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CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
- The Persian Wars
In this lecture, Professor Kagan examines in detail the development, growing pains, and emergence of Athenian democracy. He argues that the tyranny under the Peisistratids led to the development of the idea of self-government among the Athenians, which Cleisthenes used to develop Athens in a more democratic direction. One of the ways Cleisthenes was able to accomplish this was to diminish the power of the aristocracy by reordering and restructuring the tribes and giving greater power to the assembly. Finally, Professor Kagan says a word on the Athenian practice of ostracism as a political tool to protect a fledgling democracy.
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 12 - The Persian Wars
Chapter 1. Consequences of Tyranny to Greek Life [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: Peisistratus died in 527 with all his power, insofar as we know peacefully, and was succeeded in the tyranny over Athens by his sons, by first wife, Hippeis who was the elder and Hipparchus. I think it’s proper to think of Hippeis as the man in charge, but Hipparchus shared considerable amount of his power and responsibility. At first it appears that they ruled in the same way that their father had, which was to say one that was moderate and didn’t cause a great deal of opposition in Athens, and, of course, there always was a certain amount of opposition. We should not forger that. Aristocratic families always vying for their own power and their own position were uncomfortable very often under Peisistratus and different ones, different families got into trouble and were driven out, and our old friends the Alcmaeonidae got into trouble again, were banished in the time of the sons of Peisistratus, and it was necessary to have a battle against them, in which they were defeated and driven out.
That will play a significant role in the future of Athens quite soon. But I think it’s in the year 514 that a very important event changes the course of things. There is a personal quarrel between the tyrants, one of the tyrants actually, and one of the noble young men, which results in a plot to kill both Hippeis and Hipparchus, led by two young men who will become known in Athenian lore as the tyrannicides, because in their plot they succeed in killing the younger brother Hipparchus, although they don’t get Hippeis. They themselves are killed and the plot fails, but its significance, I think, comes in the fact that it made Hippeis thereafter very nervous, very concerned about his safety and about the future of his regime, and the nature of the regime according to tradition changes and it becomes very harsh, and there are persecutions of people, who are suspected of perhaps plotting or hoping to plot against the tyranny, and that’s significant.
It’s a characteristic event, as I told you early on as I spoke about tyranny in general; usually in the second and sometimes if they made it to the third, there would be opposition. The opposition would make the rulers nervous, the nervous rulers would then misbehave and create further opposition and that’s the story as it happens in Athens. One wrinkle in the Athenian story is that the Alcmaeonidae, who had been expelled from the city, always active, always thinking, got into a position of a special favor to the Delphic Oracle, when there was an earthquake that badly damaged the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Alcmaeonidae bid for the contract to rebuild the temple, and in the doing of that, they spent some of their own money to make the temple even more beautiful than the contract required, which put them in great favor with the priests of Delphi, and they immediately cashed this favor in, in the form of seeking their own political advantage.
The story, as Herodotus tells it, is that their goal was to drive out Hippeis from Athens and the way to do it this time — you remember they’ve tried every trick in the world, and it hasn’t really worked. The idea now was to turn to the most powerful military state in Greece and use it for their purposes. I’m talking of course about Sparta. The tale is that whenever the Spartans sent a message to the Delphic Oracle asking for the opportunity to consult the Oracle, the answer that came back was: first free the Athenians. Well, whether that was the reason or he had reasons of his own, the very ambitious King of Sparta, King Cleomenes was to undertake the job of removing Hippeis from power in Athens quite soon. It’s in the year 511-10 that the Spartans under Cleomenes will invade Attica, gain control of the state, and remove Hippeis and withdraw. But I’ll come back to that story in just a moment.
Let me conclude our consideration of the Athenian tyranny by looking at what were the achievements and consequences of the years of tyrannical rule — many positive elements, as was so often the case with tyranny. From the economic side this was a period of great expansion of Athenian commerce, trade, very strong to the east through the Hellespont and to the Black Sea, but also in this period Athens trades very strongly with the West. I mean to say chiefly Sicily and Italy, and in fact up to that point, up to those years roughly speaking, Corinthian pottery, fine Corinthian pottery, is dominant in the western areas and this is no surprise. That’s always been the case for Corinth. But by the end of the sixth century, Athenian pottery has actually outstripped it in the western markets, which show you how much this combination of trade and industry was changing the character of Athens and making it wealthier and bringing along various elements of change in their way of life.
Another consequence of the tyrannical experience in Athens was a diminution in the power of the aristocracy, and this again is the general story wherever we see tyranny in the Greek world. It never erases aristocracy; you never see the disappearance of the distinction between nobles and commoners, and claims to the aristocracy of birth and descent from the gods. It is always there. Even in the most democratic of Greeks states, like Athens for instance, aristocracy doesn’t go away. It’s not abolished; it lives side by side with a democratic constitution. But the domination by the aristocracy, the monopoly of all the powers and influence that they used to have, it’s not there and that is a tremendously important consequence. So, when the tyranny goes away and it’s necessary to reconstruct a new Athenian constitution, the answer will not simply be to return to the old days before the tyrants.
Solon had intervened in an important way and the tyrants had made their contribution too, to changes that turned out to be permanent. It’s also true that under the tyrants, the local power of the noblemen had been reduced and the power of the government in Athens, which was not dominated by the aristocracy, but by the tyrants — that was a trend and one of the issues that would have to be worked out would be what would be the relationship between the localities outside of Athens and the city itself. Localism has been damaged but not abolished.
If there are going to be new forms of government that take place, one of the consequences, one of the precursors of that will be to further strengthen the center and weaken the periphery, and to continue to strip as best one could the influence and power of the aristocracy, which was mainly to be felt in the countryside and to increase the power of some other form of government, which center would be in Athens. On the other hand, because of the reforms of Solon, which I remind you Peisistratus and his sons allowed to stay in place, at least in the formal sense — therefore every year, think about it, people were elected archon, people where chosen for a council, law courts operated, all of these things not dominated by the aristocracy, but really, in the case of the magistracies, wealth was the criterion.
Remember ever since Solon that people who were not aristocrats, but were wealthy also participated in those jobs, and the council which was open to three out of the four Athenian classes under Solon, meant that people actually went to the council chamber, participated in decisions about what was going on. To be sure they weren’t going to do anything that the tyrants didn’t want, but ninety to ninety five percent of the time, maybe more, the tyrant didn’t care, so that they were getting — this is the point I really want to stress. They were getting experience in the business of self government. When you do that, I think the history of the world shows that once people have risen to that state, where they do participate in their own self government, it’s very hard to get them back into a state when they don’t anymore. That’s going to be very difficult to make stick.
Athens has been moved down the road to self government as a consequence, strangely enough, of the tyranny. Just in passing, I might point out that’s not a unique phenomenon. It’s very interesting to look back at the early post-colonial age in the twentieth century and to see that there were real differences between colonies that had been ruled in a — I don’t want to say tyrannical, but in an absolute way, such as the Congo or other places like that, as opposed to places that had achieved some degree of self government, even while they were ruled by European power, the difference was very great. The same experience that I am talking about now that lead to the capacity and a determination to govern oneself was more likely in places where there had been some such thing. India, of course, is a striking example. Where the Indians had managed to achieve some degree of participation in the government of their own state under the British, who in spite of all the troubles they had, have actually produced a functioning relatively democratic government in that great subcontinent. Well, that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.
So, knowing what we now know, looking backward, it’s possible to say that it looks like the tyranny played a very important role in the transition from aristocratic government to democracy. That’s not what the tyrants intended. They intended to rule for as long as they could, but it was one of the consequences as we will see.
Chapter 2. Cleisthenes’s Coup d’État [00:12:31]
Well, let’s turn once again to those Alcmaeonidae who had, as you remember a checkered past in Athens and even under the tyranny, because they had been driven out. Remember Megacles had his deal with Peisistratus, and how Peisistratus had broken that deal, so he went into opposition. He and the Alcmaeonidae were driven out, but they came back, because we find Cleisthenes name on the list of archons, but then they had been driven out again.
In the year 511-10, Cleisthenes who was leader of the Alcmaeonidae family, and political faction was in exile and was working to get the Spartans to do the job that was done. So Cleomenes takes his Spartan army in 510, he drives out the tyrants, and then he goes home. Now, the question that confronts the Athenians is what form of government should we have? Again, there’s a whole range of possibilities. Not a whole range, there are a few possibilities. One would be reactionary. Let’s go back to the days before Solon when the aristocracy was everything. There’s certainly, as we will see where people who wanted to do something very much like that.
On the other hand, what are you going to do about all these people of consequence who are wealthy and who have made it to the top, but who were not aristocrats? Then what are you going to do about all of these family farmers of whom there must be more now than ever because of my suggestion that Peisistratus had taken away land from some exiled aristocrats and distributed among families, some of whom were successful on farms and became hoplite soldiers and independent farmers. They’re not going to enjoy being put back to a position which was worse than they had under the tyranny. Because under the tyranny they were sitting on councils, and participating in these things, sitting in courts and now all this was going to be taken away, if the reactionary aristocracy had its way. That was really what the contest was, I think.
Should we continue with the Solonian Constitution only without tyrants or should we go back to an aristocracy? The contest for how to decide that was done in the usual old fashioned way. That is to say, in the contest for the archonship. The candidates of holding one view ran against candidates holding the other view and that’s where the matter would be decided. But they went at it in the old way that is the decisions were being made in the political clubs that belonged to the aristocracy. In other words, how we’re going to do this was being fought out among the aristocrats, not among the public at large. In that contest Cleisthenes who stood for the more moderate, for the Solonian, let us say, approach as his family had always done, lost.
The winner was a man called Isagoras, an aristocrat. They were all aristocrats, of course, and he engages — I should say that this election takes place after preliminary pushing back and forth in the year 508-7 and his victory means a victory for the reactionary program. One of his first actions is to establish still another council, not the council of four hundred that Solon had established, but a new council of three hundred, and it was only made up only of aristocrats. Second, very interesting and it turns out to be a very important change — introduced by Isagoras was to scrutinize the citizen’s lists and then to remove from that list lots and lots of people who were deemed to be, I guess those who were illegally enrolled in the citizen list.
They were now going to impose retroactively the traditional criterion for Athenian citizenship. Is your father an Athenian citizen? But we know that Solon had already broken through that by permitting people to come to Athens and to acquire citizenship, if they had the necessary skills and there surely had been a fair number of those, and we are told, that the Peisistratids had done the same thing for pretty much the same reason. So, over a couple of generations you had foreigners coming to Athens and acquiring Athenian citizenship and undoubtedly using it, who are now going to be disenfranchised and driven from the citizen lists.
Now, that made for quite a few discontented people in Athens. If you picked a moment after which Isagoras has accomplished these two things, that is establishing the council of 300, which is obviously going to be the governing body in Athens, an aristocratic council, and driven “X” number of people from the citizen lists, then all of those people are going to be very unhappy, and very likely they have friends who are also going to be unhappy. So, you have a situation which is by now means calm and settled, but it might have settled down as people, as they usually do when things are unavoidable, when there is no real option. Nobody’s making a different case; they would have just gotten used to things, I suppose. But now Cleisthenes decides to do things different. He does not accept his defeat as he would have had to do in the old days, having been defeated in the aristocratic contest.
Instead, in the words of Herodotus, prohetaerizetai ton demon, he brought the people into his political faction. The root of that first word, prosetaerizetai, is hetaera, which means a club, a political club, a collection of companions. That’s the name for these aristocratic societies and Cleisthenes broke the rules. He went out there beyond the aristocratic circle and he recruited people. You become part of my political faction. Well, why should they? Because he had a program that was contrary to the one pursued by Isagoras. It’s one that will result, when it is successful in the establishment of what everybody pretty much agrees was the first Athenian democracy.
The reforms that he proposed then — we have to imagine he actually went around and electioneered. That was not done before that, and persuaded people to support him in his programs, and then he put his programs through. Well, where did he put these programs through? He surely couldn’t have done that in a council of 300; it would never have passed, and I’m sure he didn’t try. Instead, he acted, I think, as though there was no council of three hundred. He did what you would have done, if you wanted to propose a bill prior to that. You would go to the assembly, whichwas the Solonian assembly, which had the right to pass laws. No doubt, it only passed laws that the Peisistratids wanted, but it was not something new. It was something people were accustomed to and he went to the assembly, and he proposed his laws and they were passed.
Well, Isagoras still had the whip hand and he wasn’t going to sit still, while that took place, and so using the force at his disposal he drove, which was that of King Cleomenes and the Spartans, who came back again when called back. No doubt, what Cleomenes had in mind when he did what he had done originally, that is, driving out the Peisistratids, was the establishment of an aristocratic republic in Athens with his friends being in charge. That’s what the Spartans typically would do if they could. So, he was shocked and annoyed, I’m certain, when he hears his friends have been somehow pushed out of power and some new fangled kind of a government that lets ordinary people participate has been instituted. So, Cleomenes comes back with his forces and drives Cleisthenes, and we are told — this is interesting figure and I can’t promise that it’s right, but it does show up in Herodotus. Cleisthenes and seven hundred families, who must have been in his faction, are driven out of Attica.
But the people are not ready to take that; they resist, and they have numbers on their side, and they end up shutting up Cleomenes and his forces, which are not many. We’re talking about probably hundreds of soldiers, no more than that, and we must imagine that there are thousands of Athenians out there who are discontent, and so they shut Cleomenes up on the Acropolis where he had run for safety with Isagoras at his side, and finally they cut a deal and they go home. And Cleisthenes and his supporters, whom I think it fair to start calling democrats, have taken over the city by this coup and are ready to go forward.
Chapter 3. Establishing a New Constitution [00:23:20]
Now, this requires that they establish a new constitution, because they’re going to have a regime the like of which no one had ever seen before. But in trying to understand this constitution and it’s not easy — the ancient sources tell us a lot about it, but it’s not perfectly clear what’s in everybody’s mind as they do what they do. Motives and purposes are not clear as you’ll see in a moment. But anyway, what I want you to fix on is this. Don’t imagine that what’s taking place here is even anything like the American Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where a bunch of delegates have been selected from here and there, and they all sit and argue with each other over the hot summer and finally come up with various plans. It’s better, I think, to think, if we’re using historical analogies to help us, as of course there is nothing better than that to help us. Think of the French Revolution, think of the convention where the sort of the mass of the people have gained control of the situation, after driving the king from his throne, and after really putting aside a more aristocratic council that came before it, and they sit down with radical people running around, ready to kill people. This is the outfit that’s going to end up killing the king and his queen, and all the aristocrats they’re going to lay their hands on. In other words, we are in a revolutionary situation, and there is force and terror are in the air, and everybody is fully aware of the danger of this, that, and the other thing, and of some dangers that probably don’t even exist.
We are in a situation that resembles civil war, that could be on the brink of a serious civil war, and added to that — in other words, the Athenians, who will be sitting in the assembly passing the laws that produce the constitution that Cleisthenes favors, are first of all already afraid that the local aristocrats will use force or guile against them. But on top of that there’s been two Spartan invasions of Attica in the last couple of years and there’s nothing to stop King Cleomenes from coming back again, because he doesn’t like the way he’s been treated. In fact, I’d go further; I’d say there’s every reason to fear that that’s going to happen. Again, that’s where the analogy to the French Revolution works again, because nothing that happens in that most radical period of the French Revolution is understandable. If you don’t know that, the French regularly expect that the kings and emperors of Europe will be marching against them with professional armies very soon, and their fear is absolutely justified, and so is the Athenian fear that the Spartans will be coming.
So it’s in that hot environment, where fear is all over the place, that this new democratic constitution will be shaped. There’s no question that, I think, the place where it’s happening is in the assembly. The assembly sits as you, I hope you know, on a hillside in the middle of Athens, on a hill called the pynx and there in the open air all adult male citizens are eligible to participate in what takes place. One little point, I’d also suggest to you, is what about the people who have been thrown off the citizen lists? Are they there? This is just my reasoning; we don’t have any hard evidence. My answer is absolutely they are. Who is going to tell them not to? You show up on the hill, who’s going to kick you off? Does Cleisthenes want you kicked out? Hell no, because as we will see, one of his main planks is enrolling those people as citizens.
So, in fact, I will bet a lot of money that in all the electioneering that went on about all these different things, they were a group he must have targeted and said you’ve been unfairly treated by these aristocrats. If I get in power, I will see to it that you are enrolled again as citizens. So, all of that is happening, and people are very excited about what is going on. That’s the background for these rather dry and puzzling details I’m about to lay on you to try to describe what these new laws were that amounted to some kind of a democracy.
The center of them, apparently, was reforms of the tribes, and they are in some ways very radical indeed. As you know, these tribes go back before the birth of history. Think of any primitive society you want to; it’s likely to be divided up into tribes. The tribes typically are alleged to come from some very ancient times when gods or heroes founded them. That’s certainly true of the Greek tribes, where each tribe is named after some heroic figure, some semi-divine figure in the past. So, there are four, the four traditional Ionian tribes, and that’s why this is even more radical than anything else. Cleisthenes’ law changes the tribal system in Athens from four tribes to ten tribes, absolutely brand new things that have no tradition behind them, nothing, no history or anything. Then he has to give names to these tribes, and according to the Greek practice, these tribes have to have some founding hero to be named after.
So, he picks out, I think I’m right in thinking, hundred names of heroes and he assigns them to the ten tribes by lot, and now you suddenly have ten new tribes. Now, I mean, if you can try to think yourself back to a tribal society and think about what a disruptive thing this is. All my life I’ve been a member of the tribe named after, Ion, and so have my ancestors, and so my other ancestors. No more. He’s not around anymore; there’s a new tribe that was invented that I’m a member of. So, that’s a very surprising thing. But that’s not the end of the story; each tribe now is divided up into three parts. The word for a third is trittys and the plural is trittyes, and here’s the point. Each of the tribes has one of its trittys in and around the city of Athens. It has another one in the middle of Athens and it — I’m sorry, in the middle of Attica and the third will be in the region called the coast, the Peralia.
So every tribe is geographically distributed across all of Attica, in this way that is something quite new. In the old days we have to believe that the tribes were geographically separated for regions for tribes. The city region, the coast region, and the midland region, each one of these regions has ten trittyes, one for each of the ten tribes. Now, let’s take it a step further, the trittyes themselves are formed of units that are called demes. The Greek word for it, and it’s very confusing, isdemos. Now, the demos is this deme, this political unit. It also means a village, it also means the whole Athenian people, and it also means only the poor Athenian people. So, there you are. But in the context that we’re dealing with it here, we mean these units that are geographical and have a constitutional function.
There is, however, even here a certain amount of confusion, because some of the demes are actually made up of an original village. They don’t mess with that. A deme is the equivalent of a — in other words, a deme is a deme. The two different meanings of the word deme; other demes for the constitutional purpose are made up of a number of villages. So, there would be a lot of these old demes placed into the new constitutional deme. The idea, however, is that everytrittys must be of the same size in terms of population, because the whole idea is to get each tribe to be numerically equal and one reason for that is, because the tribes will be the regiments of the Athenian army. You line up and fight in your — when you’re called to fight in the army in accordance with your deme, which is located in the certain trittys, which becomes a regiment. Your tribe is a regiment of the army.
Now, get this straight, now the demes are unequal in population but the trittyes have to be equal, so that tells you you have to have multiple demes in some and just one or two or a few in another. It is also true that the trittyes are assigned to the tribes by lot, and the thing I want you to remember, and I want to avoid as much complication as I can, is that it doesn’t really matter to the people who invented the constitution, how the demes are assigned to the trittyes, except one scholar has suggested one motive that strikes most of us as very plausible. He made a careful study of how the demeshad been distributed to the trittyes and compared them with where we know there were important religious sites.
Greek religion has many gods and deities and they have local characteristics, because there are legends about their having lived on this earth, at a certain place, or done a deed at another place. So, you have a cave of Pan in eastern Attica, and you have a place where Athena did this, that, and the other thing, and the point I’m getting at is these became shrines, places where the religion was exercised in ancient Attica, aristocratic Attica. The aristocrats owned a piece of land on which the shrine was, which meant you had to have their permission to come onto it to worship, which meant that they would have predominance, power, and influence in these areas. Well, what this scholar, David Lewis was his name, concluded was that there are quite a few times when the thing is laid out in such a way as to divide the religious site on the aristocrats land from his main dwelling on that land, so the aristocrat is separated from the place where he has religious clout as a way of dividing up his political influence and power. He reads this as one of the ways in which Cleisthenes attempted to diminish the power of the aristocracy through its local influence.
Now, this new deme is very, very important. It is the basic unit in the whole system. It was meant, I should say, to take the place of the phratry; you remember the brotherhood that was kernel of the old tribal system. It was meant that the demeshould be the basic thing. For instance, one of the most important things was that your citizenship, according to the laws of Cleisthenes, was no longer to be ascertained by going to your phratry, but each deme would keep an official roll of the citizens in that deme. So, when an Athenian boy is born, when he reaches a certain age, you have to take him to thedeme and register him, and now he can be an Athenian citizen. Well, this was one of several things that we see in Cleisthenes’ constitution in which the intention could not be carried out. That is, the phratry, and the notion of the phratryas the core of such things, was never abolished; it would have been out of the question to abolish it. It had too many religious associations, and it never really lost its place in the Athenian mind. Yes, your official enrollment as a citizen was in the deme, but there was still a tremendous allegiance to the phratry, and the phratry was still run by aristocrats. So, it didn’t have its full effect.
The deme elected an official called a demarche. We might call them mayor or whatever the local official is called, select men we say sometimes still in Connecticut, holding to our colonial traditions. The deme is also given religious functions and religious rights, because everybody knows that religion still is potent, even if you’re engaged in a revolution in Athens at the beginning of the fifth century.
Chapter 4. Key Democratic Elements [00:38:52]
Here’s another thing that they tried to do. Cleisthenes tried with the law, to change the way in which an Athenian was officially designated. It used to be, before Cleisthenes came along, you ask a man who are you. He would say I am Cleisthenes, the son of Megacles. Just the patronymic, just like you bear the name of your father, unless you chose to bear the name of your mother, which is evidence of how un-Athenian you really are. So, that’s the way it was, but under the laws of Cleisthenes, henceforth, citizens were to be designated not as Cleisthenes, son of Megacles, but as Cleisthenes from Alopeke, which is to say his deme.
He was to be the citizen’s name and his deme name. People have argued about what the point of all this was, but I think one limited point, before we get to the full story, is simply another way of cutting down the influence of birth in the society. It’s a way of damaging the aristocratic principle and asserting in its place — look what’s really happening here, that there is something which is the polis that has nothing to do with birth that is the part of the legal structure which is a polis. It’s a whole new concept that’s really creeping in here, replacing the old traditional way of organizing society with one that is the work of citizens coming together and determining how they themselves will be governed. Let that be the story of the tribes for a moment.
Now, here we go with another council, you’ve heard about the council of four hundred, you’ve heard about the council of three hundred. We can do better than that; we’re going to have the council of five hundred. It will be the council that is the democratic council for the remainder of the history of the Athenian democracy, with the exception of short periods of oligarchic rebellion that remove it, but it comes back when the democracy does. That council — let me simply describe it very briefly. It is open to all Athenian adult male citizens. Membership on the council comes through some combination of allotment and election — the point of it is that an assembly of thousands is not well equipped to conduct all kinds of business that has to be conducted for the state, and even its own business. You need a smaller group to prepare the agenda for a full assembly meeting, and so that was the function of the five hundred.
It is, and this is very important, one of those very democratic elements, the assembly of course was totally democratic, because adult male citizens participate if they wish. But you can easily get around that in some degree if you have a council or little group that actually determines what’s going to happen. From the first it wasn’t so. The members of the council had to be — I’m sorry, the council itself was as democratic as the assembly. So, we’ll come back to that council later on, but there it is in place. Another thing that happened, not in 508-7, but a few years down the road, but still in the same period, was that by now the army of Athens, which originally had been led simply by the polemarch, the archonwho was chosen for the military leadership had given way to generals who commanded the different tribes. It used to be that each tribe elected its own general, but in the new system now, the entire people elected the generals for each of the tribes. In other words, the ten tribes still had a general a piece, but the entire population elected him.
Usually, he came from the tribe that he was asked to command, but not always. Again, you can see what the point of this is; it has the same characteristic as so much of what we are describing. It is going to reduce particularism, localism, and make the whole people, the whole demos and their represented institutions be the decisive element in the state. And that is one of the things we’ll be getting to right next to ask ourselves what’s going on here and why is it happening. Here, l will tell you what our sources say and at the end of the day we have to make some judgments.
Of course, generally and I think properly, the source who gets the most credence from scholars today is Herodotus, who is closer to it in time than, although he’s — I should point out Herodotus is writing his history sometime, and at least he’s writing it as late as the 420s, but he himself, goes back to an earlier part of the fifth century. Therefore, he is in a position to hear stories from people who go back even into the sixth century, which makes him theoretically a more credible source than people like Aristotle, who I’ll be quoting at you, who lives in the fourth century and he’s a good whole century later than Herodotus. But Herodotus is not, of course, himself a witness to any of the facts that he adduces.
Anyway, he asks why did Cleisthenes of Athens do what he did. And his answer is a pretty stale one. He was trying to copy his ancestor Cleisthenes of Sicyon, who also changed the tribes, you may remember in Sicyon, from the old Dorian tribes to new tribes that designated the wrong people like — I mean to say the Dorians as swine men and ass men, and so on. That’s why Cleisthenes did it, and he thought it would be a nice thing to do because his ancestor, his namesake, did the same thing. Well, I don’t think we can buy that. We move into a more persuasive territory I think when we get to Aristotle, who writes in his Politics as follows: “perhaps a question rather arises,” he’s dealing with the whole question of citizenship, “about those who had been admitted to citizenship after a revolution had taken place. For instance such a creation of citizens as that carried out at Athens by Cleisthenes, after the expulsion of the tyrants, when he enrolled in his tribes many resident aliens, metics, who had been foreigners and slaves.” So, here’s a new story that we have to add to the picture, I mentioned it in passing, but it’s very important.
One of the things Cleisthenes does, and he has to do it through measures passed through the assembly, is to enfranchise the people who had been thrown off the citizen lists. One thing that you want to do, and you couldn’t have done that, given the nature of the old constitution. If you hadn’t broken up the old system of tribes, phratres, and so on, and come up with a new one which would not have the old prejudices against it. So, that’s part of the story. Again, Aristotle or one of his pupils — there’s some dispute about the document that is called the Constitution of Athens, as to whether Aristotle was the composer of that piece or one of his students. Anyway, here’s what it says, “with the aim of mixing up the population, so that a great number would share ii the citizenship, they came up with this phrase, me phylokrinein, do not judge according to tribe.” But it goes beyond tribe, it really means, do not judge on the basis of birth.
Aristotle says it was directed against those who wanted to check on family background. He goes on to say this new nomenclature, that’s what I just mentioned to you before about your name, that is, you are not the son of so and so, but rather you are of the deme so and so. He says, “so that they would not by addressing one another by their father’s names and expose the newly enrolled citizens, but would call them by the families of the demes.” This passage caused a great deal of puzzle and confusion among scholars who couldn’t understand what this was all about, and that’s I think, because the topic was mostly treated by the British. But Americans can see this right away. The best way to put it is this way — of course you wouldn’t know about this. You live in a country that is absolutely pure and without prejudice, according to race or color, or ethnic origins or religion; so you won’t know what I’m talking about. But let me pass on from an earlier generation, a darker time in which I grew.
Suppose you’re a man who came from the Abruzzi in Italy, and your name was Giovanni DeStefano. That was fine in the Abruzzi, but in America there were people that didn’t have a high opinion of people with such a name and were likely not to be opening their doors or homes to people like that. So, your son instead of calling himself Giovanni DeStefano changed his name to John Stevens, and thereupon, everything was okay. That’ the way things were meant to be in Athens. That is to say, the idea was if you had a foreign sounding name, and your father would have a foreign sounding name, if he came from a foreign place when he settled in Attica. You would be branded in that way and people who wanted, and here it was more specific, to throw you off the citizen lists would know who you were, but if you took a good solid Anglo Athenian name, why, you’d be all right.
So, I think that is the explanation and it’s all part of the same picture. Taking away the traditional influences that would be anti-democratic and replacing them with things that shattered that, and taking away the local powers, anything that smacked of the past, you try to erase as best you can. The procedure, we all agree, is by the device that the Greeks called psephisma. It was a motion passed by the assembly, and it comes to be the standard form of legislation in the Athenian democracy, the plural of psephisma is psephismata.
Now, the scholar who I was eluding to a few moments ago Lewis, he’s got the general picture right. He says we have to understand all of this was passed on the assembly in a mood of great excitement and fear, and anger, a revolutionary situation in which he imagined alluding to the revolution in St. Petersburg in 1917, that they are getting up and shouting, “all power to the ten tribes.” To those of you who are not in St. Petersburg, they were shouting, “all power to the Soviets,” but I think he’s wrong. It wasn’t about the ten tribes. The ten tribes weren’t the issue. I think if they were shouting and I guess they were, they were shouting all power to the ecclesia, to the assembly. That’s where decisions were going to be made in the future. But I do want you to take seriously the notion that the making of such a claim and doing so in heated circumstances was revolutionary, because without that, it’s inconceivable that what happened would have happened.
Now, let me go back to the boule; it was elected by a lot from proportional representation in the demes, all Athenians. The Greek word for preparing legislation for an assembly is probouleusis and such a group is probouleutic, that is, it prepares legislation. The chances are that this council was more powerful and had more independence when it was invented, than it would later on. That’s just a guess, but you know you’re at the beginning of something. You’re still living in a society in which class distinctions are very clear and very sharp, in which the idea of the ordinary citizen taking things into his own hands is new and scary. I think there would have been a lot of deference paid to the individuals who came from the higher classes, and I would guess that they would have been on the preliminary list that was elected before allotment selected among them, and that when they proposed something to the assembly, it would be given greater influence on what happened subsequently than would be true.
When we get down to the full scale of Athenian democracy in the time of Pericles forget about it. The boule is the servant of the assembly, without question. If the council sends in a proposed law in certain language, the assembly can vote it down or they can send it back to the boule and say, no we don’t like those words; change the words into this direction, and then send it back to us. That’s the way it was in the full democracy. My guess is it wasn’t that way in the year 505. I think it probably was meant by Cleisthenes to be a bit more conservative without being, of course in any way, reactionary.
Now, what is this all about in the larger sense? Lewis suggests that there’s something here that is personal and political and I think he’s right. One of the elements that he suggests is these demes were not assigned to trittyes accidentally, as I’ve suggested already, but were carefully laid out not only to deprive noblemen of their undue influence but he thinks probably to help Cleisthenes and his Alcmaeonidae to have a powerful voice in as much of Attica as he possibly could. Why in the world would anybody doubt that? That strikes me as being — that’s what people do when they have the power to help themselves politically they do. I would guess, in other words, Cleisthenes was thinking of his own political position in part. Again, we don’t have hard evidence for this, but just a reasonable suggestion.
Now, the other thing is, we have to, I think, believe, that this whole program of reform was supported by what we have been referring to all along, the hoplite class, these independent farmers. They are the ones who are most numerous. They are among those who will be politically active. Also, they are of course the defense of Athens now, they have to be taken very seriously and they are not about to allow themselves to be cut out or to have their own influence diminished by things that are hanging over from the days of aristocracy. So, I think we should think of this and I think just about everybody does. They like to designate this Cleisthenic democracy, this first democracy, as a hoplite democracy, and saying that the hoplites were in means that to some considerable degree, the poor are out. The chances are very great; I would say pretty certain, that the majority of citizens, the majority of Athenian citizens, were not hoplites. They werethetes.
There probably never was a time when the hoplites were a majority even in Athens. So, excluding them certainly is a limit on what you want to call democracy, and here’s where we get into sort of the debates these days. Many, many a scholar — now that the academy is essentially a branch of the Politburo will want to denigrate ancient Athenian democracy and to suggest it really wasn’t democratic. Well, there are twenty million ways you can do that. You can talk about the fact that it excluded women, you can talk about the fact that it — who else does it exclude? That it had slaves, excluded slaves, it excluded resident aliens, and all those things and then you can finally point to the fact that probably the majority of the adult male citizens were excluded from some important elements in the democracy, although as time passes that last disappears, and you have pretty much complete participation by the poor, but in Cleisthenes case that’s not so.
But I think that’s to be deliberately blind to what’s really happening. What you have is a miracle. Nothing in the world that we know of anywhere, ever like this has ever been seen before. The reaction of the other Greeks as best we can figure out was horror. This is wild and crazy, the stuff that the Athenians are doing, it is radical, it is dangerous. We must contain ourselves and avoid being in touch with them, or we should try to finish those guys off. Certainly that was the attitude the Spartans typically had towards it, and undoubtedly the normal Greek government, which was an oligarchy, certainly took the same point of view. So, I think you can look at it from either direction, probably should look at it from both, but don’t miss the point that what’s happening here is of this very special character.
What did they call this constitution? Well, we don’t know. But the chances are great that they did not call it democracy. The word democracy, our word democracy comes from the Greek demokratia, which I guess you would want to translate as something like power for the masses, for the people at large, or the people as a whole. But it was a name that was given to the Athenian constitution by a people who didn’t like it. What did they think of themselves? Well, Herodotus refers to this regime as one of eisonomia, equality of law, and I think the thing that’s most important about it is, equality before the law. That is, something that wipes out distinctions among classes of people on the basis when it comes to the law. Every man who comes before the law is equal to every other man. Well, that’s a very big change that no place else in the world had, and I think that’s not a bad way to think of it.
Now, of the principles that belonged from the first to this democracy, and was maybe as crucial as anything in characterizing it was what they called isegoria, equality of speech really. It meant equality of the opportunity to address the political body, meaning the assembly. Every Athenian male from the first adult regardless of what his money rating was, of his class, whether he was a thete or higher, everyone had the right to speak in the assembly. Now, this had been a right that was limited of course to aristocrats in many cities, or to the wealthy in other cities. But we know from some of the poems in the sixth century, it was prized as the evidence that an individual was a free man as opposed to a slave. He could get up in the center, that was the term they used, of the town, meaning wherever the meeting place was, and then speak his mind and also try to persuade his fellow citizens to do as he thought best.
We should not take this lightly. In our world, where we never imagine ourselves in such a situation, it’s hard to grasp but actually to think. If I want to I can get out there during the debate that’s going to decide what happens. I can say what I have to say. So, freedom of speech is very, very central to the Athenian idea of self government. The role of the boule in place of aristocratic councils enhances the democracy. On the other hand, things did not happen that you might think would happen. Nothing was done in the sphere of the economy. There was no change in Solonian classes or privileges. You still had to have a certain amount of money to be elected to the top things in the state. The Areopagus was left untouched, remaining a collection of former magistrates, all of whom had been aristocrats. The phratres, the homes of aristocracy were left intact. You had this hoplite democracy, which was indeed democracy, but we must imagine, I think all the evidence would support this imagination, that it was a deferential democracy in which the lower classes still looked up to the upper classes for leadership and guidance, and they themselves did not hold leading positions in the state. I think that’s the picture we have.
Chapter 5. Ostracism as a Constitutional Device [01:04:00]
Well, let me turn at last to one of the most interesting features of the constitution introduced by Cleisthenes; gives us a picture of how things worked that we wouldn’t get any other way. I’m talking abut the law that was passed on ostracism. Our word ostracism derives from it, but it’s something quite different. If somebody says we’re going to ostracize this guy today, it means we’re not going to invite him for a drink; we’re not going to go to his parties, things like that. No this was something far different and was a central part of the political system. Let me begin by simply describing how it worked. Every year, let us say in the month of January, that’s the way the Athenian calendar would have made it come out more or less typically, a question came up in the assembly automatically. Nobody had to move it; it was an automatic thing. The question was, “Shall we have an ostracism this year?” Now, they could debate that question, but what they were not debating was who should we ostracize. That was not at issue.
The only question was, should we have one this year? If a majority said yes, then they would go on. If they majority said no, that was it, no ostracism that year. But supposing a majority had voted for an ostracism, now we go to roughly the month of March and let’s go down to the center of town, the agora, which is the marketplace, which is the political center which is where people go to talk and all those things. That’s where the action is, and for that day and that day alone, theagora is fenced off, and there are ten gates in the fences, one for each tribe, and every citizen who wishes, goes with a piece of broken pottery. Someone has described it as the scrap paper of antiquity, and with whatever you could get, piece of glass, crayon, or whatever, you would simply write the name of a man that you would like to see ostracized that year. You would go to the gate. There would be some people at the gate, who would identify are you really a citizen, where are you coming from and all that. You, then, handed in your ostraka and you went inside the agora, where you stayed until the voting was over so that you couldn’t come back and vote again. Now, they were cleverer than the people of Florida are today.
So, now it’s over, the time has come, and what they do is they divide up all the ostraka that have been cast. They don’t divide them up I’m sorry. They put them in a big pile and count them. If there are fewer than 6,000 ballots, nobody gets ostracized. If there are 6,000 or more, now they divide them up into piles, and the one who gets the most votes, not majority, just the highest number of votes plurality, he wins. He gets ostracized.
What does that mean? It means that he must leave Attica, at a certain distance from Attica, for ten years. That’s all. He has been accused of no crime; therefore, he has been convicted of no crime. Nothing is done to his property; nothing is done to his family. At the end of ten years, he may come back and it’s as though he never left. The next day, if he wants to, he can run for public office. That’s all; that is ostracism. What’s this all about? What are the purposes of this thing? Well, I think the best way to come at this is to tell you a couple of stories and some facts. The story I guess comes from Plutarch’s Life of Aristides, who is one of the leading Athenian figures at the early part of the fifth century, and who in fact was a man who was ultimately ostracized.
The story goes like this. It’s ostracism day in Athens, and some country bumpkin, some rube comes walking up, and he spots Aristides chatting with some folks and he goes up to Aristides and he says, “excuse me sir I don’t know how to write, would you please write a name on this potsherd for me?” Aristides, of course, a gentleman he says, “certainly sir, what name would you like?” He said, “Aristides please.” “Oh,” he says, and he writes down Aristides, and by the way he said, “what is it that you have against Aristides?” I should have told you that Aristides had earned this sobriquet, the just Aristides, Aristides the just. So, the guy says, “what have you got against Aristides? I have nothing against Aristides, I’ve never seen the man, don’t know him. I’m just so damn tired of hearing him called the just.” The point of that story is to illustrate Plutarch’s point is that the system of ostracism was just a piece of silly foolishness that you would associate with democracy, which just allowed the jealousy of the ordinary man for superior people to determine what’s going on. That’s the message that Plutarch gets from that tale.
Here’s another piece of information; that’s not a tale. I think it was about 1937, 1938 an American archaeologist was working up on the north slope of the Acropolis and he came upon a well, he dug into the well, and out came 191 inscribed potsherds, ostraka with but one name written on all of them, and that name was Themistocles, who we know was a participant in a batch of ostraka in the 480s, and careful analysis of the handwriting indicated that these 191ostraka were inscribed by 14 hands writing them. Is it beginning to sound familiar to you guys, I suppose. The best guess of everybody who studies these things is that we do not have here the remains of a collection of voters, who voted and had their votes counted and then these came, but rather that these were votes that never were cast actually.
So what’s going on here? Now, I turn from my attempt at a factual account of what happened in the past to fiction. The rest of this is my imagination. We find ourselves down the middle of Athens, the day before the ostracism. We are in the home of John the potter who is a charter member of the Aristides political club, and what they are doing is sitting about chatting as they incise or paint the name onto a ostrakon, the name is Themistocles. Next day, down there outside the Agora, various country bumpkins and others are wandering into town. You step up to one of them and say; perhaps you would like to vote in the ostracism today sir? I can save you the trouble of inscribing your ballot, here’s one right now. I think this is pretty good evidence that they’re talking about organized political activities, which in fact I think totally squares with what we know about the purpose of ostracism.
I should tell you one other thing, that Thucydides himself says something very important about this. He says, ostracism was brought about, because of the fear and the insecurity that the Athenians felt about their democracy, that it was in constant danger, and that they needed something to help them. That’s the context in which he used it. Plutarch, as I say, has a more general story, the envy and jealousy natural to democracy. You must realize that hardly anybody who ever wrote anything in antiquity had a kind word to say for democracy; it’s a bad thing from the standpoint of most of the authors of antiquity. But Thucydides was there, while ostracism was a reality, as opposed to Plutarch, and I’m sure he is right.
Let’s look, first of all, at the moment when ostracism was invented in the time of Cleisthenes, before we move beyond that. What’s the situation? Cleisthenes and company have just brought about this unique, amazing, and to the rest of the world dangerous coup d’état, and invented this new wild crazy kind of government. They know that the Spartans are furious and they expect they’re going to come down anytime. They also know that in Athens, there are people who don’t like this new government. Some of them are the heirs to the old aristocracy. Some of them are aristocrats themselves. Others were very happy in the days of the tyranny. In fact, there are still relatives of the tyrants, eminent ones, who are still in Athens. In other words, they have to fear betrayal, they have to fear internal hostility, and they have to fear people who might start a civil war. At the same time as they have to be afraid of the Spartans coming up the road, and we know, because in a few years this is going to happen, they have enemies of other neighboring states. Corinthians, the Eretrians, Boeotians, Thebes, and others within the next five years — they will have invasions by those people as well.
That’s their situation, what are they afraid of? They are afraid that there will be treason inside the city, which will help invaders or simply turn the city over to them. Well then, why don’t they just lock these guys up? Well, in the first place, they probably haven’t done anything yet, and you couldn’t make a case against them. On top of which, you really don’t, if you’re Cleisthenes, you don’t want to treat all of these people as though they are the enemies of the new regime. They are, in fact, natural opponents, the friends of the tyrants and the old aristocrats; they’re on opposite sides of the argument. Why would you want to put them together by assaulting their leaders? A smarter thing would be to try to win over one faction to support your side at the expense of the other. That is my guess as to what is another explanation of what’s happening here.
So, here’s another piece of fiction I want to throw at you. I imagine that Cleisthenes stops by at the house of Hipparchus, the son of Karmas, who is a relative of the Peisistratids and who would be looked to as the leading figure in that faction, and he stops by to see Hipparchus, and Hipparchus says, “hello Cleisthenes, say what is this routine, what is this crazy new law that you and your boys just put through, this ostracism law? I hear in the streets that it’s aimed at me, as the leader of the old tyranny faction, what is that?” Cleisthenes I imagine would say, “Now, where did you get a crazy idea like that? I mean, you’re a swell fellow, I’m only against these terrible aristos out there, and their Spartan lackeys, who are going to take away all the people’s rights and I know you wouldn’t want that to happen, that’s not like you. So, of course I can see your point, I can see you are alarmed, I can see that people might say, gee those old Peisistratids might be trying to overthrow this new democracy, and bring themselves back in. I know Hippeis is over there in Persia, supported by the king and maybe people would think you’re for bringing him back as a tyrant. I knew that would never be in your mind, but I tell you what you ought to do, why don’t you come over to my side and I’ll see to it — you know I have friends, I got a lot of friends. I could do you a favor. You do me a favor; I can do you a favor. I can see to it that I would just kill that rumor, and everything would be very happy.”
The next day all is well. I think there’s considerable evidence. I don’t have time for it now — not certain, but evidence suggesting that Hipparchus came on board and became part of a coalition that ruled Athens for decades after that time. And so, that year there was no ostracism, because there didn’t have to be an ostracism. I think that is very important. Most years there was no ostracism, only once in a while, and every single person that we hear ostracized was a leading political figure. Ostracism, in short, was meant to be a constitutional device to work in the political realm as a way of deterring a coup d’état, treason or other forms of unrest. You could only use it as a politician if you were the popular favorite. If you were confident that the ostracism would go your way, if you held an ostracism and that wasn’t true, you might find yourself traveling a long way from home pretty soon, and so that’s the essence of ostracism and we’ll have a look at it again because it crops up and is used but not for twenty years after it’s invented. Okay.
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