullock (1987) and (2002), Grossman (2002), Grossman and Noh (1994), McGuire and Olson (1996), and Wintrobe (1998).


[11] See Wilke (2002) and Jackson and Morelli (2007).


[12] “In autocracies the ruler is absolute. The people are his subjects and he appoints officials to govern them. Their authority springs exclusively from the autocrat; they are his dependents” (Finer, 1999, p.865). “The central procedure of democracy is the selection of leaders through competitive elections by the people they govern” (Huntington, 1991, p.6).


[13] See Walbank (2008) and Cartledge (2009) for details.


[14] Analogous arguments are offered in modern literature; see Tridimas (2016) for a review.


[15] As Bishop Bossuet, preacher to the Court, put it: “Royal authority is sacred…God established kings as his ministers and reigns through them over the nation…The royal throne is not a throne of a man but the throne of God himself”, quoted in Jones (1994) p.151.


[16] It bears noting that in the Greek language the word democratia stands for both “democracy”, the system of government where a majority of voters decides policy typically through their representatives, and “republic”, where the head of state is appointed from among the citizens and is not hereditary, irrespective of whether the state is governed democratically.


[17] The Greek monarchy was overthrown in 1924 but restored in 1935. A republic was eventually established in 1974. For detailed constitutional economics account of the history of the Greek monarchy and its rejection in the 1974 referendum see Tridimas (2010) and (2015).


[18] Berger and Spoerer (2001) define revolutions as occasions characterized by “(i) the use of violence, or the credible threat thereof, in an effort to change the political system; and (ii) collective action, that is, active involvement of the crowd in that effort” (p. 295–296).


[19] Once more, it is worth recalling that despite various ambitious declarations, the 1821 Revolution did not establish democracy; even during the war against the Ottomans factional infighting precipitated civil wars, while an authoritarian streak characterised the administration of Capodistrias, the assassinated governor before the arrival of Otto.




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