CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 5 - The Rise of the Polis (cont.)
Chapter 1. The Polis in Hesiod’s Work [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: Okay, we were discussing the rise of the polis and I was into the subject of the way the Greeks thought about the significance and the function of the polis, which is really critical in distinguishing between thepolis example of a city state and other city states in history. It’s the notion of what the function of that state is, I think, that is most striking. I was about to tell you last time about the poet Hesiod, who lived in a little town in Boeotia to the north of Attica. He describes himself as a farmer and in the Works and Days, he talks about the quarrel that he had with his brother and how he was mistreated, in his opinion, when his brother bribed the barrens, the basileus, in his area, and cheated him of his birth right. He quotes a kind of a fable. He says that he is a fool; I’m sorry, he tells this fable of the hawk and the nightingale, which illustrates really the doctrine of might over right. The hawk says he is a fool who tries to match his strength with the stronger. He will lose the battle and with the shame will be hurt also. So, don’t try to fight against stronger people is what he said.
Hesiod says that this is the wrong doctrine. It is better, he says, to go by the path leading to justice. For when justice is outraged, and by the way justice here is personified in the form of the goddess called Dike. She follows before us weeping to the polis and the gatherings of people. She puts a dark mist upon her and brings a curse upon all those who drive her out, who deal in her and twist her in dealing. He speaks about the word polis more than once in the same general context. He draws a contrast between the men who give just decisions to strangers and to natives, and who do not depart from what is just, and those who practice violence and cruel deeds. In the case of the former, the polisflourishes and its people prosper. Peace reigns over their land and Zeus keeps them free of wars. They don’t suffer famines or disasters. Their flocks have thick wool. Their wives bear them children. So fruitful is their land that they are spared the evil necessity of traveling on ships and there you have an interesting point about the Greeks. Hesiod is not alone in saying, for God’s sake try not to take a voyage at sea because your chances of coming back are really bad, which was a reality to a degree. That’s a very strange thing because the Greeks turn out to be an enormously active seafaring people with tremendous fear of the seas. I think that those things are connected.
What about those who don’t follow the path of righteousness, of justice, of Dike? Zeus orders severe punishments for them. Often, even a whole polis, is paid punishment for one bad man. His people are troubled by disaster, plagues, famines, the men die, the women are barren. At another time, Zeus destroys the wide camped army of people or wrecks their city with its walls, or their ships on the open water. Well, one thing that emerges from these lines of Hesiod is that the polis is already there. There is no way to talk about what he’s talking about in the kinds of settlements that existed before the invention of the polis, and that I think is worth mentioning. If our date for him, which is very problematical, is right roughly, then by certainly 700 B.C. there are people who know what poleis are, poleis exist.
But beyond that, there is the fact that for the Greeks that early and always — by the way it remained so, the notion of justice is directly connected with a polis. The only place where justice exists or can exist is in a polis. The only way you can lead a good life is if you live in a polis, and when you do live in a polis of course, you will have to behave justly because — and this is tremendously important, your behavior doesn’t affect just you and your family, it involves the entire community. Remember, even one bad man can ruin a polis. That is a very strong statement about the priority of community and it’s very different from the values that we saw in the Iliad and the Odyssey. You cannot imagine, it seems to me, in the world that Hesiod describes, Achilles or anybody else saying, “Well, you insulted me and so I’m not going to fight anymore for my polis.” That would have been inconceivable in this world.
Now, given this information, we are onto the problem that will be a problem for the Greek polis for the rest of its history and it’s really a problem to this very day for all people who live in some sort of a civilized community. How do you reconcile the interests and desires, and well being of the individual and his immediate family with those of the community at large? They may seem, and probably might even be said to be, different and antagonistic at some point, and when they are what should you do? For the Greeks the answer was pretty clear hereafter. One ought to be interested and to take action on behalf of the polis. We’ll be seeing this kind of argument and people presenting positions about it going on into the future. But nobody is going to be very comfortable, if comfortable at all. It would be a very oddball position to take for the rest of Greek history. No, the right thing to do is to take care of yourself and the hell with the polis. That’s not what you’re going to hear. What you’re going to hear is to the contrary. Little bit later, when we get to talking about Sparta, you’ll see a beautiful example of that in the form of the poems of Tyrtaeus, who is a poet in Sparta, and whose poetry became so central to their way of thinking and living that they were used as marching songs for the Spartan army as they walked, and they make the same point, but I’ll come back to that.
Now, here’s another document that you want to be aware of that gives you some idea of what the Greeks fairly early thought the polis was for and about, and what the relationship between individual and polis was. In this case I’m talking about Herodotus, who very early in his history tells the story really of his visit to Lydia, to the land of the great Tyrant Croesus, who is also the richest man in the world. It’s not clear that this event ever really took place, but it’s really not very important, because what Herodotus is doing is telling how he, I think, and how the Greeks in general viewed the questions at issue. So on goes the visit to Croesus. Croesus asked Solon to tell him who is the happiest, the most fortunate — both of those things contained in the words he uses — that he had ever seen. Solon was now a man of full years, he was a man greatly respected, and he turns out to be one of the seven sages that the ancient Greeks selected for the wisest men who ever were. So, it would be interesting to know what he thought about that.
Of course, Croesus had shown his great wealth already to Solon. In my view, he put the question this way. Solon, as he looked around at his fabulous wealth and great good fortune, who do you think is the happiest, fortunate man you ever knew? You know what the answer was that he expected. Solon answered, Tellus of Athens. I’ll bet you never heard of Tellus of Athens, neither had Croesus, neither had anybody else outside of Athens. Croesus was astonished and he asked Solon why did he select Tellus? Here’s what Herodotus says: First, because his city was flourishing, that is hispolis, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good. The words in Greek are kalos kagathos for the singular, kaloi kagathoi for plural and it’s a kind of a formula. It means a gentleman; it means the best kind of person. If a person kalos kagathos, it means he is good to look at and his soul is excellent — all that you could expect of a person. So, he had sons, beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up, and further. After a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious.
In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbors near Eleusis he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell and paid him the highest honors. So, to summarize, the happiest, the most fortunate man that Solon ever knew was a dead Athenian that nobody ever heard of. Why? What does this say? Right, we see in this passage something that reveals so much about what the Greek values were and you’ll see how closely they were tied up with the polis and the primacy of the polis in their lives. Well, why are things good? Well, his city, his polis was going well. A man who is living in a polisnot doing well, how can he be happy? There’s just no way. Secondly, he had sons. Now, this has to do with the Greek idea about immortality and mortality. Since, the Greeks really didn’t believe in personal immortality, how do you find what everybody wants? Immortality. One way is through your family and its sons who carry forward the family name, so to speak. So if you have sons and they are healthy, and they do well, and they have children, that means your name will be carried into the future, your memory will persist and that is one form of immortality.
Then, of course, the greatest form of immorality — and think of it when you compare it with what was the form of immortality available to Achilles and his fellow heroes. You fought for your polis and when you died fighting nobly for your polis, you will be - and were then - honored extraordinarily by that polis and what everybody knew was that your memory would last thereafter so long as your polis lasted, and the proof of it is that Herodotus knows that story and is telling it, as will other story tellers, and in fact, it worked. Here we are talking about Tellus all these many years later thanks to Herodotus. But the point is that this form of immortality is available to Tellus because of his place in the polis, because of the deeds he does for the polis, and that is the greatest possible payoff.
I’ve been making the case that a polis is a different thing from any other city state. I’m not aware that any other culture that had city states had ideas of this kind that helped explain why one was associated with it and cared about it. The final document I want to use to make the point here comes from precisely the poems of Solon. As we shall see later, Solon will be a very important political figure in Athens, and at a critical moment in Athenian history, the Athenians will give him the honor and the responsibility of being the sole public official and to draw up a new constitutional laws for Athens, an enormously important job. And in the course of doing that, and in the course of defending himself against the attacks after he had done it, he wrote what really amount to political pamphlets to defend his actions and to set forth the ideas that lay under the actual laws that he had put forward.
But as you may know, in writing, the earliest kinds of writing among the Greeks anyway, but I think this is not atypical, come not in the form of prose but in the form of poetry and that’s because people are used to, before they used writing, remember things through verse. I don’t know if that’s true of you, but it certainly is true of people of my generation. The things that they taught us in school, when they required us to remember poetry, no matter how we try, we can’t forget it, and the stuff that we had to remember that was in prose, no matter how we try we can’t remember it. It’s the rhythm. I’ll bet even all of you can remember songs that you have known all your life, but not other things. So it’s a great mnemonic device. But in any case, that’s why Solon’s pamphlets are written in poetry and apparently in really good poetry. So, we have his very words.
Here is a fragment from one of his poems: “So the public ruin invades the house of each citizen, and the courtyard doors no longer have strength to keep it away, but it overleaps the lofty wall and though a man runs in and tries to hide it in his chamber or closet, it ferrets him out. So, my spirit dictates to me. I must tell the Athenians how many evils a city suffers from bad government.” The Greek word for that is dysnomia and how good government eunomia displays all neatness and order, and many times she must be shackles on the breakers of laws. Now, get this eunomia levels rough places, stops glut and greed, takes the force from violence, she dries up the growing flowers of despair as they grow, she straightens out crooked judgments, remember those crooked judgments that Hesiod complained about. Well, the polisstraightens out crooked judgments, gentles the swollen ambitions and puts an end to acts of divisional strife. She stills the gall of wearisome hate and under her influence all life among mankind is harmonious and does well. Wonderful, where do all these good things come from? From God? No, they come from the polis when its laws are good and therefore when what the government provides is eunomia rather than the opposite.
He is making a claim here which is a very strong, powerful one, but which was characteristic of the Greeks and I want you to take note of it here. He is giving the law and the polis that gives law. It’s not merely a negative thing the way I think modern ideas about law, as for instance, represented in the American Constitution are, which is to say, its function is to prevent wrong doing, to punish wrong doing. It doesn’t really — well, let me just say what the polis claims to do here in Homer. It claims actually to shape the character of mankind. The polis makes, a good polis, following good laws, makes its citizens better. It not only defeats wrong, but it creates right and it creates citizens who behave rightly. This is tremendously important because every Greek state that we know about made the claim that that’s what it did. No matter what its constitution was, no matter how these differed from one another, the idea was that the state has to make good men and that for a city to be good, the men must be good.
This is very different. If you think about the American idea as an example of the modern way of thinking about these things, the notion is we can’t do anything. The laws can’t do anything about making people better or worse, it takes them as they are and then it deals with them accordingly. But for the ancient Greeks that was not enough. If you even think about the founding fathers Madison, Federalist ten, based upon the principle that you can expect that men will do wrong things, and that a good constitution has the role of balancing the wrongs off against each other, so as to produce the closest approximation possible to justice. You can only do that by balancing competitive desires that can be thought of as evil; faction was what they were talking about and everybody thought faction was bad, but it was inevitable. You couldn’t get rid of faction by saying to men, it’s not good to be factious, you should think of the whole community at all times. That’s not what the American constitution is about, but it was what the Greek constitutions were about. A polisought to make men like that, and in fact, there’s a great revolution in the political theory presented by the American constitution in that it’s not the first thing to do it, but it was the first one that was really applied, in turning away, rejecting the possibility that a constitution could make men better. It accepted the premise that men were what they were and that the state had to control that by various devices.
So, it’s very important to see how different from that the Greek idea was and what an enormous responsibility the poliswas supposed to have, and of course with that, there had to be an enormous amount of support for the state by the citizens.
Chapter 2. The Citizen [00:22:01]
That’s another thing I want to emphasize before I leave this subject — the word, citizen. We should not take that for granted. By the way, in Greek the word citizen is politas, derives from polis. He’s somebody who lives in a polis; he’s a citizen. Well, there never was a citizen in the world before the polis. There are only subjects, people who are subject either to a god, or to the king, or to a representative of the god, or to a chieftain or whoever, but somebody in a sense owns them all, but nobody owns a citizen. This is something brand new in the world and we shall see how it crops up in different forms and how it shapes the course of Greek history.
Well, this whole business presents the problem I mentioned a moment ago. All of us have this natural selfishness when we are born. We all seek our own interests and soon we join up with a family, we want the family’s interest up to a point, but how is this fit together with the needs of the community at large? A problem the Greeks always wrestled with, but when you get down to the fifth century, and indeed the latter part of the fifth century, there is a marvelous document that you will be reading in Thucydides, the famous funeral oration of Pericles delivered in the winter of 431 - 430 B.C., where one of the, in my judgment, great things about Pericles was that he had given a great deal of thought to this problem and presented the best argument he could think of for solving that problem, which was to claim that the individual’s highest needs and greatest personal and family goals could be met only through the polis, that his well being was tied up inextricably with the well being of the polis.
Now, you don’t have to buy that and individuals undoubtedly found the strain too much from time to time, but what’s interesting, is rather the ideal, the claim, the theory. You cannot truly achieve what you want and need as a human being without being an active and loyal citizen of this great community which you need to achieve what you want in life. It is a claim already, and as you’ve seen in Aristotle, towards the end of the history of the free polis, it is something necessary for mankind. It is the center of his life and it explains the Greeks devotion to the independence, to the autonomy of thepolis, and their desire to beautify and make it as great as it could possibly be. All of that sounds very nice and it certainly had very nice aspects to it, but there was of course a down side to it as well, which is every polis wanted to be great, and being Greeks they wanted to be greater than their neighbors and sometimes that involved conflict, and it often among the Greeks did involve war.
Now, the Greeks were not unique in history in constantly being at war. That is, if you just examine the history of the human race, so soon as they were sufficiently organized to wage war they began doing it all the time, but it is true that the life of the Greek world was much more filled with war throughout the history of the polis than other civilizations, because other civilizations after a time, had one great power that was able to dominate the entire region. Egypt being the best example, so that no longer was war possible, but the flip side of that is, there was also another thing that was impossible; freedom. In Greece you have a lot of war and you have a lot of freedom, and all of that is tied up, I think very much, with the development of this very special thing called the polis.
Chapter 3. Greek Farmers and the Function of the Polis [00:26:32]
Now, let’s take a look at other aspects of the polis; not ideas, but rather how it functioned, how its function developed and how that helped to shape the characteristics that it showed in its full blown period, that is to say, the Classical Period. I want to talk about — there were really three things that come together. One of them is how the Greeks in the late Dark Ages and in the period in which the polis emerges, made their living. The second has to do with how they fought. The third is, and these are not necessarily in any particular order, how they were governed or rather how they governed themselves. All of these three things, in my judgment, are necessary to understand how the polis came into being, how it came to be what it was, and how it came to fulfill and believe in these ideas that I have just been telling you about.
I should say it once, that this is now a very controversial subject. Let me just back up a second. Along the way I’m attempting to also to answer the question that people always ask me when they understand I’m a historian about Greece and if they have any interest in the subject. They say, “yeah, yeah the Greeks were terrific, they achieved wonderful things, they were a miracle, the golden age, and all that. But tell me how did that happen? Why did they do that? Why them and not somebody else?” Until I came upon a brilliant solution that another scholar presents to us, all I could do was tell jokes.
I remember, way before you guys were born, there was a TV show run by Sid Caesar, and one of the characters that repeatedly showed up on this thing was a kind of a comic German/Austrian professor of seemingly everything, and then Carl Reiner would interview him on the topic that was allegedly the topic of the day, and the one I remember best was he was a great aeronautical expert and here he was landing briefly. He was being interviewed by Carl Reiner, and he would ask him questions, and in his comic German accent he would give silly answers. But finally, Reiner says, well, thank you for visiting us, it’s all very wonderful, but you know our audience would really like to know; it seems like a simple question but it’s awfully hard to understand, but how can a great, big, enormous, heavy thing like this airplane get off the ground? He says, oh it’s a very simple question; it’s not difficult to answer. I mean, you know the wings go, and the air runs, and then the motor on the engine and it’s a miracle how it gets up there and that is the way I used to explain the Greeks, because I had no better idea. I could bumble around about geography and this and that, but nothing.
Then there came a great voice from the west, Victor Davis Hanson, who was a professor at Fresno State, California and he thought about this and he brought to it, in addition to extraordinary intelligence and remarkably good knowledge of Greek and the Greeks, a magical additional element, and that was the fact that he was a farmer and he was, I think, in the fifth generation that had farmed the same piece of farmland in California, in the Central Valley of California ever since the nineteenth century. And that climate by the way and that whole scene is very similar to the Mediterranean kind of climate that the Greek farmers were engaged in, and so it had potentially, Hanson thought, and I think he was right, proper analogous possibilities and he came to the conclusion that much could be learned about the development of thepolis if one looked at the business of how one farms in these kinds of environments. And I think that turns out to be a great key to understanding what’s happening, and everything you hear from me on this subject I learned from Hanson.
It is, needless to say, being a bright, brilliant idea that one guy thought of, it has been assaulted on all sides and there is plenty of controversy about it. You start with the Dark Ages and there is general agreement, I think, that the population of Greece had become much smaller than it had been in the Mycenaean Period, and that from the standpoint of the population it could sustain, it was under populated. If you start with a look at what was the way in which the land was worked for the purposes of feeding the population, it would be okay to take a look at the Homeric poems as some kind of evidence to help us out, and Hanson focused on this, what was really obviously the units that mattered in the world of Homer, call it the family — the Greek word is oikos, and it really means household. But it comes to mean the land that the family works, the family itself, and what does it look like?
Well, in the Odyssey, there is a very fine example of such a place in the form of the oikos of King Laertes, the father of Odysseus, who somehow is still alive when Odysseus is king, but he is in retirement and there he is. We see him, a nobleman that he is, former king that he is, working the soil and how he does this is very illuminating, because he is clearly, according to Hanson, involved in the period after the transition away from an earlier style. The earlier style pictures rather large estates by Greek standards, with raiding warrior groups going out to steal what they can. They are engaged in raising livestock, which in Greece is more likely to be sheep and goats than cattle, but also breeding horses, which is very important for the aristocracy for carrying on warfare.
Let’s flip back a step beyond that to Mycenaean civilization for the purpose of noting the great contrast, the great change. Remember the ancient near eastern kingdoms and their collectivized agriculture, control from the center, the individuals who carry out the farming or the grazing. They are not permitted individual initiative; they are controlled. This civilization, like these other ancient Mediterranean kingdoms, was rather advanced. They knew how to cultivate the grape to make excellent wine; they knew how to cultivate olives to be able to make superb olive oil and how to process them to produce the result. They were engaged in arbor culture; they had fruit trees that produced very well. It was a civilization that was rather advanced in terms of its agricultural skill. They knew the techniques for grafting and improving, and domesticating species of grapes and olives particularly. You can’t go out there and just plant these things. What comes out is inedible, unusable until you finally — what’s the word that I want? What do you get when you mix two agricultural things? You have to — what do you get? You need hybrids, in order to improve the category of what you’re doing. Well, they could do all that and that’s the knowledge that was in the palace that allowed the kings and his people to send out messages, orders to everybody to do what they did. Now, when the palace civilization collapses, the whole system collapses. That explains, in large part, why there was such a decline in population, why the Dark Ages were so dark, lots of poverty, lots of starvation, but also, as I suggested when I spoke of this earlier, also the freedom if you could make it, to learn and also to grow stronger.
Chapter 4. Property Holding and Internal Colonization [00:36:12]
Now, in some time in that period of the Dark Ages, and Hanson would suggest, I think, probably around the eighth century is the greatest transition. Somehow the oikos obtains a chunk of land that is understood to belong to it. The Greek word for that is a kleros, and what happens is now the family knows that it has this land, it has it now, it will have it next year, the family will be able to pass it on from father to son, so that he can inherit it, and that changes everything. That kind of stability gives promise and is a basis for making every kind of necessary investment in the soil that you are working in order to make it better and more profitable for you, and it’s worth it because you’ll be, you and your children, there to collect it. As Hanson says, thus arose the kleros, or the idea of a privately held plot attached not to any one person, but rather in perpetuity to a single farm family or oikos.
As Hanson points out, look at the difference between this and previous ways of working the soil. People either rented the land from a large landowner or they were hired help who got nothing except a salary or a piece of what they did. Serfs who are compelled to work the land, or in some places even slaves, well, they have no incentive, put aside the question even of capacity, to invest capital for the purpose of improving the size and quality of the their crops, their trees, their vines. They would not be willing to take the risk without clear title to the land. That is the critical thing. Once they have it, and they plant permanent crops, that changes the whole basis of society and the values, and the attitudes that go with it. In short, according to Hanson, it is the invention of the family farm that is the critical moment in this very, very important moment in the history of the human race and there certainly is no example of it that I know of, apart from Greece, when it happens right about this period. You can imagine that this can only happen gradually; none of this happens overnight.
But if you think of the time span about 900 to 700 B.C., that is, when these changes are taking place. I would have guessed at an increasing pace as you go further down the road. Then what happens is the population grows, and for this the archaeological evidence is very strong. There are getting to be more and more people living on the land of Greece. What do they do? One of the problems that it produces is the more people you have, up to a point that’s good. There are more people who can work to increase the production, but beyond that point there are more people to feed than the production can produce, and that leads to a desire for expansion of the land available for cultivation.
Now, there are a couple of ways that can go; one that was certainly important and again it’s for something that Hanson emphasizes, is what he calls internal colonization. The way these things work, when you are engaged in agriculture, it’s natural to go first to that soil, to that patch of land which is known to be likely to produce the best land, the most fertile, the best product, the most fertile land there is. So, that is where they start. But now, when you need more, you can’t just say I only want the best bottom land there is. You move out to someplace that nobody bothered to farm before, because it wasn’t profitable enough, because you need more land. So, marginal land is brought into play with hard work and ingenuity, and this is one of the things that Hanson emphasizes that is so helpful. You got to be a farmer to understand these things — not everything that you try works. I think the picture he paints of farming reminds us of the picture that Homer pays of human condition as explained in the pot — the two jars of Zeus. Most of the luck is bad; it’s hard to succeed, and with some combination of luck, skill, determination and hard work all of that will decide which of these farmers will be successful and which will not. And that’s an important thing to remember.
There will be success and there will be failure. Hanson says and I’m quoting him, “the real beginning in the West of individual property holding on a large scale is what he is describing.” Hanson himself has a farm that specializes in grapes for the purpose of producing raisins. I guess all the raisins in the world are produced near Fresno, isn’t that right Curtis? He points out that the knowledge of how to do this, of how to grow the kind of grapes you want, viticulture, and also arboriculture, both of these, are learned from Asia. The Asians were ahead and the end of the isolation of Greece made possible communication, and it allowed this kind of learning and so you got this picture of some people learning how to do these things very, very well.
Chapter 5. The New Farm [00:42:26]
Everything is farmed in a new way and let me just give you a picture of what this new farm that Hanson describes is like. There is intensive farming. It’s not extensive in the sense that you just have to scatter your stuff over wide fields; that’s not what it is. Every piece of that soil is necessary. A lot of it can’t produce the crop you would most like to grow. So, you find another crop that will grow there that can be useful; that’s the picture. So, you have varied crops, among them. These are the ones that are typical of a Mediterranean climate. Everybody needs grain; bread is the stuff of life as you have been rightly told. So you try, if you can grow grain on your land or you grow it where you can, if not, you have to get it elsewhere. Olives, for the purposes that I mentioned to you the other day that is a very important one. Vegetables can be grown many times in places where you could never grow wheat or grain. Fruits from the trees — what have I left out Curtis, anything? Have we left out any other crops? That’s about it. Those are the things that you do.
Now, observe several things about them. They together will make up everything you need to live. All the food groups are represented there. I have left out meat and fish, of course, neither of them very common in this part of the world, but meat was common enough, because there were sheep and there were goats, even when beef would have been very hard to get. But what you need to understand about the Greeks is that they don’t eat a lot of meat. Now, you might say, how come no fish? I mean, they’re surrounded by water everywhere you look. Well, guess what, it turns out fish don’t live everywhere in the water and they don’t live very much around Greece as it turns out. I don’t mean no fish, but no sort of major schools of fish. This is not the banks of Newfoundland and the Greeks do eat fish, but not a lot. So, their diet is a little bit of that — some of their protein from that, then bread, olive oil, fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk, those kinds of things they can do.
Well, now one of the things farmers in history discovered is that it’s very hard to do well as a farmer if all you do is grow the crops, because people normally don’t use what you grow in the form in which you grow it. I’m thinking again of grapes and olives; they made mostly olive oil and wine. So, what do you do? Well, if you’re a poor farmer, you don’t know what else to do. So, you send it off to a middleman who does the turning of the grapes and the olives into the liquids that are necessary, and he takes a good bit of the profit. But these farmers didn’t do that. They acquired the equipment necessary; grape and olive presses which allowed them to purify and to produce the final product, and that made them more successful than they otherwise would have been, and also another great thing that you have to be able to do, if you’re going to succeed as a farmer, if you have to have places to store what you produce, so that you will have it for next year when you need it. And also if you have a surplus, and that’s a desirable thing to do, you can sell it. Probably in the early days, this was largely a question of barter. You could trade it in for those things that you didn’t make yourself and needed. But in any case, it is a profit, but it’s no good if it’s going to spoil. So it’s important to realize the role of ceramics; they need to make storage jars that could be sealed very well and preserve the stuff for a very long time, and indeed, they did that.
Another thing that you need to understand about these farms, if you’re going to grasp their significance for the society that will come, is that they are small, really small. Maybe a typical farm, you might imagine, is maybe ten acres; that is a very small farm. Some of them, of course, were bigger. There was no regulation about it, but we are talking not about the emergence of an agricultural aristocracy, but we are talking about the emergence of an agricultural community of small family farms. One of the things that come with the development of this kind of agriculture as the polis is coming into being is slavery. Now, of course, slavery is as old almost as the human race, and it certainly was already present in the world of Homer, but it looks like in the Dark Ages there were very few slaves around just because owning slaves requires wealth. You can’t have slaves without wealth, because you got to feed them at the very least, and no matter how wicked a master you are, dead slaves are no good to you. Chances are you had to pay something for them; they are like a machine. If a slave dies you got to buy a new machine, and while he’s alive you got to feed him. So, when you’re talking about a very poor society, you’re not going to see much slavery, but it is true, that as the family farm I’ve been describing comes into being, a way is found to use slaves in a productive, positive way, positive from the standpoint of profits.
The reason for that is, if you are just engaged in a single crop farming, well you plant it, you take care of it, and then when the times comes you reap it. What do you do in between? Well, there’s not much to do. So, you have to feed the slave all year round to work only a small part of the time, that’s not very profitable. But Hanson’s farm, as I like to think of it, there’s work to do all year round, because these different crops need attention at different times, and they need different kinds of attention, and some of them need all kinds of very hard work to keep them going, so that there’s plenty of work to be done that is useful and profitable. Therefore, you will produce enough profit to make it possible, so that these small farms, you should imagine had one or two slaves playing a part in this experience.
I mean, you should not imagine when I say slaves — just take out of your mind the plantations of the old South, because when you only have one or two slaves, the master is working right alongside them, doing exactly the same work that they are doing, and also instructing them and telling them what’s what. If you want to really understand this in a practical sense, it’s more as though these guys are hired hands. I mean, they live in the house, they get fed, probably with everybody else, they work with the master; the difference being that they are slaves rather than free men. One of the funny things is that the emergence of this family farm gives rise to the polis’ character as a land in which there is a citizenry, which is to say free men who rule themselves. So, the polis will see the invention of freedom in this way, and oddly enough, it is accompanied by the growth of slavery at the same time. Both slavery and freedom come along at the same time in the Greek world.
One of the interesting documents we have is a fragmentary inscription from the Island of Chios. I think it’s in the eighth century that Hanson points out is relevant here. On it there is little language and it’s obvious it’s talking about some kind of a town council. This is the first time we have such a reference. The Greek words are, boule he demosia; the best translation I can come up with is the council for the people. It doesn’t mean the council of the people necessarily, that would suggest something democratic. It’s probably more oligarchic or aristocratic, but the point is this is something we haven’t heard of ever before. There is clearly some kind of an official group that has some sort of political role to play, which is popular in its character. It’s the word demos that’s at the root of demosia and demos means the people, all the people. That’s one of its meanings and I think it’s the meaning that’s relevant here. As Hanson points out, only in early Greece did independent agrarians have free title to their land, own slaves, and ultimately out of this council that I told you about, ultimately, came to have control of their own communities. Although the political development came late in the process, it did come.
As Hanson says, the new farmer is not just a different kind of farmer, but a different kind of person. He is a citizen in his political role, he is a soldier but he is a soldier not in the pay or the hire of a king, or of an aristocracy; he is a citizen soldier who has participated in the decision that says it is time to go to war and who will play an active role in making decisions about his state’s policy and behavior. He is independent in a way that nobody who was not a king or an aristocrat in the past has ever been — a new kind of man, the backbone of the polis as it emerges. I don’t want to overstate this. There is still an aristocracy made up of the old guys and they don’t just disappear and there will be a long stretch in which there will be some degree of conflict between these new independent farmers and the old established aristocracy, and never does that aristocracy go away, that’s old. I’m simply emphasizing what’s new in the situation and it’s very new indeed.
I might just say a little bit more. Hanson has a marvelous situation in which he’s the scholar telling us about these developments in the world of ancient agriculture and farming, but he’s also an active farmer and reacting to what happens to farmers today, and he’s written a book, a wonderful book called, Fields Without Dreams, which is the story of modern farming in America. But this is also true of all of Western Europe, which has to do pretty much with the abolition of farmers and I just don’t think it’s right for me to pass without mentioning the significance. Nobody knows anything about it. What percentage of Americans do you think worked on farms at the end of the nineteenth century? Twenty, thirty percent? You better believe it’s sixty to seventy percent, and the further back you go in American history the closer it is to ninety and ninety-five percent. That’s the history of the world; the whole human race has spent the bulk of its time farming.
What percentages of Americans are engaged in farming today? Well, the figure I saw last was a number too small to be mentioned; I mean, to say you just can’t really say how much it is, but all right, two percent. Does anybody know a farmer? How, how come? Just by accident; still farming? God bless him. Is his son farming? No kidding, where is this? Fantastic, that’s a marvelous thing; please give him my greetings. But it’s kind of a miracle; I don’t know any farmers. Oh yeah, I know Hanson, but if I didn’t know him, I wouldn’t know any farmers. So, now I don’t want to go too deeply into this, but if you’re interested in this subject get a hold of his book. What is inescapable is farmers are a sociological category of people, different from non-farmers in all kinds of critical ways, and it is just an example of how this whole business has disappeared. Nobody even thinks about it anymore. If you were to say to me, what do you think is the most important thing, however you define thing, that has changed the character of life in the United States in the twentieth century, I would say the disappearance of farmers. There are so many ways in which that has changed the world, but I can’t do justice to it but Hanson does, so if you want to read, Fields Without Dreams, you can ponder the significance of this great change.
Chapter 6. Politics [00:57:09]
Now, I’ve talked to you essentially about the economic aspect of this phenomenon and I’d like to turn next — give me a second here I just want to find out where I am in this. These are all my proofs to support all the things that I’ve already told you, but I’m not going to bother proving it, it would take too long. Well, I guess the next thing I might mention is in the area of politics. If you look at the world of Mycenae once again, we’ve already seen this, you have a despotism of some kind. You have some kind of a lord, I mean a king, for lack of a better name, a monarch who fundamentally rules and everybody is subject to him. He has an aristocracy around him, he has a lot of helpers, but he’s the boss and that’s what you see in the world everywhere else. After that, if you examine as best we can the cities of the Dark Ages and ask what kind of government, if you want to use that word, would these communities have had, you probably wouldn’t do badly if you looked at the Odyssey for the best clues you could find. Of course, they won’t be perfect, there’s a mixed character of the world of Homer, but still, if you look at the world of Odysseus, his home, what’s going on in Ithaca, there are some valuable clues.
There is somebody in that world called a basileus, who is a single individual who is understood to be superior in some way to everybody else. However, he’s not very superior to everybody else. He has all of these noblemen around him, all of whom claim to be basileis, as you recall, and a fairer way to put this would be that this is largely an aristocratic society, that was our conclusion after we looked at the poems of Homer, and I think that’s what continues, even after the world of Mycenae. People who had power by virtue of their wealth, by virtue of their personal physical strength maybe, by virtue of their descent because people always have theories about individuals in their society, I mean early societies, who were born to the purple so to speak, but whatever the criteria were, and birth always was a critical criterion in the days of the aristocracies, you would have aristocracies who would have the practical, the de facto control of things.
Well, by definition, an aristocracy is plural not singular, so how do you make decisions in an aristocracy? The answer, typically, is a council. I use the word council, the Greek word is boulē, and not assembly, which in Greek comes to be called ecclesia, because an ecclesia is understood to be a gathering of the entire adult male population, and a boulē is understood to be not a gathering of the whole, but rather a smaller group who has some degree of authority, and I would have suggested that in the earliest days they had all the authority that mattered. However, it’s interesting that these Greek communities from a very early time seem to have been different from the Mycenaean kinds of things by virtue of the fact that the men who fought in the army always seemed to have had to be consulted when it came to a question of fighting, and so you always had an assembly, even in an aristocratic state, but decisions in general were made by aristocrats. Moreover, the law was interpreted, spoken, and to the degree it had to be enforced by the aristocrats working through a council in their community, and these councils might have been elective from within the aristocracy or they could have been simply the whole aristocracy, depending really on the size of the community, because you can’t have a council functioning to any useful purpose if it gets to be too big; it just becomes something else.
That’s where you start; that’s the Dark Ages. Now, what we shall see as the polis grows and develops, and as these changes in the economic situation that I’ve described are happening, is that these successful farmers, as I will be telling you next time, who also will be the fighting men who fight for their polis as infantrymen when the infantry becomes the critically important part of the army. These men, the combination of their independence, their wealth — when I say wealth I don’t mean great wealth — but the fact that they do have wealth, that they amount to something, and their role as soldiers makes them demand a larger voice in the government of the state, in the decisions that affect them so closely. So, there will be a whole — I’m looking ahead now, projecting into some topics that we’ll explore more closely later. They will be finding different ways to insist on their inclusion and the results will be different in every state.
Sometimes the old aristocracy will be able to hold on for a very long time and to suppress any attempt to change things. Other times, and this will be widespread in certain places and will be very significant, the dissatisfied people in the society, mainly these farmers I’m talking about, will get together and perhaps fix on some discontented aristocratic individuals, and most particularly pick some aristocrat who has distinguished himself typically as a soldier, as a leader of troops, and engage really in what amounts to a kind of a revolution or at least a coup, and bring about a different kind of a monarchy which the Greeks called a tyranny. When these tyrannies take place, they last for different periods of time, but when the tyrant is removed, what follows after that is, there is never again in that town a one-man rule of any kind. Either what is established after the tyranny is an oligarchy, but notice I didn’t say an aristocracy. An oligarchy just means rule of the few, but as we shall see what changes is, is it is no longer the rule of those few who are born in the right place, it will be based upon the wealth of those people and that means that the newly wealthy, or the newly well, that is, the reasonably well-off will participate in their government and the form of government which is oligarchy will be throughout the classical period the most characteristic form of government in Greek city states.
When democracy is invented it will have its moment and it will spread, and there will be numerous democracies but they will never be the majority of the poleis. Your typical polis will be a kind of a Hanson farmer outfit, where people from that class and up, will participate in politics, will be the governing bodies in their state, they will be the ones who continue to fight in that infantry that is decisive for the state, and they will be the ones who make decisions, and the people poorer than them will be excluded. So, it’s very important to realize that these family farmers, who are successful, do not necessarily lead to democracy. Indeed, I want to emphasize again, it is an unusual outcome when they end up with democracy. So now we’ve said something about the economic change and something about the political change, and next hour, I’ll start with the story of the military change that has so many significant consequences. Okay.
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