The Temple of Zeus at Nemea
Boris Johnson has spoken of the contribution a knowledge of the classics can make to understanding our own times. In the modern political world — as in the ancient — the same theme is played out again and again … with the same characters : political leaders that let power go to their heads and then pay the price (although that price is oft paid in larger measure by those they lead). It’s not all bad news, however, for Greek history is also full of inspirational stories.
Over the next few weeks we shall post a series of small articles on the ancient Greek world, a phase of human history from which we can still learn.
For other posts in the series see the Index.
The Politics of Ancient Athens
We do not know what brought about the collapse of the Greek civilization known as the Mycenaean Palace culture in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1200 b.c.) The written record we have of that civilization consists almost entirely of accounting documents, baked clay tablets, in the Linear-B script.
There follows a period (of which our knowledge is limited to myth) usually referred to as the Dark Age, lasting till the adoption by the Greeks of an alphabet at some time in the eighth century. From then to the start of the Classical period we know as the Archaic Period, when the social structure was an aristocratic monarchy.
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From monarchy to tyranny
Following the fall of the last sovereign king of the Athenians (Codrus), the aristocrats (known as Eupatrids (of good birth) abolished the ruling status of basileus (king) and vested the equivalent power in, at first, three officials, known collectively as the archontes (archons) : a polemarch (pronounced ‘Polla-mark’ – war-lord), a king (whose duties now pertained mainly to religious matters, i.e. pacifying the gods) and the archon himself. This last was the civic leader, equivalent to an executive president of to-day.
The noble families now exercised a measure of control over the archonship until in the early-seventh century a major change to the appointment meant that it became an annual office ; henceforth the Athenians named each year after its archon.
Noble families vied with one another in what to-day we should describe as vulgar ostentation ; their differing views on matters social and political would lead to disorder, even brawling in the streets.
This combination of faction and social competition eventually led to tyranny — the Greek word tyrannos is derived from an Asian one referring to a usurper — in which one nobleman, possibly a military leader, would persuade the now well armed hoplite population to support him as ruler. ‘In short, tyrants helped to stop spiralling ambition and faction by an ultimate act of ambitious faction : their own coup.’ (Further reading: The Classical World, Lane Fox)
It should not be assumed that tyrannical rule was autocratic, at least not at first : a tyrant would take over to establish eunomia (good order), something achieved by laying down and enforcing laws that, for whatever reason, would be observed.
Tyrants, however, saw their positions as heritable ; inevitably their heirs were not as good as they and the subject populace soon became even more disgruntled than under the previous, aristocratic, régime.
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In a simplified way we might say that the period of the tyrants was followed by the period of the law-givers. Toward the end of the seventh century factional fighting in Athens, following an unsuccessful coup, led to the introduction by the nobleman Draco of written laws : they were harsh — hence our word ‘draconian’ — but fair and, because displayed for all to see, certain. (Those, the majority, that could not read would have been able to find others to read to them.)
Early in the sixth century, after ‘consulting the people’, Solon — the man now famous for having given Athens her first ‘constitution’ and one of the contenders for the title ‘Father of Democracy’ — handed down a far more detailed set of regulations governing most of civic life.
Under Solon wealth, rather than birth, decided eligibility for government office : a timocracy. He divided the Attic population in to four property classes, according to their income (actually to how much they might produce) : the pentacosiomedimni, hippeis, zeugitae and thetes.
See this video clip on the great thinker Solon
To the ruling Areopagus Council, which consisted largely of former archons, he added another, known as the boule (the word is still used for the Greek parliament) or Council of four-hundred, one-hundred from each of the Athenians’ traditional tribes (phylae). Members of the top two property classes were eligible to the Council but only the wealthiest — the pentacosiomedimni — could hold the highest offices of state. The ecclesia (Assembly of the people) had existed in the time of the kings of Athens ; it continued in existence.
Solon abolished the dues that land-holders had had to pay to their landlords. The practice of a creditor’s taking his debtor’s person as security was banned, even existing arrangements of this type being annulled ; henceforth no Athenian might be another’s slave.
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Resurgence of tyranny : the Pisistratids
Although the government of Athens was edging toward democracy, the situation was not stable : skirmishes were frequent and when, in the mid-sixth century, factional fighting broke out, Pisistratus stepped in to take control ; defeated he fled to Asia Minor. He spent some time forming useful contacts amongst aristocrats, particularly in Asia Minor, and engaging in profitable commercial operations, especially in Thrace ; then, in 547 b.c., returned with a mercenary force and established a new tyranny.
His was a benign tyranny, under which much was done for the poor that would not have been under any previous aristocracy ; he encouraged the arts and extended the influence of Athens abroad (inter alia securing vital trade routes — especially for shipment of grain from around the Black Sea — that in later years would form the basis of the Athenian empire).
On his death, in 528, he was succeeded by his son Hippias, who failed to live up to the example of the founder of the dynasty : although he appears to have reigned peaceably enough for many years, when, in 514, his brother Hipparchus was assassinated, he began a four-year reign of terror. (The murder had been aimed at avenging a sexual insult but the assassins would later be acclaimed as tyrannicides.)
The Alcmaeonid family (by now in exile) tried to oust Hippias ; on failing, they sent to Cleomenes of Sparta for help, oligarchic Sparta being well disposed toward freeing other states from tyranny and rendering them clients and therefore allies. (The Alcmaeonids, having rebuilt the temple at Delphi, had been able to secure that, whenever the devout Spartans consulted the oracle, they would be told to free Athens first.)
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Sparta attempts to establish oligarchy at Athens
Cleomenes succeeded, on the second attempt, and Hippias fled to Persia. The tyranny — the period from 547 to the rout of Hippias by the Spartans in 510 — is known as the Pisistratid period.
For the next two years the Athenians seem to have run their polis more or less ad hoc ; In 508, despite the Alcmaeonids’ having led the expulsion of the tyrant Hippias, their opponent, an aristocrat named Isagoras, acceded to the senior archonship.
In a public meeting, however, Cleisthenes (of the Alcmaeonid family) — second of our contenders for the title ‘Father of Democracy’ — proposed that in future sovereignty should rest with the entire population (sc. all adult male citizens). The Council would prepare legislation, which would then be submitted to the Assembly, membership of which would be open to all male citizens over 18, i.e. also to the thetes.
Isagoras could see the way things were going and called upon King Cleomenes of Sparta, who arrived in force to establish an oligarchy (similar to the government of Sparta). Cleisthenes fled but both the boule and the people of Athens resisted strongly, Isagoras and the Spartans withdrawing to the safety of the acropolis, to which the Athenians laid siege. On surrendering, Cleomenes and his men were allowed to leave.
Sixth months later Cleisthenes returned to Athens, his reforms having received much acclaim in the city.
These reforms wrested power from the aristocratic class, from which the ranks of the tyrants had been drawn, and can really be said to have informed the Athenian democracy that would eventually underlie the system of government most of the World knows to-day. The military value of these reforms and the freedom — sc. freedom to vote — that they conferred should not be underestimated ; the fighting men of Attica were not just the weakest and poorest obeying orders : they had an attachment to the state for which they fought and this freedom it guaranteed.
All citizens became eligible for archonship and the Council. The Assembly formed a court of appeal from the decisions of the Areopagus Council.
Hitherto the social system of Athens had been based on kinship. Cleisthenes divided Attica in to three regions of roughly equal population : simplified they were the coast, the hinterland and Athens (including the Piraeus and the plain to the west of the city). Ten phylae (tribes) were created ; a tenth part of the population of each of the three regions formed a trittys (third), being a third part of its tribe.
Rather as we have wards or constituencies, Attica had demes ; registration within a deme was a requirement of citizenship. From the demes were drawn candidates for membership of the Council, for which any male citizen over 30 was eligible. The democracy was not however ‘representative’ : men were not sent to the Council to represent a point of view or a group ; the Council’s job was to prepare the business for the Assembly, which would actually take decisions.
Membership of the Council, which since Solon’s time had numbered 400, was raised to 500; it was remarkably busy but would not usually meet in plenary session, the members from each tribe (fifty in number) sitting for a tenth of the year as a standing committee (the prytaneis).
All elected mayors can trace their political roots to Cleisthenes, who instituted the election in each deme of a demarch (pronounced ‘D-Mark’).
Written by Pericles (no, not that one), who says : “I am indebted to the work of so many scholars, some of which I have tried to condense in to this page, and to the good fortune of having been born in to a classical culture and had a good education. Any errors, along with opinions expressed, are mine alone.”
The Classical World, Lane Fox, Robin (Allen Lane, 2005)
A master writer on ancient history (and gardening)
Athens — A History, Waterfield, Robin (MacMillan, 2004)
A lively and detailed account, much recommended, but look out for the unorthodox Romanization of Greek words
A History of the Archaic Greek World, Hall, Jon (Blackwell History of the Ancient World, 2007)
A good description of the methods of historians, with warnings about their fallibility
The Oxford History of the Classical World, Boardman, John et al. (edd.) (O.U.P., 1986), cap. 1 (Forrest)
All you need know in a couple of dozen pages
The Greek Tyrants, Andrewes, Antony (Hutchinson U. Lib., 1956-74)
Another master writer — and once Wykeham Professor — on ancient history
The nicely written background notes of a professor at Saskatchewan : Email John.Porter@USask.ca