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
Continue reading Ancient Greece: The Archaic Age →