Sybaris & Charondas: Adams ‘Defense’ No. 50

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 49

Ancient Aristocratical Republics: Crotona. Pythagoras


My dear Sir,

THE city of Sybaris was a Grecian colony in Italy, planted by Achaians; and, according to Diodorus Siculus*, its beautiful situation between two rivers, the Crathis and the Sybaris, the extent and fertility of its territory, and the freedom of its laws, had, in a short space of time, drawn together a prodigious number of inhabitants, and greatly enriched them.

But the common fate of all nations and cities attended them. They had three parties; a chief, a better sort, and a people. The most powerful citizens were caballing as usual against the chief, whose name was Telys, and, whatever his character for virtue was, appears to have had more cunning than Grecian chiefs commonly had, at least he discerned better where the balance lay; for he courted the people, by flattering their follies. He excited a popular cry against the aristocratical party, drove them from the city, confiscated their fortunes, and distributed them among the rest of the citizens. The exiles fled to Crotona. Telys sent ambassadors to demand them, on pain of war. Pythagoras thought the cause of his aristocratical friends just, and persuaded his fellow-citizens to refuse to deliver them up. The Sybarites marched an army; but were met by another from Crotona, with Milo, the strong man, at their head, whose reputation prevailed; the Sybarites were all massacred, and their city pillaged, and left a desart. First happy effect of a government without acknowledged orders and legal balances! — Fifty-eight years afterwards, some Thessalians established themselves at Sybaris: they had not been there five years, when the Crotonians came and drove them out. — Under Callimachus, archon of Athens, it was repeopled the third time, and had the name of Thurium. A populous colony was sent there, under Lampon and Xenocrates, who built a beautiful city for a capital, and twenty-five subordinate cities: but the inhabitants could not long live in good intelligence among themselves; they fell into dissensions, grew extravagant, luxurious, and effeminate to a proverb. The quarrel began in this manner: — The old inhabitants of Sybaris erected themselves into a kind of nobility, and arrogated to themselves all the public employments of any distinction, vouchsafing to the new-comers only those of least importance; they insisted, moreover, that their wives should sacrifice the first to the gods, and that the other ladies should not commence their devotions till the first had concluded: not content with distinctions so assuming, they went farther, and took to themselves, in the distribution of the lands, all those which were nearest the city, and left only the more distant to those whom they called foreigners. The latter, being more numerous and more brave, carried their resentments so far, as to put all the old families to death, and remained sole possessors of all the territory within the walls. Not having people enough left, they invited others from various parts of Greece, divided houses and lands among them, entered into alliance with Crotona, and became opulent. They divided the people into ten tribes, and established among them a democratical government, and chose for their legislator Charondas, who, having examined to the foundation the laws of all countries, chose out of them, for his country, the wisest and most convenient. Some others he added, drawn from his own meditations. His laws are lost, and therefore his orders and balances are not known. It is nevertheless certain, that orders and balances existed in his institution, from certain regulations preserved by Diodorus.

1. He excluded from all his public councils all men who, having children, should marry a second time; and thus mortify their children with the authority of a step-mother.

2. As another check to his democracy, he ordained that all who should be convicted of calumny, should be conducted through the streets crowned with tamarin; a punishment so infamous, that several put an end to their own lives rather than submit to it.

3. He prohibited all society with wicked men: for, says he, the disposition to evil is very strong; and many of those who at first love virtue, are often drawn in, by the charms of secret seductions, to the greatest vices.

3[a]. He ordained, that all the sons of every family should learn to write and read under masters in the pay of the public. This law alone has merit enough to consecrate to immortality the memory of this legislator, and deserves to be imitated by every free people at least.

4. That the property of orphans should be administered by the relations by the father; but their persons and education entrusted to those by the mother.

5. All those who should refuse to take arms for their country, or quit their ranks in the army, instead of being punished by death, should be exposed three days in a public square of the city in women’s clothes.

6. To preserve his democratical arrangement, he thought it necessary to prohibit all proposals of changes in his laws. His principle was, that it was as advantageous to submit to the laws, as it is dangerous to subject the laws to individuals; and therefore in trials he reprehended and silenced all criminals, who substituted turns of eloquence and arbitrary interpretations in place of the letter of the laws, and charged them with violating their authority and majesty. The question is, said Charondas, “Whether you shall save the law or the criminal?”

7. Struck with the disorders and seditions which he had seen in many democratical cities, he ordained that no citizen should present himself in the public assembly, to propose any reformation or alteration in the law, without an halter about his neck, which he should wear till the people had deliberated and determined: if the people decreed the proposed alteration hurtful or unnecessary, the reformer should be strangled on the spot. This regulation silenced all new legislators so entirely, that only three examples occurred of any changes.

All his precautions were insufficient: — Returning from the country with his sword, which he had taken to defend himself against highwaymen, be found the assembly in division and confusion. He hastened to compose the tumult. One of his enemies reproached him with violating his own law, by coming into the assembly with an arm. Charondas, who had forgotten the sword, cried, I mean to observe and enforce the law, and plunged it into his own heart, wearied, most probably, into a contempt of life by the disorders incident to unbalanced parties.

When every legislator who has attempted a democratical establishment, has confessed its inherent tendency to immediate dissolution, by the strongest rigours against proposals of innovation, and numberless other provisions to controul it, which have all been found ineffectual, is it worth while still to cherish the fond idea, when three branches are found, by experience, so effectually to check each other; when in two independent assemblies improvements and reformations may be so easily and lately proposed and adopted, and such as are not beneficial rejected?

* Lib. xii. p. 6.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States

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