Archaic Greece and the Emergence of Tyranny
Terracotta kylix (drinking cup), attributed to the Amasis Painter, c.540 BCE / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
By Dr. Nicholas K. Rauh
Professor of Classics
Migrations during the Dark Age Era
Similarities in dialect and cultural attributes indicate a pattern of small scale, gradual migration from the Greek mainland across the Aegean to central and south coastal Anatolia during the Dark Ages (c. 1100-800 BC). Discernible dialects include Aeolic in the north (from Thessaly to Lesbos, for example), Attic/Ionic across the Cyclades, and Doric from the Peloponnesus to Crete, Rhodes, and Halicarnassus. Along with this evidence survive traditions of refugee migrations from Greek mainland centers of Mycenaean civilization to new settlements across the seas. Athens, for example, claimed never to have been conquered by the invading “Dorians.” The Mycenaean site served as a point of embarkation for people fleeing across the Aegean. Like Athens Ionian states tended to revere Athena as their patron deity; they claimed to have been founded by descendants of the Athenian royal house of Erechtheus; and their tribal organizations bore the same names as those that survived in Athens. This furnishes one example of how Mycenaean populations dispersed themselves across the Aegean, settled into subsistence-based rural communities in their new locales, and gradually began to expand their populations. It is important to recognize that until very recent times the “Greek world” and the Aegean were synonymous. Greek settlement existed all along the shores of the Aegean Sea, with no Greek settlement more than 80 km from the sea. The Greeks were a decidedly “liminal” people who depended on the sea for communication and food supplies. Most settlements, new and old, remained isolated by the rugged topography of the Greek mainland (85% of the Greek mainland is mountainous, and less that 15% can sustain agriculture) and the omnipresence of the sea. Gradual rise in population and the reconstruction of Mediterranean trade routes induced isolated Greek populations to become aware of affairs beyond the horizons of their immediate habitats. It is important to recognize, therefore, that ancient Greece was neither a country nor a territory, but rather an assemblage of more than 300 Poleis, or separate autonomous Greek city states scattered along the shores of the Aegean and beyond. Because so many celebrated writers lived in Athens, the historical record of ancient Greece tends to exhibit a decidedly Atheno-centric point of view. The reality, of course, was that each and every separate Greek polis had its own historical tradition and its own unique perspective on wider developments. A comprehensive analysis of the Greek historical experience remains an extremely complex undertaking.
The twin dynamics of Greek historical development were Particularism and Pan Hellenism. Particularism embodies the notion of identity with one’s immediate community, usually delineated by its mountainous topography. Separated from neighboring communities by intervening ridge lines and the shore of the Aegean Sea, it was easy for inhabitants to believe that nothing of any importance happened beyond the horizon of their immediate settlement. This sense of contentment finds expression in the relaxed, sometimes playful representations of local aristocrats in their plastic arts. Pan Hellenism, on the other hand, expresses those tendencies that induced Greek communities to recognize their place in wider Greek culture. Early Pan-Hellenic influences included the religious sanctuaries at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia, which were important destinations for religious pilgrimages and came to sponsor international festivals. This meant that at least one pan-Hellenic festival, incorporating cultural as well as athletic competitions, occurred somewhere on the Greek mainland each and every year. These festivals became pivotal occasions for the descendants of emigrated Hellenic populations to revisit the Greek “homeland,” to reconnect with family and friends, to establish ties of guest friendship with leading figures of separate communities, and to reaffirm the essential Hellenic basis of their origins. The local hierarchy that ran the Olympic Games first recorded the names of victors in their athletic competitions in 776 BC, the earliest surviving annalistic record in all of Greece. It is interesting to note that most of the recorded victors at Olympia originated from Greek settlements in Italy and Sicily, not mainland Greece. Since visitors from beyond Greece regularly traveled to these sanctuaries, local administrators gained intelligence about the outside world that transcended that of ordinary, isolated habitants. As the reputation of sanctuaries such as Delphi grew, they received emissaries from as far away as Lydia, Persia, and Egypt. This empowered local priestly authorities with the knowledge necessary to predict events before they occurred. Accordingly, pan Hellenic sanctuaries played an important role in nurturing a common sense of identity among Aegean inhabitants.
By the time that Greece acquired literacy (borrowing the written technology from the Phoenicians by the eighth century BC), proto city states existed in “tribal” areas such as Attica, Laconia, the Megarid, the Corinthiad, and Boeotia. Within these rurally dispersed populations, social structure was organized according to the priorities of aristocratic clan-based hierarchies. In most settlements the Mycenaean kings had disappeared and were replaced by oligarchic rule. There were four identifiable bases for aristocratic control:
- Genos – an extended clan claiming descent from a common ancestor usually descended from the gods. The genos enjoyed a common cult and typically preserved a tomb of its ancestral hero. Funeral games performed at these tombs appear eventually to have led to the construction of athletic facilities and ultimately to the formation of schools (the gymnasium complex). Through the promotion of the gymnastic educational system, land-holding elites instituted the means to regenerate and to sustain their social dominance.
- Oikos – a large self-sufficient agricultural estate, the oikos was the basis of aristocratic wealth (from which evolves the term, oikonomia, or estate management).
- Military – Aristocrats claimed ascendancy because they provided for the common defense of their respective communities. Military prominence was determined by the ability to furnish armor at one’s own expense. Recent studies have indicated that most Archaic Greek military establishments consisted of warrior bands supplied by the local genoi.
- Law – the aristocrats consulted the gods of their cults and on that basis claimed legal authority. Ancestral “custom” essentially originated with the claim of descent from the gods.
Common patterns of political organization are also visible throughout the Archaic Greek world. Instead of rule by kings as in the Mycenaean era, most Archaic Greek states were ruled by boards of annually elected magistrates. In Athens there were nine annually elected archons, with a recorded list of archons dating back to 684 BC. Next came a Council of Elders (in Athens the Areopagos) which typically consisted of all ex-magistrates who entered the council for life at the expiration of their year in office. Elections were conducted by an Assembly of Warriors (the Ekklesia in Athens) that consisted of all freeborn, property holding male citizens able to bear arms (that is, those who able to furnish a panoply of armor at their own expense since no state support existed for this purpose). The assemblies remained primitively organized according to “tribes,” they met to elect magistrates, to vote on legislation, treaties, and issues of war and peace, and to conduct trials for state offenses of high crimes and misdemeanors. However, the role of the assembly was typically limited to up-or-down votes on matters prearranged by the councils with no opportunity for deliberation. Issues of public concern tended to be restricted to two spheres: the common defense, and the reduction of the causes of blood feuds that persisted among the clans. Since there was no genuine “law” and legal redress was limited to notions of “self-help,” a citizen naturally turned to his “kinsmen” for protection and redress in the event of abuse. This frequently led to violence and it is interesting to note that six of the nine archons in Athens were named the nomothetai, or the “keepers of the custom.” In Archaic Athens law was in essence an agreed upon list of recorded remediations intended to resolve clan-based disputes short of the resort to violence. Political identity remained firmly rooted in the clan-based oikos communities of the countryside. Power resided in the hands of the heads of individual aristocratic households; status was determined by the numbers of supporters such a headman could muster to the “tribal” assemblies; elections were frequently determined by the vigor of pushing and shoving exerted by one group against another in the assembly. In the end power remained invested in the membership of the council of elders, which represented the repository of all political, military, financial, and judicial experience of the community. Nothing got done without the approval of this body. The only potentially off-setting determinant was the recognized principle that those who participated in the common defense had a right to political franchise. Originally, only members of the aristocratic cavalry and those who could afford to furnish their own armor could aspire to this right. However, once military innovations that demanded greater and better organized manpower began to set in, this principle allowed for the expansion of the political franchise to wider elements of the citizenry.
Cultural identity revolved around participation in the polis. Topographically a Greek polis exhibited the following characteristic features:
- Acropolis – the defensive heights of the city, not necessarily the tallest mountain in the vicinity, but rather the one most accessible
- Agora – the combined town square, meeting place, and market place, a central node where rural inhabitants could convene and learn about goings on
- Limen – the harbor. Most Greek city states existed within relative reach of the Aegean shore and used their harbors to communicate with the outside world
By the end of the Dark Age (that is, as soon as recorded history “began” with the texts of Homer and Hesiod, ca. 750 BC), it is clear that excess population was a problem in most Greek communities. Put simply, there were too many mouths to feed. Two basic strategies emerged to confront this problem: a community could fight for more land by taking it from one’s neighbors (hence, increased warfare), or it could seek more land beyond the existing areas of settlement through colonization. These parallel consequences of Greek land hunger (colonization and increased warfare) gave rise to Greek tyranny.
Colonization and increased warfare led to tyranny / Author provided
Between 800 and 500 BC, many Greek communities exported excess population by creating overseas colonies. Much like the Phoenicians the locations of these settlements was determined by access to resources in demand at the mother city, typically grain and metals. Unlike the Phoenicians, however, Greek colonizing enterprises typically were organized with the intention to form settled agricultural communities in distant lands. Regions with limited potential for agricultural expansion tended to assume the lead in Greek colonization. Hemmed in by the Lydian Empire, for example, Miletus founded 90 colonies in the north Aegean and Black Sea regions. Situated on the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, Corinth founded colonies along the western coast of Greece, Italy, and Sicily (including Leucas, Corcyra, and Syracuse founded 733 BC). These two cities forged links to create a trans-Mediterranean trading network linking finished goods and luxuries available in more advanced Near Eastern empires to the raw natural resources of the West. Eventually Greek migrants colonized overseas regions ranging from the remote corners of the Black Sea (Phasis, Trapesus, Sinope, Olbia, Tolmis, where they generated grain, timber, and fish) to southern Italy, eastern Sicily, Sardinia, Gaul (Massalia, modern day Marseille), and Spain. By 600 BC, it was possible for goods to move from Spain to the Black Sea entirely by means of Greek transport. Contact with native peoples lent Greek speaking peoples a greater appreciation for their own Hellenic identity. Despite local and regional animosities, in other words, they came to recognize that they were all Hellenes who spoke a common language and worshiped the same gods. Those who could not speak Greek were termed, “barbaroi,” those who spoke bar-bar (gibberish). The end result of Greek colonization was the reconstruction of Mediterranean trade lines, a quickening of the economic pace, higher demand for imported prestige goods (since these were now available), a slow but unmistakable adaptation to surplus production for export purposes (with Aegean populations concentrating on the production of wine and oil), the development of skilled production of finished goods such as armor, weaponry, and ceramic finewares, and the rise of artisans and traders who were responsible for the emerging economic system.
There were two additional problems with this development: one was the emergence of wealthy social elements, usually non native artisans and traders, who lacked commensurate political rights. Nonnatives settled in Greek city states as metoikoi (dwellers around the oikos) or metics. They were required to pay taxes and to fulfill military obligations when summoned, but they lacked the right to participate in the assembly or to hold office. They could not enter the council of elders accordingly. The other problem was that, much like the citizenry of Israel, ordinary subsistence farmers failed to adapt to specialized forms of agricultural production for export purposes and fell behind economically. In Athens by 650 BC, one hears about the hektomoroi, the 1/6thers, or indebted small-scale subsistence farmers who were unable to pay their debts. Typically these farmers were freeborn commoners who labored on neighboring aristocratic oikoi as tenant farmers, or agricultural dependents who farmed the marginal land along lower slopes of mountains, eventually exhausting the soil and provoking yield-reducing erosion. Their debts probably began as loans in kind in the form of grain and foodstuffs from their aristocratic patrons and neighbors. Prior to the rise of foreign trade these debt relationships were possibly encouraged by Dark Age era aristocrats, as a way to enhance their status by adding manpower to their clan-based warrior bands and by serving as a demonstration of aristocratic status in voting assemblies. As economic conditions changed, however, poor farmers permanently mortgaged their land to their creditors, with some at the lowest threshold (referred to in Athens as the thetes) falling into debt servitude. With the resumption of Mediterranean trade aristocrats reportedly began to export these indentured servants outside Attica. Attic hoplites reportedly “hocked” their armor to pay debts, sold members of their families, and fell into slavery themselves. If allowed to continue, this trend, regardless of its true magnitude, had the potential to threaten the security of the polis.
Hoplite phalanx / Author provided
Greek land hunger also led to the rise of the hoplite phalanx — a large formation of heavily armored infantry. Participation and place in the phalanx was determined by one’s possession of the necessary weaponry. Those who could afford full panoplies of armor stood in the front ranks and assumed importance as heroes and military leaders. Those with less armor or partial armor stood in the back ranks of the formation and used their physical weight to push. The mass propulsion of large formations of warriors became crucial to the outcome of all Greek battlefield engagements. The tactical objective was to maneuver effectively and with enough thrust to break the line of the opposing forces. Hoplites wearing 50-80 lbs. of armor could not flee the battlefield (typically their armor had to be fastened and unfastened by servants who accompanied them into battle) and were ultimately cut down by aristocratic cavalry. Emerging from an era of aristocratic “warfare as ritual,” suddenly there were genuine consequences to military engagements — winners and losers — that could impact territorial claims to landholdings and the survival of respective warring communities.
Politically the emergence of the hoplite phalanx appears to have represented the formation of national militias commanded by annually elected magistrates, in other words, the subordination of clan-based warrior bands that were previously controlled by aristocratic warlords into nationally organized militias under the command of the magistrates. In this respect it represented the subordination of the oikoi to the emerging polis of the Greek city state. In the first recorded hoplite victory, the tyrant, Pheidon of Argos, defeated Spartan aristocratic warrior bands at Hysiai in 669 BC. This defeat sent Sparta into a military tainspin. Rapid adaptation to mass armored formations appears to have occurred throughout Greek mainland and spread as well to Greek (and Italian) communities in Sicily and southern Italy. Its origins possibly lay with Greek mercenary service overseas, service for the kings of Lydia and Assyria, and the pharaohs of Egypt. Greek mercenary warriors acquired armor produced in Phoenicia, for example, and returned to Greece at the end of their mercenary service. The need to maintain a hoplite phalanx for purposes of security placed greater emphasis on the recruitment of artisans who could produce armor and weaponry, as well as on that of the wider male citizenry of a city state. The success of a military confrontation was increasingly determined by the size of the military formation that could be mobilized on the battlefield.
One presumed consequence of the Hoplite Phalanx was the declining importance of aristocrats in the military. Manpower requirements were increasingly furnished by any and all male inhabitants who could furnish their own armor, including wealthy artisans, traders, and small farmers. The hoplite phalanx has long been perceived as a “leveling force,” or “democratizing influence” on the Greek city state. However, the effect of the quickening of the economic pace in Greek society generated another, diametrically opposed development. Artisans and Traders, though wealthy, enjoyed no commensurate political rights; small farmers were slipping into indebtedness and hocking armor because they were unable to adapt to a surplus-oriented economy. Economic and social pressures mounted within individual Greek city states as the importance of the phalanx rose. In many instances opportunistic aristocrats who recognized the emerging importance and political potential of the national militias committed “class treason” by becoming popular leaders. They used the weight of the armed militias to seize power in their communities and to establish themselves as tyrants.
The Greek Tyrant was a non-hereditary ruler who acquired power through unconstitutional means, usually with widespread popular support, i.e., the support of the hoplite phalanx. Greek tyrants have been characterized as follows:
1. Tyrants did not produce substantial constitutional changes. They tended to perch on top of existing constitutional systems without altering them.
2. Tyrants were men of great energy, who ease the economic and social problems of their times.
3. Tyrants were great builders; they engaged in public works projects to provide jobs for displaced subsistence farmers.
4. Tyrants broadened their aristocracies to include wealthy outsiders (helping wealthy resident alien traders and artisans to obtain citizenship, hold office, and enter the council for life)
5. Tyrants weakened aristocratic hold on society; they broadened the base of the aristocracy to include wealthy outsiders and provided economic stability for small farmer-citizen-soldiers who had formerly been dependent on aristocratic patrons for survival.
6. Tyrants represented the breakthrough of the individual in politics. In Greece voters tended increasingly to identify with strong personalities rather than with political “parties’ in the modern sense.
Tyranny represented a transitional phase in the Greek state formation; nearly every polis was affected by it to one degree or another. Tyrannies are on record at Corinth, Sicyon, Megara, Athens, Mytilene, Miletus, Ephesus, Samos, and Naxos. Tyrants essentially “jump-started” their societies; they created the means to convert their communities from dispersed, decentralized subsistence agricultural communities to outward looking commercially active cities. From a “constitutional” standpoint, however, tyrants lacked political legitimacy. They stayed in power only so long as they succeeded at delivering on promises made tor their popular supporters. Once their supporters turned against them, tyrannies inevitably collapsed. No tyranny survived beyond three generations.
The best two examples for the effects of tyranny remain Sparta and Athens, if only because the responses of their inhabitants were so different. Sparta resisted the threat of tyranny to become an extended, state-supported oligarchy; Athens experienced the full cycle of tyranny to emerge as the most commercially active, democratic society in Greece.
The Spartan Hoplite System
Spartan hoplite structure / Pennsylvania State University
As a settlement Sparta existed as a cluster of four villages bordering the Eurotas River in the plain of Laconia or Lacedaemonia. It was protected on both sides by towering mountains, particularly the Taygetos Range that separated Laconia from the neighboring plain of Messenia. Early evidence gives little indication that Sparta was heading in a unique direction. Its early constitution to some degree resembled those of other archaic Greek States. There were two Kings, each with the power to cancel the actions of the other. The Agiad line claimed descent from the Bronze Age kings of Sparta; whereas, the Eurypontids had been elevated to the level of royalty by the aristocracy during the Dark Age. Since each could veto the acts of the other, their powers amounted to a form of “collegiality.” There was a Gerousia, literally, the council of elders. The Gerousia consisted of the two kings plus 28 members selected by Apella from a pool of eligible candidates. By requirement these were war veterans who had fulfilled their military service and had lived to attain sixty years of age. The Apella, or assembly of warriors, consisted of all full-blooded, able bodied Spartan warriors who possessed their own armaments. The Apella executed up or down votes on wars, alliances, and treaties, but there is no evidence that its members were allowed to deliberate on matters. The evidence of Spartan painted pottery production and colonization in Italy (the foundation of Tarentum) indicate that early Spartan social development was similar to that of other emerging Greek city states. Evidence of accelerating local conflicts indicates as well that Sparta pursued a deliberate policy of attacking its neighbors to acquire more land. The Spartan warrior elite, the Spartiatai, successfully “conquered” the neighboring peoples of the Eurotas valley and subordinated them to the status of “perioikoi“, or the dwellers around the “oikoi.” These people preserved their autonomy but became politically subordinate to the Spartans. When summoned they furnished manpower and logistical support to the Spartan hoplite army; they also manufactured arms. Other elements captured in warfare were reduced to the level of field laborers, called Helots, who farmed Spartan farmland for the warrior elite. Helots were essentially agricultural serfs, in that they could not be displaced from their lands nor sold into slavery.
By 750 BC, Sparta was the master of all Laconia. In the early eighth century Sparta began a sustained effort to conquer the neighboring valley of Messenia. The Messenians were a Greek population like Sparta with traditions extending back to the Bronze Age (the Spartans claimed descent from Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon; the Messenians from King Nestor of Pylos). The conquest of Messenia did not come easy. Two violent drawn-out Messenian Wars transpired, one ca. 750-700 BC, another two generations later. Sparta also extended its military supremacy northward into the Peloponnesian highlands. Eventually it came into conflict with the emerging tyrant, Pheidon of Argos, who was credited with organizing the first hoplite phalanx. At the battle of Hysiai in 669 BC, the Argive phalanx delivered a stinging defeat to the Spartan army and sent it into a crisis. The Messenians and other neighboring communities rebelled, and Sparta was confronted with insurrection from within and without. This forced its aristocratic leadership to adapt to changing circumstances. The Spartans elected to adapt to a military caste system in which the entire society devoted itself to the maintenance of a newly enhanced “defense establishment” of highly trained hoplite warriors.
Changes to the Spartan Constitution and Society
Modern-day Eurotas River / Wikimedia Commons
Although traditionally identified with the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, modern consensus holds that Spartan social and political changes were instituted at this time to promote the creation of a national army. Lycurgus allegedly obtained religious sanction for his new constitution from the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, bringing Sparta his rhetra, or recorded law code intended to furnish eunomia (legal justice) to the community. In the new constitution there was one significant change. While the two Kings prevailed as commanders in chief in war and chief priests of the state, five new annually elected magistrates, the ephors, emerged as the chief administrative officials of the state. The ephors were entrusted with the maintenance of the Spartan military establishment. Although the Ephorate had the appearance of a democratic innovation, elected annually as they were by the Spartan warriors, the record indicates that the ephors remained largely under the control of the Gerousia and served as a check and balance on the powers of the kings. The ephors exacted a monthly oath of loyalty from the kings; they watched the heavens every ninth year for signs of divine displeasure with the kings; and two ephors traveled with kings on every military campaign. In addition, the ephors received foreign embassies to Sparta and introduced them to the assembly, they convened meetings of the Gerousia and the Apella, introduced legislation, controlled lesser magistrates, and together with the Gerousia they adjudicated high crimes and misdemeanors. Most importantly, they were responsible for the general supervision of educating the young, about which more will be said below. The Gerousia enjoyed a probouleutic function, that is, it packaged legislation to be presented to the Apella for an up-or-down vote. There is evidence that the Gerousia, representing the aristocratic landed elite, could bribe the ephors to do its bidding against the kings, particularly charismatic kings who demonstrated a capacity to win the support of the Apella. Sparta remained a staunchly reactionary society, accordingly. The Apella was expanded to include all full-blooded, able bodied Spartan warriors sustained by the state — the homoioi, or equals. The Apella now elected the ephors, and voted on legislation put before it by these officials. The true innovation to the political reforms at Sparta was the decision to incorporate all free-born able-bodied, full-blooded Spartan warriors into assembly by furnishing them with economic means of subsistence.
As is evident, the Spartan political system was in many respects similar to those of other Greek city states. What was unique about its direction was the Spartan way of life. According to tradition Lycurgus redistributed the land to level rich and poor, creating uniformity and equality among the warrior elite, referred to as the homoioi, or the “equals.” In all likelihood the division of land was a long-term process beginning in the eighth century on the Eurotas River, but especially in the Pasimus valley in Messenia following the uprising of the second Messenian war. Suppression of rebel Messenians in the mountain fastness of Mt. Ithome probably required many years and the installment of a garrison force in Messenia itself. As a solution to the problem of land hunger, the Spartan aristocracy perhaps agreed to allow the ephors to redistribute conquered Messenian lands and laborers piece-meal to lower class Spartan warriors. This would have furnished them with means to sustain their careers as warriors. In essence, Sparta evolved into a totalitarian society in which “all land” and all souls were committed to the maintenance of the Spartan hoplite aristocracy. The purpose of the educational system was to produce the perfect specimens of warriors.
The ephors were charged with the responsibility to maintain the Spartan military caste system. The system was based on the following institutions:
- The Kleros was a Spartan land allotment. Allegedly, all land was controlled by the state and awarded to individual Spartan hoplite warriors upon adulthood (20 years of age) by the ephors. Each allotment came with helot families who did the actual farming to sustain the family of the Spartan warrior and themselves. Spartan warriors were exempt from all subsistence labor in order to devote their entire energies to warfare. Land could not be bought or sold; Sparta prohibited money supposedly and used iron spits for currency. A tradition held that the Spartans would exchange gold and silver captured from neighboring peoples for iron in order to make weapons to conquer more neighbors, plundering their gold and silver, thus, foraging onward.
- The Phiditia was the Spartan mess hall and barracks, representing 20 to 30 hoplites, or a wing (ila), or company of the phalanx. “Cadets” from ages 7 to 20 lived at the phiditia and served the adult hoplite warriors. All adult warriors were required to eat their main daily meal at the phiditia. Provisions had to be furnished by individual soldiers from their land allotments. If for some reason they lost control of their land allotments they became “inferiors” (hypomeiones) and could no longer dine at the phiditia. The phiditia was the key to building camaraderie among Spartan warrior elite. State supervision made it the basis of the national militia.
The process of Spartan social reform is best seen through the maintenance of its educational system. As children women allegedly received the same athletic training as the men. In fact, Spartan women probably received greater exposure to literacy and mathematics since, once married, they assumed primary responsibility for managing Spartan agricultural estates. Athenian sources describe Spartan women as being robustly beautiful but not very bright. At birth male offspring of arranged marriages between full-blooded Spartan males and females would be examined by the ephors for physical defects that might prevent its development as a warrior. If defects were visible the infant was exposed (infanticide). At age seven the youth entered the Spartan cadet corps where he would spend his next thirteen years learning how to become a Spartan warrior. This amounted to a form of Spartan “outward bound” program. The youths were sent into the mountains to live off the land for months at a time, drinking from pockets of trapped rainwater and stealing food from the fields in the valleys below. By going without food, water, or shelter, they learned the limits of human endurance. If they were caught stealing food by the krypteia, the cadets were beaten. The Krypteia was a form of secret police composed of senior cadets selected by the ephors to train the young and to spy on the helots as a check on rebellions. Members of the krypteia would disguise themselves as helots and work in the fields. If they detected any helots with rebellious tendencies those helots would disappear overnight, never to be seen again. The purpose of educational process was to produce ideal warriors in the service of the state. Cadets trained for hours and learned to execute complex military maneuvers in quick succession. Their strength and stamina enabled them to sustain their lines on the battlefield for hours. Soldiers were taught an uncompromising military ethos: their job was to return from battle with their shields on their shoulders in victory or to pay the ultimate sacrifice by returning dead upon their shields. After the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, Sparta’s first momentous military defeat, the women of the surviving soldiers reportedly mourned the return of their brethren because they had disgraced their families in defeat, whereas, the women related to the dead being carried on their shields were deliriously happy because their brethren had maintained the honor of their families. One can only assume from this description that a sort of mass psychosis seized Spartan society following the defeat of its army at the Battle of Hysiai and that this perception of reality was sustained by the persistence in the belief that Sparta was surrounded by adversaries.
At the age of twenty the Spartan warrior was allowed to marry a bride selected for him by the ephors. Almost like horse breeders the ephors engaged in a practice of eugenics: they paired off tall spouses with short, limber ones with strong, all in an effort to produce the perfect specimen of warrior. At this time the warriors would also receive a kleros with attached helot farmers, but he continued to reside and work at the phiditia for another ten years. Soldiers between the ages of 20 and 30 formed the shock troops of the Spartan hoplite phalanx and kept themselves at highest state of readiness for emergencies. At the age of 30, a warrior was allowed at last to live at the kleros with his family and to vote in the Apella, but he continued to eat his main meal at the phiditia. Close camaraderie among the warriors, including the encouragement of homosexual relationships, insured an emotional bond that was believed necessary to preserve one another on the battlefield. Spartan soldiers remained eligible for military service until the age of 60, at which point they could retire and/or seek election into the Gerousia.
The implementation of this social system resulted in the development of a professional army, the greatest hoplite phalanx in Greece. Spartan soldiers demonstrated tremendous skill and stamina in battle. Clad in 50 to 80 lbs of armor they could endure long hours on the battlefield in the heat of day. With an estimate force unit of 6000 hoplites and 300-400 cavalry, the Spartan hoplite phalanx was not particularly large. The phalanx of Athens was larger (ca. 15,000). However, their discipline and determination on the battlefield made them seemingly invincible. Around 560 BC, the Spartans began once again to project force into the Peloponnesian highlands, by defeating their perennial rival, Tegea. Expanding conquests led to the formation of a Spartain hegemonic alliance known as the Peloponnesian League or “the Lacedaimonians and their allies.” States defeated by the Spartans received back their autonomy and freedom from tribute payments. Instead, they were required to have the same friends and enemies as Sparta and to maintain their national militias to serve alongside the Spartans when officially summoned. The Peloponnesian League became a permanent defensive alliance under Spartan leadership. Although Spartan subject states essentially lost their freedom in foreign affairs, they benefited from the security furnished by the growing alliance. Sparta alone could convene the league, but each member state enjoyed a vote in the deliberations. Under the presidency of the Spartan king, a majority vote by the league determined war and peace. However, if the Spartan kings happened to disagreed with an item on the agenda, they could refuse to convene a league assembly. By 500 BC nearly every state in the Peloponnesus, including the large commercial city of Corinth, had forcibly or otherwise joined the league. To accommodate its burgeoning force units, the Spartan army evolved into an extended “officer staff.” In military confrontations the Spartan phalanx was usually placed on the exposed right side of the line, with Spartan officers distributed throughout the allied ranks to maintain force cohesion. During the Persian wars the Peloponnesian League assembled some 60,000 hoplites. At the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC, reportedly some 80,000 Greek hoplites opposed the Persian invaders, with 3/4ths of this army represented by the Peloponnesian League.
Achieved through great sacrifice on the part of its citizens and laboring populations, the Spartan war machine emerged as the dominant land force in the Greek Aegean and can properly be described as an empire. With possession of the farming regions of Messenia and Laconia, the Spartan hoplite aristocracy controlled approximately 40% of the arable land of the Peloponnesus and guaranteed its agricultural self-sufficiency. With little need for trade relations or overseas colonies, the Spartan empire probably sustained some 150,000 people, although fewer than 6000 males represented the elite. Agricultural self-sufficiency put Sparta at odds even with several commercially oriented member states of its own league, such as Corinth. Internal factors similarly reduced Sparta’s effectiveness in foreign policy and rendered its leadership wary of involvement in affairs beyond the peninsula. Since the entire social system was sustained by a helot-based field economy, the threat of helot revolts remained a constant menace and severely limited the range of Spartan military operations. The Spartan hierarchy could ill afford to dispatch its forces to distant theaters for extended periods of time. Another problem resulted from the closed character of the Spartan hoplite “aristocracy.” To be a Spartan warrior required Spartan lineage on both sides of one’s family. Citizenship was thus restricted to a limited number of families that totaled probably no more than a few dozen. The impact of continuous inbreeding, of high rates of infant mortality, and of the inevitable loss of manpower on the battlefield culminated in declining numbers of Spartan males eligible for service. As the male population declined, land holdings fell increasingly into the hands of Spartan females. The perioikoi remained recognized as social inferiors, incapable of rising into the Spartan caste system.
Another source of dissension arose from the fact that Spartan land distributions were never truly “equal.” Although in theory the kleros system of land-allotments was controlled by the state, in reality a powerful clique of aristocratic families appears never to have relinquished its landholdings. By dominating the inner circle of the Gerousia, these families exerted a profoundly conservative influence on society. In order to avoid the threat of tyranny, they may possibly have agreed to redistribute “public land,” in particular the newly conquered lands of Messenia, the dominance of which had fallen at risk during the Second Messenian War. Many of the land allotments assigned by the ephors were indeed located in Messenia. This enabled the Spartan aristocracy to replenish its ranks with full-blooded, landless Spartans, while at the same time imposing a garrison force on the rebellious inhabitants of Messenia. The Spartiatai occupying lands and/or quartered in phiditiai in Messenia now had a stake in maintaining the helot system. But that essentially was as far as the Spartan landed aristocracy was willing to go. Unwilling to open their ranks to non-Spartans such as the perioikoi, the Spartan establishment never found an solution to its declining numbers of warriors, and the problem of land falling into the hands of fewer and fewer families remained a significant source of instability and discontent.
When faced with threat of tyranny, the Spartan aristocracy evaded this by agreeing to redistribute “land” to create a widened aristocracy of full blooded Spartan warriors. It then closed ranks to become one of the most conservative societies in Greece. The “Lycurgan” reforms established a privileged class of citizens with the necessities of life furnished by inferior castes of periokoi and helots. Thus freed from subsistence labor Spartan warriors devoted their entire lives to service to the state. They became an invincible force on the battlefield, but the limitations of their subsistence agricultural system and the threat of helot revolts limited their range in external affairs. Highly conservative in outlook, the Spartans tended to favor oligarchies like themselves and to oppose the rise of tyranny throughout the Greek world.
Athens came late to the problem of land hunger and tyranny, probably because Attica as a region possessed greater carrying capacity and was able to sustain a larger subsistence population than most neighboring populations in Greece. When it did arrive at the tipping point, the community endured repeated attempts at intervention by outside powers, including neighboring tyrants, Sparta, and Persia. Much of the political development in Athens was directly affected by the reaction to these perceived threats. Unlike Sparta Athens underwent the full tyrannical experience and emerged by 500 BC as the leading urban, commercially oriented state of the Aegean world. There were three principal phases to this development – the tyranny of Peisistratus (546-527 BC), the political reforms of Cleisthenes (510-ca. 500), and the democratic machine of Pericles (ca. 465-429 BC).
As two of the most important aristocratic families of Athens the Alcmeonidae and the Philaidae reveal through their family trees symptomatic political trends of Classical Athens.
These family trees demonstrate not only the political longevity of Athenian aristocratic families, but also the degree to which they were courted by neighboring tyrants attempting to dominate Athens through arranged marriages and “guest friendships” (hospitality). For example, Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara, married his daughter to an Athenian aristocrat named Cylon. This latter figure mounted a failed attempt tyranny in 632/1 BC. By the end of the seventh century BC, therefore, popular desire for tyranny posed a genuine threat to aristocratic supremacy in Athens. The response to Cylon’s uprising was Draco’s Law code in 621/0. Although it offered the benefits of a written law code, it was viewed by the public as extremely severe (“written in blood”). Land conditions noted in the previous chapter had, meanwhile, resulted in the emergence of the hektomoroi, an element of Athenian small farmer citizen soldiers who had fallen into indentured servitude. By the time of the actions of Cylon and Draco impoverished Athenians who had undoubtedly heard about the political reforms in Sparta were clamoring for the annulment of debts and the redistribution of land. They were obviously interested in tyranny.
To appease this movement and to resolve the growing debt crisis, Solon (638-558 BC) was appointed “lawgiver” with wide reaching powers in c. 573/2. An Athenian war hero, Solon was the younger son of an aristocratic family who had made his fortune in overseas trade. He sailed extensively in the eastern Mediterranean and came to be known as one of the seven sages of Greece, largely because of his poetry. Solon obtained the office of lawgiver probably because he was viewed as a moderate, someone whose views were acceptable to all parties in the dispute. He used his lyric poetry to record his political reforms. According to his own writings his main accomplishments were his program of debt reform, or seisachtheia (“the shaking off of debts”), and his avoidance of tyranny. Solon abolished all debts by removing the Horos stones (mortgage stones) from mortgaged land parcels, temporarily liberating impoverished Athenian small farmers from debt. However, that was as far as he went; despite the public outcry he refused to redistribute land. He did create census classes to enable wealthy non aristocrats (artisans and traders with whom he sympathized) to run for office and thereby obtain access to the Areopagus (council of elders). This element probably represented his main source of support. He also tried to encourage the development of local crafts and trades, but he lacked the resources necessary to stimulate real economic improvement. In essence his reforms delayed but did not deter the rise of tyranny. After his term as “lawgiver,” Solon departed Athens for ten years. When he returned he found the city in chaos. The Athenian archon list indicates two consecutive years in which no archon was elected, i.e., “anarchia“. To add insult to injury, one of his own relative, Peisistratus, was promoting himself as a suitable candidate for tyranny. Peisistratus’ first attempt to seize power ended in failure in 561/0 BC, when he ran afoul of the powerful Alcmeonid clan and was driven from the city. Undaunted, he traveled about the Aegean, forging alliances with the tyrants of Naxos and Argos, investing in Macedonian silver mines, and procuring the services of a mercenary army. He returned to Athens by force to establish his tyranny in 546 BC. With his passing in 527 BC, his sons Hippias and Hipparchus maintained tyranny until 510 BC, when Hippias was driven from city following the assassination of his brother.
The Peisistratid Tyranny (546-510 BC)
Peisistratus enters Athens riding with Athena / Wikimedia Commons
Peisistratus used newly instituted state revenues and his own personal income from the mines he acquired in Macedonia to resolve the land question. His main objective appears to have been to make farming sustainable at the hoplite level by restoring the largest possible population to the land. He did this partly by redistributing land that he confiscated from aristocratic opponents, but he also imposed a 5% income tax on all citizens and used this revenue to make loans to farmers. This enabled many small farmers to make the transition from subsistence to surplus agricultural production, especially the production of Attic olive oil and wine. He used similar tactics to weaken aristocratic authority at the local level. He instituted a body of circuit court judges who journeyed about the countryside to hear local grievances on appeal; he also forced the relocation of several prominent religious cults to Athens and gave them national focus. The cult of Artemis of Brauron was moved to the Acropolis, the popular harvest festival of Dionysus was likewise relocated to the urban center. The Dionysus festival in particular was a popular annual event celebrated throughout the Attic countryside with prayers, choruses, and fertility rites. Under Peisistratus’ patronage chorus writers developed a method of advancing singers from the chorus to recite poetic dialogues. This marked the beginning of Athenian dramatic performances and the birth of Greek Tragedy and Comedy. Peisistratus also established religious festivals at Eleusis and the Panathenaia in Athens.
In other respects Peisistratus worked to transform Athens from its subsistence origins to newfound status as an Aegean maritime power. He utilized his “tyrannical contacts” at Naxos, Samos, Argos, Thessaly, and Macedonia to improved the city’s commercial footing in the wider Aegean. He also enhanced trade through colonial settlements at Sigeon and the Chersonessos on the Hellespont, the gateway to the grain trade in the Black Sea. Domestically, he fostered the rise of the Athenian polis through a number of measures. He undertook public building enterprises paid for by his own silver revenues. In this manner he created wage laboring opportunities for the “thetes,” or landless poor citizens of Athens. Displaced agricultural laborers quickly migrated from the countryside to the urban center of Athens to seek new opportunities for employment. In Athens he constructed the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Temple of Athena (the Hekatompedon), the Theater of Dionysus, and the Fountain House of the Nine Springs. He also constructed the Telesterion at Eleusis. As noted above, Peisistratus also promoted the Panathenaic festival to international status. Originally celebrated every four then every two years, this Attic festival quickly assumed international importance as a major Hellenic festival. As prizes the victors of its competitions received Panathenaic amphoras of Athenian wine and oil. The amphoras were painted first in Black, then in Red Figure style, demonstrating the newfound mastery of Athenian fineware production. Begun around ca. 600-580 BC, Attic Black Figure vase production transited to Red Figure around 530 BC, precisely during the era of the tyranny. Attic Red Figure vases quickly became the most popular fineware of the entire Mediterranean world. Arguably the most widely distributed artifacts of the Classical era, their presence in excavated contexts clearly identifies Classical layers of occupation (c. 530-400 BC) wherever they are encountered. Peisistratus also invented the Attic tetradrachmae, or four drachma coin. Equaling roughly 12 grams of silver, the consistent weight and purity of this coin secured its place as the standard medium for international exchange throughout the Classical period. Finally, Peisistratus appears to have offered grants of citizenship to wealthy metics (metoikoi, resident aliens) to encourage skilled artisans and merchants to establish residence in Athens. Following the expulsion of the tyranny in 510 BC, conservative Athenian aristocrats demanded a scrutiny of the census roles to remove illegal citizens, thus, confirming the tyrant’s efforts to enfranchise useful foreigners.
Although Peisistratus did not tinker with the constitution, he made certain that his political allies obtained the archonship year in, year out and entered the Areopagus (council of elders) for life. He appears as well to have resolved the land crisis in Athens. One hears no more about mortgage crises or debt bondage in Athens. In the Classical era the estimated size of the Athenian hoplite phalanx stood at 15,000 men. This means that thousands of small farmers were firmly implanted on the Attic countryside, cultivating small farms of approximately 10-20 acres. This size was apparently sufficient to sustain an Athenian family and one or two household slaves. This element of small farmer citizen soldiers became Athen’s “broadened aristocracy.” As property holding citizens they increasingly shared the conservative outlook of the aristocracy vis-à-vis the landless thetes in the urban center. The thetes, meanwhile, contributed to the economy by engaging in public works programs when these were available, and by furnishing seasonal agricultural labor during the demanding phases of planting and harvest. Through the tyranny Athens became connected to maritime trading networks of surplus commodities extending all the way to the Black Sea and Egypt.
Peisistratus had found Attica a dispersed, uncooperative, highly segmented population settled around the rural oikoi of the aristocratic families. He left it a prosperous urban community of perhaps 100,000 inhabitants known internationally for its crafts production, its building enterprises, and its surplus agricultural goods. The city promptly assumed first place as a trading power in the Aegean world. Its harbor at the Piraeus attracted merchants and sailors from throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Economic progress was possibly slowed by the Persian conquest of Thrace and Macedonia in 514 BC (under King Darius I). Persian authorities tended to block trade with communities outside the empire, and this would have separated Peisistratus’ successors, Hippias and Hipparchus, from the proceeds of their silver mines in the north. When the Peisistratids could no longer fund public works programs, the Athenian public lost enthusiasm for the regime. An aristocratic conspiracy suddenly caused the assassination of Hipparchus, provoking a violent political purge by his brother Hippias. This only served to accelerate the growing movement against the tyranny. Driven from Athens by an array of political factions, Hippias fled to the palace of the Persian satrap at Sardis (Lydia) where he was welcomed as an exile and maintained as a tool for future use. At the right opportunity the Persian satrap clearly intended to reinstate Hippias as tyrant of Athens and thus gain a foothold in mainland Greece. Athenian ambassadors who were sent to Sardis to demand the ex-tyrant’s extradition were advised by the satrap to accept him back as their ruler. This event marked the beginning of a long period of hostility between Athens and Persia.
Despite the expulsion of Hippias, the Athenian aristocracy remained divided regarding the proper mode of governance after some 35 years of tyrannical rule. Long suppressed sources of disagreement quickly boiled to the surface. Conservatives wishing to turn back the clock began to clamor for the restoration of the “ancestral constitution,” a vague political slogan much repeated during the coming century. More moderate aristocrats, led by Cleisthenes the Alcmeonid, realized that by “ancestral constitution” the conservatives meant to restore the aristocratic political system that existed prior to the reforms of Solon. Civil war ensued. When the conservatives found themselves outnumbered, they invited the intervention of Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. A particularly aggressive Spartan king, Cleomenes, who had done much to expand the influence of Sparta throughout Greece, saw his chance to impose a friendly government in Athens and marched his army into the city. His strategy quickly backfired. Forced to engage in urban street fighting, he soon found himself besieged inside the acropolis. The leaders of the Peloponnesian League states who were present suddenly refused to participate any further in the operation, arguing that Cleomenes was meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign Greek state. They withdrew, leaving Cleomenes and his Spartans trapped in the acropolis. Eventually the faction siding with Cleisthenes agreed to allow the besieged forces of Spartans and renegade Athenians to leave. The democratic reaction that followed was swift and forceful. Cleisthenes introduced dramatic political reforms to prevent a return to aristocratic rule in Athens. Peisistratus had successfully reformed the economic order; Cleisthenes would now tackle the constitution.
Cleisthenic Political Reforms, c.510-500 BCE
Cleisthenic Constitutional Reforms
For one of the most significant political figures of Athenian history, Cleisthenes’ career remains a mystery. Apart from the archonship that he held under the tyranny in 525 BC, what office he held, when, and for how long remain unknown. Athenian sources, nonetheless, attributed most of the significant political reforms to the constitution to him. To add another curious dimension, Cleisthenes appears to have been profoundly influenced by contemporary Greek philosophical ideas, particularly the mathematical breakthroughs of Pythagoras. Pythagoras and his followers emphasized the need to attain harmony with the universe by living one’s life according to perceived natural laws, particularly those identified by “magic numbers.” Cleisthenes attempted to organize the Athenian constitution according to the “magic number,” ten. By use of harmonious numbers he reorganized political institutions in such a way as to insure that aristocratic influence could no longer prevail on Athenian society. Cleisthenes embraced the slogan isonomia, or equality before the law. His reforms marked the inception of “one man, one vote” in Athens.
In essence Cleisthenic democracy meant hoplite democracy. All those who furnished arms in defense of the state were allowed to participate in the assembly. Cleisthenes instituted a new political system organized according to demes (voting wards). At the local level, he created some 174 demes. These in turn were organized into 30 tritteis or thirds of tribes, which were in turn assembled into 10 new voting tribes, each named after a significant Athenian hero. Each new tribe consisted of 3 tritteis ideally drawn from different regions of Attica. Collective organization within the Ekklesia (the assembly), and hence within the Athenian army, now consisted of citizens drawn from a cross section of the Attic population. In the battle line of the phalanx, a soldier’s life depended on the cooperation of the soldiers to his right or left; instead of members of the same clan-based warrior band, soldiers participating in the Athenian phalanx now haled from distant areas of Attica. Artificially, this diminished an individual citizen’s tendency to identify with his immediate origin and to view his place in broader, more national terms.
Cleisthenes’ reorganization of the government likewise required the invention of new offices. At the top of the government he created ten generals (originally one from each tribe). Able to hold office repeatedly and consecutively, these annually elected chief magistrates directed the ten tribal units of the army in what were increasingly hostile times. The number of archons was similarly raised from 9 to 10, one per tribe, to administer the popular courts. However, after 487 BC, the archons became selected by lot and could only be held once. Apart from the creation of the ten generals, the other innovation of the Cleisthenic reforms was the Council of 500 as the new clearing house for public business. The chief responsibility of the Council of 500 was to package legislation to be put before the Ekklesia. The council consisted of 500 representatives, 50 per tribe, selected by lot from all eligible citizens for a period of a year. The council itself was organized internally according to ten prytanies or governing committees whose members worked full time duties in Athens for a period of one month. Since the Athenian year had ten months, each prytany of fifty councilors would preside for a tenth of that time. Like the selection of the council members themselves, the calendrical order of prytanic governance was determined by lot. Within the prytanies committees of ten, meanwhile, would work through the night each day to handle untoward emergencies, with the daily order of each committee likewise determined by lot. The presidency of the council also was determined by lot. Cleisthenic political reforms displayed a heavy reliance on the process of sortition, therefore. Sortition was originally a religious tool, essentially a process of leaving a choice to the will of the gods. Examples of sortition within sortition within sortition, as demonstrated by the administration of the Council of 500, testify to the resolve of the new democracy to eliminate any and all methods to “predetermine” a political outcome by instituting seemingly random means of selection to political office. With most selections being determined randomly, theoretically every Athenian citizen could expect to serve at least once on the council during his lifetime. The traditional council of the Areopagus receded into the background, meanwhile. The Areopagus continued to consist of all ex-archons for life and to assert authority over traditional religious matters; however, its supremacy was now largely supplanted by the Council of 500 in the new democracy. Apart from a brief resurgence during the Persian Wars, the importance of the Areopagus declined throughout the era of the democracy.
Now organized according to ten voting tribes, the Ekklesia, or Athenian voting assembly, emerged as the principal organ of governance. Presided over by the president of the council, with all available generals present, the assembly determined all public affairs through open public debate. Once a bill or treaty was introduced before the assembly, any adult male citizen was free to address its particulars. Business was no longer conducted according to simple up-or-down votes, in other words, but through a process of potentially spirited deliberation among any and all citizens who were present. All crucial matters, such as votes of war and peace, treaties, citizenship, and taxation, were decided by the assembled citizenry, convened four times per month plus emergency meetings. Although the cumbersome nature of the popular assembly made it an impractical place to draft legislation, its members were free to propose amendments, riders, and revisions that the Council of 500 would then have to address. Cleisthenic Democracy was essentially participatory democracy exercised by all those who could afford to attend the once-weekly meetings. In conjunction with the revamped assembly, Cleisthenes also appears to have reorganized the Helaia or popular courts. Although the origin of the popular courts appear to lie with Solon, Cleisthenes remodeled the courts not only to manage the city’s burgeoning legal business but also to serve as the final arbiter of disputes that might emanate from the assembly. The courts were reorganized according to ten venues of justice, each administered by an archon. Chosen by lot from a pool of 6000 jurors (annually chosen by lot), its juries adjudicated all public and private legal suits. In some instances public issues became too complex to be deliberated by the popular assembly, particularly disputes concerned with the questionable legality of certain instances of “parliamentary procedure.” If challenged by an accuser in the assembly, the magistrate responsible for a seemingly illegal measure (or the citizen responsible for proposing it) would agree to debate the matter with the accuser in the popular courts, where an uneven number of jurors (101, 501, or 1001), chosen by lot, would decide the final outcome. The popular courts, thus, represented a final voice of arbitration for the assembly whose decisions would be binding on the state.
Along these lines one other political mechanism, Ostracism, appears to have been invented by Cleisthenes to insure the effective maintenance of the democracy. What was essentially a national unpopularity contest, ostracism was first successfully used in 486 BC. Every Spring before the military season a vote would be taken in the assembly to determine whether or not there was need for a vote of ostracism. If the vote was positive, a date would be set for the election, and campaigning among rival political factions would begin. Voting would occur at the Sacred Pit at the agora, with citizens casting their votes inscribed on broken pieces of pottery (ostraka). Apparently a quorum of 6000 votes was necessary for the vote to be official. If that number was achieved the politician receiving the most votes would have to leave Attica forthwith for ten years’ exile, without option of appeal, but without personal loss of citizenship or property. He simply had to leave the city for ten years.
The purpose of ostracism was to eliminate political gridlock that arose between antagonistic voices in the assembly whose influence was inadequate to mount a majority but all too capable of thwarting action. As is evident today gridlock is an outcome all too common in participatory democracy. Repeatedly in Athenian history debate in the assembly became polarized between two or more leading politicians and their followings, such as the dispute that arose between Themistocles and Aristides over the proposal to construct a fleet of 200 triremes in 483/2 BC. The intensity of debate brought all public business to a standstill on the eve of a potentially serious military emergency, namely, the invasion of Greece by Xerxes in 481 BC. Ostracism served as a “release valve” by eliminating one point of view so that the other could initiate policy in an intended direction, for better or for worse. During moments of political polarization such as this, the intensity of competition was so great that the electioneering to expel one’s rival could exhibit remarkable energy. The voting sherds themselves were preserved by the magistrates as religiously sanctioned artifacts. Closed contexts of buried sherds have been recovered in various sacred precincts about the city, including the Agora, the Kerameikos, and the Acropolis. Sherds from several of the most celebrated ostracisms in Athenian history have thus been recovered, including those cast between Themistocles and Aristides. What is more, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct entire vases from recovered sherd fragments and to demonstrate that each sherd from a given vase was inscribed by the same hand. Willful practices of electioneering clearly transpired outside the voting precinct as politicians handed out previously inscribed “ballots” to facilitate the removal of their rivals. Plutarch relates one particular encounter between Aristides and a rustic Athenian farmer during the voting. Standing outside the voting precinct, Aristides with sherd and stylus in hand asked the apparently clueless citizen whom he wanted to ostracize. Not knowing that he was talking to Aristides in person, the man replied he wanted to expel Aristides. When Aristides asked him why, he insisted that he was simply tired of repeatedly hearing the name “Aristides the Just,” day in, day out, and wanted him gone. True to his legendary name, Aristides wrote his own name on the sherd and gave it to the voter. Although he ultimately lost the vote and went into exile, Aristides was recalled by Themistocles shortly afterward to assist in the Athenian defense against the Persians. Despite being ostracized, in other words, Aristides remained a devoted Athenian citizen and patriot.
Political developments in Athens required nearly a century long process of adaptation that included transiting through full blown tyranny into participatory democracy. Peisistratus converted Attica into a commercial power centered on the urban center of Athens; Cleisthenes introduced political reforms to impose isonomia throughout the citizenry. Despite these significant contributions, however, the democratizing process remained incomplete. Due to the fact that regular participation in the democracy required financial means and free time, only those who could afford to attend the assembly or to hold office would typically do so. Since the landless poor of the city, the thetes, had to labor whenever the opportunity presented itself, they could rarely afford to attend. Hence, the argument that Cleisthenic democracy represented an intermediate form of landholding or “hoplite democracy.” The degree to which perceived threats, both internal and external, propelled this process must also be borne in mind. To a significant degree political and social progress of Athens was the product of the shifting events and developments of the wider Aegean world.
Radical Democracy in the Age of Pericles, 465-429 BCE
Bust of Pericles / National Archaeological Museum, Athens
The last phase in the political development of Athenian democracy occurred simultaneous with the political rise of the democratic leader Pericles. Pericles emerged as a public figure at the end of the 460s BC and died during the plague that struck Athens in 429, at the outset of the Peloponnesian War. At that time we are told that he had held the office of general seventeen consecutive years, usually being recognized as “strategos autokrator,” or commander-in-chief of the Athenian military. A gifted statesman, orator, and politician, Pericles simultaneously guided Athenian foreign policy through the creation of empire and its domestic policy through the emergence of “radical democracy.” Radical democracy meant “pay for service.” In essence, under the Periclean administration Athenian citizens were paid by the state to participate in public affairs. During Cleisthenic democracy only those who could afford to participate in political affairs did so, namely, the aristocracy and the hoplites. Various component features to this policy enabled thousands of landless, poor Athenian males, the thetes, to obtain some portion of their earnings through participation in the government, particularly in the Ekklesia ad the Popular Courts. The decision to pay citizens for service, and thereby elicit broader participation in the Athenian political life marked an important transition from Cleisthenic democracy. In essence, radical democracy marked the outcome of a logical progression in Athenian political thought. In some respects what Pericles created was an urban political machine. Poorer voters voted in massive numbers to support his political agendas because they stood to benefit directly from the results. This development marked a dramatic transformation in the character of Athenian society, its population, and its social structure.
By the time that Pericles arrived on the political landscape, Themistocles had already created the fleet of 200 triremes that proved instrumental in defeating the Persians at the Battle of Salamis (481 BC). The establishment of an Athenian navy provided both military justification and military pay to the landless poor of the city and the metics who increasingly served in the navy. Given the widely held perception that those who participated in the military defense of a polis enjoyed a right to participate in its political processes, the role of the thetes in the Athenian navy furnished them with newfound political legitimacy. The problem remained that most property-less Athenian citizens could ill afford to attend the four monthly meetings of the assembly, let alone to participate in the Council of 500 or the offices. Following the logic of payment for service with the fleet, the Periclean solution was to make all political activity remunerative, in essence, to pay Athenian citizens to participate in political life. Pericles used the benefits of empire to create additional state-funded laboring opportunities to keep citizens employed throughout the year. As Plutarch observed,”Pericles created allowances for public festivals, fees for jury service and other grants and gratuities. He succeeded in bribing the masses wholesale and enlisting their support against the Areopagus.” Typically, an Athenian citizen could obtain payment of a day’s wage (two obols or one-third of a drachma) for a day’s service in any of the following:
- Rowing with the fleet and hoplite campaigning
- Service as jurors in the popular courts (6000 annually)
- Legal business of the empire (typically some 700 officials served at large throughout the empire in any given year)
- Pay for service on various state boards of magistrates (generals, archons, etc.) and the Council of 500.
Estimates suggest that some 8000 citizens were supported by the state in any given year. In addition, as announced during the Delian League Congress in 449/8 BC, Pericles embarked on the most ambitious building program in Greek history. Several simple Doric-style temples and monuments found their inception during this building program, including the Temple of Athena Parthenos, the Propylaea (monumental entrance gates), and the Erechtheion (Temple sacred at the same time to Athena, Poseidon, and the Bronze Age royal dynasty of Athens) on the Acropolis, the Temple of Hephaistos in the Agora, and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. Laborers working on these projects received a day’s wage for every day they worked. Obviously, the construction of such monuments required equally significant contributions by skilled labor — architects, draftsmen, stone cutters, and sculptors, and for this work Pericles recruited experts, such as his friends Iktinos, the architect who designed the Parthenon, and Pheidias, the sculptor who designed the 40-foot-tall chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena that stood inside. But the building program also called for the manual labor of thousands of Athenians and unquestionably helped to keep many sailors of the Athenian navy employed during the long, non-sailing months of winter. Jury duty and government service kept another 8000 citizens at least occasionally employed. Naturally, the opportunity to find remuneration in any of these activities carried with it an obligation to participate in the assembly and to vote in favor of Pericles’ political agenda.
Recently, the degree to which the costs of these enterprises were borne by the contributions of the Delian League member states has been called into question. Conceivably, Athens drew sufficient revenues from its own state-run silver mines and tax revenues to pay for these activities. Many of the costs were defrayed as well by public-spirited citizens of the wealthiest census class, who voluntarily took on the burden of “liturgies“, or the performance of state duties at private expense. These included activities as varied as the funding of dramatic performances during the public festivals (the costs of creating and performing Greek tragedies and comedies) and the maintenance of a trireme (paying for equipment and crew for an entire campaign season). During the heyday of the Athenian Empire, civic minded citizens actively competed with one another to recruit the fastest crews and the gaudiest sails and ornaments for their warships. However, it remains difficult to see how Athens could have managed so many expenses and maintained the enormous costs of empire without the constant flow of tribute payments from Athenian subject states to the treasury in the Parthenon.
The opportunities created by Pericles for Athenian citizens ultimately placed a premium on the value of citizenship itself. Citizenship opened the way for potential remuneration by the state, and Athenians became zealously protective of this privilege. The assembly passed laws restricting citizenship to those who could show direct Athenian descent on both sides of their family. Since his mother was allegedly a Thracian, this would have prevented even Themistocles from holding office one generation earlier. It proved equally embarrassing to Pericles himself after he had two sons by his mistress and second wife, Aspasia, the notorious courtesan from Miletus. To obtain citizenship for his sons, Pericles had to secure passage of a special exemption by the assembly, an embarrassing though attainable task for someone in his position. Access to the benefits of radical democracy by metics, or resident aliens in Athens, remained limited, accordingly, despite their commensurate obligations of military serve and tax payments. Despite these restrictions, it appears certain that non-Athenian metics benefited in many ways from Pericles’ control of the democracy and that thousands of foreigners migrated to Athens and especially to its port, the Piraeus, to exploit the opportunities made available by the Athenian Empire. Several emerging figures in Athenian political life owed their fortunes to the new urban environment of the democracy. For example, the father of the notorious Athenian demagogue, Cleon, was alleged to have run a successful tannery; the father of the orator, Isocrates, was a flute-maker; the family of the orator, Demosthenes, ran two “sweatshops” employing hundreds of slaves, one manufacturing swords, the other, furniture. The father of the orator, Lysias, was a shield maker (with shops similar to Demosthenes) and personal friend of Pericles who was encouraged to immigrate to Athens from Syracuse. The politician Nicias contracted out hundreds of slaves to mine silver at the state mines at Laurion. Slavery, particularly as a consequence of war (reportedly some 20,000 prisoners were captured during the Battle of Eurymedon alone), furnished a colorful, cosmopolitan atmosphere to everyday life in Athens and most particularly to the Piraeus, where most foreigners resided. Athenian slaves originated from throughout the eastern Mediterranean (including significant evidence for the presence of sub-Saharan Africans), but most particularly from the hinterland zones of Asia Minor, such as Phyrgia, Lydia, Mysia, and Cappadocia. Archaeological exploration in the Piraeus has revealed the presence of cult centers for the worship of foreign gods such as Egyptian Isis and Syrian Atthis, including inscribed lists of cult administrators bearing foreign names and oftentimes female gender. Artists, intellectuals, teachers, entertainers, weapons-makers, and warriors all migrated to the chief city of the Mediterranean in search of fortunes and fresh beginnings that were no longer attainable in their home communities.
Traditional estimates for the population of Athens indicate the presence of 45,000 adult male citizens, 30,000 metics (resident aliens), and perhaps 100,000 slaves, yielding a total of 175,000 inhabitants. However, since this estimate fails to account for Athenian women or children, most scholars would argue that the figure needs to be doubled (350,000). There is no denying that the population of Athens was an anomaly; in comparison with Athens Corinth, the next largest city in Greece, probably enjoyed a population of less than 100,000. Recent studies based on the ecological limits of subsistence agriculture and the carrying capacity of the rugged Attic landscape have significantly scaled down the size of the Athenian population to 125,000 total inhabitants. These analyses fail to account for the impact of seaborne imports of foodstuffs and provisions from overseas sources such as Egypt and the Crimea on the Black Sea, however. Lack of textual data and limited discovery of ship remains from this era greatly impede our understanding of the scale of maritime transport at this time. The recent discovery of a large shipwreck near Alonnessus on the Attic coast bearing some 10,000 amphoras of Mendean wine offers at least a hint of its potential. Only a market with significantly high demand such as Athens can explain this sizeable and uniquely laden cargo. Prior to the discovery of this wreck by members of the Greek archaeological service, many scholars rejected the idea that cargo vessels of this capacity were in use in this era. The presence of this find demonstrates, therefore, not only the potential scale of seaborne transport in this era but also the likely impact that the burgeoning metropolis of Athens had the flow of surplus commodities throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. The dependency of the Attic population on outside sources of grain was so great, in fact, that the Ekklesia passed a decree requiring the offloading of all grain shipments in the Piraeus by cargo vessels belonging to Delian League member states. This measure was clearly intended to insure adequate local storage of food supplies for the urban population. To minimize the risk of the urban population in Athens becoming separated from its food supply by military siege, the Athenians constructed powerful defenses known as the “Long Walls” (160m apart, 6000 m long, and 20m tall), connecting the city to its harbor. Leaders such as Pericles recognized that to withstand a potential invasion the Athenian population could no longer depend on the yield of its own agricultural hinterland. Repeatedly during the Peloponnesian War, the rural population was drawn inside the Long Walls for defense, thus, abandoning the agricultural landscape while the Athenian navy maintained control of the seas. So long as the navy and the Long Walls could guarantee the flow of foodstuffs to the city, the Athenian population could weather a potential invasion and return to its farmland in the countryside once the emergency had passed.
Such were the foundations that Pericles and other democratic leaders created for Athens. The city became the hub of the entire Mediterranean world, a great commercial city, a military power of enormous reach, and the world’s leading cultural center. Not only did the presence of so many talented people generate a unsurpassed burst of intellectual achievement — the scale and quality of Attic Red Figure finewares, remarkable breakthroughs in painting, architecture and sculpture, the development of Greek tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Europides) and comedy (Aristophanes), breakthroughs in philosophy (Socrates), mathematics, and political science – but, Athens being a relatively small place, most of the celebrated figures of this era actually knew one another and saw their lives overlap.
As an individual Pericles remained a relatively reclusive figure who preferred the company of intellectuals with nonpolitical backgrounds. Having received the greatest possible education from the celebrated pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras from Clazomenae in Ionia, Pericles avoided public appearances except when necessary, perhaps because he knew that familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. His oratory was reputedly so incisive and deliberate that his opinion always prevailed in the assembly. Physically, he reportedly possessed a cranial deformity that he liked to hide by wearing a helmet tilted back on his head. Although a political mastermind, he appears to have found politicians boring, and collected around himself a cluster of intellectuals referred to by modern historians as the “Periclean Circle.” These include such prominent figures as Anaxagoras, already noted above, Sophocles the tragedian, with whom Pericles is reported to have dined, Herodotus, the historian from Halicarnassus, for whom Pericles devised the means to acquire Athenian citizenship, Pheidias, the sculptor of the statue of Athena (later driven out of Athens on the charge of embezzling the remnant fragments of gold and ivory; he relocated to Olympia and sculpted a similar statue of Zeus), and Aspasia, the courtesan from Miletus, for whom he abandoned his Athenian wife. If Pericles had a vision for Athens it was to make it symbolic of the best instincts and accomplishments of the Greek world as a whole. The emergence of the Piraeus as the most cosmopolitan community in the Mediterranean, a polyglot city of foreign merchants, artisans, and warriors, was perhaps the inevitable result of the imperial development of Athens. Despite abundant evidence of hostility toward non-citizens, the Athenian assembly and people in general remained remarkably open-minded and tolerant of dissent. The Athenian people displayed a refreshing willingness to entertain unorthodox political and philosophical views as well as to laugh at its own failings, as the popularity of Aristophanes’ comedies makes clear. However, the fact that this city, its culture, and its empire was built on the labor of allied Greek states and enslaved inhabitants who had no say whatsoever in the Athenian democratic system must always be borne in mind. The surviving monuments on the Athenian Acropolis serve as a careful reminder that the benefits obtained by any civilization were usually attained through the unwilling efforts of invisible, unsung masses. What is more, Pericles’ sudden death during the plague that spread through Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (429 BC) revealed an important and unforeseen flaw to his political genius. He had neglected to train political successors capable of assuming control of the government in the event of his death. After more than 17 years of direction by one man, the Athenian democracy found itself at a loss regarding the proper conduct of a war or the maintenance of an empire that Pericles himself had initiated. For more than a decade the democracy lurched from one military crisis to another under the direction of weaker, lesser men. Eventually, Athenian efforts to maintain the empire would fail, creating political doubt where confidence had once prevailed. In his play, Oedipus Rex, the great tragedian Sophocles seemingly had the person of Pericles in mind when he portrayed Oedipus, the Bronze Age king of Thebes, as an over-confident, even arrogant rational being. As Sophocles presaged in his tragedy, much like Oedipus, Athenian confidence in its collective reasoning and empire-building would result in its own demise.