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ISIS is destroying ancient artefacts to send a message of intent

The Conversation

By Peter Edwell

Distressing scenes of the destruction of ancient artefacts by ISIS in the Archaeological Museum in Mosul in northern Iraq have been widely reported in recent days.

Video footage (see below) showed individuals wielding sledgehammers at ancient statues which the perpetrators claimed were images of gods. The exact identification of the destroyed artefacts is speculative, but most of the destruction appears to have been wrought on statuary of the Assyrian period (1365 BCE–609 BCE) and from the ancient trading principality of Hatra.

These items would be too difficult to smuggle out to the international black market for antiquities, a practice which ISIS appears to have been employing for smaller looted items from museums and archaeological sites across Iraq and Syria.

A number of rich archaeological sites lie in the immediate vicinity of Mosul and some of these rank among the most significant yet discovered in the Middle East.

Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) and Niniveh were successive capitals of the neo-Assyrian Empire (911 BCE-609 BCE) the latter thought to have been the largest city in the world in the seventh century BCE.

The remains of Nimrud lie approximately 30km to the south-east of Mosul while those of Niniveh are located on east bank of the Tigris in the immediate vicinity of the city. Foreign excavations of both sites began in the 1840s and many impressive items of statuary, architecture and other sculptures were transported to museums including the British Museum and the Louvre.

Some of this material stayed in Iraq where it is still held at museums in Baghdad and Mosul.

Mosul’s occupation of a strategic crossing point of the Tigris River for many centuries means that the city has a rich history, reflected in the museum’s holdings and the, until recently, diverse population of the city.

Mosul was a key crossing point for invading Parthian, Persian and Roman armies from the first century BCE to the seventh century CE and it formed an important trade connection between northern Mesopotamia and Syria, especially with the wealthy trading principality of Hatra (first century BCE – third century CE), some 90km south-west of Mosul, and the more distant trading emporium of Palmyra in central Syria.

Mosul was also an important trading centre during various Islamic Caliphates and in the Ottoman period. Today it is the second largest city in Iraq and its bridge across the Tigris is an important part of connecting the whole region of northern Iraq and eastern Syria, which ISIS controls.

Cultural vandalism

While the destruction of ancient artefacts in Mosul is without question cultural vandalism at its worst, ancient cultures in Iraq and elsewhere were equally capable of cultural vandalism, often on grand scales.

When the Assyrian empire disintegrated towards the end of the seventh century BCE, Nimrud was sacked and levelled by an alliance of enemies including Babylonians and Persians. In 330 BCE Alexander the Great looted the ancient city of Persepolis in Iran and burnt its palace to the ground in a drunken rampage.

Roman Emperors and Persian Kings besieged Hatra on five occasions in the second and third centuries before it was finally captured and mostly destroyed while the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE resonates to this day.

There is a clear distinction, however, between the devastation of priceless cultural items by ancient powers and the targeted destructive activities of ISIS.

The vandalism perpetrated in the Mosul Museum is part of a targeted program of desecration and devastation undertaken in Mosul by ISIS since it overran the city in June 2014. Reports of the demolition of six Shi’ite mosques and four shrines to Sunni and Sufi figures emerged in early July last year and later that month the 14th-century Prophet Younis (Jonah) shrine and associated mosque were blown up.

Antiquities are on display during the re-opening ceremony of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, February 28. Source: EPA/Ali Abbas

The obliteration of other Islamic monuments and places of worship has continued while the Chaldean and Syrian Orthodox Cathedrals were occupied after the vast proportion of Christian residents fled the city. Reports emerged in late February that the Mosul Public Library had been ransacked with approximately 100,000 books and manuscripts burned.

These actions are directly linked with the adherence by ISIS members to the Salafi movement, an extreme branch of Islam which views the centuries of development in Islamic theology and thinking after Mohammed as accretions which have polluted the faith.

The veneration of saints’ tombs and images is a particular problem for Salafists, which explains the destruction wrought on Islamic monuments in Mosul. It mirrors the destruction of saints’ tombs in Mecca and Medina in the early 1800s when Salafists captured the holy cities in what is now Saudi Arabia.

The destruction of artefacts depicting what are claimed to be gods in the Mosul Museum is part of making a broader statement to the Islamic world while enforcing an extreme doctrinal position in the city. It is also part of a message aimed more broadly at Iraq and the West.

On the same day that the video was released, the National Museum in Baghdad reopened after 12 years of painstaking effort to rebuild it following the looting which took place during the US-led invasion in 2003. The reopening of the museum is a moment of national pride for a country whose very existence is under threat.

The destruction of artefacts in Mosul sends a clear message, reflective of the intent of ISIS, which is to destroy whatever stands in the way of its ideology. The release of video footage of this vandalism has other purposes as well, especially with regard to the West, where museums and the precious artefacts they hold are treasured and sacred.

The infinitely more gruesome video footage of defenceless hostages being murdered has a similar purpose, partly to terrorise all who see it but also to entice the West back into a high-stakes war which will be difficult to prosecute and far more difficult to win.

​This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Ancient astronomy and astrology

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, December 2013, Vol 33 No 4. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in October 2013).

Today, there are distinct boundaries between the modern science of astronomy and the pseudoscience known as astrology.  But in ancient times, these boundaries were not so clear.  Both fields of study used a common set of astronomical observations – but for different purposes.  The practical purposes of ancient astronomy were celestial navigation and the development of calendars of seasonal dates and events (such as the flooding of rivers) for the planting of crops.  In contrast, the purpose of astrology was to interpret celestial phenomena as signs of divine communications.

Long before the invention of the telescope, ancient observations and predictions could only be of celestial objects visible to the naked eye.  This restricted astronomical and astrological studies to the stars, the Sun, the Moon and five planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  (The Earth was not counted as a planet until much later).

Prehistoric stone observatories

In some locations, early cultures assembled stone structures that are thought to have astronomical observations as one of their purposes.  The most well-known of these structures is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, which commenced construction around 3100BCE and went through several building phases.  As there are no written records to go by, there are several theories as to various religious, mystical and other purposes of Stonehenge.  One of these theories has been proposed by well-known Victorian skeptic Dr. Lynne Kelly. Lynne’s PhD thesis was about the use of structures like Stonehenge as mnemonic aids, to ensure that the oral knowledge of the culture is retained and passed on to succeeding generations. The layout of Stonehenge also includes a celestial observatory function, which would have allowed the prediction of eclipse, solstice, equinox and other celestial events important to a contemporary religion.


Drawing of Stonehenge in midsummer (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the world’s earliest known archeo-astronomical devices is a stone circle at Nabta Playa, in southern Egypt on the Tropic of Capricorn.  The site is between 6,000 and 6,500 years old, or about 1,000 years older than Stonehenge.  Two pairs of upright stones stand directly across the circle from each other, defining a view that would have marked sunrise at the summer solstice, this providing the beginnings of a prehistoric calendar.

Early Egyptian astronomy and astrology

The Ancient Egyptian calendar year was 365 days long, divided into 12 months of 30 days each, plus five extra days at the end of the year.  This was one quarter of a day shorter than solar year, leading to the problem of a ‘wandering year’ requiring frequent astronomical correction.  Observation of stars was important in predicting the annual flooding of the Nile, for the allocation of resources to the planting of irrigated crops. Early Egyptian astronomy was intertwined with astrology.  The Sun was believed to be a major god named Ra, representing light, warmth, and growth.  Ra was thought to travel on two solar boats – one on his journey through the sky during the day and the other in a river flowing underneath the flat Earth from west to east at night.


Ra, the Egyptian sun god (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Most Egyptologists believe that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built as a tomb for fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops in Greek) over a 10 to 20-year period concluding around 2560 BCE, although other dates have been suggested.  One theory is that this pyramid was carefully aligned towards the northern pole star, which at the time was Thuban, but is now Polaris due precession of the Earth’s rotational axis.

Ancient Mesopotamia

The ancient region known as Mesopotamia comprised the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq, plus parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran.  The lower part between the rivers was known as Sumer, with Babylon, Uruk and Ur as its major cities.  The significance of this region is that it was the cradle of astronomy and astrology as organised fields of study.


The ancient region known as Mesopotamia (in light shading) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sumer was also the birthplace of writing, in the form of cuneiform clay tablets dating from the mid 4th millennium BCE.  These tablets provide us with the first written evidence of astronomy and astrology in the West, albeit in a fragmentary state. From these tablets we know that the Babylonians developed a sexagesimal (base 60) numerical system, resulting in our current 60 minute hour, 24 hour day and 360 degree circle.  The Babylonians were the first to recognize that astronomical phenomena are periodic and to apply mathematics to their predictions.  They developed the idea of a 7 day week and a 12-month calendar based on cycles of the Moon; together with the seasons of summer and winter.  The Babylonians also measured the variation in day length over a year. At around 1800BCE, the first star catalogues were compiled.

The Babylonian astronomers noticed that a few ‘stars’ (later called planets) wandered in relation to other fixed stars and even retrograded in their motions.  These movements were confined to a narrow belt at an angle of about 23 degrees to the equator.  This belt – the Zodiac – was divided into 12 sections, and each section was named after a constellation of fixed stars in the neighbourhood.  The Zodiac also became one of the important features of western astrology. In this early period astronomy consisted of observations, calculations and predictions of events such as solstices and eclipses.  As such, astronomy at this stage was like a branch of applied mathematics plus a database of observations.  There were no cosmological theories to tie all the observations and calculations together and to try and rationally explain them.  This explanation vacuum was instead filled by astrology, which claimed to interpret celestial events as religious or mystical omens.

The Enuma Anu Enlil (c.1600BCE) is a major series of 68 or 70 tablets dealing with Babylonian astrology.  Substantial collection of omens, estimated to number between 6500 and 7000, interpret a wide variety of celestial and atmospheric phenomena in terms relevant to the king and state (known as ‘mundane astrology’).  For example, a typical astrological report to the king reads:

‘If the moon becomes visible on the first day: reliable speech; the land will be happy. If the day reaches its normal length: a reign of long days. If the moon at its appearance wears a crown: the king will reach the highest rank.’

Movements of the Sun, Moon and five planets were regarded as representing the activity of the gods in question.  Evil celestial omens attached to any particular planet were therefore seen as indications of dissatisfaction or disturbance of the god that planet represented. The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa (Enuma Anu Enlil Tablet 63) refers to the record of astronomical observations of Venus, as preserved in numerous cuneiform tablets dating from the first millennium BCE.

Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa

Venus tablet

Source: Wikimedia commons

During the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, Babylonian astronomers developed a new theoretical approach to astronomy.  They began to develop an internal logic within their observational data systems to improve their predictive power.  This was an important contribution towards the development of astronomy from a database to a science.  Some scholars have thus referred to this new approach as the first scientific revolution. The new scientific approach to astronomy was adopted and further developed in Greek astronomy.  This process was considerably helped by the conquest of Babylon by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE.  According to the late classical philosopher Simplicius of Cilicia (c.490CE – c.560CE), Alexander ordered the translation of the Babylonian historical astronomical records under supervision of his chronicler Callisthenes of Olynthus, who sent them to his uncle Aristotle in Athens.  Aristotle was also the teacher of Alexander until the age of 16 – what a small world!

Ancient Greece

The name ‘planet’ comes from the Greek term planētēs, meaning ‘wanderer’.  The names of individual planets (within our solar system) are all drawn from Greek mythology, although they have Romanised names outside of Greece. References to identifiable stars and constellations appear in the writings of Homer and Hesiod, in the 7th or 8th centuries BCE.  However, the first Greek attempts to rationally explain the structure and behaviour of the cosmos date from the period 600-450BCE.  The anomalies in the motions of the planets bothered the early Greeks, who were culturally inclined to try to find rational physical explanations for them.

Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 BCE – c. 495 BCE) was an Ionian Greek philosopher and mathematician who founded a philosophical movement known as the Pythagoreans.  Amongst other things, Pythagoras was the first to think that the Earth was spherical rather than flat; and that the Morning Star and the Evening Star are identical (they are both the planet Venus). Astronomy was listed by the Pythagoreans among the four mathematical arts (along with arithmetic, geometry, and music). One of these Pythagoreans was Anaxagoras (c. 510 – 428 BCE), who discovered that the Moon shines by reflected light from the Sun and gave the correct theory of lunar eclipses (i.e. the Earth is blocking the light from the Sun to the Moon). These eclipses provided the conclusive arguments in favour of the Earth being spherical.  The Pythagoreans also regarded the Earth as one of the planets.

Herakleides of Pontus was a Pythagorean who lived in the 4th century BCE and studied under Plato.  Herakleides discovered that Venus and Mercury revolve around the Sun. He also held that the Earth rotated on its own axis every 24 hours, which accounted for the apparent procession of the stars across the night sky, but did not explain the retrograde motion of the planets.  By now, these anomalous planetary motions had become the central problem of astronomy and cosmology. Plato encouraged Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 410 BCE – c. 347 BCE) to develop a two-sphere model with the Earth at the centre, and the planets occupying a separate sphere to the stars, similar to that shown by the following diagram. two sphere model

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aristarchus of Samos (310 BCE – ca. 230 BCE) has been called ‘the Greek Copernicus’ because he proposed a heliocentric model of the cosmos, with the Sun at the centre instead of the Earth, about 1800 years before Copernicus did.  Aristarchus also calculated the sizes of the Sun and Moon, as well as their distances from the Earth in Earth radii.   Aristarchus’s working drawings of the relative sizes of the Sun, Earth and the Moon are shown below. Aristarchus drawing

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The radius and circumference of the Earth were first calculated (but slightly underestimated) by Eratosthenes of Cyrene – c.276-c.194 BCE.  He was a mathematician, poet, music theorist and inventor of the  discipline of geography, including the terminology used today.  Unfortunately, Aristarchus was unable to persuade his contemporary colleagues of the merits of his theory, which was largely forgotten until rediscovered by Copernicus in the 16th century CE.  Seleucus of Seleucia (b.190BCE) was the only Greek Babylonian philosopher to support heliocentric model of planetary motion. He also correctly theorized that tides were caused by the Moon, a theory that was overlooked by Galileo 1700 years later.

Hipparchos of Nicaea (c. 190 BCE – c. 120 BCE) was a Greek astronomer, geographer, and mathematician of the Hellenistic period.  He is considered the founder of trigonometry but is most famous for his incidental discovery of precession of the equinoxes.  He compiled a star catalogue recording the position and brightness of the stars, which was used by astronomers for centuries afterwards. As a result of the non-acceptance of Aristarchus’s heliocentric model, subsequent Greek astronomers persisted with trying to reconcile the anomalous movements of the planets with a geocentric model of the cosmos.

Apollonius of Perga (c. 262 BCE–c. 190 BCE) introduced two new mechanisms: the eccentric deferent and the epicycle, which are illustrated in the diagram below. Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. 90CE – c. 168CE) was a Greco-Roman mathematician, also known as an astronomer, geographer and astrologer.  Ptolemy explained how to predict the behavior of the planets by introducing the equant. Below is a simple illustration showing the basic elements of Ptolemaic cosmology.  It shows a planet rotating on an epicycle which is itself rotating around a deferent inside a crystalline sphere. The center of the system is marked with an X, and the earth is slightly off of the center.  Opposite the earth is the equant point, which is what the planetary deferent would actually rotate around.

Ptolemy model

Illustration showing the basic elements of Ptolemaic cosmology (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ultimately, these attempts at retrofitting cosmological theory to seemingly endless observational anomalies became too much.  Dislike of the equant, on top of the deferent and the epicycle, was a major motivation for Copernicus to construct his heliocentric system after the scientific renaissance some 1500 years later. Although astrology was not as popular in ancient Greece as it was in Egypt and Mesopotamia, belief in astrology continued through the Roman period and the Middle Ages.  Through most of its history, astrology was considered a scholarly tradition. It was accepted in political and academic contexts, and was connected with other studies, such as astronomy, alchemy, meteorology, and medicine.  At the end of the 17th century, new scientific concepts in astronomy and physics (such as heliocentrism and Newtonian mechanics) called astrology into question.[1] Astrology thus lost its academic and theoretical standing, and common belief in astrology has since largely declined.


Brown, D (2000) Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology Bandhagen: Styx Publications.

Evans, James (1998). The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hermann Hunger, ed. (1992). Astrological reports to Assyrian kings. State Archives of Assyria 8. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press

Koestler, A (1959) The Sleepwalkers (Danube Edition 1968) London: Hutchinson.

Kuhn, T.S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed. 1996) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leverington, D. (2003). Babylon to Voyager and beyond: a history of planetary astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, B. (1946) History of Western Philosophy (2nd edition 1961). London: George Allen & Unwin.

Toulmin, S. and Goodfield, J. (1961) The Fabric of the Heavens: The Development of Astronomy and Dynamics Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wightman, W.P.D. (1951, 1953) The Growth of Scientific Ideas, Yale University Press.

Endnotes [1] Rational arguments that the claims of astrology are false include firstly, because they are incompatible with science; secondly, because there is no credible causal mechanism by which they could possibly be true; thirdly, because there is no empirical evidence that they are true despite objective testing; and fourthly, because the star signs used by astrologers are all out of kilter with the times of the year and have been so for the last two or three thousand years.

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Egyptian Kingship in the Middle Kingdom

by Tim Harding

Divine kingship was the most striking feature of both the Middle and the Old Kingdoms (Trigger et al 1983, 71).  The king was thought to have a dual nature, both human and divine and was “a human in the role of a god” (Schneider 1984, 165).

The Egyptians also believed that the world was torn between potential chaos and order.  They thought that disorder is contained by the rule of kings.  In this way, their view of the nature of the world aligned with the structure of political power (Scarre 2008, 118).  In particular, the Middle Kingdom emphasised the indispensability of kingship for the well-being of the state and society (Schneider 1984, 170).

The Middle Kingdom lasted from 2040 to 1650 BCE and has been described as the classic period of Egyptian civilisation, marking a high point in the development of poetry and literature (Scarre 2008, 131-132, 145).  This literature provides information about both the religious and political dimensions of Egyptian kingship; and the relationship between these dimensions.

The king had obligations not only to humans but to the gods as well, including appeasing the gods with divine offerings and acting as a mediator between the gods (Schneider 1984, 169).  Indeed, there was a belief that religious piety and successful rule go together (Trigger et al 1983, 75).  For example, in the ‘Building Inscription of Sesostris I’ the King says:

He (Harakhty)[1] begat me to do what should be done for him,
to accomplish what he commands to do.
He appointed me shepherd of this land,
knowing him who would herd it for him…
He destined me to rule the people,
made me to be before mankind…
I excel by acting for my maker,
pleasing the god with what he gave (Lichtheim 1975, 116-117).

This text also illustrates the importance of the king’s role building enduring monuments, including temples and palaces as well as his own burial site (Schneider 1984, 170; Montet 1964, 46).

‘The Prophecies of Neferti’ (Lichtheim 1975, 139-145) describe the necessity of having a strong king to ensure Maat.[2]  This is done through a literary device[3] in which a picture of anarchy and chaos is depicted, together with calamities of nature including crop failures (Trigger et al 1983, 75).  Then along comes a king (probably Amenemhat I) who reunites the country, drive out foreigners, defend the borders and restores order (Lichtheim 1975, 143-144).

The importance of the king to the protection and unity of the Egyptian nation is also shown in the text entitled ‘A Cycle Of Hymns to King Sesostris III’:

Hail to you, Khakaure, our Horus, Divine of Form!
Land’s protector who widens its borders,
Who smites foreign countries with his crown.
Who holds the Two Lands in his arms’ embrace,
[Who subdues foreign] lands by a motion of his hands (Lichtheim 1975, 198).

The King claims to be the conqueror and owner of the land of all Egypt:

[Mine is the land], its length and breadth,
I was nursed to be a conqueror.
Mine is the land, I am its lord,
my power reaches heaven’s height (Lichtheim 1975, 117).

In other words, the king was the sole owner of the land and all that it produces.  These royal privileges not only gave him an economic monopoly within Egypt, but also the right to do as he pleases with the spoils of military campaigns including the mineral resources of foreign dominions such as the Sinai and Nubia (Schneider 1984, 168).

Notwithstanding the absolute power of the king, one king named Merikare was advised by his father to display justice and mercy in the exercise of his power:

Do not be evil, for patience is good; …Do justice, that you may live long upon the earth. Calm the weeper, do not oppress the widow, do not oust a man from his father’s property, do not degrade magnates from their seats. Beware of punishing wrongly;…(Simpson 1973).[4]

‘The Story of Sinuhe’ (Lichtheim 1975, 223-235) also tells how the kings of Egypt could combine simplicity with grandeur, and sternness with clemency (Montet 1964, 61).  While he was serving with prince Senwosret I in Libya, Sinuhe deserted and fled to Canaan because he overheard a secret about the death of the Egyptian king Amenemhet I.  He remained in exile until he was an old man, when he received an invitation from King Senwosret I to return to Egypt where he was graciously pardoned and provided with the honour of a house and burial tomb.

Merikare was advised to cultivate a powerful elite or entourage to assist in him in the application of his laws (Montet 1964, 35).  The development of a closely regimented and centralised society was later needed for the expansion of agricultural production into new areas such as the Fayyum Oasis near Memphis.  Papyri found during Petrie’s excavations of this area reveal the existence of a mayor, legal offices and a prison (Scarre 2008, 131-132).

However, not all of our knowledge about Egyptian kingship is derived from literary texts.  For example, the frequently depicted images of the king ‘smiting the foes’ and hunting wild animals are key components of the royal propaganda portraying the king as the defender and extender of the nation’s borders against the chaotic external world (Schneider 1984, 168).  These images complement texts such as where King Amenemhet I boasts of subduing lions and capturing crocodiles, together with defeating and humiliating foreigners (Lichtheim 1975, 137).  Other sources of information about the kingship in the Middle Kingdom include the various monuments the kings constructed (Schneider 1984, 170); and objects bearing their inscriptions in foreign places of trading importance such as the Sinai, the Levant, Syria and the Aegean (Scarre 2008, 131).

In conclusion, the literature of the Middle Kingdom provides fragmented glimpses of the behaviours of certain kings – it does not provide a complete overview of kingship as might be expected in a historical narrative like that of Plutarch or Quintus-Curtuis (Montet 1964, 62; Trigger et al 1983, 73).  Furthermore, these glimpses are presented in the form of concisely worded and sometimes cryptic assertions requiring interpretation, rather than as cogently argued treatises (Trigger et al 1983, 71).  Nevertheless, the literature provides us with some important pieces of the ‘jigsaw’ of archaeological evidence; and when read in the context of the other sources of evidence, a coherent picture of Egyptian kingship is emerging.


Ancient Sources

‘A Cycle Of Hymns to King Sesostris’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘Building Inscription of Sesostris I’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘Instruction Addressed to King Merikare’ in Simpson, W.K (ed.), 1973, The Literature of Ancient Egypt, New Haven and London, pp. 180-192.

‘Instruction of King Amenemhet I for his Son Sesostris I’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘The Story of Sinuhe’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

Modern Sources

Anon. (2010)  AAH1010 Ancient Civilisations 1: The Bronze Age. Unit Guide, Semester 1, 2010. Monash University School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Clayton.

Montet, P. (1964 )  Eternal Egypt Phoenix Press, London.

Scarre, C and Fagan, B.M. (2008)  Ancient Civilisations, (third edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River

Schneider, T. (1984)  Sacred Kingship in Anon. (2010) AAH1010 Ancient Civilisations 1: The Bronze Age. Unit Guide, Semester 1, 2010. Monash University School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Clayton, 165-171.

Trigger, B.G., Kemp, B.J, O’Connor, D and Lloyd, A.B. (1983 ) Ancient Egypt- A Social History Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[1] As Harakhty (Horakhty), or ‘Horus of the two horizons’, Horus was the god of the rising and setting sun.

[2] Maat was the fundamental concept of the Egyptian world view, signifying the correct structure of life and the world (Schneider 1984, 166).

[3] The ‘prophesies’ were actually written during the king’s reign to glorify the king (Lichtheim 1975, 139).

[4] Translated from the Leningrad Papyrus, written by a scribe called Khamwese during the Middle Kingdom (Simpson 1973)

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Ancient Athens, the Delian League and Corruption

by Tim Harding

After the final defeat of the Persians in the mid-fifth century BCE, the Delian League was gradually transformed into an Athenian empire.  The transformation was accompanied by an accumulation of power over other city states by Athens; associated with certain claims of political corruption.  This essay describes the transformation process, how Athenians justified it, and how they responded to the claims of corruption.  It also examines the claims in terms of the different ancient and modern perspectives of corruption.

Formation of the Delian League

A coalition of Greek city states defeated the Persians at Salamis in 480BCE and at Plataea in 479 BCE, led by Athens and Sparta respectively (Martin 2000, 104).  Following these victories, there was a brief attempt to continue a broad coalition, including both Athens and Sparta, as a naval operation to drive out Persian outposts in far northern Greece and Ionia.  However, there was strong criticism of the arrogant behaviour of the Spartan commander, Pausanias, and in 477 BCE he was replaced by an Athenian commander, Aristides (Martin 2000, 106; Roberts 2005, 207; Hornblower 2002, 10).  According to Thucydides, the Spartans wanted to be rid of the war against the Persians, and they were satisfied of the competency and friendship of the Athenians (Thucydides 1.96).

Thucydides then describes how Athens formed a new anti-Persian alliance (known as the ‘Delian League’ in modern descriptions):

“The Athenians having thus succeeded to the supremacy by the voluntary act of the allies through their hatred of Pausanias, determined which cities were to contribute money against the barbarian, and which ships;…Now was the time that the office of ‘Treasurers for Hellas’ was first instituted by the Athenians. These officers received the tribute, as the money contributed was called. The tribute was first fixed at four hundred and sixty talents. The common treasury was at Delos, and the congresses were held in the temple.”

The Aegean island of Delos was chosen because it was an ancient religious meeting place, it was centrally located, easy to defend and too small to pose a threat in itself (Bowra 1971, 26).  The member states of the Delian League were predominately those most exposed to Persian attack, located in northern Greece, Ionia and the islands of the Aegean Sea (Martin 2000, 106; Hammond 1967, 256; Bury 1963, 328; Waterfield 2004, 89).  They swore a solemn oath never to desert the alliance (Martin 2000, 106); and to have the same friends and enemies (Aristotle 23, 4-5).  However, League policy was executed by an Athenian high command that also controlled the Treasury, thus concentrating power in Athenian hands from the outset (Pomeroy et al 1999, 205).

View of Delos today

View of Delos today

Transformation to Athenian Empire

There was a gradual process of transformation from a voluntary mutual defence pact into an Athenian empire.  Although each member state in theory had only one vote, in practice Athens exerted the major influence in the League (Roberts 2005, 207-208; Hammond 1967, 257).  An Athenian general commanded every military expedition (Roberts 1998, 88).  Over time, more and more member states contributed money rather than warships.  Athens had superior shipyards and skilled workers to build triremes in large numbers, as well as a large population of thetes willing to serve as rowers.  However, this also meant that rebellious member states such as Thasos, Naxos and Mytilene were unable to defend themselves against naval attack by Athens (Martin 2000, 107).  There is no evidence that Athens consulted other members of the League in suppressing rebellions (Waterfield 2004; 90).

The Battle of Eurymedon in either 469 or 466 BCE was an important final victory for the Delian League over the Persians; and which left Athens free to build its empire (Bury 1963, 338; Bury and Meiggs 1975, 210; Finley 1981, 43).  To keep Athens’ other enemies out of the field during the dangerous process of establishing the empire, cleruchies (external Athenian colonies) were established (Hammond 1967, 306; Lendering undated).

In 454 BCE the League’s treasury was relocated from Delos to Athens.  Ostensibly, this was for security from Persians and pirates; but Delos was probably at no more at risk than previously. This event marks a turning point at which many historians stop referring to the Delian League (Pomeroy et al 1999, 214).  Athenians themselves began using the phrase ‘the cities which the Athenians rule’ in their inscriptions (Hornblower 2002, 17).  After the Kallias Peace Treaty with Persia in 450 BCE, the removal of the original justification for the League completed this transformation process (Roberts 2005, 208).  Yet the allied tributes continued to be ruthlessly extorted by Athenian warships (Wartenberg 1995, 19; de Bois and van der Spek 2008, 93).  Athens was also motivated by the necessity of securing a reliable source of grain from the Black Sea area (Waterfield 2004, 92).  The Athenian Empire at this stage included most of the islands of the Aegean (except for Crete, Melos and Thera), plus of the cities on or near the coast of mainland Greece (Bury and Meiggs 1975, 211).  The League’s territory had become Athenian territory.  Athenian colonies had become military bases (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 93).


Between 450 and 447, Athens made the use of Athenian silver coins and weights mandatory (Meiggs and Lewis 1969, 45; Bury 1963, 366) which further infringed the autonomy of the allies (Hammond 1967, 306).  The single currency made commercial transaction easier, especially for Athens, and reinforced perceptions of Athenian dominance over a uniform culture (Wartenberg 1995, 27; Waterfield 2004, 93).  Athenians may also have hoped make money from fees charged for reminting non-Athenian coins (Wartenberg 1995, 27).  Athens also controlled shipments of corn, ostensibly to prevent it from being supplied to the Peloponnese (Finley 1981, 57; Hornblower 2002, 16).  Trials involving an Athenian had to be held in Athens (Lendering undated); and foreign defendants in law cases were obliged to come to Athens (Hornblower 2002, 16).  These assertions of Athenian power over her allies, coupled with her interference in their affairs, constitute clear evidence of her imperialism (French 1971, 99); although imperialism does not in itself constitute corruption, as will be discussed later.   

In the winter of 446-445, the Athenian leader Perikles engineered the ‘Thirty Years Peace’ treaty with Sparta, which although it lasted only until 432, did bring peace between Athens and Sparta, and preserved Athenian dominance of its empire (Martin 2000, 115).  Meetings of the Delian League ceased around 435, by which time they had become nonsensical (Waterfield 2004, 92).

Athenian justification for empire

The whole idea of domination and empire ran counter to the ingrained Greek ideals of autonomy and self-sufficiency; and also to the Olympic ideal of the equality of city states (Waterfield 2004, 90).  Athenian domination aroused great resentment in other Greek city states, including Sparta (Lendering undated).

On the other hand, the Athenian Empire did bring benefits to some of the poorer states.  There was security from further Persian attack; and piracy was suppressed to the great advantage of trade (Hornblower 2002, 17). The Ionians recognised Athens as their metropolis or colonial mother-city (Hornblower 2002, 13).  The Athenian navy provided well-paid employment opportunities to the islander population (Roberts 2005, 208).  The cessation of war against Persia would otherwise have confronted Athens with a considerable problem of unemployment (Burn 1948, 98).

Expenditure was incurred by Athens as head of the empire in building and maintaining ships and fortifications, paying military wages and supporting war-orphans.  During peacetime, there was a large excess of imperial income over expenditure, but in wartime the balance was reversed (Hammond 1967, 326).  There were also efficiency gains from economies of scale: the maintenance of a permanent navy would have been too costly for Athens alone (Roberts 1998, 95); and Athens demanded less money that the city states would have spent on their own defence (Lendering undated).

The presence in Athens of large numbers of slaves was a constant reminder that only Athenian naval and military power stood between its citizens and a similar fate.  The chasm between slave-owners and slaves was so wide as to explain the attitudes of Athenians towards their subject allies (Roberts 1998, 39).  Athenians maximised their own freedom by restricting the freedom of other Greeks (Roberts 1998, 85).

In his Last Speech (Thucydides 2.63.1), Perikles warned Athenians against giving up its empire:

“Again, your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honours. You should remember that what you are fighting against is not mere slavery as an exchange for independence, but also the loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise.”

In Greek thought, power was one of the prime sources of glory (Roberts 1998, 85).  According to Thucydides, (Thucydides 2.64.3) Perikles said:

“…even if now, in obedience to the general law of decay, we should ever be forced to yield, still it will be remembered that we held rule over more Hellenes than any other Hellenic state, that we sustained the greatest wars against their united or separate powers, and inhabited a city unrivalled by any other in resources or magnitude.”


Lord Acton’s famous quotation ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ (Dalberg-Acton 1907) is obviously referring to political corruption.  Most modern definitions of political corruption tend to emphasise the subversion of the public good by private interest (Bratsis 2003, 8-9).  Imperialism in itself is generally seen as an act of state rather than as political corruption.  We also need to consider the temporal context: that which may be considered corruption today may not have been regarded as corruption in ancient times.

The initial financial arrangements of the Delian League were equitably worked out by Aristedes and incorporated in a formal agreement to avoid disputes later (French 1971, 79).  There was also a general move towards financial accountability in Athenian affairs by better record keeping (Thomas 1994, 48-49).

During wartime, allied tributes were primarily spent on shipbuilding and other military purposes (Hammond 1967, 326).  However, during the peacetime surpluses of League revenue over expenditure, Athens tended to use allied tributes for its own purposes.  Perikles built popular support for this by practical measures such the rebuilding of the Akropolis, the improvement of state festivals, the payment of trireme crews for eight months of the year, the establishment of cleruchies and colonies (Hammond 1967, 312) and the payment of jurors (Aristotle, 27).

From a reading of the literature related to the fifth century Athenian empire, there appear to be two main claims of possible corruption:

  1. the use of League tributes funds for solely Athenian purposes, for example the rebuilding of the Akropolis; and
  2. the acquisition of confiscated land and property by private Athenian citizens.

Neither of these activities would be possible without the power accumulated by Athens in converting the Delian League into its own empire.  So there is an implied connection here between power and corruption.  I will now examine these two claims of corruption in more detail.

Firstly, the conservative aristocratic politician Thucydides, son of Melesias (not Thucydides the historian) censured the transfer of the allied treasury to Athens and the use of the money to extravagantly adorn the city of Athens (Hammond 1967, 312).  According to Plutarch, the people in the assemblies cried out:

“The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping, and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.”

Although the tribute money was used for public rather than private purposes, such trenchant criticism can be interpreted as implying a form of corruption, in the sense of misuse of the money for purposes other than originally intended.

According to Plutarch, Perikles responded to this criticism by proposing to reimburse the city for all the expenses from his private property, under the term that he would make the inscriptions of dedication in his own name (Plutarch 14).  Perikles also defended the use of the tribute money by Athens (Plutarch 12.3) as a ‘fee for service’:

“For his part, Pericles would instruct the people that it owed no account of their moneys to the allies provided it carried on the war for them and kept off the Barbarians; ‘not a horse do they furnish,’ said he, ‘not a ship, not a hoplite, but money simply; and this belongs, not to those who give it, but to those who take it, if only they furnish that for which they take it in pay. And it is but meet that the city, when once she is sufficiently equipped with all that is necessary for prosecuting the war, should apply her abundance to such works as, by their completion, will bring her everlasting glory…”

So according to the standards of the time, it was debateable whether Athenian use of allied tribute funds constituted corruption.  There were arguments for and against, as illustrated by those of Thucydides, son of Melesias, and Perikles.  But in modern times, if for example Belgium started using NATO contributions for public buildings in Brussels, that would almost certainly be viewed as corruption.

Secondly, land and property confiscated after the defeat of rebel states were often allocated to landless Athenian citizens as colonists in the defeated territory.  Finley estimates that around 10,000 Athenian citizens may have benefited from this practice (Finley 1981, 51).  Finley appears to regard these private allocations of property as a form of corruption (Finley 1981, 53).  Whilst this would probably be regarded as corruption in modern times, it is doubtful whether it would have been regarded as corruption in ancient times, given the common practice after a battle victory against a city of killing the men, consigning the women and children to slavery and confiscating land and property.  These would have been viewed as legitimate acts of the victor rather than as corruption.

In conclusion, although the use of allied funds and confiscated property for Athenian purposes may be viewed as corruption by modern day standards, it was not necessarily seen as corruption by the standards of the time.


Ancient Sources

Aristotle, Constitution of Athens, trans. F.G. Kenyon. R.W.J. Clayton (ed.) Athenian Politics, 1973 London Association of Classical Teachers: The Classical Association, London. Available-: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/athenian_const.html Accessed 24 May 2012

Plutarch, The Life of Pericles in The Parallel Lives by Plutarch published in Vol. III of the Loeb Classical Library edition,1916. Available-:

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Pericles*.html Accessed 24 May 2012

Thucydides, A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Thucydides, Free Press, New York, 1996.

Modern Sources

Bowra, C.M., 1971    Periclean Athens, The Dial Press, New York.

Bratsis, P., 2003    Corrupt Compared to What? Greece, Capitalist Interests, and the Specular Purity of the State Discussion Paper No. 8, The Hellenic Observatory/The European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science

Burn, A.R., 1948    Pericles and Athens The English Universities Press Ltd, London.

Bury, J.B., 1963    A History of Greece, Macmillan, London and New York.

Bury, J.B., and Meiggs, R., 1975    A History of Greece 4thedition, Macmillan, London and New York.

Dalberg-Acton, J.E.E. (Lord Acton)., 1907    Appendix, in J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence eds, Historical Essays and Studies, Macmillan, London. Available-: http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/2201/203934 accessed 23 May 2012.

de Blois, L. and van der Spek, R.J., 2008    An Introduction to the Ancient World (2nd edition) Routledge, London and New York.

French, A., 1971    The Athenian Half-Century 478-431 BC Thucydides i 89-118 Translation and Commentary, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Finley, M.I., 1953    Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, Chatto & Windus, London.

Hammond, N.G.L., 1967    A History of Greece (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hornblower, S., 2002    Chapter 2, The beginnings of the Delian League , in The Greek World 479-323, 9-17.

Lendering, J., Undated          Delian League. Ancient Warfare Magazine. Available-:

http://www.livius.org/de-dh/delian_league/delian_league.html  Accessed 24 May 2012.

Martin, T. R., 2000    Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Meiggs, R. and Lewis, D. eds, 1969    A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century BC: To the End of the Fifth Century B.C. Vol 1 Oxford University Press, New York.

Pomeroy, S.B., Donlan, W., Burstein, S.M., and Roberts, J.T., 1990    Ancient Greece – A Political, Social and Cultural History Oxford University Press, New York.

Roberts, J., (ed) 2005    Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Roberts, J.W., 1998    City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens (2nd edition), Routledge, London.

Thomas, R. 1994    Literacy and the city-state in archaic and classical Greece, in A.K. Bowman and G. Woolf (eds), Literacy and Power in the Ancient World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thorley, J., 1996    Athenian Democracy, Routledge, Hoboken.

Wartenberg, U. 1995    Chapter 3, After Marathon: war, society and money in fifth-century Athens, British Museum Press, London.

Waterfield, R., 2004    Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

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Radical Democracy in Ancient Athens

by Tim Harding


Within the context of ancient Athenian democracy, the term ‘radical democracy’ refers to a set of constitutional reforms introduced by Ephialtes and Perikles, beginning in 462 BCE.  The main elements of these radical reforms were that (1) all major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Ekklesia (Assembly); at which all adult citizens[1] of good standing were entitled to vote (Roberts 1998, 41); and (2) public officials were randomly chosen by lot, known as sortition (Scarre and Fagan 2008, 291).  In this essay, I propose to argue that these radical democratic reforms went too far – that is, that their advantages were outweighed by their disadvantages.


Radical democracy was the culmination of a series of constitutional reforms introduced over a period of about 130 years, which were begun by the archon[2] Solon in 594 BCE (Aristotle, 6-13; Roebuck 1965, 206-210; Martin 2000, 84-86).  The general thrust of these reforms was to transfer power from the aristocracy to the citizenry of Athens (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 84-85).  This process separated the business of the State from the activities of its wealthier citizens; and limited the financial dependence of the State on their generosity (Humphreys 1978, 97).

The reforms were interrupted by the tyranny of Peisistratus, Megacles and Peisistratus’ sons between 560 and 510 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 210).  However, from about 508 BCE the reform process was recommenced and greatly extended by Kleisthenes,[3] who is regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 87).  Kleisthenes’ democratic reforms comprise the bulk of the constitutional situation that existed before the introduction of radical democracy by Ephialtes and Perikles in 462BCE.

Radical democratic reforms

According to Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, the composition of the major governmental bodies and the legal system before and after the introduction of radical democracy may be summarised as follows.

After the Persian wars, the Council of Areopagus (comprised of aristocrats) resumed guardianship of the constitution.  Ephialtes, who had become a leader of the people, diminished the authority of the Areopagus by (1) denouncing and bringing legal actions against members of the Council regarding their alleged maladministration; and (2) re-assigning some of the powers of the Areopagus to the Council of Five Hundred, the Assembly and the law courts (Aristotle, 25; Bury 1963, 347; Hammond 1967, 288; Roberts 1998, 41, 47).  The role of the Council of Five Hundred or boule, was to draft legislation for consideration by the Assembly, which had a quorum of six thousand citizens (Waterfield 2004, 117; Roberts 1998, 41). All major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Assembly, which were a form of direct democracy.

After Ephialtes was assassinated, Perikles took his place as popular leader of the Assembly.  Perikles was also a general who redirected military resources towards sea power, which had implications for democracy because of the large numbers of citizens required as rowers of the triremes, of which more will be said later.

The major changes of radical democracy were that all magistrates (administrative officials) were selected by lot (sortition), except for military officers and certain other key officials who were elected by vote (Aristotle, 43).  No magistrate selected by lot could hold the same office twice (Roberts 1998, 41). The Council of Five Hundred also became elected by lot – fifty from each of ten tribes.  Each tribe held the office of Prytaneis in turn, the order being determined by lot.  The Prytaneis was responsible for convening meetings and setting the agendas of the Council and the Assembly (Aristotle, part 43).  However, in the interests of national security, the generals could instruct the Prytaneis to either call or not call a meeting of the Assembly (Roberts 1998, 47).

One counterbalance to this seemingly random process was a strict legal requirement that any new law must be consistent with the constitution and existing laws, which limited the whim of persuasive orators (Waterfield 2004, 102; Roberts 1998, 42).

The Council of Five Hundred passed judgement on nearly all magistrates, subject to appeal to the law courts.  Individual citizens could also lay an information against magistrates for not obeying the laws, subject again to appeal to the law courts if the Council found the charge proven (Aristotle, part 45).

Most of the law courts consisted of 500 citizens over the age of thirty; and more important cases were heard by 1000 or 1500 citizens selected by lot (Aristotle, part 45) from a pool of 6000 jurors (Waterfield 2004, 118).  Perikles introduced pay for jury service in the law courts, which counterbalanced the wealthy influence of the aristocrats (Aristotle, Part 27).  Pay was later introduced for the Council of Five Hundred and the Assembly (Aristotle, 62), presumably to encourage attendance (Thorley 1996, 73).  Councillors were exempt from military service, which would also have encouraged participation (Roberts 1998, 46).

The eligibility for citizenship by birth was altered to require both parents to be citizens (Aristotle, 41) which reduced the ability of aristocrats to marry other aristocrats from outside Athens, thus forcing further social mobility between the classes (Waterfield 2004, 102).  This change also inhibited the making of foreign alliances (Humphreys 1978, 99).

In his Funeral Oration, Perikles announced that the community would look after war orphans until they reached adulthood (Thucydides, 2.46.1); which, apart from providing direct benefits to the orphans, enhanced the sense of community in Athens.

Although ostracism (banishment to exile for ten years by vote of the Assembly) was an earlier institution, it became an important part of radical democracy because it symbolised the principle that the interests of the city state must prevail over those of the individual when these are in conflict (Martin 2000, 112).  Ostracism also helped to rid the city of potential tyrants (Humphreys 1978, 101).


Advantages of radical democracy

The main advantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows.

(1) The various military threats to Athens made it important that all citizens felt integrally part of the city and its defence, particularly as they provided the essential manpower for the navy (Thorley 1996, 76).  As the anonymous writer of the ancient text known as “The Old Oligarch” wrote:

“First of all, then, I shall say that at Athens the poor and the commons seem justly to have the advantage over the well-born and the wealthy; for it is the poor which mans the fleet and has brought the state her power, and the steersmen and the boatswains and the shipmasters and the lookout-men and the shipwrights—these have brought the state her power much rather than the hoplites and the best-born and the elite.”  (‘The Old Oligarch’, i.1)

(2) Athens’ shift to democracy assisted her in forming alliances with other democratic city states such as Argos and Megara (Hammond 1967, 298).

(3) Radical democracy fostered political stability and civic pride by holding in check the inherent tensions between rich and poor; and between professional politicians and the masses (Waterfield 2004, 116, 119).

(4) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy promoted public expenditure on monumental buildings (such as the Long Walls), the arts and other cultural activities (Waterfield 2004, 119).  There was also an increased accountability of this public expenditure, as all the major decisions were debated and settled by the Assembly (Bury 1963, 348).

(5) The introduction of pay for jurors and later Assembly attendees encouraged wider participation and strengthened the position of democratic leaders against their aristocratic opponents (Hammond 1967, 301).

(6) Natural consequences of the radical democratic reforms were freedom of speech in the Assembly and equality before the law (Goldhill 2004, 5).


Disadvantages of radical democracy

The main disadvantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows:

(1) There was a major problem of efficiency.  Because all public policy issues had to be debated and settled by the Assembly, which could not sit during the many festivals that were held, decision-making could be excessively slow and unresponsive to immediate needs (Thorley 1996, 71).  Big issues might take days to resolve (Roberts 1998, 41).

(2) There were risks to the quality and coherence of policy decisions; and their implementation.  Selection by lot meant that there were no professional government officials, or civil servants, apart from military generals (Waterfield 2004, 116).  For example, instead of having a Treasurer advised by financial experts, finance was managed by a multiplicity of boards (Roberts 1998, 43).  The lack of a civil service resulted in an over-reliance on professional politicians and orators like Perikles to develop and oversee the implementation of public policy, without expert advice (Waterfield 2004, 116).

(3) There were practical difficulties which prevented all citizens from participating equally in the Assembly meetings.  Many Athenian citizens lived too far away from the city; the meeting place at the Pnyx could accommodate only about 6,000 of the 50,000 citizens who now had the right to vote; and only around 2,000 normally attended because many citizens could not afford to attend, at least until pay for Assembly attendance was later introduced (Waterfield 2004, 116-117; Bury 1963, 349).

(4) Few citizens exercised their right to speak in the Assembly, resulting in the public debate being increasingly led by professional orators (Roberts 1998, 41); with most citizen participation being limited to cheering and heckling (Waterfield 2004, 117).

(5) The assumption that every citizen is equally capable of exercising sound judgement is dubious.  In contrast, modern representative democracy assumes that some people are better than others at political reasoning (Goldhill 2004, 2).

(6) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy worked against Panhellenism, despite the efforts of Perikles to make the two concepts work together.  The brake on Panhellenism arguably increased the threats to Athens from other Greek city states; and to the Greek states as a whole from external threats (Waterfield 2004, 119).

(7) The restriction of citizenship to children of both parents who are citizens would have excluded notable citizens such as Themistocles and Kleisthenes (Bury 1963, 350).  It must have also excluded other potentially notable citizens.  According to Hammond (1967, 301) modern historians have argued that this restriction also prevented Athens from developing into a larger state.

(8) Finally, it is highly doubtful that mass meetings could successfully manage an empire or wage a lengthy war.  It is telling that radical democracy was eventually abandoned after Athens provoked and lost the Peloponnesian War (Roberts 1998, 45).

I have not included the disenfranchisement of women and other non-citizens as a disadvantage here, because this was a common feature of all political systems in ancient Athens; and therefore cannot be attributed to radical democracy.


Naturally, different readers will have different values and priorities; and are therefore likely to weigh the various advantages and disadvantages differently.  Also, that there may be numerically more disadvantages than advantages of radical democracy is of little consequence.

My own view is that many of the advantages of radical democracy, for example, defence, political stability, civic pride, free speech, equality before the law, transparency and accountability can also be achieved through other forms of democracy such as the modern system of representative democracy.  When combined with the major disadvantages of radical democracy, especially for efficiency and the quality of public policy, I believe that this factor tips the balance against radical democracy.

The historical fact that the ancient Athenian experiment with radical democracy was abandoned after the Peloponnesian War and has rarely, if ever, been repeated, indicates that radical democracy may not in practice have been the best form of democracy.


Ancient Sources

Anon. c.424 BCE  ‘The Polity of the Athenians’ The Old Oligarch in The Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University, New York.  Available-: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/424pol-athens.asp

Aristotle,  ‘Constitution of Athens’, trans. F.G. Kenyon. R.W.J. Clayton (ed.) Athenian Politics, 1973 London Association of Classical Teachers: The Classical Association, London. Available-: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/athenian_const.html

Thucydides Chapter 4: Pericles’ Funeral Speech in History of the Peloponnesian War trans. R. Warmer, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1972 (revised).

Modern Sources

Bury, J.B., 1963  A History of Greece, Macmillan, London and New York.

de Blois, L. and van der Spek, R.J.,2008  An Introduction to the Ancient World (2nd edition) Routledge, London and New York.

Goldhill, S., 2004  ‘The Good Citizen’, in Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters. John Murray, London, 179-94.

Hammond, N.G.L., 1967  A History of Greece (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Humphreys, S. C., 1978 ‘Public and Private Interests in Classical Athens’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Dec., 1977 – Jan., 1978), 97-104.

Martin, T. R., 2000  Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Osborne, R., 2009  Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC, Routledge, Hoboken.

Roberts, J.W., 1998   ‘Radical Democracy’ in City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens, Routledge, London.

Scarre, C and Fagan, B.M. 2008  Ancient Civilisations, (third edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River.

Thorley, J., 1996   Athenian Democracy, Routledge, Hoboken.

Waterfield, R., 2004  Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

[1] Athenian citizens were males born in Attica with at least one Athenian parent, excluding metics (foreign residents) and slaves.

[2] The archon was the position title one of several aristocratic leaders who replaced the hereditary kings of Athens in about 750 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 205).

[3] Also spelled as Cleisthenes.


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