You are here
CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
- Athenian Democracy
In this lecture, Professor Kagan describes the mechanics of the Delian League and its transformation into the Athenian empire. This transformation caused Athens to rival Sparta as an equal in power and prestige. He also argues that this process took place rather smoothly due to the good relations between Sparta and Athens. Professor Kagan argues that Cimon the Athenian generally played an important part in this development. Finally, Professor Kagan begins to describe the workings of Athenian democracy by comparing it with modern American democracy.
|Low Bandwidth Video
|High Bandwidth Video
Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 15 - Athenian Democracy
Chapter 1. The Rise of the Athenian Empire (Cont.) [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: Okay, we were talking about the development of the Athenian Empire changing from the original character of the Delian League. I think we had gotten to the Battle of Eurymedon, which is generally dated to 469, a great victory at land and sea over the Persians and the feeling that it generated, certainly in some portions of the empire, that the threat from Persia was over, and that created the problem of keeping the allies satisfied and willing to make the kind of contribution that had been necessary. The Athenians certainly had no plan of abandoning the league, of abandoning their leadership, of giving up their assaults on the Persians and all of that. So, that if there was a falling away the Athenians would be wanting to do something about that.
Still another turning point in the character of the league, a very important one I think, occurred in the year 465 when the Island of Thasos in the northern Aegean Sea rebelled, and this time the quarrel was not about doing the duty that the members of the league had to do. It was not something about an issue not wanting to take part in campaigns, not wanting to make payments, no nothing like that. There was a quarrel between the Athenians and the Thasians about some mines that were worked on the land opposite Thasos. Gold and silver, very rich precious metal sources for the ancient Greek world, of which there were not many, located on Mount Pangaean on the mainland opposite Thasos. Both states claimed those mines and it was a quarrel that was really just about money. It was also a trading post up there that both sides claimed to have.
The Athenians had established a colony at a place on the Strymon River up in that region called ennea-hodoi, the nine roads, which would later, when the Athenians established it as the colony would be called Amphipolis. All of that led to — and the Thasians didn’t like that. The Athenians were moving into their sphere of influence and giving them trouble. So Thasos, as a consequence of all of these quarrels, rebelled and it was a very difficult siege that the Athenians had to employ. Thasos is a relatively big island. The Thasians were a pretty tough group to put down, and the siege actually, the war between Athens and Thasos actually took something like two years, which is quite a long stretch for any Greek combat and certainly had not been typical of what the Athenians had been able to do against other rebellions. When the Thasians were finally forced to surrender, the Athenians gave them the usual treatment to rebellious states.
They made them take down their walls, to give up their ships, and of course, the Athenians took control of the mines and placed an indemnity on the Thasians, requiring that they should pay the costs of the war for Athens, and imposed upon them thereafter the same kind of a tribute that they imposed on what came more and more to be, and we call subject states. Well, that wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened to one of the members of the league, but what made it different was that the quarrel was not over anything that had to do with the league.
It could easily be seen and certainly was a way in which the Athenians used the forces and the funds of the league to achieve strictly Athenian advantages. After all, there was no way that the league benefited from having either Athens or Thasos exploit those mines. It was not an issue for the league at all, and yet the Athenians had taken their position as leaders of the league to gain that advantage, and that’s I think a very important turning point. We shall see that in the course of that siege of Thasos, important events were happening back in the mainland at Greece, which would change the nature of things too, but if we just think about the league for a moment, I think the Thasian rebellion is a critical moment. That is a good place for us to look at the evaluation that the ancient writers made of this transition.
Our two sources, our major source, of course, Thucydides and then also Diodorus of Sicily, deriving his opinions from contemporary writers too, come up with descriptions and explanations of why the league changed from what had been a free association of states pursuing a common goal to what was legitimately called an empire. Here is what Diodorus says, “In general, Athenians were making great gains in power and no longer treated their allies with decency as they had done before. Instead, they ruled with arrogance and violence. For this reason, most of their allies could not bear their harshness and spoke to one another of rebellion. Some of them even disdained the league council and acted according to their own wishes.” So, Diodorus depicts a combined situation of which there are thoughts of defection and actual defections from Athens, and blames this on the behavior of the Athenians of a kind of a tyrannical sort.
Here’s what Thucydides says, “Now, while there were other causes of revolts, the principal ones were the failures in bringing in the tribute or their quota of ships, and in some cases, refusal of military service. For the Athenians exacted the tribute strictly and gave offense by applying coercive measures to any who were accustomed or unwilling to bear the hardships of service. In some other respects too, the Athenians were no longer equally agreeable as leaders. They would not take part in expeditions on terms of equality and they found it easy to reduce those who had revolted.” Now, here’s where Thucydides differs from Diodorus, “For all this, the allies themselves were responsible for most of them on account of their aversion to military service, in order to avoid being away from home got themselves rated in sums of money instead of ships, which they should pay in as their proportion of contribution. Consequently, the fleet of the Athenians was increased by the funds which they contributed, while they themselves, whenever they revolted entered on the war without preparation and without experience.”
So, Thucydides certainly agrees with what Diodorus says about the high handed manner in which the Athenians had become accustomed to behave and the offense they gave to their allies. Well, he points out that the allies had gotten themselves into that fix, because many of them — and this is an element Diodorus doesn’t mention, voluntarily said, okay, we’re not going to do this service anymore. Instead of supplying ships, manning them, doing the service ourselves, we’ll pay the equivalent sum into the league treasury and when they did so, the Athenians took that money and used it to pay for Athenian ships with Athenian rowers, so that as the league forces grew smaller, the Athenian navy grew bigger.
So, Thucydides says, it’s their own fault. In some cases it was not, but certainly in many a case, it was. I think we should not think of Diodorus and Thucydides as contradicting each other, they really are complimentary. They’re both telling the same story, but emphasizing a different perspective. One looked at it from the Athenian point of view, one from the allied point of view. But they certainly are telling it as it was, and if we look ahead toward the end of the fifth century, by the time we get to the Peloponnesian War, of all the hundred and fifty or more states that were members of the original Delian League, only three still had a navy and real autonomy by the time the war broke out. The three great islands off the coast of Asia Minor, Lesbos, Chios, and Samos were those states, and sorry, I should have said two, because by 440-439 Samos lost its independence. So, there were only two states in that category. Looking ahead that’s what will happen, that’s will be the end of the Delian League, it will be the Athenian empire in every respect.
Chapter 2. Competition for Power between Sparta and Athens [00:10:25]
Now, while this development was taking place we need to take a look at what was happening back in the Greek world on the mainland, and chiefly I think we should focus on Athens at this time. There was right after the Persian War, as I said a few words about it before, a rising competition for a place of standing in the Greek world. That is to say, before the Persian Wars were over, Sparta had been unquestionably the leader of the Greeks, when challenged by an outside force. After the war, Themistocles, you recall, and obviously with the Athenians at his back asserted at the very least equality with the Spartans, and certainly independence of any position following the Spartans or any grant of leadership to the Spartans.
As I think I mentioned last time, the next fifty years or so are the story of the competition between these two great powers within the Greek world for who would be the leader and there would be many a clash in the course of that time. In Athens, the remarkable thing is, if you look at the internal development of Athens, I think you would have said in 479, Themistocles is bound to rise to the top and become the dominant politician in Athens, because of his extraordinary role in bringing victory to the Greeks. But these things don’t always happen that way. I think of course about the Second World War, where one might have thought the same thing about Winston Churchill’s future in English politics, but no sooner was the war won and I think Churchill would have had to gain and was given enormous credit for bringing about that victory. There was an election, almost immediately after the war, and Churchill was thrown out and replaced by his opponents, which tells you about the first rule of democratic politics, the first important question that has to be put to all politicians which is, what have you done for me lately?
Well, he had done quite a lot lately. So, there’s another question that you have to put is, what are going to do for me next? I think that was really what was Churchill’s problem. That was not Themistocles problem, Themistocles ran into trouble because he was a kind of a maverick in Athenian politics anyway, although on at least on one side of his family he was a nobleman like the typical Athenian leader. He was not of the real sort of center of the aristocracy; he was some kind of a less than extraordinary nobility in part of his family, and his personality amid his rivals found troubling, because he was not averse to basking in the glory that he had won.
But think back, in the eighties, in the years between Marathon and Salamis, on the one hand Themistocles had been able to convince the Athenians to do what they needed to do to survive, to build that great fleet out of the silver mines that they had been lucky enough to have. But also, he had managed, if my reading of the facts is correct, to get rid of everyone of his major political opponents by making use of the device of ostracism. If you look at the eighties, you will see that just about every important Athenian political figure is ostracized with the exception of Themistocles, who was left in great shape while the other folks are gone, and when the Persians come the ostracized men are recalled and play a role in the war, and when the war is over it’s obvious, I think, that they are both not happy with what Themistocles had achieved against them and also worried about their prospects for the future with Themistocles being a bigger hero than he ever was.
So what, I think, we need to understand is in Athenian politics in the years after the Persian War, we must understand that there is some kind of a coalition, formal or otherwise, in which all the great leaders of the Athenian political world combine to keep Themistocles down. Amazingly enough, when we take a look at the early actions of the Delian League, and which in every case, you remember, the commander of every expedition is an Athenian, it’s never Themistocles whom you would have imagined would have been leading all these expeditions. He just didn’t have the political clout to get the assignment.
Chapter 3. Cimon, His Popularity and Rise to Power [00:15:51]
The man who did was a relatively young man by the name of Cimon, a nobleman, he was the son of Miltiades, the great hero at Marathon and he started out his political career with problems. His father had been condemned just before his death, he had also left a very great debt that Cimon had to repay, but Cimon established himself as a great figure in the Persian Wars and very soon afterward, we see him taking the lead in every campaign pretty much that the Delian League launches. He is stunningly successful; he’s obviously a great commander on land and at sea. He’s in charge of the great victory at Eurymedon. So, as Athens goes from greatness to greatness, from success to success, and glory to glory, and from wealth to wealth, Cimon becomes this extraordinarily popular with the masses. It’s interesting, because he was not the sort of a man, who appealed to the lower classes. He was a nobleman himself and he never backed off that, and as we shall see in a moment, his prejudices about foreign relations were not the popular ones. He was a great supporter of Sparta, a great friend of Sparta, who regularly spoke about the virtues of Sparta and the Spartan system, and how Athens could learn something from Sparta.
How such a man could have been elected general year after year by the masses of the Athenians is a question we need to approach. But the virtues that he had were to some considerable degree personal, that is, not only was, I think first and foremost, was the enormous success he had in commanding the Athenian forces that brought all the things I had mentioned and wealth, because the league expeditions attacking various Persian territories brought booty, which was to some extent, divided up among the armies that did the fighting. So, the Athenian soldiers and sailors actually made a profit out of these conquests of the Persian territory, or raids on Persian territory. Naturally, their commander was popular on that score, but he had those personal skills that are successful in democratic politics.
People liked him. I’m reminded of the same political phenomenon in America in the case of Eisenhower. Eisenhower, of course, had first become a popular politician because of his victory in the Second World War. He was in command of the European theater and got all the credit or a lot of the credit for the victory, but he had these qualities that made people like him, of which trivial things can be very important. In Eisenhower’s case they liked his smile, people talked about it all the time. It turned out he was unbeatable in politics and it was a little bit like that in the case of Cimon. Even though, again, Eisenhower was not on the sort of the populous side of these things, he was after all a republican and it turned out he was pretty orthodox in that sense.
Well, Cimon held to a very conservative position, as I will tell you about in just a moment, but the fact is he becomes the dominant politician in Athens. If you think of him rising to the top as early as 479 when the war is over and then we know that his period of political success in Athens ends in the year 462; that’s a seventeen-year stretch, which is a very, very long time for a politician to continue to be the leading figure in the state in Athens. Remember, an Athenian general, and it turns out that the development of the Athenian democracy was that it was the generals, who came to be the leading figures politically in the state, and the generals have to be elected every year. So think about how consistently you have to be popular with the masses in order to achieve the leadership that Cimon did.
His pro-Spartan foreign policy I think is a very critical part of the tale, and I think things would have been very, very different, if Themistocles had been the dominant politician, because it was clear that from what he’d already done and what he will do later that he was anti-Spartan and urging Athenian independence from Sparta and really hostility between the two sides. Cimon — to the contrary; he was the official representative of Sparta in Athens. He had long family associations with them; he went around explaining, as I said, the virtues of the Spartans and how good it would be for Athens to emulate some of them, but more important than that, he was always in favor of a policy that had Athens and Sparta allies together, equals as they had been in his mind, in the great Persian War when fundamentally the Spartans had led and won the great victory on land at Plataea, the Athenians had led and won the victory at Salamis at sea, and the two states collaborated, cooperated, that’s how the Greeks were free from the Persian menace, and that’s how Greece would prosper and be safe in the future and it worked.
Some part of the fact that the Spartans did not object to the developments in the Aegean and across the Aegean in which Athens moved from being merely the leader of the coalition to becoming an imperial power, stronger everyday. The Spartans didn’t do a thing about it in those early years. Why not? I think a major reason was because Cimon was the dominant figure in Athens. They trusted Cimon; they knew that so long as he was in that position he would not be a menace to Sparta and that they could indeed live side by side in this way.
It was a stretch of time fifteen, seventeen, something like that years, which was peaceful and as I say probably would not have been without the phenomenon of the internal developments in Athens itself. Cimon also — his control of Athenian affairs by virtue of his personal standing and his persuasive abilities are also surprising. Marathon was a victory for hoplites. It was the farmers, the middling group, and those above them that had won that battle, but Salamis was a victory for the poor in Athens. Of course that vast fleet was rode by poor Athenians, and now they had the glory for the victory and, of course, after the war, when the fleet became the basis of Athenian strength and glory, it was the common man and the poorest of the Athenians, who was involved in achieving that desirable status.
So, you would have thought, and if Themistocles had been in control, I’m sure he would have been right that there would be a movement towards greater democratization of the state. Remember where we are before the wars begin is Cleisthenic democracy, which is pretty much a hoplite democracy, which excludes the poor from many of the activities of the state. Cimon ran against that. He never tried to unravel Athenian democracy. He was not an enemy of Athenian democracy; he was in favor of keeping it the way it was and in some ways actually rolling back some degree of democracy. The way it was somewhat rolled back was that — and not by any legal position, legal action, but rather by sort of the way events went forward.
Aristotle in the Constitution of the Athenians describes the stretch of time that I’m talking about, about 479 to 462, as the period of the Areopagites’ constitution. What that means is the old aristocratic council, consisting of former top magistrates, gained unofficial, informal, but very real power. Scholars have had a hard time understanding exactly what it was that was the nature of that power, but it looks as though a couple of elements were certainly there and they were very critical. That is, the Areopagus, it was said, sort of regained the oversight of magistrates. They were, as in the aristocratic past, in the position of being able to criticize magistrates and to take action against them, if they acted in a way that the Areopagus did not approve.
It also seems very plausible that even though there continued to be a council of five hundred, which was continuing to function as it had, ever since the Cleisthenic Constitution had established it, the fact is that more and more the Areopagus was taking decisions about foreign policy, was putting to the assembly when they desired motions, they were usurping some of the powers of the five hundred. They were not doing this, as I keep saying, by any change of the law. They were doing it, because they thought they could, and the people accepted it. One reason for it, according to Aristotle, is that they had played a particularly heroic role in the Persian Wars at the moment when the Persians invaded Attica, and the Athenians were forced to flee their homes, and to go to Salamis, and to the Peloponnesus to escape for that moment.
Now, the poor had no wherewithal to keep themselves alive when they went into exile in this way, and so the Areopagites used their own money to keep the poor alive and in good condition during that period of time. They volunteered that action, and that generosity and patriotism, and goodwill allowed the development of this Areopagite Constitution in the years that came, and that’s what Cimon I think really had in mind. He wanted to have this sort of dual policy of conservative, moderate democracy. Conservative in that it did not take any recognition of the changing circumstances that would have given the poor a better claim to political power and also conservative in the sense that it was not going to challenge the dualism of Greek international relations, as it had emerged from the Persian War, and that’s the policy that Athens followed with tremendous success during the late career of Cimon while he was at the head of affairs.
Remember, I keep saying he’s at the head of affairs and he’s running things, but remember he’s just one of ten generals, who is elected every year. So all his power — it’s better to speak of his influence because it’s all unofficial. He is able to have these things happen because people do what he urges them to do, when they don’t need to. There’s no compulsion necessary; he is the one who sets the tone and they follow him.
Centuries later, when Augustus becomes the boss of the Roman world, his own statement of the situation put the way he wanted people to think about it, was that he was foremost not in power, potestas is the Latin word, but rather in terms of his influence. He wanted to say it was not a tyranny, it was not a monarchy, it was a republic as it had always been and, I Augustus, as the leading citizen in the eyes of my fellow Romans am able persuade them to do these things, not because they have to, but because they want to. Well, that was his story and it wasn’t true, because he had a great big army at his back, and if you wanted to move him out of anything, you would just have to get yourself killed. This was not the situation with Cimon. Cimon could have made that speech and it would have been true. So, all that cruises along until we get to the Thasian Rebellion.
Chapter 4. The Thasian Rebellion and the Eventual Removal of Cimon [00:30:29]
Cimon is in charge of that expedition and it proves to be a much tougher problem than any that he has had to face before. The war extends for a long time; there’s no success. There’s expense and no payoff, and of course, there’s some question as to the legitimacy and decency of what is going on here. So the enemies of Cimon — in a moment I’ll tell you about them, take advantage of the discontent that the Thasian Rebellion is causing to launch an attack on Cimon politically for the first time in anybody’s memory. The opponents, these enemies of Cimon, are in the first instance a man called Ephialtes and very soon it becomes clear that he has, as a kind of a lieutenant, a younger man who was important but subordinate to Ephialtes. That young man is Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, Xanthippus the great Persian War hero.
We are told — it’s very hard to disentangle the effects from the stories here, but Ephialtes was supposed to have been associated with Themistocles, and that’s very plausible because certainly Ephialtes deserves to be thought of as a democratic leader with the underlining of the democrat. He is clearly attempting to make a change in the constitution, de facto at the very least, which would allow the naval crowd, the poor people of Athens, who row in the fleets to have more political power and opportunity, and he is also very strongly anti-Spartan, so that he is opposed to both halves of the Cimonian approach to things, and he works at trying to undermine and to defeat Cimon.
He had no luck at all until Thasos, and then they bring charges against Cimon. He hadn’t done anything wrong. All he had done was not win the war very quickly, but you know you make up charges in the world of politics. You’ve heard of that once or twice, and they said, well, the reason he hadn’t won the war so quickly was because had been bribed by the King of Macedonia, which is right behind the territory we’re talking about; not to conquer Macedonia. Well, guess what? He wasn’t under orders to conquer Macedonia. He had no plan to conquer Macedonia, didn’t need to be bribed not to conquer Macedonia, on top of which it would be pretty hard to bribe Cimon, because although he had started out poor from his father’s debts, he was now an enormously rich guy, because of the booty which he had legitimately acquired in his role as commander of those expeditions.
Everybody knew he was incredibly rich and he was very generous with his riches and gave it away in all sorts of ways. If you want to say that a Rockefeller is a no good, low down polecat; that’s fine. But if you want to say he’s being bribed with money all you’re going to do is get laughter out of something like that, and in some way that is the situation with Cimon. So, a trial is nonetheless launched against Cimon, the complainant is Pericles, this young up and coming democratic politician who makes the case against Cimon. He loses; of course, he loses. Cimon has not lost his support and the case is absurd. It’s just a sign that for the first time, there’s some kind of serious political opposition and who is involved in it.
Even before that trial Ephialtes had tried another technique by attacking the Areopagus through a tax on particular Areopagites. If you don’t have any success in the general political arena, one device that is as old as the hills and as new as yesterday, is you try to discredit individuals in the regime that you’re trying to unseat, and so various charges were brought against, in particular, Areopagites. They have had merit; they might not. The goal was to discredit the Areopagus as a whole. Again, did not succeed in the years that I am talking about, these are just the signs of what we’re talking about, which takes us to the years just after the putting down of the Thasian Rebellion.
This is an enormous argument among scholars that never will go away about just what is the date of the terrible earthquake that hit the Peloponnesus in whatever time. The most common opinion is that it was around 464 and that appeals to me too. The earthquake was so serious as to disrupt life in Sparta and in Spartan territory in general, and thereby to encourage a great helot rebellion, so that the latter even after the earthquake was over, was what occupied and terrified the Spartans, and it was serious enough that they sent out to their allies, and I’m not now talking merely about their allies in the Peloponnesian League, in their allies who had joined them in the Greek League against Persia, which was still on the books, asking them to send help against the helots, and a number of them did.
It’s indicative of what the relationship between Athens and Sparta was that they also asked for help to Athens. There was a great debate in the Athenian assembly as to what answer to give the Spartans in their request for help, and Cimon of course, made the case for doing so, and in fact, he proposed that the Athenians send a very large force as these things go in the Greek world of four thousand hoplites. That’s a very big army, the Athenians very rarely sent an army of that size outside of Athens into the Peloponnesus to help the Spartans against the helots.
He made the case that Athens should not abandon its former ally; he spoke in panhellenic terms using a nice folk expression he said, Greece should not allow this kind of a split. Athens should not lose its yoke fellow, and the image was a team of oxen drawing a plow, Athens and Sparta being that team, and so long as they’re in the same yoke and doing the thing, all will be well; Greece will be safe. There will be no internal strife. There will be no war; that’s what we ought to do.
Ephialtes spoke bitterly against that and spoke in terms of — this story is all told in Plutarch’s Life of Cimon, if you want to have a look at that. He seems to have evidence about what was said at this debate in the assembly, and Ephialtes is supposed to have said something like the arrogance of Sparta must be trampled underfoot and he lost the argument. Cimon once again won the argument. Athens sends a force of the four thousand hoplites down into the Peloponnesus. They were called on especially — The Spartans wanted them, because the helots had run away to Mount Ethoni in Mycenae, which was a fortified place on a mountain, very hard to attack. The Spartans had failed in their efforts to besiege or to storm the position there, and the Athenians had a reputation now of being very good at siege warfare, which they had gained at the end of the Persian War.
As you remember, Xanthippus had besieged and taken Sestos in a very effective way. Well, the Athenians went and had a shot at it and failed, at which point, the Spartans were a little bit less keen on having them there, and then very soon after that the Spartans went to the Athenians and said, thank you very much for your contribution, we have no further need of your services, have a nice trip home. Instead of being very grateful and happy that they didn’t have to fight anymore, the Athenians were insulted. None of the other allies was asked to leave; none of the others were gone. The Athenians clearly had been sent away not out of friendly reasons, and Thucydides tells us what was on the mind of the Spartans who made these decisions.
They had developed a fear of the Athenian soldiers who were in the Peloponnesus. Typically, Spartans don’t get to see or know anybody else. The only time they ever get to see foreigners is if they happen to be fighting side by side briefly. But now you can imagine the scene where these ordinary everyday Athenians having been born and raised in a democracy where there was absolute freedom and freedom of speech, and where their style of life is not bad for Greeks by Greek standards, and you can imagine inviting these Athenian soldiers in for a meal and feeding them a Spartan meal, black soup and the Athenians think, this is what you give the helots, right. You’re not going to eat that stuff. You want us to eat that stuff? I wouldn’t feed it to a pig.
I’m inventing the conversation, but you got the general idea, and the Spartans couldn’t have enjoyed that very much. Then as they looked around and saw what kind of state this was in which there were all these enslaved people, these vast numbers of enslaved people, not the kind of slaves they knew about, the ones who were like a handyman who assisted you on the farm — vast numbers of them doing all the work while the Spartans didn’t do any. Then they saw that business was run by a small group of people, that the average Spartan solider had nothing to say about what was going on, and being Athenians they no doubt said something about that.
Thucydides says that the Spartans became fearful that they would in fact help the helots in a rebellion against the Spartans and that in general the Spartans feared their revolutionary spirit, and it was on that ground that they sent them away. In any case, there was no doubt in the minds of the Athenians, they had been sent away not in an honorable way, in which friends treat friends, but they had been dismissed. When they came home they were furious that they had gone in the first place, angry with Cimon for sending them and for, of course, his pro-Spartan position in general. In the spring of 462 — 461 is it? I think it’s 461. They ostracized Cimon and off he went.
Chapter 5. A Fuller Athenian Democracy [00:42:59]
That was the deadly stroke in what was now — what could fairly be called a political revolution in Athens. It was not brought about by force; it was brought about in the constitutional way, but it nonetheless put an end to a whole stretch of time in which the state was run in a certain way and brought about a new development let us say, a development towards a fuller democracy, but it’s immediate consequences were a complete breach with Sparta. The Athenians renounced their old alliance made in the Hellenic League in 481. That was over. They turned around and made alliances with Argos, Sparta’s bitter Peloponnesian enemy. They made an alliance with people in the north, the Thessalians, who were famous for their cavalry, and the implication of that being that the Athenians had warlike intentions against the Spartans signing up, first of all, with their most famous local enemy and then signing up for the opportunity to have a cavalry to use as well, and indeed as we will see, it did lead very soon to a war between Athens and Sparta and their two sets of allies in what modern historians call the first Peloponnesian War.
But before we get to that, I think we want to attend to the great changes in Athens internally that were brought about by this great revolution. I think first thing we need to do is, to dispose of Ephialtes, which is what his enemies did almost immediately. He was murdered; somebody came and stuck a knife in him. It’s very interesting; this is the only political assassination that we know of in the entire history of the Athenian democracy. When you think of how few were the methods for protecting anybody in the Athenian state, it really is a remarkable thing. Sometimes I think when you look back at the history of the United States and the number of presidents, who have either been killed or shot at, attempts made to kill them; it’s quite extraordinary that the Athenians — this is the only case we know. Nobody knows to this day who committed it; there were various rumors of which one is obviously inspired by political considerations and hard to believe, claims that Pericles killed him in order to clear the way for his own leadership of the democratic faction.
I don’t think we need to take that seriously, but that was one of the charges. More likely the murder was brought about by disgruntled Cimonians, disgruntled conservatives, disgruntled aristocrats, people who were very angry at the turn of events that had changed everything in Athens. But if we look at the situation in Athens in 461, 460 and so on, we are seeing a movement towards a democratic — I don’t want to say revolution, I suppose, but a rapid movement to make the city of Athens more democratic than it ever had been. I’d like to turn next to the story of what that full blown Athenian democracy was like and how it worked.
Let me just remind you that in the decade before 500, if we go back to the Cleisthenic world, the Greeks who lived in the city state called Athens established the world’s first democratic constitution. But this new kind of government was carried to its classical stage by the reforms of Pericles a half a century later in these years between 460 and 450; that’s really when most of the action took place. It was in the Athens shaped by Pericles that the greatest achievements of the Greek world took place. We should remember that the rest of the world continued to be characterized by monarchical, rigidly, hierarchical command societies, while in Athens democracy was carried as far as it would go before modern times.
Perhaps, if you look at it in a certain way, further than at any other place and time and I’m going to start asking you to be aware of your prejudices and to hold them lightly, so that you can have the most full understanding of things that may have the same names, but really were very different from things that we are accustomed to. One thing that’s worth pointing out right away was in Athenian democracy the access to the political process was limited in Athens to adult males of native parentage. Athenian citizenship granted full and active participation in every decision of the state without regard to the wealth or the class of the citizen.
In the 450s, under Pericles leadership, the Athenian assembly passed a series of laws that went far towards establishing a constitution that was as thoroughly democratic as the world has ever seen. It gave direct and ultimate power to the citizens in the assembly and in the popular law courts where the people made all decisions by a simple majority vote, and it provided for the selection of most public offices by allotment for the direct election of a very special few and for short terms of office and close control over all public officials. We need to have a clear understanding of the kind of regime Pericles reforms produced.
For I don’t think it’s easy for citizens of what are called democracies in the twentieth century, twenty-first century, to comprehend the character of the democracy of ancient Athens and the role that it played in the life of its citizens. To a degree that’s hard for us to grasp, politics was primary in the ancient Greek city and the form of the constitution was understood and expected to shape the character of its citizens. The art, the literature, the philosophy, and all the great achievements of Periclean in Athens cannot be fully understood, apart from their political and constitutional context, in the democracy established by Cleisthenes and then extended by Pericles later. I think a place to start with a description of the Athenian democracy is with some attempt at a definition of the term. Developments in the modern world make that really hard, for the word has become debased and is almost meaningless.
Few modern states will admit to being anything but democratic. That is confusing enough, but there are further complications. Many people today would insist that to qualify as a democracy, a state must offer full constitutional and political protections and opportunities to all who have legal permanent residence within its borders and who desire citizenship. But the Athenians limited the right to vote, to hold office, to serve on juries to adult males who were citizens. Slaves, resident aliens, women, and male citizens under the age of twenty were denied all these privileges.
Modern critics of ancient Athens question the democratic character of the Periclean regime, because of the presence of slavery and the exclusion of women from political life. In excluding such groups, the Athenians were like every other society since the invention of civilization about 3000 B.C. until just recently. So, it’s really not too interesting or amazing to point out this shortcoming from our point of view. What sets the Athenians apart, are not these exclusions, but the unusually large degree of inclusion as well as the extraordinarily significant and rewarding participation of those who were included.
It’s useful to remember that what has been called the Jacksonian Democracy in the United States coexisted with slavery in its fullest moments — that women were everywhere denied the right to vote until the twentieth century, and that we continued to limit political participation to those of a specified age. To deny the title of democracy to Pericles in Athens, because of those excluded would be to employ a parochial and an anachronistic set of criteria that produced paradoxical results. Certainly no contemporary Greek doubted that Athens was a democracy. The only argument was whether a democracy was good or bad, which is almost an unthinkable question to put in our time.
To look at it from the other end, the Athenians would have been astonished at the claim of modern states to that title, even such states as the United States and Great Britain. For, to them, an essential feature of democracy was the direct and full sovereignty of the majority of citizens. Government by elected representatives, checks and balances, separation of powers, appointment to important offices, unelected bureaucracies, judicial life tenure, terms for elective office of more than one year, all of these would have seen clear and deadly enemies of what reasonable people might understand by democracy. So, these differences between ancient and modern ideas require a brief examination of how the Athenian democracy worked, if we are to shed our prejudices and grasp the character of a form of government that is as rare as any in the history of the world, and that probably never existed in anything like the same form after the end of Athenian autonomy.
Chapter 6. Organization of Athenian Democracy: The Legislative [00:55:12]
So I like to use a helpful, if an anachronistic advice by considering the three familiar branches into which we divide government: legislative, executive, and judiciary. At the heart of what we would call the legislative branch of the Athenian democracy was the assembly; their word was ecclesia. It was open to all the adult male citizens of Athens, during Pericles lifetime; these may have been 40,000 possibly as many as 50,000 men. Now, most Athenians lived many miles from the city. Few owned horses; so attendance required a very long walk to town. So as a result, the number taking part normally was well short of that. It was probably from 5,000 to 6,000 people.
One reason for saying that is there was a quorum for some actions that you had to have at 6,000 votes. On the one hand that tells us, I think, that there were probably more than that who attended the assembly. You wouldn’t make a quorum being everybody who ever attended the place, but on the other hand, it suggests that were many assemblies with fewer than 6,000 votes. The meetings took place outside, on a hill called the Pnyx, not far from the Acropolis and overlooking the agora. Citizens sat on the earth of this sharply sloping hill and the speakers stood on a low platform. It was not easy for them to make themselves heard. You can imagine, it’s an outdoor place; they don’t have microphones.
The great fourth century orators are said to have practiced — well, Demosthenes, the greatest of them, was said to have practices speaking at the seashore over the crashing surf to make his voice strong enough to be heard on the Pnyx. A good loud voice was really a terrific asset for an Athenian politician. You get some idea of the opening of these meetings from a comic version that is given to us in Aristophanes’ comedy, Acharnians, performed in the year 425.
The speaker is a typical aristophanic comic hero, an old fashioned farmer from the back woods who complains about the war, the war is now about six years old, because it keeps him in Athens, away from his farm in the country. I quote now from the aristophanic passage, “it is the day of an assembly,” he says — by the way, he’s sitting there all by himself on the Pnyx, nobody has come yet, and there he is complaining. “It is the day of an assembly and already morning, but the Pnyx is deserted. They are chattering in the agora, dodging the rope dripping with red dye” — that’s a reference to the fact the Athenians were always slow to come from the marketplace, the agora, the city center and make it up the hill to the Pynx, because they were so busy talking that they just wouldn’t get going. So, the officials had some guys carrying a rope dipped in red dye. They circle the agora, and they kept closing the circle until everybody was out. You would be running from them in the first place, because you wouldn’t want to get your coat full of red dye, and so that’s what he’s referring to.
He said, “even the presidents of the assembly have not arrived, they will be late, and when they finally come they will push and fight each other for a seat in the front row, streaming down altogether, you can’t imagine how. But they will say nothing about making peace, oh my Athens, I am always the first to make the return voyage to the assembly and take my seat. Since I am alone, I groan, I yawn, I stretch my legs, I fart, I don’t know what to do, I write, I pull out my loose hairs, I add up my accounts, looking off at my fields, longing for peace, hating the town, sick for my village home which never said, buy my charcoal, my vinegar, my oil, the word buy is unknown there where everything is free.”
“So, I have come here fully prepared to shout, to interrupt, to abuse the speakers, if they talk about anything but peace, but here come these noon-time presidents. Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I predict how they would come? Everyone jostling up to the front seat. Next, the herald of the assembly says, move up, move up within the consecrated area, and then he recites the formula that regularly begins debate in the assembly. He simply says, ‘Who wishes to speak?’” At which somebody raises a hand and the game gets started.
Okay, that’s the comic version; but the real meanings on the Pynx were rarely comic. They dealt with serious questions. The assembly had four fixed meetings in each of the ten periods, into which the official year was divided, and also special additional meetings were called for when necessary. Topics included the approval or disapproval of treaties, making declarations of war, assigning generals to campaigns, deciding what forces and resources they should command, confirming officials or removing them from office, deciding whether or to not hold an ostracism, questions concerning religion, questions of inheritance, in fact, anything else that anybody wanted to bring up in the assembly.
It’s especially amazing for a citizen of a modern representative democracy to read of these great town meetings dealing directly with questions of foreign policy that could mean life or death for those present at the debate and for their entire city. To get some idea of the distance between ancient and modern democracy, we need only to consider how an emergency, say the seizure of an American embassy, would be dealt with today in the United States. It probably arrived first as secret information at some bureau of the government’s vast and complex intelligence service, although it could also just show up on CNN before the government knows. But it would be treated as highly confidential and revealed only to a few people in the White House, the state, and defense departments.
Policy would be discussed in a small closed group and the decision made by one man ultimately, the President of the United States. If there were no leaks, a big if, people would hear of it only when the die had been cast. A model for those of my vintage was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was kept as a great secret. In those days the press actually would keep secrets on behalf of the national security. Can you imagine such an old fashioned approach? Then they had been kicking it around for a week when the President got on television and told us what the menace was and what he was doing about it. It was too late to have any discussion or argument about, but that’s the way it works in our system.
Questions of war and peace rose more than once in Periclean Athens and each time the popular assembly had a full debate, and made the decision by raising their hands in a vote determined by a simple majority. I don’t think there’s any stronger evidence of the full and final sovereignty of the Athenian people on the most important questions than the fact that that is the way they made those decisions. An assembly of thousands of course could not do its business without help. For that it relied on the council of five hundred chosen by lot from all Athenian citizens. Although it performed many public functions that the larger body could not handle efficiently, its main responsibility was to prepare legislation for consideration by the people. In this respect, as in all others, the council was the servant of the assembly.
The assembly could vote down a bill drafted by the council, they could change it on the floor, they could send it back with instructions for redrafting, or they could replace it with an entirely different bill. Full sovereignty and a real exercise of public authority rested directly with the assembly. Almost no constitutional barrier prevented a majority of the citizens, assembled on the Pynx, on a particular day from doing anything they wanted to do.
Chapter 7. Organization of Athenian Democracy: The Executive [01:04:42]
Turning to the executive, as what we would call the executive, these distinctions did not exist for the Athenians. They didn’t make these divisions, but to help us understand it I’m using these terms. What we might call the executive was severely limited in extent, in discretion, and power. The distinction between legislative and judicial authority was far less clear than in our own society. To begin with, there was no president, no prime minister, no cabinet; there was not any elected official responsible for the management of the state in general for formulating or proposing a general policy. Nothing that Americans would call an administration or that the British would call a government. The chief elected officials were ten generals, voted for a one year term.
As their title indicated, they were basically military officials, who commanded the army and the navy. They could be reelected without limit and extraordinary men like Cimon and Pericles were elected almost every year, but they were very exceptional. The political power such men exercised was limited to their personal ability to persuade their fellow citizens in the assembly to follow their advice. They had no special political or civil authority, and except on military and naval campaigns, they couldn’t give orders to anybody. Even in military matters the powers of the generals were severely limited. Leaders of expeditions were selected by vote of the full Athenian assembly, which also determined the size of the force and what goals it should pursue. Before the generals took office they were subjected to a scrutiny of their qualifications by the council of five hundred.
After completing their year of service, their performance on the job, and especially their financial accounts were subject to audit in a special process called euthuna. Nor was this the only control by the people over the few officials chosen by election. Ten times a year the popular assembly voted to determine whether the general’s conduct of military affairs appears satisfactory, and if the people vote against someone’s confirmation in office, he is tried in a law court. If he is found guilty they assess his punishment or fine. If he is acquitted, he resumes office. Since elected office conferred prestige, elected officials were carefully controlled, rather, lest they should undermine the rule of the people. That’s what’s behind all of this careful check on the generals. Even with these severe controls, the Athenians fulfilled only a few public offices by election. Choosing their military officials, their naval architects, and only some of their treasurers, as well as the superintendent of the city water supply in that manner; all other officials, and there were a good number of them, were chosen by lot.
Allotment was the characteristic device by which the Athenians chose their officials, in accordance with the dominant democratic principle, which was equality, which held that any citizen who is capable of performing civil responsibilities well enough, and it’s corollary that feared allowing executive or administrative power to fall into the hands of a few men, even those who were experienced, or had special abilities. For these reasons, the Athenians filled the bulk of their offices by lot and limited tenure to one term per man in each office except for the council of five hundred, where a man could serve twice in the course of his life. Generals, however, could be reelected forever, because it was so obvious that issues of skill and ability were literally vital in that job and so that was the one real exception to being limited to a very short term.
To a degree that is amazing to the modern mind, the Athenians kept the management of their public life in the hands of ordinary citizens, away from professors, professionals, experts, bureaucrats, and politicians. I’ll pick up the rest of the story next time.
[end of transcript]Back to Top