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Guide to the classics: Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War

The Conversation

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The fall of the Athenian army in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War in 413 BC as depicted in an 1893 illustration by J.G.Vogt.
Wikimedia Commons

Julia Kindt, University of Sydney

Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War breaks off before the story is over. After detailing the armed conflict between the Athenians and the Spartans (and their respective allies) between 431 and 404 BCE, the eight-book text ends abruptly in the middle of a chapter as if, one day, the writer simply dropped his pen and left his desk, never to return.

Bust of Thucydides.
shakko, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

What required such urgent and final attention? And why did Thucydides never return to complete the manuscript? Whatever the answers, the book’s incompleteness adds a human touch to a work that is otherwise an accomplished and polished piece of writing.

The Peloponnesian War Thucydides recounts culminated in Sparta’s surprisingly late victory over the Athenians and ended a power dynamic that had shaped the ancient Aegean world for decades.

Everything changed in its aftermath. Both major powers came out of the war considerably weakened, opening the door for the later annexation of Greece by Philip of Macedon, his son Alexander the Great, and, finally, the Romans.

A fragment of the fourth book of the History of the Peloponnesian War.
Wikimedia Commons

In Thucydides, the war found an author of meticulous standard and dedication who created a work that still resonates in the disciplines of history, international relations, and political science. His thoroughness, sharpness, and matter-of-fact analysis have led some people to believe that he, and not fellow historian Herodotus, deserves the title “father of history”.

Thucydides would have agreed. His history includes several direct and indirect attacks on his immediate predecessors, most notably on Homer and Herodotus. While never once referring to him by name, Thucydides accused Herodotus of fabulation, storytelling, and a writing style that pandered to his immediate audience.

Needless to say, Thucydides was convinced that he himself offered a far superior product. He set the bar and set it high:

And the results, by avoiding patriotic storytelling, will perhaps seem the less enjoyable for listening. Yet if they are judged useful by any who wish to look at the plain truth about both past events and those that at some future time, in accordance to human nature, will recur in similar or comparable ways, that will suffice.

As a high-ranking Athenian military commander (or “strategos”), Thucydides brought to the project firsthand experience of the war, as well as an acute understanding of the complex power politics behind events on the battlefield. His analysis of the immediate and underlying causes of the war and his insight into the considerations and motivations of those fighting it remain one of the most brilliant pieces of political history to date.

His sharp analysis of the kind of forces that stir popular sentiments and drive collective decision making still resonates in the modern world. It fulfils its author’s own – somewhat preposterous – proclamation about the nature of his work:

It is a possession for all time (“ktema eis aei”), not a competition piece to be heard for the moment, that has been composed.

No self-esteem issues here.

Nonetheless, his programmatic prediction proved right. More than 2500 years later, Thucydides’ History still stands among the foundational texts in the classical canon due to its enduring analytical sharpness and the acuteness of his observations.

My war is bigger than yours

When Thucydides set out to compose his work, the writing of warfare was already a notable tradition launched with a bang by the legendary Homer about three centuries earlier. In his epic poem Iliad, Homer related the story of the Trojan War as an epic battle involving gods and humans alike. He was followed 300 years later by Herodotus who gave an account of the Persian Wars, similarly rich in iconic battles and larger-than-life personalities on both sides of the conflict.

A double bust of Herodotus and Thucydides.
Wikimedia Commons

With Thucydides, the writing of war took a new direction. In contrast to the wars of Homer and Herodotus, the armed conflict that concerned Thucydides was fought primarily among Greeks. It also involved events that occurred within the author’s lifetime, which introduced a contemporary dimension to the genre.

Thucydides focused on offering a strong and authoritative account of the war, its causes, and behind the scenes negotiations. To this end, he largely left out the gods and religious explanations more generally – although there is still more religion in Thucydides than one may think.

Instead, he offered a deep analysis of human factors and motivations. Although Thucydides was aware that all authors exaggerate the importance of their topic, he still felt inclined to make a case for his:

And this war – even though men always consider the war on hand the most important while they are fighting but once they have ended it are more impressed by ancient ones – will nevertheless stand out clearly as greater than the others for anyone who examines it from the facts themselves.

The reasons he gave were three-fold: the Peloponnesian War was fought between two cities at the height of their power; these powers went into conflict prepared; and most of the Greek world (and beyond) was subsequently drawn into the fighting.

The so-called “archaeology” of his work – a succession of observations laid out in the beginning – sets out his method: eyewitness accounts; the critical evaluation of sources and informants; and, finally, his own experience and insight.

What stands out throughout is the sharpness with which Thucydides reports. In contrast to Herodotus, he no longer includes alternative viewpoints and traditions but offers a strong, singular explanation of events. Yet the authorial voice Thucydides created in the History should not belie the fact that he engaged in his very own forms of make–believe.

Through the speeches, in particular, Thucydides offers evaluations of events and situations in a voice other than his own. Interspersed throughout the History, they provide a commentary on the events from the perspective of the historical actors.

A battle of words

Some modern critics decry the speeches in Thucydides’ History as the failure of an otherwise truthful and authoritative narrator. Yet Thucydides himself apparently saw no problem; there was no conflict between his aim to tell what really happened and his use of speeches, although he did find the subject important enough to warrant an explanation:

Insofar as these facts involve what the various participants said both before and during the actual conflict, recalling the exact words was difficult for me regarding speeches I heard myself and for my informants about speeches made elsewhere; in the way I thought each would have said what was especially required in the given situation, I have stated accordingly, with the closest possible fidelity on my part to the overall sense of what was actually said.

Among the speeches, the so-called “Funeral Oration” stands out. Allegedly delivered by the famous Athenian statesman and orator Pericles’ after the first year of the Peloponnesian war, the speech was intended to celebrate those who had fallen, and offers an appraisal of Athenian culture, identity, and ideology.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852). Wikimedia Commons

Thucydides’ Pericles makes an emphatic appeal to the very foundations of Athens’ power and supremacy. His appraisal of Athenian greatness includes references to bravery, military strength, democracy, freedom, and the rule of law, as well as to “soft” values such as the love of beauty, education and the arts.

However, a different picture of life in Athens follows this oration: Thucydides’ detailed account of the plague that broke out shortly afterwards. Thucydides, who was also afflicted, reports in detail on the plague’s impact on the human body, the city, and its people. Lawlessness, disregard for custom, egotism and a general lack of order in the face of death took hold of Athens.

The strong contrast between the high-minded “Funeral Oration” and the ravages of the plague provides a powerful insight into the principles that guide Thucydidean enquiry. This author is not afraid to point out that ideological premise and historical practice don’t always mesh. Time and again he shows that in extreme situations, it is human nature to diverge from ideals that are otherwise firmly held.

In these moments, the anthropologist and humanist in Thucydides comes to the fore. Recent scholarship has highlighted this dimension of his work. Even though the main focus in his History remains on warfare and the geo-political deliberations that inform it, there is more on human nature and culture in this work than one may think. And, more frequently than not, Thucydides extends his sharp analysis from politics and warfare to the human and cultural factors driving human history.

The tragedy of power politics

The same sharp analysis runs throughout the work. It cuts to the core of the hidden forces, motivations, and considerations at stake in various historical situations, and informs such diverse accounts as the so-called “Mytilenean Debate” and the “Melian Dialogue”.

The Mytilenean Debate revolves around whether the Athenians should revoke their decision to annihilate the entire western Ionian city of Mytilene in retaliation for a revolt.

Ruins of Ancient Sparta in Greece.
Thomas Ihle, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Thucydides has two main speakers set out the case. Both speakers make a series of complex arguments revolving around questions of justice, fairness, good governance, and the nature of hegemonic rule. Cleon (a General during the Peloponnesian War) argues for harsh treatment: doing otherwise would set a dangerous precedent for other allies. Diodotus (his opponent), on the other hand, takes up this point and insists that a more lenient response is the superior strategy: it would not corner those rebelling but provides them with a viable alternative that secures a future source of revenue for Athens.

Diodotus’s argument, in particular, invokes the principles and practices of these aforementioned “soft powers” successfully. As such, the Athenians choose to overturn the decision. A trireme is dispatched just in time to prevent major bloodshed.

However, a very different side of Athens emerges in the Melian Dialogue. This is the only section in the History that’s set out like a dramatic fast-paced sequence of direct speech – a dialogue like an Athenian tragedy. Importantly, this conceit allowed both the Athenians and the Melians to present their views directly and as a collective voice.

Should the Melians (a Spartan colony) be allowed to remain neutral? Or should the Athenians insist they submit and pay tribute? The Melians make a passionate plea for justice and the right to remain neutral. The Athenians counter by pointing out:

the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that … the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

Allowing the Melians to remain neutral would set a dangerous precedent and threaten Athenian hegemony.

Over two millennia later, this line of reasoning still resonates. Particularly now, as populism reemerges, insights into the power of words to influence public sentiments and decision-making remain acutely (and painfully) up-to-date.

In a modern context, the American political theorist Robert Mearsheimer calls the dynamics of such considerations which revolve around national self-interest “the tragedy of great power politics”. In his book of the same name, he describes the constant struggle of nation states to maintain and optimise power and hegemony in order to prevent other states from dominating them.

And a tragedy it is. Both the Athenians and the Melians remain steadfast. Melos (an Aegean island inhabited by Dorians) refuses to submit. Athens ends up murdering all men of military age and selling their wives and children into slavery.

Enduring sharp political realism

A statue of Thucydides at the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna.
Wienwiki / Walter Maderbacher, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

It is such resonances which make the History stand out and endure. The voice of the characters within the story reverberate with the voice of Thucydides as its author.

Despite his penchant for long-winded sentences – truthfully and painstakingly rendered into English in most translations – Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War has become a classic by virtue of the sharp political realism at its core.

It remains a must-read for all who want to understand how power politics manifest, and learn about its effect on the psychology of humankind, both individual and collective.

All translations are from M. I. Finley and R. Warner’s translation of Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War (New York, 1972)


(for my colleague Vras who never grows tired of arguing over Herodotus and Thucydides with me)

The ConversationJulia Kindt, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

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

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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).

733px-Athenian_empire_atheight_450_shepherd1923

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.”

Corruption

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

Introduction

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.

1024px-Akropolis_by_Leo_von_Klenze1

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).

701athens

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).

trireme

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.

Conclusion

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.

Bibliography:

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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