The motor of human history turns on the question of political form. In the ancient world, two such forms prevailed: the city-state and the empire. Indeed, the history of the ancient world is essentially the history of the interplay of these two forms, whether through war (as in the Greek cities’ war against the Persian Empire) or through a city’s becoming an empire. Athens was an imperialistic city, but it didn’t succeed in becoming—or at least in maintaining—an empire. It was Alexander, who came from the periphery of the Greek world, who established the Greek empire. From then on, an imperial Greek space existed that was soon occupied by a newcomer: Rome, which made the almost unbelievable effort of transforming itself from a little city into a world empire.
These are elementary historical facts, and yet, on close inspection, they reveal a remarkable intelligibility. The city is the smallest human association capable of self-government, while the empire is the most extensive possible grouping under a single sovereign. Thus we have two conceptions of humanity, two ways of crystallizing the fact of being human. Not only might we say that the ancient order was based on these two great political forms and their interrelations; we might add that this ancient order was the “natural” order of human things, as both forms developed spontaneously, without any previous idea or conception—unlike the modern state.