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.

By the eighth century these communities were ruled not by kings but by local aristocratic lords (basileis) and were described as ‘Eupatrids’, the ‘sons of good fathers’. By the seventh century the king in Athens was only one of a board of annually appointed officers of state, the nine magistrates (archontes) who went on to become members of the Areopagus Council.  This was a ‘macho’ culture in which masculinity and athletic prowess were celebrated. The Olympic Games were established in the eighth century and it was normal for an aristocrat to have a boy-lover.

From Aristocracy to Tyranny

Some time after 700 the nature of warfare changed when the predominance of cavalry gave way to warfare between phalanxes of heavy infantrymen known as hoplites.  The hoplite adopted a large and very shield, the hoplon, three feet across, which was held by a double grip inside its rim and could protect the warrior’s left side from his chin down to his knees. In a massed line the overlapping shields provided protection.  This change in warfare removed the chief responsibility for the defence of the state from the few wealthy men who could afford to keep horses and turned it over to the average farmer. It emphasized the role of the citizen soldiers who returned to their farms after a campaign. 

The seventh and sixth centuries are seen as the Age of the Tyrants as new rulers seized control from political elites, often with the consent of the people. The growing sense of the power of the armed citizen led to the emergence of men resentful at their exclusion from power, who exploited the discontents of the citizens to seize power. Such a usurper was known as a turannos. The word is non-Greek in origin and did not necessarily carry with it the implications of cruelty or oppression. It is more accurate to think of a tyrant as a populist dictator.

As Athenian society developed in this period, its laws became codified. In 621/0 the lawgiver Draco (Drakon) published a proverbially harsh law code. This included laws that allowed the creditor to seize the debtor and his family as slaves. However, in its limitations of the powers of revenge killing, it asserted central control over local family loyalties.

Profound economic changes were also taking place. By 600 BC the cities of Ionia were starting to use coinage and over the following decades coins crossed the Aegean and began to circulate in Greece. As trade became as important as land as a source of wealth, the Eupatrids reacted with alarm at the prospect of businessmen becoming richer than they, but they were powerless to stop the trend.

As they developed, many poleis also established overseas colonies. By 600 BC Greeks were established in Sicily and southern Italy, southern France, northern Africa, Egypt and the Black Sea.

The reforms of Solon

The first real personality in Athenian history is the lawgiver, Solon, who issued the first surviving statement that citizens should prize and fight for freedom.  He introduced three long-lasting reforms:
  1. He cancelled the debt burdens that were crippling small farmers. He cancelled debts and liberated those enslaved for debt.  Men were set to work digging up the boundary stones in the fields. 
  2. He broke the exclusiveness of the Eupatridai by dividing society into four classes based on agricultural wealth.
  3. He established a people’s Council (boulē) of 400 representatives, chosen by lot from members of the four tribes, and gave formal status to the Assembly (ecclesia). The Assembly dealt with legislation and foreign and domestic policy and the magistrates were now accountable to it.
‘Tanners, carpenters, farmhands, potters, blacksmiths: any or all of these might come to the Assembly to use their vote.’ Tom Holland, Persian Fire, p. 109.
This did not create the democracy. This form of government under Solon can be called aristocracy (the rule of the wealthy and propertied) or oligarchy (the rule of the few). Power still lay with the Areopagus Council (also dominated by aristocrats) rather than ecclesia, and, far from being the democratic body it later became, the ecclesia was dominated by the upper classes.

In spite of the reforms, the local nobility continued to squabble over their right to leadership. In 560/1, one of them, Peisistratos, took over Athens as a tyrant. In 546 he consolidated his tyranny and remained in power until his death in 528/7. Under his rule, Athens flourished: black-figure pottery replaced the earlier geometric design, the Grand Panathenaia was remodelled, and the Pan-Hellenic shrine at Eleusis was taken over by Athens. It was linked to the city by the seventeen mile long Sacred Way. (This will be discussed in a later post.)

The end of the Tyranny

In 528/7 Peisistratos was succeeded by his sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, who faced growing aristocratic opposition. In 514 two aristocratic lovers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, plotted to murder  them at the Panathenaia procession.  However, the plan was botched. Hipparchos was slain, but Hippias survived. Harmodius was killed in the attempt and Aristogeiton died under torture. Though the assassination was probably more a lovers’ quarrel than a political act, Harmdios and Aristogeiton were later to be celebrated as freedom fighters. 

Harmodius and Aristogeiton,
tyrannicides or quarrelsome

Having survived the plot, Hippias turned Athens into a police state. The exiled aristocrats turned to Sparta for help.  In 510 Cleisthenes, a leading member of the Alkmaionid family, won the gratitude of the priests of Delphi by agreeing to rebuild the temple. He then (by bribing the priestess) convinced the oracle to persuade the Spartans, when they came to consult, to drive the Peisistratids out of Athens. According to Herodotus, the Spartans eventually sent an army to Athens because ‘they esteemed the things of heaven more highly than the things of men’ and conquered the city.  Hippias was forced into exile.  As Tom Holland says, 
‘Athens, dramatically, unexpectedly, was free.’ 
Its character was to change dramatically.

The reforms of Cleisthenes

In the momentous year 507 BCE Cleisthenes  laid the foundations of the democracy, ‘a programme so startling, so baldly radical, that it was wholly without precedent’(Holland, Persian Fire, p. 132). 

The word demokratia was not used until later. Cleisthenes’ term was isonomia– equality.  The other key terms were isokratia (‘equality of power’) and isegoria (‘equality of  speech’) 

From the floor of a public meeting he proposed and won approval for a change in the constitution. His reforms laid the foundations of democracy:
  1. Sovereign power in in Athens and Attica should rest with the entire adult male citizenry.
  2. All adult citizens were eligible to vote for the magistrates and for members of the boulē, now increased in numbers to five hundred.
  3. They could serve on juries.
  4. They could attend the ecclesia and in theory could submit legislation, offer amendments, and argue the merits of any question.
  5. Once a year they should vote on whether they wanted to hold an ‘ostracism’. If so, with more than 6,000 people present, they could cast a piece of broken pottery (an ostrakon) inscribed with the name of an offending citizen. The one with the most shards would then have ten days to leave Athens and be sent into exile for ten years. In 487 the ecclesia used the device for the first time to rid the city of the Peisistrad, Hipparchu,s who was suspected of pro-Persian sympathies.
  6. He created ten new 'tribes' (phulai) that were not based on kinship. This weakened the power of the great families. The tribes were named after heroes, all of whom were native, except Ajax.
  7. He divided the tribes into almost 150 'village units' (demoi or demes) that were scattered all over Attica. These demes undermined the power of the landlords. The demes became the basic units of local government and it was from them rather than from families that all men would be obliged to take their second names. From now on every Athenian male was identified by three names: the given name, the patronymic, and the deme. For example: Pericles Xanthippou Kholargeus (Pericles, son of Xanthippos from the deme of Kholargos).

Cleisthenes was an aristocrat and he expected that Athens would continue to be ruled by his fellow-aristocrats. He might have been an idealist or he might have been out for his own ends. But whatever his motives, he created the world's first democracy and   opened the way for the even more radical democracy of the later 5th century.