Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Athenian democracy (2): the radical democracy

A changing political culture

The decades after the Persian defeat saw a new dynamism in Athens. This was the period of the great dramas, such as Aeschylus' The Persians, performed in 472.  It was also a time of a new polarization in politics. In the 480s comic dramas became part of the political festivals and Cleisthenes’ device of ostracism began to be used by the people against prominent nobles, sometimes for reasons that can seem frivolous.  The ostracisms were signs of a changing political culture in which traditional aristocrats found their assumptions challenged by the advocates of democracy. 

In 462-1 the radical democracy was established by a coup led by Ephialtes.  
  1. The Areopagus Council, the governing body, lost its powers, and the rulers (the arkhontes) became democratically elected. Decision-making now rested with the Assembly. 
  2. The Areopagus continued as a court but after a first hearing they had to pass on cases to one of the panels of public jurors (see below).

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Athenian Democracy (1): from tyranny to democracy

Ostracism at work: pieces of broken pottery
 with the names of Pericles, Cimon and Aristides


Athens was the world’s first democracy. While the rest of the world continued to be characterized by monarchical societies, Athens carried democracy as far as it would go before modern times.  The democracy existed for two centuries, and for less than that in the small number of Greek states that followed Athens. When it reappeared in the western world it was broader but shallower. Modern democracies are more remote and indirect, less 'political' in the ancient understanding of the term.

The Dark Ages: Aristocracy

In the three hundred years after the collapse of Mycenae, the Greeks laid the foundations of their system of government. Neighbouring families, clans, and tribes joined together for protection and developed the unit known as the ‘polis’, plural poleis

The polis can be defined as a community of citizens with rights (adult males), citizens without rights (women and children), and non-citizens (resident foreigners and slaves). It lived under a constitution independent of outside authority. The focal point was usually a fortified city with a market (agora) and a place of assembly (in Athens this was the agora itself), a seat of justice and a government. A polis had to have not only a city but also a hinterland. The city of Athens lay in Attica and the farming of Attica helped to support the city. The average Athenian citizen was a farmer.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Greeks and the Persians (II)

Relief from the Acropolis depicting a trireme

Arguably the defeat at Marathon was not a huge blow for the Persians. Darius faced a much more serious problem with a revolt in Egypt, and Greece, poor, remote and mountainous, was far less important as a prize. But the Greek sources are clear that the defeat at Marathon gnawed at Darius. When he died in 486 BC his vendetta against the Greeks passed to his son and successor, Xerxes I

Herodotus tells us that c. 482 BC Xerxes had two pontoon bridges built across the Hellespont at Abydos in order that his army could cross into Greece. Both bridges were destroyed by a storm and Xerxes had those responsible beheaded and the strait itself whipped.

In the intervening years, the Athenians had made preparations for a second invasion. At the instigation of the archon (magistrate) Themistocles, a brilliantly ambitious young man with great powers of persuasion, they had constructed the great harbour complex of Piraeus and were building up their navy. Two hundred triremes were constructed and the citizens of Athens were trained as rowers.

The Athenians were also helped by a stroke of luck.  In 483 they had discovered a huge new seam of silver in the mines of Larium. On hearing the news of this windfall, Themistocles, with some difficulty, persuaded the Assembly to spend the bulk of the income on the fleet.

The Greeks and the Persians (I)

Relief of Darius I
in Persepolis

The Persian Empire

In 480 the fragmented city-states of Greece confronted the greatest empire the world had yet seen. 

In 550 BCE Cyrus the Great defeated the Median Empire that had stretched from northern Mesopotamia into Anatolia and set up a dual monarchy of the Medes and Persians.  In 546 he defeated Croesus the king of Lydia and annexed the Greek cities of Asia Minor. In 539 he marched into Babylon. This conquest delivered Syria and Palestine into his hands. By the time of his death in 530 at the hands of nomadic tribesmen, he had established an empire that united the whole of west Asia, running from central Asia to Libya and from the shores of the Black Sea to the Indus. This empire brought Europe and Asia together in ways never experienced before. 

Between 526 and 525 Cyrus’ son Cambyses, conquered Egypt.  In 522 the usurper Darius I, known as ‘the Great’ was enthroned. Between 520 and 513 he conquered the whole of Sind and probably the greater part of the Punjab. In c. 517 he established control over several islands off the Ionian coastIn c. 512/1 he reached the magnificently wealthy Greek city of Sardis in Asia Minor, and took up his seat in the suburb of that city. This was a cardinal moment in Greek history.  Sardis became the western capital of the Persian Empire. By c. 510 Darius had gained the submission of the king of Macedon, to the north of Greece.   

The Persian Empire at its height

Culturally, the Greeks and the Persians were very different.  Though the king was meant to administer justice, the Persians had no idea of citizenship or political freedom and no concept of a city-state. Their aristocracy preferred hunting in their rural retreats and cultivating beautiful parks (from which we get the word 'paradise') to political activity.  The war between the Greeks and Persians was, among other things, a conflict of values - as the Greeks were very keen to point out. But the Greeks knew that though ‘barbarians’, the Persians possessed a complex and sophisticated civilisation. Greece had nothing like the Royal Road that ran 1,600 miles from Sardis to Susa.

The Ionian revolt

In 499 the Greeks of Ionia and their allies revolted against what they saw as Persian tyranny.  However, only Athens and Eretria, a merchant port on the island of Euboea, were prepared to go to their aid. 

 War fever broke out in Athens. In the spring of 498 a fleet of twenty ships set out for Ionia.  A fire destroyed the lower part of Sardis, including the temple of the goddess Cybele. However, the Greeks failed to take the city.  On their return journey they were overtaken by Persian troops. Finally, in 494 the Persian navy defeated the Greeks at Miletus, the last city to hold out.  Terrible reprisals followed as Asia Minor was brought back into the Persian fold.

When he had heard of the burning of Sardis and the sacrilegious destruction of the temple of Cybele, Darius vowed to punish Athens and Eretria. It is said that every day as he sat down to eat, a servant would whisper in his ear, ‘Sire, remember the Athenians.’ He was determined to defeat the democracy and turn the Aegean into a Persian lake. According to Herodotus, Darius was persuaded into launching the invasion by his wife, Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus. But he did not need persuading. Persia was an inherently expansionist power. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Athens: what to read

There are a good introductions to this subject in Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World. An Epic History of Greece and Rome (Penguin, 2006), Stephen Kershaw, A Brief Guide to Classical Civilization: From the Origins of Democracy to the Fall of the Roman Empire (Robinson, 2010), and Edith Hall, Introducing the Ancient Greeks (Bodley Head, 2015).

The standard work on Athens I have used is the Joint Association of Classical Teachers' The World of Athens (Cambridge, 1984). 

For the Persian Wars I have used Tom Holland, Persian Fire. The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (Abacus, 2006).

The mountains and the sea

The Greek World was the area where the Greek language was spoken. Most Greeks (Hellenes) lived in mainland Greece (Hellas), but small Greek communities were established outside Greece on the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Sicily, and southern Italy. All these were places that could be reached by sea.


Mount Olympus

Greece is dominated by the mountains and the sea. The highest mountain is Mount Olympus in the north. These mountains made communication difficult, especially, and were one of the factors leading to the establishment of small, independent settlements where autarkeia (self-determination) was prized. There are few cultivatable plains on the west, and most settlements developed in the comparatively roomy eastern plain. A settlement and its surrounding territory was called a polis. The largest of these poleis was Athens.

It was difficult to use rivers for navigation (they dried up in summer, and flooded in winter). The main means of communication was by sea.

Greece: the early history

The Lion Gate, Mycenae

There are three stages in the history of pre-classical Greece.


There were Greek-speaking peoples in Greece soon after 2000
Funerary mask unearthed
in 1876. It is now thought to
predate the Homeric king.
BCE. From c. 1600 BCE they were building fortified palaces, the most famous being the palace in Mycenae.  The palaces were created for a rich ruling class by skilful artisans. 
Their magnificent graves were first unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) in the 1870s. He wrongly believed that he had unearthed the funerary mask of the Homeric king, Agamemnon.

The Mycenaean civilisation had a system of writing, Linear B,  but this was only used for inventories and administrative records. The period played a critical role in the development of Greek mythology and its stock Homeric epithet, ‘rich in gold’ has coloured our understanding of the culture. The gold came from Nubia, Egypt, Macedonia or the island of Thasos and was paid for out of an agricultural surplus. The main crops were barley and wheat, supplemented with olives and vines. Olive oil was exported. Sheep and goats comprised the majority of the livestock.