CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 10 - The Rise of Athens
Chapter 1. The Spartan Assembly [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: We were examining Sparta, the most important, I think, of the early poleis, certainly once you get into the seventh and sixth centuries. And I was describing the formal constitution of the Spartans, having mentioned the kings and the gerousia, the council of elders consisting of twenty-eight elected men over sixty and the two kings to create a body of thirty. Then there is the Spartan Assembly which consists of all the adult male Spartan citizens, and as in most states, it really originated from the idea of having the fighting men participate in decisions and they’re the kinds of decisions that undoubtedly were the first decisions the assemblies made. And in the case of Sparta, I would guess almost the only decisions they made were questions of whether to go to war, whether to make peace, whether to make alliances and so forth.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that that assembly — you want to distinguish that assembly from what I’ll describe shortly about the Athenian Assembly. In this assembly, it is true that all adult male Spartans were participants, and let me also say that they came to the meeting dressed in their military uniform, apparently including their shields, because when a question was put to the Spartans, the way they responded was by shouting and banging on their shields. Whereupon, the presiding official would try to determine which side had the loudest noise. It’s like a voice vote in one of our own meetings, only a little bit more colorful. And only, of course, if the presiding official decided that he couldn’t tell which side had the most noise, would they resort to a separation like the British Parliament, those in favor over on that side, those opposed on the other side, and he would count and out would come the result.
It looks as though the debates in the assembly were probably infrequent, because as best we can figure it out, we would guess that most issues that came before the assembly — let me back up and say probably not very many issues came before the assembly, but those that did, if there was an agreement on the part of the gerousia and the kings, in other words, the upper groups in society, if they agreed there would be no need to go, there might be some legal need to go to the assembly, but there would be no debate and the matter would simply go forward. However, some scholars go far too far in suggesting that there never was a debate in the assembly. There are debates reported to us in Thucydides, which make it perfectly clear that they did, but it is worth pointing out that so far as our information goes, the only people who spoke at those assemblies were the kings, the gerousia, or a group of people I haven’t mentioned to you yet, the ephors, the five ephors. I’ll describe their situation for you, but for the moment they are annually elected officials of the state. In short, the average Spartan did not ever speak in the assembly, it appears. So it’s not a democratic assembly, even though every single citizen is there, if he wants to be. So, that’s part of the mixed and rather confusing aspect of the assembly.
Let me turn now to the ephors. These, according to Spartan tradition, were invented somewhat late in the development of the Spartan constitution. The word ephor comes from the word which means to oversee, to oversee what’s going on. They were, in a certain sense, the overseers. One of their duties was to keep watch on the kings and to see that the kings didn’t do anything improper, illegal, irreligious, or anything of that kind, and some scholars have focused on that and suggested that, at least originally, that was what their main function was: to protect the Spartans from excessive power, excessive behavior by the kings, and that their sort of watching the king’s thing was always their chief function. That, I think, is not right.
I think by the time the Spartans appear to us in history, let us say late in the sixth century and fifth century, the ephorsdon’t do that. I mean, they still have the technical constitutional requirement to do that, but that’s not what they’re up too. When we see them they are usually engaged in dealing with foreign policy. So, if a neighboring state wanted to communicate something to the Spartans, either it might be an offer of an alliance or it might be an order to do something or else war would follow, or a negotiation for peace, any of those things, first they would come to the ephors, of which there were five and the ephors would then decide what should be done.
I would say, in most cases, they would, unless it was very, very serious, they would be able to give some sort of answer to it, but when it involved something fundamental like war and peace or alliances, then they would have to go to the assembly to get their approval. But my guess is that it would have been wildly reckless and therefore never done for theephors not to go to the gerousia first, because the gerousia was, by far, the most significant council in the state, most able to have the necessary prestige and yet to be small enough truly to discuss what needed to be done. And since thegerousia included the kings, it involved the most important people in the state. So, if the ephors wanted to do something, it would be damn foolish not to clear it with the gerousia first; although if they wished to be reckless, they could do otherwise.
Now, another thing about the ephors is that they’re very different. The people who are elected to the gerousia are old men who have proven themselves, they are truly elected by a process in which their individual qualities are relevant, and so they have tremendous prestige in the Spartan state. This is not true necessarily and typically of the ephors. Aristotle tells us that they in fact were just any Joe Spartan, that they were ordinary people, not distinguished in any way. Although we don’t have a clear picture of the way in which they were chosen, it is clear that they were — it looked it was some kind of a combination of election and sortition; there’s a strong element of chance involved in selecting who was going to be an ephor. So, you must think of them, not as distinguished people who have some clout in their own person, but ordinary people who only achieve what clout they’re going to have by virtue of being chosen as ephors. They’re only there for a year.
Now, the kings are there for life and the gerousia is there for life, and I suppose the assembly is there for life, but theephors are only going to be ephors for a year and only once in their life. These are not politically powerful people. I think the idea was to sort of have a representation of the ordinary Spartan to carry on the functions that I have talked about. On the other hand, they were given the responsibility of seeing that the kings were in line and they had various techniques or various policies and processes which had them make judgments as to whether the kings were doing anything wrong, and if they did, they could make that point. They could go to Delphi and ask the god, if they were right in thinking something was wrong, and if they came back the kings would be put on trial. The ephors would be the accusers, the trial would be held in the gerousia, and don’t imagine that that didn’t matter. Kings were brought to trial in this way frequently in the history of Sparta and very often they were convicted, and often exiled, and in other ways punished. So, there’s nothing just theoretical about this capacity to control them and something rather important about this accidental element in who becomes an ephor.
All right, those are the elements of the Spartan constitution and I think it’s self evident that it deserves a title of a mixed constitution. At the same time, you don’t want to lose sight of something even more basic than that. Remember that all the Spartiates that there are, whether they are ordinary citizens, all the way up through king, are a small minority of all the people who are under the control of the Spartans. People try to guess from the evidence that we have what percentage of the entire population of the Peloponnesus or of their own part of the Peloponnesus the Spartans were — well, it looks as though the number of Helots may have been something like seven Helots to every Spartan. Then you have to add to that the number of perioikoi who were also not Spartiates.
Chapter 2. The Spartan Alliance [00:10:53]
So, whatever the mixed character of the constitution was, when you look at the whole of Laconia and its possessions, it is very much an oligarchy. The Spartans normally will like to see other states oligarchically governed. They will not like to see either extreme. They won’t like democracies and they won’t like any form of autocracy which in Greece typically took the form of tyranny. So, the Spartans gain a reputation of being — because they often fight against tyrants — they gain a reputation of being hostile to tyranny, which brings our attention to the subject of foreign policy, very important for Sparta and for the Greek world, because as I think I mentioned before, the Spartans became the first state to be in command, or in control, or to be the leaders of a coalition of states. Not for a specific purpose only, but a permanent coalition of states which the ancient Greeks referred to as the Spartans and their allies, which modern scholars have come to call the Peloponnesian League, and I guess I will use that term and you’ll see it all over the place.
It’s an imprecise term because some of the members of the — let me say a better term for it would be the Spartan alliance, which is what pretty much the Greeks called it, because not everybody in the Peloponnese was a member of the Peloponnesian League and not every member of the league was in the Peloponnesus, but still we all will know what we’re talking about when we speak of the Peloponnesian League. I shall try to remember to speak of the Spartan alliance most of the time.
Well, how did it come to exist? Again, as in most things in Greek history, the beginnings are shrouded in legend and are not absolutely clear, but perhaps the place to start is to say maybe around 570 B.C. The Spartans who had been successful apparently in turning around, to some considerable degree their defeat back in the seventh century in fight with Argos and were expanding their influence and power in the Peloponnesus, suffered a defeat in the region of Arcadia to the north of Laconia — that by the way is mountainous country and poor typically, relatively speaking and it provided some of the toughest warriors in the Greek world. So, it’s no miracle that the Spartans had a hard time up there. It looks as though at that point, that somebody in Sparta came up with a bright idea which changed the nature of the Spartan situation, and also introduced something new into the Greek world at the same time.
They defeated the town of Tegea, which is located just to the north of Laconia. It’s a very important state for the Spartans, not just because it’s the neighbor right to the north of them, but because remember what I told you, if you want to get to Mycenae from Sparta you can’t go across those mountains, you got to go up north and then go left, go west into Mycenae. Tegea is right there where the road turns west. So, its strategic importance is very great. The Spartans got into this war with Tegea and they gained control of Tegea where they claimed to have discovered the bones of the great Homeric hero, Orestes and taken it away from Tegea, the bones I mean, and buried them at Sparta.
Also, there was a legend that maybe they propagated that showed up in some poetry we have, that Agamemnon had moved from his home base in Mycenae to Sparta, an attempt, in other words, to connect these Dorian Spartans with the legends of the great men of the Achaean world described by Homer. Finally, we are told late in the sixth century, King Cleomenes who was one of the aggressive Spartan rulers who expanded the power of Sparta, said on one occasion, “I am no Dorian, I am an Achaean.” What’s this all about? Well, it looks like as the Spartans begin to extend this league that I will be telling you about in a minute, they want to reduce the amount of resistance that they’re going to get into. Dorian’s versus Achaeans still seems to have some meaning to the Greeks. Remember the business about what happened in Sicyon when the tyrants of Sicyon made this sharp distinction in favor of Achaeans against Dorians. It suggests that that division among the Greek peoples hadn’t died down yet and I think that’s what’s going on here. Spartans are trying to claim union with the Achaeans not dominance over them.
Anyway, nonetheless, the Spartans start taking on other Greek states trying to establish their domination and are very successful. They defeated the powerful and important state of Argos. And in the process they took away a piece of land that is between the area of Argos and Sparta, the name of it is Cynuria and they took it away, next to their own state. That’s interesting, because the Argives never forgave that and never gave up on the idea of getting it back. You find the Argives and the Spartans fighting each other at least once a century and what they’re fighting about is gaining control of Cynuria. Its common people referred to Cynuria as the Alsace-Lorraine of the Peloponnesus. Everybody who doesn’t have it and wants it back between these two states. Finally, the Spartans also take the island just off the southeastern edge of the Peloponnesus called Cythera, which gives them a good strategic base there as well, so they are expanding.
Now, what happens — I’ll go back to Tegea for a moment because that’s the first case we hear and it’s the model. When they defeat the Tegeans, instead of simply annexing their territory, subordinating the people, or subjecting the people to Spartan rule, they do something different. They offer the Tegeans an alliance. The character of the alliance, certainly in the full fledged history of the Spartan alliance — we can’t be sure whether the words I’m going to speak to you now were all there in the original oath that the Spartans made their allies swear, but it was there by the end of the fifth century anyway. I think something like it, either was in the oath or was understood, and that is: the state that was defeated said, agreed to accept the leadership of Sparta, and the word that’s involved here is hegemonia and the leader is called ahegemon and that is something different from being your master here, your despotes. It’s a little bit less, or at least you want it to seem that way and to have the same friends and enemies as the Spartans had, and to follow them wherever the Spartans should lead.
A short way of saying it was that they turned their foreign policy over to the Spartans and accepted their leadership in war. What do they get in exchange? One, the Spartans didn’t take away their land, destroy their houses, make them slaves or anything like that. Besides that, they also provided them, promised them and provided them protection against attack from somebody else. When the Peloponnesian League is in place, one of its consequences for most of the time, is the end of warfare between the states inside the Peloponnesus, at least that was the theoretical situation. As we shall see, it will be broken from time to time, but still it’s generally true. So now, what does this mean? The Spartans have done something that is similar to what the Romans would do centuries later and really an enormous achievement if you can do it.
When you conquer people, one of the problems you have, is every state you conquer is potentially a problem. You have to rule it, and that’s going to take more soldiers and you will have to do something with them. You acquire responsibilities that are greater than they used to be, but the point is, normally you don’t gain any fighting men. Spartan way of doing it means you gain more troops for your army. When the Spartans go to their allies, and they want to go war, they tell them send your allotment of troops to the place we tell you, on the day we tell you. That allotment could well be two-thirds of their army. They will go to where the Spartans want to go and the general of the army overall will be a Spartan, and they will be fighting for Spartan purposes, unless the Spartans have chosen to fight for their allies’ purposes. But the Spartans now have increased their military strength enormously by the invention of this new thing, the Spartan Alliance.
Now, the debate continues to exist as to just what that alliance was really like. Were the Spartans free to do anything that they liked in foreign affairs or did they need to have the approval of their allies before going to war? I’m talking now about a constitutional question rather than reality question. Scholars bat it around both ways; my prejudices are that the leagues’ constitution, whatever it may have been, was less important than reality. That is to say, not all states in the Spartan Alliance were equal. Some were large and numerous, and strong militarily. Some were also wealth, and some were at some distance from Sparta. Others were small, weak, poor, and close to Sparta. I would say, and I think the evidence will support this as a fact, whatever the theory may have been, that the closer you were to Sparta the smaller you were, the weaker you were, the more you did what the Spartans told you. How’s that for a shock? And vice versa. The stronger, the more distant, the wealthier you were, the more independent you were of the Spartans.
I would say much of the time, most of the time, people did what the Spartans wanted them to do. But we have many occasions in which states refused to do so and even get in the way of the Spartans. Now, I think the Spartans very often when they had to do something called a meeting of the Spartan Alliance, consulted their allies, but it’s not necessary true that they took a vote as to what the allies thought; sometimes they did. I think sometimes they didn’t; it all depended on the situation. If you want your allies to come and fight with you it’s better to have them to do so willingly than under orders, and so that will explain, in my opinion, some of the reasons for calling it a Peloponnesian League meeting, not necessarily that they were required to do so. But I’ve given you a mixed and rather vague picture, and I think that’s the real picture.
I think you can’t be very sure, either because this evidence doesn’t allow us to be sure how the league was supposed to work and how it really did work, but I also think nobody could tell in advance how it was going to work, whatever the understood constitution was. After all, one of the most important things that is involved in membership in the league, is that when the Spartans say, I want you to come and fight with me for these purposes, you come and you bring your army to do it, but we have a period in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War in which important states like Corinth and Thebes, among others, simply say “no.” And when the Spartans say, why aren’t you doing what you’re supposed to do, they come up with a very nice cock-and-bull story supported by theoretically religious motives why they can’t do what they’re supposed to do and the Spartans have to put up with it; there’s nothing they can do about it.
So I think, now that I’ve mentioned the constitutional technicalities, I think the real thing to ask in each case is what are the realities of the situation, and by which I mean mainly, questions of power that determine what’s going to happen. All right, but by the end of the sixth century there is this Spartan alliance and Sparta alone, among the Greek states, is a hegemonal power and able to use, by Greek standards, a much vaster military force than the Greeks have ever known, so that when the Persian Wars come upon them, there will be no hesitation and no doubt; the Greek league that will fight the Persians, will be led by the Spartans. So great was their respect in which they were held that not only did they command the armies, even though they had no navy and no naval tradition, they were even put in charge of the fleet, although they often had the brains to use other people who had more experience to do the actual leading. But Sparta is in this position and I think that’s important.
Chapter 3. Motivations for Sparta’s Foreign Policy [00:26:32]
Well, let’s step back a moment and take a look at the Spartan state as we’ve been describing it and ask what is it that motivates the Spartans as a state, first of all, in its foreign policy? Because, as we shall see, there’s this remarkable thing that even though they are by far the strongest military force among the Greeks, they are more than usual reluctant to fight, and they don’t like to fight wars if they can avoid them, especially they don’t like to go any great distance to fight a war away from home and they don’t like to fight for any long period of time if they have to be away from home. The reasons for that are really what I want to make you see.
At the core of it all, according to Thucydides, it was the fear of the Helots. It’s not just that the Helots were so numerous compared to the Spartans, but I want to remind you again of their tremendous dissatisfaction with their situation, their backs may have been broken, but their spirits were not. They always were hoping to have a rebellion in which they could undue this extraordinarily heavy burden that they carried, and somehow in spite of the hundreds of years in which this has been going on, they did not lose sight of their nationality, of the fact that they were Mycenaeans and that they were a people, and that they had to throw off Spartan control of them if they could possible could.
Their feelings towards the Spartans were as you might expect. There’s a story of a rebellion I think I mentioned this to you earlier, early in the fourth century in Sparta, somebody is trying to stir up the people against the Spartan government and he mentions to the people he’s trying to enlist in his side the Helots, he says, who would gladly eat the Spartans raw. I think that’s what you have to have in your mind, if you want to understand what the Spartans think. If we take our whole army, leave town, go three days march away, how do we know we’ll find anybody alive when we get back? That’s always on their minds and Helot rebellions, although they don’t take place every day, take place very sparsely, but they keep happening so that the fear is never irrational.
To that is added the permanent enmity of Argos, which never gives up the idea of returning to the great days of Pheidon with Argos as the dominant state in the Peloponnesus and that means that the Spartans have to be defeated for that to happen and so the Argives come back to the Spartans time after time, good stretches in between, because the Spartans always beat them and do great harm so that it takes a long time for them to come back. But they’re there, they don’t go away; it’s a problem. So, the Spartans, of course, have a need of a collection of states that stand between them and their potential enemies of whom the Argives are the most important. So, you can look at the Peloponnesian league in general as the way in which the Spartans dealt with the danger they felt internally and externally.
Another element that the Spartans always worry about — remember why are the Spartans so successful? Numerically they aren’t many, enough to actually just defeat anybody by numbers. It is, because they are the best. Why are they the best? It’s because of this training system, these values, this way of life that is the purely Spartan way. So, there are always, I would argue, likely to be a majority at least of Spartans who are suspicious of and hostile to any kind of change internally certainly, and externally, because external things have internal implications. They’re always worried about corruption seeping into the Spartan system. Corruption normally has the concept of money, wealth behind it. If money comes into the picture and people start being bought by it, they will cease to be thinking the way good Spartans should think, only of the state, but they will think of themselves and their wealth and so on.
Another thing that corrupts is the search for power beyond what is appropriate in the Spartan system. Remember that incredible contradiction where everybody is a similar, almost an equal, but each one isn’t vying for honor, which is not available universally to all, and so that means if you are a conservative Spartan, and the two words are practically the same, you’re going to be worrying about that. That leads to conservatism in foreign policy. War, if you win, you are going to have booty; loot of some kind will come back into Sparta. Moreover, some people will gain reputations because of their fighting in the battle will bring them excessive honor, will fill their heads with a sense of their own greatness, and again, threaten the stability of the Spartan state. So, all of that is going to explain the paradox of the greatest military power in the Greek world, reluctant to fight and their power is not used to acquire economic benefits. What they focus on is discipline and the state versus freedom, individuality, and even family.
There you have this strange society, a closed society that does not normally permit people to come and visit Sparta, and even those that it permits to come to Sparta during one period of the year, they actually force all foreigners out of town and do whatever strange things they do. Now, when we’re talking about the fully developed Spartan state there are no exercises of the arts, such as existed before this system was created. There are no luxuries legally in Sparta. There are few creature comforts. Again, I suspect at some fairly early time, there were violations of these things, as individuals who had the power to do so, might well try to enjoy these things in spite of their being barred. But the main thing is, if you had them you couldn’t really show them, you couldn’t flaunt it, because that would be disastrous. Why? Because in a way, necessity becomes a virtue.
We human beings — that’s one of our typical ways of dealing with things. That is, we need to do something, we have to and so one way we cope is to do it and say it’s the greatest thing in the world to do, and doing anything else is no good. That’s what the Spartans did. Their way of life was imposed upon them by the decision to maintain their command of the Helots, after that it all makes perfect sense. Look what they had to give up, to do it. They said, of course, we gave that up, because that’s what makes us the great people we are and that’s the system that was the Spartan way of life.
Chapter 4. The Rise of Athens [00:34:38]
I remind you again that even though this is very extreme and other Greeks say that they’re not going to live that way, they admire it tremendously, because it suits the ideology of all polis that subordinates individual family concerns to those of the community at large. As I mentioned earlier, the utopian philosophers of the fourth century, Plato being the most striking, Aristotle to a lesser degree, they admire this, although they have their wrinkles about how it’s going to be. Nothing could be greater as a contrast to this way of thinking than the way that the Athenians will develop when they go through their growth as a polis. So let’s take a look now at Athens to see how they came along.
Athens, I hope you’ll remember from your maps, is located in the southeastern portion of the Greek peninsula. It sticks out there into the Aegean Sea. Its geography — it’s about 1,000 square miles is Attica. I think we talked about it already. The city is Athens; the region in which they live is Attica; the people are Athenians and that’s an important point I think I made too, which is everybody who is a citizen who lives in Attica is an Athenian, no matter if he lives sixty five or seventy miles away from the city. He’s still an Athenian. One of the things they achieved early was the unification of that whole region and they made it one polis, although that certainly doesn’t mean that there are no independent villages and towns in the polis of Athens, because they certainly are.
Now, Attica was not one of the most desirable, certainly agriculturally rich areas in Greece. It was relatively speaking rather barren. Now, there are of course great exceptions; the central valley so to speak, of Attica has the richest soil and in the ancient world it was able to grow the very best grain, including wheat. But very much of the Athenian soil is mountainous and pretty close to barren, so that you don’t have a lot of rich soil. This is not one of the most admirable places to come. On the other hand, it has certain advantages that the Athenians used well to achieve wealth and power and greatness. First of all, it has one splendid harbor; up in the northwestern part of Attica is Piraeus. It is the port of Athens. Once Athens becomes a naval state and it is both spacious, it has three nice little harbors, and it is very easily defended, because these harbors can be closed off and attacks can be prevented. So, that is one strength.
Another, and this is very rare, among Greek states, Attica contained silver mines in the south of the peninsula, and that gave the state, because these mines were ultimately owned by the state, it gave the state a source of income that was very, very unusual among the Greek city states, and the availability of that silver would turn out to be crucial at various moments in Athenian history. One reason why the soil wasn’t so great for agriculture was that a lot of it is red clay, but that turns out to be wonderful for making pottery and of course Athenian pottery, and I’m thinking especially about painted pottery, fine ware, stuff that is meant for the upper classes, stuff that artists will work on that will be exported, all of that is made of that great red clay, the basis for the pottery that the Athenians did.
Another natural resource of great value and great blessing to those of us who can still see the remains of the Athenian experience is the marble that comes from Mount Penteli. The Greeks call it now Pendel, and Pentelikon is what the ancient Greeks called it. In the northeastern portion of the Attica Peninsula and it produce — you can still go see it wonderful, beautiful fine grain, white marble and that’s the stuff that the Parthenon and all the other buildings, temples, on the Acropolis and around Attica was made of and that enabled the Athenians to build those temples as few cities could, because there it was sitting in their territory, not a source of the kind of tremendous expense it would be for other states that would have to buy it and bring it in.
Now, on the other hand, Athens was able as I told you — let’s start in the early days to grow wheat and other grains, but more to the point, it was very good for olive trees and for grapevines, so as we will see when the Athenians begin to exploit all of their land, not just the bottom land that works for grain, but also the less desirable land and produced wine and olive oil, that was a source of agricultural wealth that would play an important part in their history.
Now, their own story about their past was something like this. They, unlike the other inhabitants of southern Greece, according to their story, never experienced a Dorian invasion. Now, the Dorians did come down and sort of bang at the door of Attica, but they were driven by the Athenians and never made their way into it. So, the Athenians claimed that they were, in a certain sense, the purest of the pure Greeks and they went to great lengths. One of their stories claims they were, as the Greek word goes autochthonous, that is, they were sprang from their own soil. In fact, they said they were in Attica before the creation of the moon. Guess you don’t have to believe that, but on the other hand, it’s their picture; we were always here, the original indigenous people. Their tradition, and this one is surely right, is that at an early time in their history, Attica became a refuge for people escaping what they would have regarded as the Dorian invasion. There’s no doubt that people from the Peloponnesus after the fall of the Bronze Age civilizations did a lot of running away and some of them ran to Attica and were greeted and settled down there permanently. Some of the most important and most aristocratic Athenians traced their ancestry not to the Athenians who were there before the moon was created, but to people who had come in this flight sometime after the end of the Bronze Age.
It is a tradition not of producing conflict but of producing harmony. These exiles, we are told, were brought into the Athenian people and lived among them as Athenians, no split, no division. Similarly, there is nothing like the helot class in Athens. There are no serfs, there is no suppressed population waiting to get at their rulers, so that there’s a kind of a historical good fortune, which says Athens is going to be without internal strife. I don’t mean totally but to a great degree compared to the other Greek states. Now, one important example of what happens in Athens that doesn’t happen in other states is this. There’s a tradition in Athens of an event called synoikismos; it’s on the site so you can look it up, which means unification. It really, if you take the word apart, it means the bringing of households together. There is no set of local rebellions against the major city, no need to go to war. Now, there were obviously wars back there in the early days of the polis when the city of Athens became the dominant city, but we know so little of them, it’s as though the memory has been entirely forgotten and the picture that is painted is one of everybody sort of happily living together, no conflict.
Compare that to Sparta where it’s obvious Sparta gained control of the Peloponnesus through war and that many of the people there were very unhappy with them, not to mention the Helots. But in neighboring Boeotia, the chief city of Thebes, traditionally was at war trying to subdue the other major cities of Boeotia, in order to make themselves the boss and they never were fully successful in this. So, Boeotia is torn, to some degree, by this internal conflict, which makes it harder for Thebes to achieve the kind of power in its own home territory that the Athenians are able to achieve.
Chapter 5. Early Athenian Society [00:46:09]
Let’s take a look at the earliest society of Athens as first we come to know it. One thing about this is that the story often comes to us through people like Aristotle who liked to make things neater and put them nicely together, rather than to leave little bumps or anything like that. The society we’re talking about, this earliest society, is aristocratic and remember it’s important to notice the difference between aristocratic and oligarchic. Aristocratic implies means ruled by the best, and best in that time means simply best by birth. It means best by birth and that means if you’re going to be in the ruling group, in a dominant, an aristocrat — the only way to get there is if your father was an aristocrat.
Doesn’t matter how rich you are, doesn’t matter what a magnificent warrior you are, all that matters is birth and that is different from oligarchy which gives rule to a few but that usually means, I would say just about every case, that wealth plays a role that you can be one of the few in the ruling group if you’re rich enough. I don’t mean that they didn’t have aristocrats within an oligarchy, I’m sure that they did, it’s that that was not the critical element. Now, also in the Athenian aristocracy, you can imagine that most aristocrats are rich but some of them are not, and that’s the distinction that matters and we will come back to that point as we see Athens move out of the aristocratic condition and into one that is more based on wealth, than it is merely on birth.
Well, we are told that in the earliest times, Athens was divided up; the people of Athens were divided up into four tribes just as were all the other Ionian cities and the Athenians of course were Ionians; this is a point worth making, because most Ionians lived on the coast of Asia Minor or on the Islands of the Aegean and the Athenians were pretty much — I’m exaggerating but mostly the only Ionians on the mainland. They sort of were an interesting middling group between the Dorians of the Peloponnesus and the Greeks of other types elsewhere, and the Athenians sort of stood between the mainland where they existed, where they were, and the islands and across the seas. Each one of these four traditional tribes contained, according to this tradition, three subdivisions that were called phratres.
An easy way to translate phratres is brotherhood. Notice it’s again about family and birth. You are in phratres; you’re in that phratres, because so is your father and you inherit it, and these phratres were very important. I should have mentioned that the tribes had important religious functions that also the army consisted of four regimens, one for each tribe. So, these tribes had great reality for the Spartans. You went not only to the religious festivals of the entire state, but you went to those only for your fellow tribesmen, which gave you a sense of belonging in that tribe, and I think that’s important. The phratres were smaller versions of the same thing; phratres had religious rites of their own, and in fact, thephratres appears to have been the unit that really mattered in terms of the place where you sort of established your belonging.
I mean, if somebody came along to an Athenian in the seventh century and said, you say you’re an Athenian, how do I know you’re an Athenian? Well, after you got through saying, well you can ask my friends, my neighbors. Yeah what do they know? You say, well how would you do it? Well, I guess come down to a meeting of my phratres, they will have a record of my being a member of that phratres and that makes me an Athenian. So that’s the importance, in a way, one part of the importance of the phratres. Now, the phratres, because it was established by birth and tradition, was an aristocratic stronghold. Everywhere you can imagine, tribe, phratres, and so on, some aristocratic family or families would have had a leading role by tradition. The Greek religion did have priests, but it didn’t have a separate priestly class and during the aristocratic period, and I would say probably throughout its history, Athenian religion had the priesthoods, the chief religious places in the state were held by aristocrats, which in a primitive society in itself, gives them tremendous prestige and a lot of clout.
Probably, although I’m not sure we have hard evidence on this, probably the phratres fought side by side in the tribal regiments as well; of course they would always be commanded by aristocratic leaders. Another way the Athenian people were divided involved names of classes of people and we’ll come back to that in another context, but one class, the highest class in the aristocratic state were the eupatrids, it means the well-born, the well-sired and it turns out that in the early polis, no surprise, they dominated the best farmland, they had the chief jobs in religion, they were the government, because as early as we can tell that there was a regime after the legendary kings are gone, the number one governmental organization, you might call it, is the council of the Areopagus; gets its name from the place where it meets. If you look to the west side of the Acropolis, immediately there’s a pretty good size hill which is the Areopagus, the hill of Ares, the war god. There the council of the Areopagus met and did what it had to do, and it’s clear that the members of the Areopagus in its earliest stage were noblemen.
We don’t know enough to know whether it was all noblemen or just the leaders of the clans or whatever, but that’s where decisions were made. It’s important though to realize that in these early days of the polis they probably had very little to decide and very little to do. Most of the real life of the state in the earliest days would have been out in the countryside where the overwhelming majority of the people lived. You must imagine that it is something like, nothing like precisely, but something like the feudal manners that we find in western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.
These noblemen would typically have held a lot of land and have been well to do, have had all the powers I’ve described, and were looked up to and were listened to. They would have led the military units into battle when that was necessary and we know that one of the things that they did was to serve as the source of justice in the state. If there was a quarrel between a couple of guys, they would bring it to a court. You think of Hesiod, his complaints where his noblemen, his barons were crooked, but that doesn’t mean they all were. In any case, that’s where you went. They settled any disputes that you didn’t settle by feud or by some other primitive technique. It was pretty clear that it was right to have the noblemen do it, not just because they’re aristocrats but because they would know what the law was since there was no writing before the eighth century and it was very rare after that, there was nothing like a written law code until the seventh century. Before that, if you wanted to get justice you went to a nobleman, and if you wanted to go beyond that, you went to the Areopagus, which is made of noblemen. That’s the picture in the earliest polis as best we can reconstruct it.
Now, Aristotle tells us that beginning in the early seventh century, the date he gives us, of course we shouldn’t put too much credence in it, it’s too precise, but it’s 683 B.C. This is the date he gives us and he tells us on that occasion, we are introduced to a new thing, magistrates are chosen from the aristocracy to do various jobs in the city. In Athens, the magistrates were called archons. It means, in the most technical sense, rulers, but it means really important magistrates in the state. One of these was called the War archon, polemarch, presumably he led the army. Next came the archonwho was actually the most important archon, the one who gave his name to the year. I think I mentioned the Greeks did not have a system of dating, which has a starting point, and so you can say one, two, three, four, five. Instead, like many ancient peoples, they named the year after the leading archon, the leading magistrate of the state; Mesopotamian cities did the same thing. So that archon was called the archon eponymous, the one who gives his name to the state.
So, if you wanted to know when did a thing happen, somebody would say it was in the archonship of so and so, and so and so. Well, you wouldn’t have that in your head, you would have to go someplace and look it up where there was a list of archons. Anyway, he was the most important. A third archon was known as the King archon, the archon basileus. His responsibilities were mainly religious, but I should point out that all the archons, whatever else they did, every one of them also did justice, that is, they had courts to which people could come to get their quarrels settled. Sometime after that, after these three major figures that I have mentioned to you, there was established a body of men calledthesmothetes, you’ll see this on the list of words, which were six men whose functions were apparently strictly judicial. They presided over courts that you could to for specified purposes.
Every one of these nine archons — they are sometimes referred to as the college of nine archons. They had a secretary which would have brought them up to ten, but only nine were true archons. They were elected from the aristocracy by the assembly of all Athenian adult males. That means mainly not aristocrats; they chose from among the aristocrats for these archons, who served for one year and not again. That’s a very important concept. Nobody in Athens holds an office at this time, or as far as I can tell, at any time — well, back up, at this time, for more than a year. The only thing in town that has continuity, that can develop power and influence over a period of time, is the council of the Areopagus and that’s what aristocratic and oligarchic regimes do. They are very nervous about individuals who acquire too much power, popularity, influence which will threaten the character of the aristocracy.
Aristocracies — this may seem funny, but aristocracies love equality; equality among aristocrats, and then tremendous inequality between them and everybody else, sort of the way Yalies feel about things. Yalies are very nervous about anybody sticking his head up above the crowd, because the question is always why not me? You have high expectations of yourself and so sometimes unless you’re invaded by later religious ideas that the Greeks didn’t have, you’re not humble, you’re vying for honor. I always seek Greeks in front of me when I see Yalies. An aristocratic republic is what we have, not a monarchy, but a republic. Dominated insofar as it’s dominated by anybody but individual aristocrats, by the areopagus, and at some point in the history of that institution it consists now of men who have beenarchon.
The year after their archonship they automatically go into the areopagus and remain areopagites for life. Well, that gives the counsel of the areopagus even more power and influence, because they consist now, exclusively after awhile, of people who have been chosen for their individual qualities to be the leading magistrates in the state and now they will oversee what’s going on, and you can bet they will be looking very carefully over the shoulders of the aristocraticarchons whenever they are in power to see that they’re not screwing up, but also to see that they are not getting too mighty and too powerful.
The weight and the power of the Areopagus must have been enormous in this system. So the rich and the well-born, because they are pretty much the same in the early days of the polis, run the state in this official constitutional way, but I would also remind you that on their estates out there in the country they run the thing just as well with the farmers and everybody else out there, kowtowing to them and seeking their favorite. That’s the kind of world that we have at the start. Then it comes to Athens as it did to every other Greek state, a little bit later it looks like in Athens, all of the change and turmoil that we’ve seen in Argos and Corinth and other place. If we are right in talking about something like a hoplite revolution, it occurs in Athens too. Athens grows slowly, and again late, but it begins to engage in commerce to a greater degree than before, and in ancient handcrafted manufacturing, and just as it does elsewhere, it leads to new wealth and new class distinctions, which are now based not on birth but on wealth. We hear new terms, not all of them new, a couple of them new that come into the picture. We hear about Athenians divided into different classes.
One of these you remember was the Eupatridae, the well-born, that’s the old story and they were really only two, those who were and those who weren’t. But now we hear about people called hippeis, and it means horseman, cavalryman. Well, you can’t own a horse and ride a horse unless you have a lot of money. Horses are expensive. So, there are rich people now who are these cavalrymen. Well, they’ve had cavalry in the past, they’ve always been aristocrats, but what we will see in the future is that men who are hippeis who are not necessarily aristocrats.
At the bottom of the barrel we hear about people called thetes. They’ve always been around, they are the poor; they don’t own land. They live at the mercy of chance; they work for other people. They do anything they can to stay alive. But now comes the new thing, people called zeugitai. What does it mean? It means yoke fellows. Now, there are two senses of the work yoke that seem to be involved in this. You could say that, and this is one way that makes sense, these were men who were sufficiently well off that they could own a team of oxen, two oxen, who were yoked together to pull the plow. That would make them respectably well off farmers. We are talking about people of the hoplite class. Another theory is that they were indeed named that, because they were hoplites, because they lined up in the phalanx and they were yoked together, so to speak, by their shields touching one another.
It hardly matters which of the stories you prefer or whether you choose both; we’re talking about the same people and that tells us the important fact, that this new class of independent family farmer has arrived in Athens, and as in other states is not satisfied with his position in the state, as his own importance to the state becomes greater and greater. We will come back to this story when we talk about Solon, but think about these changes as happening, as the next change that I want to tell you about occurs. A change that didn’t happen, but if it had, it would have changed the entire course of events.
Chapter 6. Cylon’s Failed Coup d’État [01:07:34]
According to tradition in the year 632, an Athenian nobleman who had become famous because of his victory in an athletic contest and who had married the daughter of a very wealthy and powerful tyrant in Megara, right next door to Attica. So, this guy was a young big shot of extraordinary character named, Cylon, attempted a coup d’état trying to establish a tyranny in Athens, just as his father-in-law had established one in Megara. His father-in-law’s name was Theagenes.
Well, as the story goes, he tried his best to gain control of the city. What did you do in Athens in the early days, if you wanted to take control of the city, is you take an armed force up onto the Acropolis, seize the Acropolis, make it your fortress, and proclaim yourself boss and see if you can make it stick. Well, he couldn’t, he was resisted by enough of his opponents that he was defeated. The leader of the resistance was the family known as the Alcmaeonidae. We will hear a lot about them in this course. But they went up there, locked up Cylon and his supporters in the Acropolis, in a temple. You couldn’t go into the temple for the purpose of killing somebody, that would be sacrilegious and so they were at a standstill. Still if you’re inside that temple and trying to avoid being killed, you still need food and drink, and most important drink. So, how could they manage it? Well, they took a cord, tied it to the temple, held onto the cord, and went down to the well and got their water claiming that they were just as sacrosanct as they had been before, and for a while it worked. But the Alcmaeonidae said, baloney. They cut the cord and killed the Cylonians.
That put an end to the Cylonian conspiracy but it brought something to Alcmaeonidae as well, a curse. The Alcmaeonids were declared accursed and driven from the city. Well, that’s for the time being, later on we will hear they’re back again and they’re very important. But the curse continues to be attached to the family, and as we get to the last end of the last third of the fifth century and the Peloponnesian War is about to break out, the enemies of Pericles will pull out the curse of the Alcmaeonidae to use against him, because his mother was of Alcmaeonids family.
For the moment, what we’re talking about here I think though, is here’s the first sign that we see of trouble in paradise. Nice, calm, happy synoecisized Athens has got trouble right here in River City. I mean in Athens. Why? I think we must imagine that there are the kinds of discontents that we have been talking about which find the leader in the form of a man who is an outstanding figure for some reason, who is willing to try to establish a tyranny, and use armed force to try to achieve their goals. That it fails, I think, is an indication that the same forces haven’t reached the power in Athens that they had reached in Megara, Corinth, Sicyon, and places like that, but it’s a warning about troubles ahead and I’ll turn to those troubles in the next hour.
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