Ancient Greece – Political System

By admin ~ December 13th, 2009 @ 10:37 pm

In 6th century Athens, three groups of inhabitants were created after the changes initiated by Solon. First there were the Pedinoi, i.e. the land-owning aristocrats who lived on their estates like forgotten feudal lords. The second group was the Paralioi, who worked in trade and shipping. Among their ranks, a new class was evolving on the basis of money, which provided all the comforts of life, and would sooner or later inevitably create the craving for power. The third group was called the Diakrioi; they were the many. Among them were shepherds, peasants and freemen: i.e. people who had suffered oppression for centuries, but when they suddenly acquired freedom, were easy prey for demagogues.

Solon never became a tyrant, although the state had given him the rights of a dictator. Perhaps he had a strong sense of personal freedom. But Peisistratos, with his implacable thirst for power, knew how to stir the masses, and managed to gain office by using populist promises, flattering the mob and employing unscrupulous strategems. He went as far as to present a false Athena to the dazzled people to persuade them that he had been sent by heaven, and at the same time introduced an election campaign without restriction.

Like a true deceiver of the people, Peisistratos exploited ordinary human weaknesses to stay in power. By playing on the citizens’ religious feeling, he built magnificent temples. To keep potentially dangerous dissidents occupied, he organised feasts and gave official sanction to popular cults where zealous crowds could express all their grudges against the aristocracy, under the pretext of customary rituals. But like the clever, flexible politician he was, Peisistratos also took care of artists and supported the arts and letters. He also initiated many public works, irrigation and road projects, changing Athens from a town to a city.

When he died in 527 BC, Peisistratos left two sons as his heirs, Hippias and Hipparchos, who continued their father’s policy with the naivet? of a hereditary ruler and the natural decline of a public figure. The positive results of Peisistratos’ policy were eroded by the sons’ dizzying ascent to office and the sufferings inflicted on them by the trappings of power. Hipparchos was murdered for personal reasons by Harmodios and Aristogeiton, whom the desperate Athenians regarded as saviours of the state. Hippias held on for a few more years, in a grim climate of terror and taxation: it was said that he taxed births and even deaths. In 511 he was forced out of Athens and after a period of wandering, sought refuge at the King of Persia’s court, in betrayal of his country. Unrelenting to the end, Hippias always hoped that he would return to power. This was obvious during the battle of Marathon when, now an old man, he stood on the Persian ships waiting for the defeat of the Athenians so that he would be restored to office.

With the fall of the tyranny in 511, two new parties emerged, the Oligarchoi or land-owners and the Democrats or merchants. The powerful old families of Athens, ignoring the rights given to the people under Solon, now controlled political life and cultivated leaders within these two groups who were fighting fiercely for power. Fortunately a man named Kleisthenis came forward at that time, who brought radical changes to the state organisation, building firmly on the foundations laid by Solon. Even though he was born into the large and powerful family of the Alkmeonids, Kleisthenis came closer to the democratic method of government than any of his predecessors. His greatest achievement was that with the fundamental reforms he instituted, he deprived the clans, families and tribes of power.

This charismatic politician divided the three regions of Attica into 30 virtually autonomous demes (townships): ten along the coast, ten in the mountainous districts and ten in the middle. Some townships took their names from the regions in which they were located, others from local heroes. These place names became the citizens’ surnames, used together with their own names and those of their fathers (patronyms). Thus, in the near future, Pericles, for example, would be called Pericles Xanthippou (son of Xanthippos) Cholargeus (from the township of Cholargos).

Kleisthenis’ next step was to rearrange the population. One township was selected at random from every region, and ten new groups were formed, the citizens of which were from all three different points of Attica. In this way, the Ten Tribes were created, whose members were not related in any way by blood, nor did they have the same occupation, and thus they had no common vested interests. Each of the Ten Tribes elected fifty representatives to the Council of Five Hundred, and one General to the Supreme Council of the Ten. From the Council of the Ten the best person was elected, on the basis of merit alone, to the supreme office of Polemarch (military chief). To make the most important state decisions, the Assembly of Denies (Ecclesia) was established, in which all adult Athenian males took part. But Kleisthenis, in a clever political manoeuvre, did not touch the jurisdiction of the Areopagus, the supreme court, even though he was well aware that it was a bastion of the old aristocracy, consisting of persons who had been elected Archon in the past. This older generation had a completely negative attitude toward the innovations of the democratic politician. Despite this, the changes went ahead, and in about 500, the Councillor’s oath was instituted.

A few years earlier, in 508 BC, Kleisthenis had introduced the concept of ostracism which was not applied until 488. The purpose of ostracism was to protect the state from individuals who, after acquiring great power, might try to become dictators. This preventive measure could be applied to just one citizen every year. The Assembly of the Deme gave its members the right to scratch the name of any politician regarded as being dangerous to the Republic on a piece of ceramic tile, an ostrakon. If any name was written on six thousand ostraka, that person was exiled for ten years. Ostraka have been found in the Agora bearing the names of the best known public figures in ancient Athens, thus indicating both the ambition of each one, and the changeable mood of the people.

With the participation of so many citizens in public matters, Kleisthenis’ political system was for the first time more popular than that of Solon. It helped simple citizens to hold office and at last to make their opinion respected by the all-powerful Boule (Assembly). But the Athenians still had a long way to go to deal with envious neighbouring states, divisions among the professional classes, problems with the colonies and, above all, the expansionism of the Persian empire. Added to these were the eternal personal quarrels of the politicians who still came from the old aristocratic families.

The first Athenian politician to come from an ordinary background was Themistocles. His father’s name was Neokles and his mother’s Avrotonon, which sounds very much like the neutral names given to hetaeres (courtesans) in the closed Athenian society. It is said that Themistocles attended school in the Kynosargos region, where the children of mixed marriages, considered almost illegitimate, were educated. Perhaps this peculiar feature of his upbringing helped make him so decisive in his goals. Even as an adolescent he knew how to convince other people. For example, he managed to bring Athenian youths to the gymnasium in Kynosargos, which would have been inconceivable earlier for children of true citizens. Themistocles very cleverly kept away from the enmities between the great political families; he knew how to wait for the right moment; like all ambitious men, he always wanted to distinguish himself, never letting anything stand in the way of his plans. Herodotus reported that when Themistocles went to collect money from Andros, he told the inhabitants of the island that he had come together with two protecting goddesses, Peitho (persuasion) and Via (force). In various ways, not always orthodox, he managed to ostracise his opponents, even the mild and just Aristeides, thus remaining the dominant figure in the political arena.

From the outset of his career, Themistocles, a man of great discernment, had seen the tremendous importance of the sea. As Plutarch said, it was naval strength which gave birth to democracy, since rural societies feared change and supported the oligarchy so that they would feel protected by the strong. With great courage, the Athenian politician convinced his fellow citizens to put aside the dividend they were receiving from the Lavrion silver mines, and by collecting these funds for just a year, he was able to build ships. In this way he changed the Athenian troops from footsoldiers to navy. Pushing his plans forward, he manned the Athenian trirenes with freemen from the poorer groups, the theses, who were serving their state for the first time in a public capacity; this was certainly one more important step toward democracy. For it was these free citizens, who as oarsmen in the fleet of their homeland, ensured a brilliant naval victory for the Greeks at Salamis on 22 September 480 BC.

The Persian wars united all Athenians, irrespective of their personal quarrels and political differences, in an invincible common front which won the final victory and changed the course of history. The full participation of the people at that time was what brought an end to the remaining vestiges of the Athenian aristocracy, and the abolition of the privileges of the Aeropagus in 462.

The Athenian political system took on its final form under the Republic, when the city began to be ruled by archons originating from and elected by the people. Then, everybody had the same opportunity to rule if the lot fell to them. There were no permanent officials, judges, priests or military leaders. If last year’s soldier was capable, he might become this year’s general. This participation in public matters meant that the citizens acquired vitality and personal experience by serving in different capacities. It alsoo meant the development of the sound judgement required to elect future officials, to make judicial decisions, and to chart the course of the state. From the first laws of Solon, which made the Skythian philosopher Anacharsis wonder how it was possible for the Greeks to gather knowledge by listening to wise men and at the same time to permit the ignorant to judge, up to Pericles who told the Athenians about the benefits of democracy, more than a century of evolution and adaptation had elapsed. It was Pericles’ funeral oration for those killed during the Peloponnesian war which laid the foundation for this respect for individual freedom that was unprecedented in history.

Pericles argued that their fathers who had always lived in Athens handed down to them a free city which did not need to adopt foreign laws. On the contrary, it constituted an example for all, with a political system under which everybody participated and everybody enjoyed. And whoever hesitated to participate actively was useless. Because all the roads were open on land and sea making Athens a school for all of Greece, and causing the Athenians to learn to love what is beautiful, to philosophize, to live in a comfortable but not unmanly way, and to be ready to die for their homeland if necessary. He exhorted them to obey the maxim “eminent men are at home all over the earth” and the admonition that only a sense of honour is ageless and enviable in humans.

This ideal political system, democracy, was a purely Athenian invention, as was the Polis. Citizens lived and acted as part of a whole, as was the case in families, because the Polis was like a big family with its different branches and oddities. But the political system so extolled by Pericles had some peculiar features which may leave contradictory impressions. Athens was an independent city-state but it wanted to subjugate other cities; it did not accept the existence of an official priesthood but did show great respect for things sacred and indeed condemned Socrates to death as an impious citizen; it supported the ideal of freedom with frontiers open to all, but the Polis was jealously kept for its citizens alone; it protected loyal allies, but did not grant the title of citizen to anyone other than a native-born person; it provided an opportunity to anyone with talent to utilise it and reap benefits, but the oars of Athenian ships were manned solely by Athenians. Certainly the unchallenged power derived from the stability of the political system was what permitted Athens to cast expansionist glances, to set its own conditions in alliances, and to make them accepted by adversaries.

It is very possible that the Athenian Republic has become immortal because it lasted for such a short period and thus avoided being eroded by time. Between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the Polis and its political system lived, created, established, challenged and passed into immortality. But the colonies were already prospering; trading ships transported oil in attractive amphoras, Attic workshops were generating incomparable art and the Athenian drachma was respected and sought after all over the known world.

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