11 Hoplites and Tyrants
The Emergence of the City-State
The Hoplite Army
Young and old alike weep for him,
and the whole city is !lled with a sad longing,
and a tomb and children and his family survive him.
Never has fame forgotten a brave man or his name,
But though he is under the earth he becomes immortal,
whosoever excelling, and standing !rm, and !ghting
for his land and children, is killed by mighty Ares.
(Translation: Oswyn Murray. Ares was a Greek god of war.)
The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus is here applauding those who died in the line of
battle defending the polis. Sparta, as will be seen, may have been unusual in
its obsession with warfare but every Greek settlement was preoccupied with its
survival. Cities fought over plains, over trade routes, over their borders. As
most were relatively poor there were special problems in conducting these
struggles. There was no question of a city affording a standing army, so farmers
had to double as soldiers. The result was the hoplite army drawn from the richer
peasants, perhaps the wealthiest third of a cityâ€™s population. The word â€˜hopliteâ€™
may come directly from hoplon, a heavy shield with a hoop at the centre,
through which the arm would go, and a grip on the rim, but more likely it
simply describes someone who is armed. The hoplites could provide their own
â€˜uniformâ€™, bronze helmet, shield, cuirass, and greaves, with a sword and stabbing spear as weapons (and possibly afford to employ labour while they were in
training or fighting). Early examples of these weapons and armour survive that
have been dated to between 720 and 650. The Chigi vase of c.650 bc now in the
Villa Giulia, the Etruscan museum in Rome, shows fully armed hoplites clashing in battle so the transition from aristocratic hero warfare must have been
effected by then.
)e hoplites were trained to !ght in rows, one formed up behind the other, making a phalanx. )e men of each row either linked their shields together and advanced with spears held over their heads or held their shields on the le* and carried
164 | hoplites and tyrants
their spears under their right arms. Cooperation was vital because each soldier depended on the next in line using his shield for protection. Manoeuvring forward to
the accompaniment of a piper with suitably bloodcurdling yells, the phalanx must
have relied heavily on impact. Cavalry were useless against such a force, unless they
could strike from the side. $e horses were too vulnerable, and riders, still without
stirrups at this time, would easily have been knocked o%. Any traditional warrior
heroes of the old school would simply have been trampled underfoot. $e only effective counter-force was another group of hoplites, and this explains why hoplite
armies spread throughout the Greek world from the seventh century onwards.
Although the Chigi vase shows one neatly ordered phalanx clashing with another, it is doubted whether the hoplite armies were uniform in the way that a
modern army might be. Not everyone would have been able to a%ord the same
quality of equipment and it also seems likely that the aristocrats who were concerned with maintaining their status fought in the front row. $e Spartan Tyrtaeus
certainly assumes that there is a special glory for those young who die in the front
line. Heroism is no longer shown through the epic battles between individuals that
predominate in Homer but now involves setting a good example in the phalanx. For
Tyrtaeus this was &ghting up front, â€˜placing foot against foot, pushing shield against
shield, and interlocking crest with crest, helmet with helmet, and chest with chestâ€™.
$is aggressive approach, he says, will help protect the people behind and nothing
is more shameful than being found dead on the battle&eld with a spearhead in oneâ€™s
back, a sign that one has broken and run. Tyrtaeus describes other, less noble, hoplites who stand out of the range of missiles protecting themselves with their shields.
(It was common to hold hoplites in reserve to &ll in any gaps when the line was
broken but they could hardly have earned much respect.) Certainly the ranks behind the front were considered of lesser value and it is even suggested that the more
reluctant soldiers were placed in the middle so that they could be prodded forward
by those behind!
$e normal hoplite engagement was a low level a%air with a few hundred men on
each side. It was primarily aimed at making a show of strength against neighbours,
and the actual capture of a rival city would normally have been beyond the hoplitesâ€™
capabilities. Once two sides met they would shove into each other and then prod
and slash until one side gave way. ($e most vulnerable parts of the anatomy were
the groin, open to a stab under the shield, and the neck.) $e successful army would
then raid its opponentsâ€™ crops. A large battle was rare. $e Spartans fought no more
than four between 479 and 474 bc while the historian $ucydides only records two
during the entire course of the Peloponnesian War 431â€“404 bc. At the &rst Battle of
Mantineia (418), described by $ucydides as â€˜the greatest battle for some timeâ€™,
18,000 men might have been involved. Only about 1,400 appear to have died (300
of these on the victorious Spartan side).
$ucydides says that the Spartan custom was to &ght long and hard during a battle but not to spend much time in pursuit, the time when massacres of the defeated
enemy would have been easiest. (It would have been di.cult, in any case, to travel
far in hoplite armour.) Hoplite warfare was perhaps more to do with the assertion
hoplites and tyrants | 165
of the identity and pride of a city than with killing for its own sake. Polybius, the
second-century bc Greek historian whose major work was an examination of why
the Romans defeated the Greeks (see below p. 391), tells how the Greeks â€˜made public
declarations to each other about wars and battles in advance, when they decided to
risk them, and even about the places into which they were about to advance and
draw up their linesâ€™. In other words, there were well-understood rituals within
which combat took place. ($ese were to break down towards the end of the &0h
century, see Chapter 18.)
E%ective hoplite armies had to be well trained. Anyone who fell over in a charge,
or got his spear tangled up, would have caused chaos in the tightly knit ranks.
Morale was important, and each side would have had its own methods of building
up courage, just as with a modern football team before a match. According to $ucydides, the Spartans before Mantineia â€˜sang war songs and exchanged words of
individual encouragement reminding each other of their proven courageâ€™. However,
as Tyrtaeus suggests, it was the power of shame that was crucial, certainly in Sparta.
A body carried back on a shield was in&nitely preferable to a defeated man returning home on foot. He would be shunned by the community.
Later sources, Aristotle is one, suggest that the experience of &ghting together
helped create a common sense of class that isolated the aristocrats and so helped
create a citizen community. However, if battles were indeed rare, it is unlikely that
the hoplite experience was so profound as to have a political impact. Again, so long
as aristocrats could maintain their status within the rows of the hoplite phalanx
then there would be no need for a political con1ict between hoplites and aristocracy. On the other hand some societies, such as Sparta, enshrined military valour
so deeply into the consciousness of its citizens that the maintenance of status
through &ghting became embedded in the political process itself (see further below,
Aristocratic prominence had been founded &rst on the ideal of the warrior chief,
capable of great feats of arms, and, secondly, on control of land (without which
the warrior role could not have been sustained). Noble birth also counted and
aristocratic clans were o0en bound together through a common lineage. $e
more fragmented world of the seventh century, with its creation of new communities and the steady growth of trade, released new energies that undermined
aristocratic power. Some cities managed to adapt peacefully to the challenge of
these new forces. $e Bacchiadae of Corinth provide an excellent example of a
self-regulated group, based on their lineage as â€˜descendants of Heraclesâ€™, who
maintained power through the successful sharing of magistracies. A government
where power was in the hands of an aristocratic council or shared between aristocratic families could be broadened to include citizens of wealth or those who
provided military service.
166 | hoplites and tyrants
In many cities, however, the tensions were not contained or defused. In Aegean
Greece in particular, in the century a0er 650 bc a succession of city governments
were overthrown by ambitious individuals who exploited popular resentments with
the aristocracy to seize power. $ese were the tyrants. Corinth was the &rst tyranny,
followed by its neighbours Sicyon and Megara. $e earliest Athenian tyrant was
Peisistratus, who seized power permanently, a0er several abortive attempts, in 546.
$ere were tyrannies on the Aegean islands, Samos and Naxos, for instance, and in
the Ionian cities of the coast of Asia Minor.
$e word tyrannos, â€˜tyrantâ€™, is another of those Greek words that originate in the
east, possibly from Lydia. Originally it may have meant no more than a ruler, but as
Greek democracy developed and all forms of one-man rule became abhorrent the
Greeks themselves gave the word the connotations that still surround it today. $e
use of an imported word implies that the Greeks saw the â€˜tyrantsâ€™ as distinct from
other forms of â€˜one-manâ€™ rule they might have experienced, such as the hereditary
king, the basileus. In the very limited later sources that survive, tyrants are o0en
portrayed in a stereotypical way, with their individualism and lack of restraint contrasted with the cooperative behaviour expected of the â€˜idealâ€™ citizen. Among their
excesses were sexual ones. Intercourse with a dead wife and with a mother are
among those aberrations recorded. Once the stereotype had developed, it was there
to project on later rulers. Philip and Alexander of Macedon are branded as tyrants
in fourth-century Athens and there is an echo of such a projection in the assassination of Julius Caesar (see p. 438). Once the stereotype is acknowledged to be a later
development, however, it becomes clear that not all tyrants of the seventh and sixth
centuries were particularly oppressive. Many glori&ed their cities and were important patrons of the artsâ€”although the evidence suggests that tyrants did tend to
become tyrannical with time.
Several factors may have encouraged the rise of tyrants. $e new overseas settlements provided a di%erent model of society, one that showed that an aristocracy
was dispensable (although there are cases in the western cities where aristocracies
did emerge), and which provided opportunities for those with ambition. $e growth
of trade and the rise of new interest groups may have increased social tensions.
Interestingly, however, from what little is known about the origins of individual
tyrants, it does not appear that they were necessarily drawn from a class of new
rich. Many, in fact, seem to have been men of aristocratic birth who for some reason
or other had found themselves excluded from power. In the Ionian cities of Asia
Minor a tyrant may have been no more than a leader of an aristocratic faction in
con1ict with others. In other cases there are hints that a tyrant had a successful
military background before seizing power, and in this case he may have been the
direct representative of the hoplites or at least able to call on the loyalties of men he
may have led. In other cases Aristotle notes the power of their rhetoric and their
ability to â€˜win the peopleâ€™s con&dence by slandering the notablesâ€™. $e general pattern is, therefore, of determined individuals, ready to manipulate traditional or
non-traditional means of support to take power unconstitutionally. $e implication is that aristocratic oligarchies refused to give way and no other alternative
hoplites and tyrants | 167
method of political change was available. Yet the overthrow was o0en destructive.
In Mytilene, the tyrant $eagenes, who came to power c.640, slaughtered the cattle
of the rich and there are reports of mobs storming into aristocratic households and
demanding that they be given banquets! No wonder the lyric poets Sappho and
Alcaeus sing of the aristocrats having to 1ee the city.
One of the best-recorded examples of tyranny is that of Cypselus at Corinth. By
the mid-seventh century there were signs that the vigour of the Bacchiadae was
weakening. $ey lost control of their colony Corcyra (on the modern Corfu) and
proved unable to prevent the rise of the neighbouring cities of Argos and Megara.
$ey were losing credibility. $e legends suggest that Cypselusâ€™ mother was of the
Bacchiadae clan, but as she was lame she had been forced to marry outside the clan,
thus depriving her son of any chance of a share in political power. $is may provide
a reason for his determination for revenge. Other sources suggest he may have built
up popular support as a military commander at a time when Corinthâ€™s forces needed
boosting. Whatever the truth, about 657 bc he overthrew the Bacchiadae, sent the
clan into exile, and shrewdly distributed their land among his supporters.
Cypselus appears to have had a realistic approach to power. Like many tyrants, he
appreciated the need to win, or at least to be seen to be winning, the support of the
gods, and he made rich dedications at both Delphi and Olympia. At home he glori-
&ed himself and his dynasty through temple building. Many of the features of Doric
architecture, so widely copied throughout the mainland and the Greek west, originated in Corinth (possibly as the result of contact with Egypt: see p. 188). Cypselus
and his son Periander, who succeeded him peacefully thirty years later, also successfully boosted the commercial wealth of the city. Corinthian settlements extended into the northern Aegean and the Adriatic, and were kept under closer
control than the colonies of any other Greek city, sharing coinage and even having
their magistrates sent out from Corinth. $e in1uence of one trading partner,
Egypt, was such that Periander called his nephew Psammetichus, a0er the Egyptian
As other tyrannies appeared in the Greek world, Cypselus and his successors
built up links with them. It was almost as if the tyrants felt themselves members of
an exclusive club. $ey would help each other seize and maintain power. Sometimes two tyrants would make a friendship that transcended a traditional hostility
between two cities. Periander of Corinth and $rasybulus of Miletus provide one
example. $is might suggest the vulnerability of the tyrants but, contrary to the
stereotype of the unrestrained despot, some did recognize the rule of law. In Sicyon,
on the Corinthian gulf, the tyrant Orthagoras was a rare example of a man who had
worked his way up from the bottom. He is recorded as being the son of a cook
whose prestige came from his qualities as a &ghter and later military commander.
$e dynasty persisted and his grandson Cleisthenes (whose grandson of the same
name was to play a crucial role in Athenian democracy) was even more successful
as a general, expanding his cityâ€™s territory and challenging the growing power of
Argos. He knew how to act on the Panhellenic stage and entered the winning teams
for the four-horse chariot races at Delphi (582) and Olympia (576). In e%ect he was
168 | hoplites and tyrants
acting as an aristocrat and his rule seems too restrained to &t into the normal picture of a â€˜tyrannyâ€™. Aristotle records that the dynasty â€˜treated their subjects moderately and in many respects enslaved themselves to the lawsâ€™.
Similarly on the island of Samos the â€˜tyrannyâ€™ of Polycrates, 538â€“522, was more of
a 1amboyant glori&cation of the island than a dictatorship. Polycrates had recruited
a group of hoplites to help him overthrow what seems to have been a discredited
aristocracy. He closed down the wrestling grounds where aristocrats traditionally
met but did little more in the way of repression. His building works won the admiration of the historian Herodotus. A long dam was built against the harbour entrance to give it added protection and water was brought into the city through an
aqueduct that ran a thousand metres under the city from a reservoir. His fellow citizens supported him, apart from a few disgruntled aristocrats, among them one
Pythagoras who le0 for exile in Italy (see below p. 198). Polycrates then tried to
exercise supremacy over the Aegean. His pretensions aroused suspicion, from
Sparta and Corinth on the mainland, and from the Persians who feared a strong
Greek power on the coastline of Asia Minor. It was a Persian satrap who lured Polycrates onto the mainland, captured and tortured him to death, and displayed the
body on the mainland opposite Samos. To his own people Polycrates may not have
been tyrannical but by attempting to create an empire, he certainly was in the eyes
of other Greeks.
Ultimately tyranny could not be sustained within the city. While Cypselus is recorded as moving freely in Corinth, his successor, Periander, was forced to use a
bodyguard. He is seen as the archetype of the wicked tyrant. Herodotus recounts
lurid stories of him killing his wife and attempting to castrate 300 noble youths of
Corcyra (Corfu), a Bacchiadae stronghold. ($e purpose was to send them in this
mutilated form as a gi0 to Perianderâ€™s ally, Alyattes, king of Lydia.) When the tyranny entered a third generation under Psammetichus it was doomed. Psammetichus was assassinated some four years a0er coming to power, in about 582 bc. In
the neighbouring city of Sicyon tyranny was similarly overthrown in 555. By 550,
with the exception of Athens, where the Peisistratid tyranny lasted until 510, tyrannies were a thing of the past on mainland Greece. $ey lasted longer in Asia
For all their e%orts to boost trade and glorify their cities, the tyrants never succeeded in creating an ideology of leadership that inspired loyalty from one generation to the next. Once a tyrant became a petty dictator or time dimmed the glamour
of a young popular leader, there was no tradition able to sustain tyrannical rule. In
many ways tyranny can be seen as the last magni¢ gestures of aristocrats who
had eclipsed their fellows in pursuit of personal glory. $ere was no attempt to enforce more progressive policies, such as redistributing land or creating constitutions. So the tyrants always found di.culty in keeping the sustained support of the
mass of citizenry. When tyrannies collapsed, a body of citizens who were committed to their city remained in place to take over.
$is was the crucial point. As individual tyrants were overthrown, Greek city life
might have degenerated into civil war between rival factions. In fact, the tyrants
hoplites and tyrants | 169
were usually replaced by oligarchies or even democracies. $e polis, as has been
said, was not simply a set of buildings. It was a community of citizens who shared a
range of experiences, in the army, in kinship groups, in age-classes, and marriage
alliances. $e result was a continual round of gatherings that served to reinforce the
cohesion of the citizen community (or at least its adult males), and it was precisely
this cohesion that the tyrants failed to break down or exploit for their own bene&t.
It was natural that the government of the city itself should devolve onto part or even
the whole of the citizen body in the shape of oligarchical (Greek oligos: few; archos:
ruler) or democratic (Greek demos: people; kratia: power) rule. It was also natural
that the citizen community should de&ne itself in contrast to the outsider. As a male
body, it segregated and secluded the female. As a body of free men, it felt no inhibitions about reinforcing this status by consolidating slavery. As Moses Finley put it,
â€˜one aspect of Greek history is the advance, hand in hand, of liberty and slaveryâ€™. $e
misdeeds of the tyrants, some certainly exaggerated for e%ect, helped de&ne the
$e ways in which the hoplite class adapted to changing political conditions can
be seen in the history of the two most important cities of the Greek mainland in
this period, Sparta and Athens. Neither were typical city-states. Each had, in differing ways, access to far more resources than the smaller cities, and as a result
both were able to act on a wider stage. $ey played a dominant role in the Persian
Wars of the early &0h century and then, perhaps inevitably, they became locked
into deadly con1ict with each other in the Peloponnesian War of 431â€“404 bc, a
war in which Sparta emerged victorious before collapsing a few years later from
exhaustion. (For an introduction to Sparta, see Paul Cartledge, !e Spartans: An
Epic History, London, 2002.)
In popular imagination, especially that of the Athenians, Sparta has been seen as
a conservative and rigid society, dedicated to keeping order over its population and
placing success in war above all other values. Education was con&ned to rigorous
training and the instilling of patriotic virtue. $is was the image of Sparta that persisted through into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When the French revolutionaries were designing a new education system for their â€˜Republic of Virtueâ€™ it
was the Spartan they took as a model. In England, Sparta inspired some aspects of
the English public school system. Beatings and rough games were acceptable parts
of the system, which would &nally produce reserved but steady citizens. (Richard
Jenkyns describes these attitudes well in his !e Victorians and Ancient Greece,
Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1980.) It is hardly surprising that Hitler was an
admirer of the Spartans. $is image may be too much of a stereotype but the limited
sources make it hard to discover the reality.
$e city of Sparta lay along a series of low hills overlooking the river Eurotas in
the south-eastern Peloponnese. Its immediate territory is known as Laconia or
170 | hoplites and tyrants
Lacedaemonia, a name recorded in the Linear B tablets. $e site had good natural
defences, and no city wall was built around it until Roman times. $e city had originated as a number of scattered villages. It never had the great public buildings
enjoyed by other cities and it is now a desolate place to visit. When the villages were
joined to form a city-state some form of compromise must have been hammered
out between two ruling families. $e result was that Sparta was le0 with two hereditary kings. $ese played heavily on their mythical descent from the hero Heracles
whose descendants, the Heraclides, it was said had regained their ancient territory
in Laconia in association with a so-called Dorian invasion. $ey held a whole range
of traditional powers and privileges, but by the sixth century their most important
role was as religious leaders and as commanders of the Spartan armies. $ey were
also members of a largely aristocratic body of thirty councillors, the gerousia, elders
elected by the citizen body by acclamation from those who had reached the age of
60. As in most cities, there was also a citizen assembly. Its role appears to have been
consultative, listening to proposals put forward by the kings or elders and approving or disapproving them.
At some point in her history Sparta began subduing surrounding villages. Although
their inhabitants, known as the perioikoi (â€˜those living aroundâ€™ i.e. on less fertile hillland), were totally dependent on Sparta, they retained their settlements, enjoyed some
aspects of local government, and were free to engage in cra0s and manufacturing.
$ey were seen to be part of a wider Lacedaemonian community and even provided
their own contingents for the Spartan army. However, those living outside the central
villages that made up the core of Sparta were given no political rights. By the eighth
century the city was looking further a&eld, across Mount Taygetus to Messenia to the
west. $e motives for the expansion are unclear. $e land was rich but Sparta had already enough to meet her needs in the valleys of Laconia and conquest of Messenia
le0 her with a less defensible boundary. It may have been more a matter of de&ning
an identity through successful war. A0er twenty years of &ghting in the late eighth
century, Messenia too was subdued. Tradition tells of the harsh treatment of the native
population, the helots, possibly â€˜those who have been takenâ€™. It does appear that by the
sixth century the helots were in some form of bondage to the Spartans and they were
portrayed as a continual threat to their owners. Sparta was now the largest polis in
Greece, controlling two-&0hs of the Peloponnese and, at 8,000 square kilometres, its
territory twice as large as the next largest, the Sicilian city of Syracuse.
It was clear from the start that the Spartan hold on Messenia was a precarious
one, not only because the native population did not take to its fate easily but also
because Spartan expansion aroused the suspicion of neighbours. One of these was
the city of Argos to the north-east of Sparta. $ere are hints in the literary sources
that Argos may have been the &rst city to use hoplites (the earliest known hoplite
helmet, of about 725 bc, has been found there). According to a much later source,
the Argive army, perhaps exploiting its superiority, in1icted a traumatic military
defeat on Sparta at Hysiae in 669. If so, Sparta must have been shaken to the core,
especially when there is also evidence of a rebellion in Messenia that took another
twenty years to subdue.
hoplites and tyrants | 171
It was probably during these years that, as a response to these crises, the Spartan
constitution became oligarchic. $e only evidence for the development is a passage
by Plutarch, written many centuries later, but probably drawing on a work by Aristotle on the Spartan constitution. It involved a rhetra, or pronouncement, that was
attributed to a (possibly legendary) lawgiver, Lycurgus, and which claimed to have
had the approval of the oracle at Delphi. $e passage is di.cult to interpret but it
appears that the citizen assembly had acquired some kind of sovereignty in
decision-making although, the passage goes on, when this was abused the kings
and the elders had the right to overrule decisions. What the passage does not say is
that the assembly also had the power to elect annually &ve ephoroi, ephors, from
among the citizen body. $e ephors were responsible for maintaining the overall
good order of the state from day to day, in particular through scrutinizing the activities of the kings. $ey alone, when sitting on their o.cial seats, had the right to
not stand up in the presence of the king. Every month they renewed their loyalty to
the kings in return for the kingsâ€™ promise to respect the laws of the state. In short
this was a balanced constitution, in which kings, elders, ephors, and the assembly
each had a role to play. It is certainly the &rst known in Greece.
Alongside political change came social change. If the city was to survive it had to
build a hoplite army of its own, and here Sparta had a distinct advantage over other
Greek cities. $e perioikoi and the helots could provide for the economic needs of
the state and so this le0 the entire male citizen body free for war. Unlike other cities,
where hoplites formed a richer minority drawn from the citizen body, in Sparta all
male citizens were hoplites by virtue of their citizenship. $ere is evidence that the
change took place under aristocratic supervision. $e tightly disciplined hoplite
ranks were very di%erent from the old aristocratic warrior bands, yet in Sparta the
same terminology was used to describe them both. $e messes in which the soldiers ate were made up of &0een men, the same number as in an aristocratic â€˜symposiumâ€™. It seems, therefore, that aristocratic cultural forms continued to be
dominant. Certainly, once the second Messenian war was over and the city relaxed
in what was a period of peace and prosperity, this is the impression that remains.
$ere was widespread trade with the east, and bronze craters (mixing-bowls, one
of the main symbols of aristocratic conviviality) from the city are found as far a&eld
as France and southern Russia. ($e Vix crater may be one of them (see p. 154.))
Spartan athletes dominated the Olympic Games throughout the seventh century.
$e gerousia remained an integral and in1uential part of the political system.
It was not to last. $ere were pressures on Spartan society that gradually destroyed the possibility of aristocratic lifestyles. It can be sensed in the word the Spartans used of themselves, homoioi, â€˜those who are similarâ€™. Uniformity was imposed
upon them by fear, the continuous threat of revolt by those they had subjugated.
$e Spartan state became heavily militarized, with every aspect of the life of its
male citizens de&ned from the moment of birth. $is was hoplite society at its most
extreme, the subjugation of individual identity into the service of the state. In the
sixth century there was a dramatic increase in the number of hoplite &gures o%ered
as votive o%erings at the shrine of Artemis Orthia. One measure of the citizenâ€™s
172 | hoplites and tyrants
commitment to the state was the need to provide a monthly ration to the communal dining tables, and this goes hand in hand with the intensi&cation of farming,
the land owned by Spartans but worked by the helots. So developed an egalitarian
society that rested on the rigid exploitation of others. (See Chapter 14 for a fuller
discussion of Spartan society.)
It was only to be expected that such a conservative society should gradually isolate itself from the outside world. Few Spartan victors are recorded in the Olympic
Games a0er 570 bc. Trade contracted as the state moved towards self-su.ciency.
Iron bars were retained as currency by the Spartans long a0er the rest of the Greek
world had moved on to silver coins. $ere was also an idealization of the past, and,
in the sixth century, the Spartans even went so far as to associate themselves with
Agamemnon, the legendary leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. $e constitution was given a hallowed status that protected it against reform. $e bringing of
eunomia, good order, was prized as its main achievement. $e rituals of Sparta,
those relating to the succession of the king, for instance, were also unlike anything
known elsewhere in the Greek world and the funerals of the kings were lavish
$e morale of the Spartan citizens (as with that of the subjects of any totalitarian
state) needed to be maintained by continual mobilization. $e city was not always
successful. In about 560 bc at the Battle of Fetters against the city of Tegea in southern Arcadia (it was called this because the Spartans marched out with fetters with
which to enslave the Tegeans when they had been overcome), it was Sparta who was
defeated. She now acted in a more restrained way. When Tegea was eventually conquered she was maintained as a dependent city, but not, like previous conquests,
incorporated into the Spartan state. In the 540s Sparta had her revenge on Argos
and extended her in1uence into the eastern Peloponnese. She was now the most
powerful state in the peninsula. Even Corinth was prepared to accept her dominance, partly because Argos, for centuries the most powerful city of the eastern Peloponnesian coast, had been an enemy of hers too. $e cities of the northern
Peloponnese were encouraged to form alliances with Sparta. As Sparta had eliminated the possibility of tyranny for herself she helped to overthrow those who had
tyrants and forced them to adopt an oligarchical model instead.
With her position secure in the north, Spartaâ€™s ambitions now extended across
the Isthmus. She continued to champion oligarchy against tyranny. In 524, with
the help of Corinthâ€™s navy, she tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow Polycrates, tyrant
of Samos. In 510 and again in 508 Spartan troops were to be found intervening
against the tyranny of the Peisistratids of Athens. Spartaâ€™s interventions were motivated not just by her hatred of local tyrannies. She was increasingly conscious, as
was all Greece, of the looming power of Persia. Embassies had come from several
peoples outside Greece, the Lydians, the Scythians, and Egyptians, asking for help,
but Sparta had been unable to save any of them from Persian expansionism. Persia, as a monarchy, aligned herself naturally with the tyrants of the Greek world
and Sparta found herself le0 as the most powerful defender of Greek freedom and
hoplites and tyrants | 173
Sparta may have appeared powerful to the outside world but in fact her strength
was limited. $ere were several factors that inhibited a forceful foreign policy. First,
she never became a major sea power and this restricted her ability to act beyond the
Greek mainland. At the same time she always remained vulnerable at home. $e
helots were not like the slaves of a typical Greek city who had no common heritage.
$ose in Messenia, at least, had a shared culture and experience of oppression. A
revolt which took place while the Spartan armies were abroad would have been
catastrophic, and Spartan leaders never forgot the possibility that it might happen.
$ere was also the question of leadership. A king who le0 the Peloponnese in
search of military glory abroad risked upsetting the delicately balanced constitution
at home. $is became clear during the reign of king Cleomenes (520â€“490 bc). Once
out of his city and with an army under his command, Cleomenes became increasingly assertive. A0er 510 he tried to de&ne Spartan policy towards Athens and her
ruling families with such high-handedness that even Spartaâ€™s allies baulked. In 494
he crushed a reviving Argos with such brutality (6,000 Argives were reputedly
burnt alive in a wood) that his city feared the revenge of the gods for this act of hubris (overweening pride). Faced with the opposition of his fellow king Demaratus,
Cleomenes had him deposed. When Cleomenes &nally returned to Sparta he was
soon dead, presumably liquidated by the oligarchy. From now on the Spartans
would be reluctant to let a king out of sight.
Spartaâ€™s power was limited in another way. $ere was no way she could hold
down the entire Peloponnese. Her policy of alliances with the northern cities
showed she recognized this. However, if she was to expand across the Isthmus she
had to cross their territories. At &rst, and typically, Cleomenes acted as if the allies
would simply do what he wanted. When, however, in 506, Cleomenesâ€™ plans for another attack on Athens were resisted, notably by Corinth, the Spartans were forced
to compromise. $ey had to accept becoming part of a federation, known to historians as the Peloponnesian League. $e League was clearly under the dominance of
Sparta, who had the largest and best-trained army, but its structure included a
council of all member states, each with one vote. A majority could prevent any military action proposed by Sparta (as happened in 440 when the Spartan assembly
voted for war with Athens but was overruled by the League). $e League was an
early example of inter-state cooperation. It survived (until as late as 366) because no
member state could stand up to Sparta, while Sparta was increasingly dependent on
the alliesâ€™ manpower.
Athens in the Sixth Century
As has been seen, one of Cleomenesâ€™ expeditions, that of 510, was to overthrow the
Peisistratid tyranny in Athens. Athens was to be the focus for Spartaâ€™s hostility for
over a century, &rst as a tyranny and then as the Greek worldâ€™s leading exponent
of democracy. Both were inimical to the eunomia, good order, sustained by an
oligarchical government, which was the ideal of Sparta and her allies.
174 | hoplites and tyrants
Archaeologists have found signs of the occupation of the Acropolis, which dominates the city of Athens, as early as 5000 bc, and the rock had been a stronghold of
the Mycenaeans. As Mycenaean civilization collapsed in the twel0h century, Athens and its surrounding area, Attica, survived the worst of the turmoil. Occupation
of the Acropolis was uninterrupted, and the inhabitants of Attica later prided themselves on their pure and undisturbed racial heritage. $e area was also the springboard for the Ionian migrations (see p. 128), and links, real or imagined, with the
Ionian communities of Asia Minor continued to be a factor in Athenian foreign
policy well into the &0h century.
Although not nearly as extensive as Sparta, Attica was an unusually large area for
one Greek city-state to control. Its 2,500 square kilometres were made up of three
plains, divided by mountain ranges. $ese were shut o% from the rest of Greece by
the sea and, in the north-west, by the mountains of Cithaeron and Parnes, but unity
was never achieved easily. $ere had been struggles between Athens and Eleusis, the
largest town of the western plain, at some point in the past, and it may not have been
until the early seventh century that Athens emerged as the dominant city in Attica.
Even then Athens was comparatively undeveloped as a city. Although she had been
one of the leading centres of Greece in the age of Geometric vase painting (see p. 131
above), by 750 she had been eclipsed as an overseas trader by emerging city-states
such as Corinth and Sparta. $e city faced strong competition from Argos, with its
&ne position on the eastern seaboard of the Peloponnese, and Aegina, an island visible from the Attic coast, which had become an important trading and naval power.
Aegina was able to dominate the Saronic Gulf between the island and the Attic coast
and proved a serious rival to Athens as late as the &0h century.
In compensation the people of Attica looked inwards. By the sixth century there
are signs of dramatic increases of population in the countryside. Attica was not particularly rich (Plato talked of â€˜the skeleton of a body wasted by disease; the rich so0
soil has all run away leaving the land nothing but skin and boneâ€™), but there was
varietyâ€”timber (for shipbuilding as well as charcoal), grazing land, and the more
fertile soil of the plains. Studies of land use in the sixth century show that the upland townships were particularly prosperous. One major centre, the largest settlement in Attica a0er Athens, was Acharnai, which exploited the local woodland for
charcoal, the only fuel suitable for cooking and heating in the city. $e wealth of
Acharnai was such that she provided many of Athensâ€™s hoplites. On the lowlands
the most successful crop was the olive, which by the early sixth century produced a
surplus that Athens was able to spare for export. Attica also had good clay, used to
make her &ne pottery. Two assets still to be exploited at this date were her marble,
the &nest coming from the slopes of Mount Pentelicus, and, most important of all,
the rich silver mines of Laurium, only mined successfully from the late sixth century (although they had been exploited in a modest way as early as Mycenaean times,
see earlier p. 122). $e Athenian economy was thus a complex one, and it operated
at several di%erent levels, with farmers and cra0smen producing for their own
needs, for those of her neighbours, and, increasingly, as it became more sophisticated, for overseas markets.
hoplites and tyrants | 175
$e legendary founding king of Athens was the hero $eseus. He was credited,
like many heroes, with a range of great feats but he was also a cunning and resourceful operator. For the Athenians his most heroic achievement was to rid the
city of the imposition of sending fourteen young men in tribute to king Minos of
Crete where they were o%ered as sacri&ce to the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull
that lurked in the cellars of Knossos. $eseus killed it and the scene is o0en found
on coins and vases, a truly identifying moment of Athenian independence. Back in
Athens, $eseus established himself in a palace on the Acropolis and insisted that
all the surrounding villages of the Attic plain subjugate their assemblies and magistrates to a single assembly meeting in Athens. $ere is no archaeological or other
literary evidence to support this move, let alone even the existence of $eseus, but
later $eseus was honoured as the founding father of Athenian democracy.
In truth, in the eighth and seventh centuries Athens remained a state controlled
by the aristocracy. Some sixty di%erent aristocratic clans are known by name and
noble birth counted as much as landed wealth. Between them the clans selected the
three ruling magistrates (the archons), who a0er their one-year term of o.ce joined
a council that took overall responsibility for a%airs of state. It was known as the
Council of Areopagus, a0er the hill on which it met in Athens. As each clan had its
own territorial base, con1ict between them was probably inevitable as attempts to
create a more stable government took place. In about 632 one aristocrat, Cylon,
tried to seize power with the help of the neighbouring city of Megara (whose tyrant,
$eagenes, was his father-in-law). He challenged the integrity of the polis by taking
over the Acropolis itself but failed to win any wider support from the citizen community and his supporters were massacred at the instigation of a rival clan, the
Alcmaeonids, despite a promise that they would be spared. $e Alcmaeonids were
expelled from Attica for this insult to the gods, and the bodies of their ancestors
were dug up and thrown over the state boundaries. A curse remained attached to
So the aristocracy could never o%er a stable government on the model, for instance, of the Bacchiadae in Corinth and, rather later than many other cities of
Greece, the class was threatened by new economic and social pressures. $e authors
who describe these pressures, Aristotle and Plutarch, were both writing very much
later and a great deal about them remains obscure. At one level they appear to re1ect con1ict between the citizen community in Athens, which was most open to
outside in1uences, and the more isolated countryside. $ere were other pressures
building up over land use. $e Athenians followed the Greek custom of splitting
inheritances among sons so that land was continually subdivided and the smaller
landowners marginalized. $ese appear to have been bound in some kind of feudal
relationship with the aristocracy. It involved surrendering a part of their produce,
possibly a sixth, perhaps even &ve-sixths, of the total annually. $is may have been
a traditional payment o%ered in return for protection. It was clearly deeply resented.
Even worse o% were those who fell into debt. $is was attached to their person so
that they could end up as slaves and then could be sold abroad by their creditors.
Athenian society was locking itself into a framework that excluded the majority
176 | hoplites and tyrants
from free personal or economic enterprise and so sti1ed any chance of political
$e Athenian crisis was, thus, a serious one involving tensions on a variety of
levels, between di%erent aristocratic factions and between the aristocracy and a
mass of poorer landowners. One clumsy attempt to deal with the tensions came in
621 when one Draco was commissioned to draw up a law code. $e tradition is that
this was particularly harsh (hence the term â€˜draconianâ€™), and biased in the interests
of the aristocracy. $ere is some truth in this. Minor the0s could be punished by
death and a debtor could become the personal possession of his creditor. However,
it was a step forward that the code was published (making it harder for aristocratic
judges to manipulate it in their favour). Moreover Dracoâ€™s statutes distinguished
between various forms of killings, between those done wilfully and those that were
accidentalâ€”in other words, accepting the necessity to prove fault. $e traditional
custom had been that a killer had to bear responsibility for killings of any sort. Now
a committee of &0y-one grandees judged each case and acquitted those who had
caused a death without any intention to do so. If the killing had been intentional the
o%ended clan could seek revenge. $e pause while the issue was resolved seems to
have helped avoid a tit-for-tat bloodbath that had been a common feature of previous aristocratic in&ghting.
The Reforms of Solon
Soon a0er 600, however, it became clear that Dracoâ€™s laws had not resolved the
underlying tensions of Athenian society. Urgent action had to be taken to avoid
civil war. In 594, by a process that is not recorded, the city appointed one Solon to
be archon (magistrate) with full powers to reform the state and its laws. Later
sources claimed that Solon was of high birth but of moderate wealth. He is supposed to have been busy in trade, travelled widely, even to Egypt, and to have gained
his reputation by encouraging the Athenians to seize the o%shore island of Salamis
from their neighbour, the city of Megara.
Solon le0 a lively if fragmentary account of his experiences in poetry. Today this
would seem a rather esoteric way of writing oneâ€™s memoirs, but in the early sixth
century poetry was the only literary form (prose writing only began slightly later in
Ionia) and it was an entirely appropriate way for a statesman to record his exploits.
$e 300 lines that remain con&rm the portrait of a man with a broad vision and fully
developed sense of humanity. He records his view that the roots of Athensâ€™s problems lay in the greediness of the rich, and he tells of public meetings at which he was
urged to become a tyrant in order to overthrow aristocratic privilege. However, he
claims he had the vision and integrity to refuse and always acted constitutionally. It
was not an easy path to take. It was inevitable that any programme of reform that
had a reasonable chance of bringing stability was likely to raise resentments among
the powerful and frustrate the hopes of the poor, and Solon later described his experience of o.ce as akin to that of a wolf set upon by a pack of hounds.
hoplites and tyrants | 177
Solon was in fact a superb political operator, a true statesman, perhaps the &rst
in the history of the west. He seems to have been inspired by the cunning and ingenuity of Homerâ€™s Odysseus. Despite a voiced commitment to the poor, once in
power he shi0ed his ground to portray himself as a mediator between the two sides,
holding, as he put it, a strong shield over them so that the honour of neither was
slighted. $e rich were slated for their greed. â€˜To destroy a great city by their
thoughtlessness is the wish of those citizens won over by riches.â€™ Crucially he sensed
the importance of taking an abstract principle, dike, â€˜justiceâ€™ or â€˜righteousnessâ€™, to
guide him. He argued that dike was something achievable by human beings. $e
&nal objective is eunomia, â€˜good orderâ€™.
Eunomia makes all things well ordered and &tted
and o0en puts chains on the unjust;
she smooths the rough, puts an end to excess, blinds insolence,
withers the 1owers of unrighteousness;
straightens crooked judgements and so0ens deeds of arrogance,
puts an end to works of faction
and to the anger of painful strife; under her
all menâ€™s actions are &tting and wise.
(Translation: Oswyn Murray)
$is is the moment perhaps more than any other when politics, the belief that
human beings could consciously hammer out their own way of living together
according to external values, was born. Solon stressed that human behaviour had
consequences, good or ill, for the community but that one could provide a setting
in which excesses were controlled and new energies released.
Solon &rst set himself the task of destroying the privileged position of the aristocracy. All forms of debt ownership were abolished, and Solon even claims that he
searched overseas for Athenians who had been sold abroad. $e payment of a part of
any produce also ended, and Solon rejoices over the tearing up of the stones that
marked the land subject to the dues. While inequalities of wealth remained no Athenian citizen was subject to another. Next followed the opening up of government to a
wider class of citizens. Here again Solonâ€™s steadiness and good sense prevailed. He
sensed that too radical a reform would lead either to chaos or to an aristocratic reaction. His response was to divide the citizen body into four classes on the basis of
wealth. $e richest class, the pentakosiomedimnoi, was made up of those with land
that yielded 500 or more measures of grain, oil, or wine. It extended beyond the old
aristocratic class. Below it the hippeis was made up of men with 300 measures of yield.
$e name suggests that they were seen as capable of raising their own horses for war.
$e next class, the zeugitai, with 200 measures or more, corresponded to those with
enough wealth to equip themselves as hoplites. $e lowest class, the thetes, were those
with access to little or no land and so could not a%ord the weapons and armour to
serve as hoplites.
By now the city appointed nine archons, or magistrates, annually. Forty candidates from the pentakosiomedimnoi were elected by tribal groups and the nine
178 | hoplites and tyrants
were chosen from these by lot. $e breadth of the pentakosionmedimnoi class and
the introduction of selection by lot probably ensured that the aristocracy de&ned
by nobility of birth was swamped in numbers by the new rich. Lesser o.ces were
open to the next two classes, but the thetes were excluded from o.ce. $ey had to
wait another hundred years, when the desperate need to use them as rowers in
the expanding Athenian navy &nally earned them a full place in democratic
$e thetes did, however, in their capacity as citizens, have a role to play, as members of the Assembly. $is body was the traditional one found in most aristocratic
communities, with the power to express its feelings for and against any major proposal. It may have had, or been given by Solon, the power to listen to appeals for
justice by aggrieved citizens either against convictions or the acts of magistrates
and so set the precedent for the trials by jury that were such an important feature of
life in classical Athens. A Council of 400 citizens was set up by Solon to oversee its
business. Later the Council and the Assembly were to be the central institutions of
Athenian democracy, but this was never part of Solonâ€™s plan. Full democracy was
inconceivable at this time. $e Councilâ€™s role may have been designed as a moderating one, to make sure that powerful popular forces expressed through the Assembly did not threaten the stability of the state. $e demos, the â€˜peopleâ€™, were given
â€˜as much privilege as they neededâ€™, as Solon put it diplomatically. $e Areopagus
retained its role as the guardian of the laws, the supervisor of the archons, and with
general control of the stateâ€™s a%airs. Aristocratic in1uence, even though tempered
by the admission of the new rich to political power, remained strong but the aristocracy grudgingly accepted the diminution of their power. A possible symbol of
protest was the placing of kouroi on aristocratic graves, a practice that began about
this time (see further below, p. 189).
As important as his other reforms was Solonâ€™s new law code. It was inscribed for
all to see on wooden tablets set in rotating frames that were still intact 300 years
later. In a semi-literate community, this was in itself an important move, as it gave
public space to law within the city. $is, not the whim of individuals, was to be the
new reference point and Solon stressed that the law was equal for all, good and bad.
Cleverly he linked his reforms to the cult of Athena, the patroness of the city. She
would protect those who put the community &rst but the laws must be made by the
community not by the gods. Almost every aspect of human conduct, from murder,
prostitution, and vagrancy to the correct marking of boundaries between neighbours, is dealt with in the code. Interestingly, economic policy is also covered. $e
export of grain, for instance, is forbidden, no doubt in an attempt to stop greedy
landowners selling such a precious commodity to Athensâ€™s neighbours at the expense of the poorer citizens. Athenian citizenship is o%ered to those with a cra0
skill who come to live permanently with their families in the city.
A0er Solon le0 o.ce (probably by 590), legend says he went abroad for at least
ten years, uncertain that his reforms would survive. It was certainly not obvious
that he would have a lasting legacy. His insistence on the primacy of the law was,
a0er all, a direct challenge to the concept of tyranny where an individual acted
hoplites and tyrants | 179
above the law. Yet Solon had shown that an abstract principle instituted by human
beings could bring harmony. It was a remarkable achievement to be able to conceptualize a â€˜justâ€™ community and $nd a measured way of achieving it. %is is the birthplace of the liberal tradition.
At $rst, however, it appeared he was right to be uncertain. Athenian politics entered a confused period of struggles between di&erent aristocratic factions. In some
years con’ict was so intense that no archons could be appointed. (%e word
anarchia, hence the English â€˜anarchyâ€™, was used to describe the result.) %e factions
were based on local allegiances and are recorded as parties of â€˜the Plainâ€™ or â€˜the
Coastâ€™. It was into this debilitating struggle that a tyrant, Peisistratus, forced his way.
His rise to power was a chequered one. Over $(een years a(er 560 he alternated
between control of the city and exile. It was only in 546 that he was secure, living to
hand on the tyranny to his sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, in 528.
The Peisistratid Tyranny
Although many of the details are lost, Peisistratusâ€™ struggle to win power illustrates
some of the factors behind the emergence of tyranny. He $rst appears as a military
leader, winner of a successful campaign against Megara. It was this campaign that
led eventually to the con$rmation of the strategically important island of Salamis as
an Athenian possession. Another success was the recapture of Sigeum, a colony on
the Hellespont, the entry to the Dardanelles, which established Athenian in’uence
over that important trade route. Peisistratus then set about consolidating his support in more concrete ways. He was associated by later Greek historians with a faction which was either â€˜of the Hillsâ€™ or â€˜beyond the Hillsâ€™, and it has been suggested
that this referred to the poor in general, the â€˜Hillsâ€™ supporting less favoured landowners than the plains and coast. (On the other hand, â€˜the Hillsâ€™ may simply have
been his territorial base.) He was also something of a showman, allegedly daring to
ride into the Agora on one occasion with a local girl purporting to be Athena by his
side. Outside Athens he had friends among other tyrants, such as Lygdamis of
Naxos, and with cities such as %ebes. One period of exile was spent in Macedonia,
where he seems to have amassed enough wealth to employ mercenaries. When he
arrived back a(er his second period of exile, he had the men and enough support
from Athenians themselves to be able to crush his aristocratic rivals. Charisma
from military victory, alignment with the poor, and, in the $nal resort, determination and lack of inhibition about using brute force, all played their part in bringing
him to power.
%e Peisistratid tyranny is poorly recorded, but what details survive show that
Peisistratus was a shrewd, and even benign, ruler. He seems to have exercised control
over appointments, but the fragmentary archon lists that survive show that
aristocratic families were not excluded from power. Culturally the city remained aristocratic, with the $ne Athenian pottery of the period decorated in their favoured
themes of myth and heroism. However, there was no attempt to tamper with Solonâ€™s
180 | hoplites and tyrants
reforms, and Peisistratus fostered trade and cra$smanship. %e Corinthian
dominance in the Mediterranean pottery trade was now eclipsed by Athens, with the
&nest of the Athenian pots found not in Athens but in Etruscan Italy where they
were exported to &ll the tombs of the dead. Athensâ€™s own coins appear for the &rst
time about the middle of the sixth century. At &rst their silver comes from %race,
close to Peisistratusâ€™ base in exile. Soon Athensâ€™s own silver from the mines at Laurium was the main source, and this silver in e’ect funded the cityâ€™s increasing need
for imported corn. By the end of the century the coinage is graced with the head
of Athena on one side and an owl, a bird sacred to the goddess, on the other. %e
design was to last for 300 years.
%e prosperity of Athens gave the Peisistratids the chance to transform the city.
It was natural that they should want to enhance the dominance of Athens over the
surrounding countryside, where their rivals had their territorial bases, but their
ambitions went further. %ey set about establishing Athens as a major religious
centre. It may have been before or during his &rst period of o*ce that Peisistratus
initiated the Greater Panathenaea (though there are other possible founders). %ere
had long been an annual festival to Athena, but now every four years there was an
especially grand display with processions, and, in imitation of the new games
springing up throughout Greece in the sixth century, competitions for amphorae
&lled with Attic oil. Later, one of the contests was for recitations from Homer. It
seems as if an attempt was made to appropriate the poet for the city so as to emphasize its cultural superiority over the rest of the Greek world.
It was also under Peisistratus that the Acropolis was transformed into a treasure
house of art. Paradoxically, much of what is known about the transformation is the
result of the Persiansâ€™ destruction of the site in 480 bc. %e Athenians brought together the shattered sculpture and buried it in pits on the Acropolis, while columns
of broken temples were reused in defensive walls or in the foundations of their successors, leaving a mass of carved stone for scholars to study. Even so, the sequence
of building during the sixth century has proved di*cult to reconstruct. %ere
appears to have been a temple to Athena constructed about 560, possibly by Peisistratus in his &rst period of rule, then another on the same site, begun in 520. In
between the sacred sites stood a number of korai, statues of girls o’ered as private
dedications to the goddess Athena. (See Je’rey Hurwit, !e Athenian Acropolis:
History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present, Cambridge and New York, 1999, especially chapter 6 for this period.) %e largest construction of all, probably started by Peisistratusâ€™ sons, was a massive temple to Zeus,
Athenaâ€™s father, on a ridge south-east of the Acropolis itself, although it remained
un&nished for another 600 years.
Archaeologists trying to piece together the building programmes of the late sixth
century in other parts of the city have found it di*cult to distinguish between the
achievements of Peisistratus and those of his sons. Hippias and Hipparchus are
credited with the building of a temple to the Twelve Gods (whose foundations survive in the Agora and from where all distances in Attica were measured), and a &ne
nine-spouted fountain (as yet unrecovered). Another fountain from the same date
hoplites and tyrants | 181
has been found in the south-east corner of the Agora. Fountains of clear water,
replacing the stagnant and o#en contaminated water of wells, and drains, made of
baked clay with heavy collared joints, mark the emergence of a more sophisticated
city life, and similar developments have been found in other cities.
By this time, however, the tyranny seems to have lost its vigour. As had happened
in Corinth, a second generation of tyrants could not sustain the popularity of the
$rst. %ere was defeat abroad when Sigeum was lost to Persia. In 514 Hipparchus
was assassinated, ironically while he was acting as a marshal at the Panathenaea. (It
appears that his advances to a young man, Harmodius, had been rejected, and he
had retaliated by refusing to allow Harmodiusâ€™ sister to participate in the festival.
%is slight was enough to justify his death at the hands of Harmodius and his lover,
one Aristogeiton. Aristotle later wrote that it was in their sexual desires that the
tyrants most usually showed their lack of restraint and that this was the most common reason for their fall.) Hippias began to act more harshly, executing his opponents. In 510 the help of Spartan hoplites was called upon to $nally overthrow the
tyranny. Hippias le# for exile, taking up residence in Sigeum, which was still under
Persian control. %ere is no evidence of any major uprising, but the events of 514 to
510 were later celebrated as a liberation of the city. A great statue, lost but re-created
in the 470s, of Harmodius and Aristogeiton survives in a Roman copy (now in the
Archaeological Museum in Naples), and is a $ne example of the heroic in classical
art, the nudity of the two men emphasizing their heroism.
The Reforms of Cleisthenes
%e Peisistratids had preserved some sense of Athens as a community and enhanced the prestige of the city itself with its magni$cent central rock. %ey had
controlled the aristocracy, but not destroyed it. In the countryside its network of
support lay in the phratries. Although much about the nature of the phratries is
disputed, they appear to have been associations of adjoining landowners, usually
members or supporters of one aristocratic clan. Membership of a phratry provided
the only proof of citizenship, so it was a closely guarded privilege. When the tyranny was overthrown, there appears to have been an immediate aristocratic reaction, partly sustained by nobles returning from exile, in which the phratries were
purged of any members considered sympathetic to the tyrants. %ey lost their citizenship, and the state appeared once again to be falling under aristocratic control
with all the rivalries that entailed. %e leader of the aristocrats was one Isagoras
who had a plan to restore traditional control through punishing the supporters of
the tyrants and disenfranchising those who had recently emigrated to Attica.
Isagoras soon faced a challenge from Cleisthenes, a member of the Alcmaeonid
clan (and a grandson of the Cleisthenes of Corinth). Cleisthenes had spent the last
years of the tyranny in exile, returning to the city with the Spartans in 510. With the
ancient curse still on his family, he had little support from among the traditional
aristocracy, but he was clearly an ambitious man, a good speaker, and he began to
182 | hoplites and tyrants
mobilize the citizenry in his support. Isagoras called on the Spartan king, Cleomenes,
to help him. Cleomenes arrived, in 508, Cleisthenes and his supporters were exiled,
and the invaders tried to engineer a coup in which power would be handed to 300
of Isagorasâ€™ supporters. (e Athenians were outraged. (ey stood )rm and drove
Cleomenes and Isagoras up onto the Acropolis where they were soon forced into surrender. It was a genuine popular revolution but it could never have been transformed
into a stable government without the genius of Cleisthenes who returned in triumph
with a plan to break the political power of the phratries and establish genuine equality
among citizens. He had an intuitive grasp of how to mould the intense patriotism of
the Athenians into a new system that would enshrine democratic power at the core
of the constitution while reasserting the power of the Alcmaeonides.
What is impressive about Cleisthenesâ€™ reforms is their radical nature. He knew
that the danger lay in allowing the countryside to reassert their conservatism against
the more radical city population that had been so enraged by the Spartan invasion.
He moved fast, over the year 508â€“507. He appears to have simply bypassed the
phratry system, creating a completely new set of political units, the demes, some
140 of them, probably based on local descent groups. ((ere was also some correlation with the place of residence when the demes were )rst establishedâ€”the word
deme is o,en translated as village. However, when a member of a deme moved, he
did not lose his membership of that deme no matter where he later took up residence.) Demes were given responsibility for local order and thus their members
were involved directly in administration. (ey drew up the citizen lists, enrolling
young men at the age of 18. To break down regional power groups, Cleisthenes then
divided Attica itself into three areas: the city itself, the coastal region, and the interior. Each area had its demes grouped into larger units known as trittyes. (e
culmination of the process was to take one trittyes from each region and form the
three into one tribe, making ten tribes in all for the whole of Attica. (ese ten tribes
replaced four traditional Ionian tribes. (e ten tribes selected (annually, by lot) ),y
members each to sit on the council of 400 founded by Solon, which was thus enlarged to 500 members. (e Council (also known as the Boule) kept its role as
supervisor of the business of the Assembly. Its power grew inexorably as it could
o-er .exible responses to crises between meetings of the Assembly.
(rough his new tribes Cleisthenes also produced the means by which a state
army could be raised. Little is known of the sixth-century Athenian army, but,
based as it was on the phratries, it must have preserved some elements of the aristocratic war-band. Now men had to train in their new tribes alongside men from
other regions. A thousand hoplites and a few horsemen (land in Attica was not rich
enough to sustain many horses) were required from each tribe. (e city was their
only common bond and morale was vastly improved. Herodotus notes how the energies of a free people were unleashed in a way unknown under the Peisistratid
tyranny. â€˜As soon as they got their freedom, each man was eager to do the best he
could for himself.â€™ Settlers were moved out onto Salamis and Euboea in a precedent
for the much more extensive empire of the later ),h century. From 501, in a reform
that was not Cleisthenesâ€™, each tribe had to provide a general, strategos, elected by
hoplites and tyrants | 183
the Assembly from those candidates who put themselves forward. $e generals,
who, unlike other state o%cials, could hold their appointment from one year to the
next if re-elected, became the most prestigious &gures in the city, gradually coming
to overshadow the archons. $eir growing status emphasizes, in fact, the relative
lack of power enjoyed by the other magistrates in Athens (the contrast can be made
with the enduring in’uence over the citizenry of Sparta by the kings and ephors).
$is is one reason why the Assembly and the Council were able to consolidate their
$ere are many gaps in the evidence that survives for Cleisthenesâ€™ reforms, and
it may be that the accounts shape them so that they appear to be a stepping-stone
for the democratic revolution of 461 (see p. 251). It can be argued, however, that
Cleisthenes was that rare &gure in political history, the reformer with a rational
plan for a fairer society that was successfully implemented and sustained. Any less
far-seeing populist reformer might well have stirred up the urban population
against the country-based aristocracy. $e result would almost certainly have been
a civil war. By introducing democracy in the countryside, Cleisthenes gave citizens
the opportunity to build up administrative experience locally and also ensured that
the countryside would be fully integrated into the Athenian democracy. (Evidence
from inscriptions shows that they took up the challenge with enthusiasm.)
$e Assembly was the main bene&ciary. $e procedure for selecting its members, the citizens of the state, was now under democratic rather than aristocratic
control. Even though con&dent aristocratic speakers continued to dominate debates they were unable to build up a supporting faction from the minority of their
class. With the end of the in’uence of the phratries and the old tribal system, citizens were now able, through the Assembly and Council, to participate in city a,airs
as equals (although the archons were still selected from the richest class). $e word
isonomia was coined to describe the system of equal balance that now prevailed.
Shared experiences in the armed forces must have strengthened the sense of shared
brotherhood. $e next development, although not one necessarily envisaged by
Cleisthenes, was to proceed to full democracy, with decision-making concentrated
in the Assembly. (See Chapter 16 for the process.) Yet it was Cleisthenesâ€™ reforms
that were chosen in 1993 as the starting point from which to celebrate 2,500 years
since the founding of democracy in Europe. (See the chapters on Solon and
Cleisthenes in Paul Cartledge, Ancient Greek Political !ought in Practice, Cambridge and New York, 2009.)
16 Democracy and Empire
Athens in the Fifth Century
The Delian League
Athens had a ravaged look now that the sixth century temples and statues on the
Acropolis had been burned or destroyed by the Persians. !e ruins were le”
untouched for over thirty years in memory of the desecration. Much of the Archaic
sculpture was incorporated into new defensive walls, although the most ancient site
of all, the temple of Athena Polias (Athena as â€˜goddess of the cityâ€™), was cleared so
that sacri#ces could resume. Yet, despite the devastation, the Greeks were triumphant, and Athens, with her forces intact and brimming with con#dence of victory and desire for revenge, was ready to continue the war with Persia. (For the
background to this chapter see the essays in Loren J. Samons III (ed.), !e Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles, Cambridge and New York, 2007, and Christian Meier, Athens: A Portrait of the City in the Golden Age, London, 1998. James
Davidsonâ€™s Courtesans and Fishcakes, London, 1997, is a lively survey of Athenian
Yet in 479 the triumph still remained incomplete. !e expansion of the Persian
empire had been thwarted for a second time but the empire was intact and resilient
and the Greeks, sheltering in their city-states, were still vulnerable. !ose smaller
communities in the Aegean and along the west coast of Asia Minor looked for a
protector. Spartaâ€™s crucial role in the #nal Battle of Plataea gave her the chance but
her traditional clumsiness in handling others soon alienated the other Greeks. It
was, therefore, by mutual agreement that Athens set up a system of alliances, a
league, in which the member states would have â€˜the same friends and enemiesâ€™.
Athens played on the common Ionian ancestry of most of her dependants. !e
league treasury was on the central Aegean island of Delos, sacred to Apollo, and a
spiritual focus for Ionians, and the Delian League, as it was later known, was
planned to be an alliance of equal members, each contributing ships or money
according to their size.
Athensâ€™s predominance in the League was inevitable. She had 180 triremes in 480
and 300 by 431, each manned by 200 #t oarsmen. In contrast Sparta (never a
member of the League) had no navy at all, and few maritime members of the League
could provide the 400 men needed to man even two triremes. Athens proved
opportunistic, even ruthless, in expanding her in,uence. !e historian !ucydides,
whose account of the Leagueâ€™s early activities is the only one to have survived,
250 | democracy and empire
suggests her motives were ones of self-interest. $e desire for revenge and reparations from Persia was no more than a pretext (proskhema), he tells us, for gaining
control of the alliance. ($e work of $ucydides is dealt with in detail in Chapter 18.)
Certainly Athens had powerful economic reasons for maintaining a presence in the
Aegean. While she may not have been as dependent on grain imports from the
Black Sea as was once thought (the dependency only became acute towards the end
of this century), recent research suggests that she favoured this grain for its quality.
$e north-western coast of the Aegean with its silver mines in $race and its rich
timber was also attractive to a city which relied so heavily on building and maintaining ships. $ere was a major challenge in 476 when Naxos, the largest island in
the Cyclades, tried to break free of the alliance. Athens crushed her, â€˜enslaved her
contrary to what was establishedâ€™, according to $ucydides, and insisted that she
would now have to pay her tribute in gold rather than in providing ships. A few
years later the island of $asos in the northern Aegean was besieged by Athenians
a+er a trading dispute over a gold mine, its walls pulled down, its navy surrendered,
and an annual tribute demanded in its place.
$e commander of the Leagueâ€™s forces was Cimon, the aristocratic son of the
Miltiades who had launched the Athenian attack at Marathon. His policy appears
to have been to use the threat of Persia to mould and maintain the unity of the
League, while at the same time keeping good relations with Sparta so that Athens
could maintain her forward policy in the Aegean without any threats from the Peloponnese. His ,rst campaign was to Eion at the mouth of the river Strymon in
$race, where a Persian garrison still held out. $en the Athenians attacked Carystus on the tip of Euboea, a city that had gone over to the Persians in the war. Cimonâ€™s
most resounding success was against a Persian (in fact, largely Phoenician) -eet at
the river Eurymedon, some time between 469 and 466. $e enemy -eet was completely destroyed and Persia le+ without any o/ensive forces in the Aegean. A further campaign by Cimon is recorded against Persians and $racians in the
Chersonese, possibly about 468. Athens appears to have used these campaigns to
her own advantage. $ere were rich timber resources to be exploited around Eion,
and there is one account of an Athenian force trying to ,ght its way inland a+er the
city had been captured. When the island of Scyros was cleared of pirates Athenians
remained to settle around its ,ne harbour.
The Resurgence of Aristocratic In,uence
Solon had broken the stranglehold of the hereditary aristocracy of Athens and
established a state in which, in theory at least, citizens were equal before the law.
Cleisthenesâ€™ newly created tribes provided members for the Boule, the council
which had the role of drawing up the business to be set before the Assembly. However, the power of this Assembly was still restricted by the Areopagus, a council
made up of former archons (magistrates) who were drawn largely from the
aristocracy. $ere were now also the ten generals, the strategoi, introduced in 501
democracy and empire | 251
and elected by the citizen body. $eir status was enhanced by the Persian Wars, and
generalship, which, unlike other o%ces, could be held from year to year, now became the goal of any ambitious politician. $e generals, too, tended to be drawn
from the richer classes and so, in the early part of the &’h century, Athens remained under strong aristocratic in(uence.
Aristocratic patronage was not con&ned to the privacy of the symposia. Leading
Athenian families glori&ed their cityâ€™s name by providing &ne buildings both at
home and abroad. $e distinguished family of the Alcmaeonidae rebuilt a temple
to Apollo in Delphi in marble, while in Athens itself Cimon was an important
patron of the city. Cimon identi&ed himself with the hero $eseus by bringing
back his bones to Athens to be housed in the $eseion in the centre of the city. $e
Stoa Poikile, a colonnade &lled with paintings of Athensâ€™s military successes by the
celebrated Polygnotus of $asos, was the gi’ probably of Cimonâ€™s brother-in-law.
(Its foundations were discovered as recently as 1981.)
Even though aristocratic forces remained in(uential in the city, there were bubbling popular pressures. $e records survive of the annual ostracism, the right of
citizens to vote, by writing on a shard of pottery, the name of any citizen they wanted
exiled. $e exile lasted for ten years. Numerous ostraka survive and the names of
virtually every aristocratic leader, including Cimon, can be found on them. Piecing
the evidence together, it can be seen that anyone adopting a so’ line towards Persia
was soon unpopular.
$ere was another new force at work. $e rowers who had triumphed at Salamis
were largely drawn from the poorest of the citizen class, the thetes. Tribute and the
silver from the Attic mines kept the navy &nanced with hundreds of men, cooped up
and sweating below decks as they learned to manoeuvre the cumbersome triremes.
It can be assumed that the thetes now recognized their potential political strength.
(Aristotle acknowledged this link when he wrote that the Athenian leader Pericles,
see below, later â€˜turned the state towards naval power, with the result that the masses
had the courage to take more into their own hands in all &elds of governmentâ€™.)
It is not surprising, therefore, that $emistocles, founder of the navy, was closely
linked to the move towards greater democratic rights but the aristocracy may have
attempted to force a campaign of ostracism against him. On ostraka dating from the
480s and 470s no name appears more frequently than $emistoclesâ€™, but a chance
&nd of 170 ostraka all with his name on but written in only fourteen di/erent hands
suggests that voters, perhaps illiterate, were simply being handed out the shards. $e
campaign succeeded. $emistocles was &nally removed from the city in 471 a’er a
trumped-up charge of his being pro-Persian had been upheld by the Areopagus.
The Democratic Revolution
Ten years later, in 461, the democratic party had its chance of revenge. In 464 Sparta
had su/ered a devastating earthquake that was followed by a helot revolt. Cimon,
determined to maintain good relations with Sparta, arrived in the Peloponnese
252 | democracy and empire
with some 4,000 hoplites to o%er help. Something went drastically wrong. It seems
that the Spartans feared the Athenians might actually support the helots and sent
them home. It was a massive humiliation. In Athens itself a radical orator Ephialtes,
of whom almost nothing is known, whipped up feeling against Cimon, aristocrats
in general, and the policy of o%ering aid to Sparta. When Cimon arrived home, he
was the one who was ostracized. &is was a turning point. &e relationship with
Sparta was brokenâ€”and the seeds were sown for the great con’ict that was to break
out between the cities thirty years later, in 431.
Ephialtes was determined to go further and shi* power in Athens more decisively
away from the aristocrats and towards the mass of citizens. He put about a myth
that Athens had originally enjoyed a democracy but that this had been subverted by
the growth of aristocratic power. Now democracy had to be regained. Ephialtesâ€™
target was the Areopagus, the ancient council that supervised the constitution. He
accused some of its members of corruption and managed to get it stripped of most
of its powers. Its traditional role of impeaching citizens accused of treason against
the state was then transferred to the Assembly, the popular juries, and the Boule.
(One power it retained for centuries was the right to assess new cults that were
being introduced into the city and so 500 years later the apostle Paul had to come
before the Areopagus to argue, without success, for the toleration of his faith.) Yet
now power had passed to the Assembly and most business of the city was decided
through a majority vote with the Boule running the day-to-day administration
when the Assembly was not sitting.
Ephialtes did not live to see his achievement. He died violently, probably at the
hands of disgruntled oligarchs, and room was le* for one of the most remarkable
men in Athenian history to emerge as the leader of democratic Athens. Pericles
came from a wealthy and aristocratic familyâ€”he was rich enough to +nance the
production of Aeschylusâ€™ play !e Persians, which glori+ed the defeat of the Persians, when still in his early twenties. Quite what made him a radical is hard to
know. &ere were certainly personal rivalries involved: in 463 Pericles led a prosecution case against Cimon, twenty years his senior. On his motherâ€™s side, his
great-uncle was the democratic Cleisthenes so he had a tradition to follow here.
His motherâ€™s clan, the Alcmaeonids, had been cursed as outsiders in the seventh
century and so perhaps a sense of isolation from mainstream society lingered. We
know too that in his youth he was in’uenced by the philosopher Anaxagoras of
Clazomenae, a visitor to Athens from Asia Minor, although it is not known how
far the experience radicalized him. Wherever the impulses came from, Pericles
simply appears to have believed that power could be shi*ed further to the
&e year 461 gave Pericles his chance. He was now in his mid-thirties and already
a strategos, one of the ten generals. &is gave him the opportunity to move into the
power vacuum le* by the death of Ephialtes. &e challenge was how to manipulate
to his advantage the volatile Assembly that was all too conscious of its new powers.
(Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, New York, 1991,
explores the many roles played by Pericles during his years of power.)
democracy and empire | 253
Democracy in Practice
It was in the 450s that the new structure of Athenian democracy was consolidated.
&e Assembly could now make laws on any subject, raise taxes, supervise their
spending, and conduct all aspects of foreign policy. It met at regular intervals, four
times in each of the ten months of the year. &e ‘rst meeting of each month had a
‘xed agenda that included reports on the state of the grain supply and issues of
national defence. Extra meetings could be called in emergencies. As only male citizens, over 18, could attend, women, children, foreigners, and, of course, slaves were
excluded, and in this sense the Assembly was an elitist power house. Nevertheless,
as many as 30,000 citizens were eligible to attend, although the Assemblyâ€™s meeting
place, the Pnyx, a hill to the west of the city, probably only had room for about
6,000 until it was enlarged in about 400 bc (a-er which 8,000 might have been
squeezed in). In practice those who lived far out in the countryside and had land to
work would have found it di.cult to attend.
Once the formal rituals of opening had been concluded the President of the
Assembly would ask, â€˜Who wishes to address the Assembly?â€™ In principle anyone
could now stand up, although naturally, when the moment came, it would only be a
few who would have the courage to do so. Business was conducted by majority vote
(in e/ect a show of hands) a-er listening to speeches. &is, and appropriate applause
and heckling, must have been the limit to most citizensâ€™ participation. &ere were no
political parties and although leaders must have the backing of close friends they
had no reliable majority and no way of organizing continuing support.
Pericles was a superb speaker. He needed to be, no one was safe from the rowdy
crowd. Athensâ€™s most famous orator, Demosthenes (384â€“22), would be howled
down when he made his ‘rst attempts to address the Assembly, and debates during
the Peloponnesian War (431â€“404 bc) o-en got completely out of hand with decisions made on the spur of the moment that were soon regretted. &e tone was
quieter in Periclesâ€™ day but the rhetorical skills needed if a speaker was to be listened to were considerable. O-en described by his critics as aloof, Pericles came
alive before an audience. His speeches were eloquent and meticulously prepared.
An early success in arranging payments for the sailors and members of juries must
have earned him a groundswell of popular support
Although little is known of his achievements in the 450s, Pericles gradually
extended his in0uence. &e historian &ucydides, an admirer, told how at ‘rst he
had been â€˜submissive to the people, ready to obey and give in to the desires of the
masses as a steersman yields to the windsâ€™ but, as his con’dence grew, he was much
tougher, even to the extent of getting angry and forcing the people to do his will.
â€˜He was never compelled to 0atter the people, but, on the contrary enjoyed so high
an estimation that he could a/ord to anger them by contradiction,â€™ as &ucydides
put it. When there were disasters for his city he had a knack of presenting them as
victories. Overall he responded with good humour to the attacks on him, the lampoons that mocked the shape of his head. He was especially abused for his
254 | democracy and empire
relationship with Aspasia, a free-speaking and highly intelligent woman from Miletus who became his consort a$er his divorce.
Yet despite the many provocations, Pericles never attempted to subvert the democratic system he had created, or abuse his power, except in the one case where he
made his son by Aspasia a citizen despite the law he had introduced himself that
both parents of a child must be citizens to pass on citizenship. He could do nothing
to save the great sculptor Pheidias from imprisonment when the latter was accused
of embezzling gold from his statue of Athena. Nor could he prevent a motion, probably made at the same time as the accusation against Pheidias, that he too was involved in %nancial misbehaviour, although he seems to have fought it o&. However,
it was just this refusal to subvert the system that allowed Athenian democracy in all
its raucous glory to survive not only through Periclesâ€™ lifetime but through the
much more tumultuous years of the Peloponnesian War. ‘is was his most
Between the meetings of the Assembly there had to be continuity of government,
and this was provided by the Boule, the Council of Five Hundred. Each of the ten
tribes put forward volunteers, and %$y of these were selected by lot to make the
total of 500. Each served for a year and could only serve twice in total (and then not
in consecutive years). ‘e Boule met most days of the year in its own council house.
‘ere is some evidence that membership was biased towards richer and more in)uential citizens, presumably because they could support themselves.
‘e duty of the Boule was to oversee the running of the state, and, in particular,
to prepare business for the Assembly and then ensure that its decisions were carried
out. No issue could be raised in the Assembly if it had not %rst been discussed by
the Boule. When news reached Athens in 339 that Philip of Macedon was advancing into Greece, the citizens rushed to the Assembly but had to wait there until the
Boule had deliberated %rst. It has been argued that the Boule acted as a restraining
force on the Assembly through the way it chose business and framed motions,
though its continually changing membership would have militated against it achieving any sustained in)uence. In between meetings of the Boule the %$y members
from each tribe took it in turn to stay on permanent call. ‘ey were put up at state
expense in their circular meeting house, the ‘olos, which stood alongside the
main council house in the Agora. (‘e foundations of the ‘olos have been found.
For an excellent survey of other %nds in recent excavations see John Camp, !e
Archaeology of Athens, New Haven and London, 2004.)
By the mid-century Athens was a wealthy and cosmopolitan city. Its citizens
formed only a minority of a population that included large numbers of slaves (perhaps some 100,000 out of a total population of 250,000 for Attica) and several
thousand foreigners (metics, from the Greek metoikoi, â€˜those who had changed
homesâ€™). Although the metics could not own land or become citizens, they were
welcome for their skills and formed an important part of the cityâ€™s labour resources.
(Forty per cent of those working on the Parthenon were metics.) In 451, in a law
attributed to Pericles, eligibility for citizenship was narrowed by making it a
requirement that only those born to parents who were both citizens could acquire
democracy and empire | 255
citizenship themselves. So the fruits of citizenship were channelled towards a
smaller, more select group, perhaps a response of the democrats to the aristocratic
custom of seeking wives from abroad. (Ironically, as already mentioned, Pericles
managed to make an exception for his son, also Pericles, by his mistress Aspasia,
who was given citizenship by a special decree a#er Periclesâ€™ legitimate sons had
$e complexity of the cityâ€™s a%airs can be gathered from the fact that there were
no less than 600 administrative posts to be (lled each year. All, with the exception
of the ten generals, were chosen by lot from those citizens aged 30 or more who had
good credentials. In the case of the generals, where proven ability was essential,
election was by simple majority in the Assembly and repeatableâ€”Pericles was
re-elected general every year from 443. $e ten generals exercised collective control
over military a%airs but a named general might be appointed to lead a speci(c campaign. Other posts included the nine archons (originally the chief magistrates of
the city and still responsible between them for festivals, the religious life of the city,
and the administration of justice), (nancial o+cials, guardians of the prisons, and,
at the bottom of the scale, those responsible for cleaning the streets. All these posts
eventually became paid ones.
Once selected, o+cials were examined before they took o+ce and then, standing
on a stone slab, had to take an oath. ($e slab was rediscovered as recently as 1970.)
At the end of their year all o+cials had to hand in accounts to be scrutinized by a
committee of the Boule, but any citizen could bring a complaint against any o+cial
at any time. Periclesâ€™ son, who turned out to be hostile to his fatherâ€™s achievements,
complained that this right only encouraged antagonism:
$ey [the Athenians] are more abusive of each other and more envious among themselves than
they are towards other human beings. In both public and private gatherings, they are the most
quarrelsome of men; they most o#en bring each other to trial; and they would rather take
advantage of each other than pro(t by cooperative aid.
However, public accountability at this level must have been essential in maintaining
the standards of public service.
$ose who were accused of o%ences had to appeal to their fellow citizens. $ere
was no independent judiciary in Athens and the citizen body as a whole took
responsibility for enforcing the law both as judge and jury. Although the Areopagus
still presided over accusations of deliberate murder and of sacrilege, most cases
were heard by juries of ordinary citizens. A roll of 6,000 citizens was drawn up for
each year and from these a jury was selected for each case. $e more serious the
charge the larger was the jury, with a maximum of 2001 with smaller numbers, typically 500, the norm. It would have been impossible to bribe so many. Jury sitting
was virtually a full-time job, with jurors sitting up to 200 days a year, and Pericles
recognized the burden early in the 450s by introducing pay.
$e law courts were not criminal courts with clearly de(ned laws against which
the guilt of the accused was judged. Any citizen could accuse another of an â€˜o%enceâ€™
which was usually vaguely phrased, a general charge of â€˜impietyâ€™ being a particular
256 | democracy and empire
favourite, and in fact the action was o$en an extension of political rivalries. %e aim
of the prosecutor was to denigrate his opponent by bringing in a range of accusations, especially that he had been disrespectful of the gods or failed in some way to
be an e&ective citizen. â€˜Only recently he [one Timarchus] threw o& his cloak in the
Assembly and his body was in such an appalling and shameful condition thanks to
his drunkenness and his vices that decent men had to look away,â€™ was one typical
taunt. Other accusations involved a man being the passive partner in a homosexual
relationship, the son of a prostitute, or a coward in a battle. One unfortunate
defendant was said not to have shown enough sorrow on the death of his daughter
(a good father would have done so, and good fathers make good citizens). One can
STREET OF THE PANATHENAIA
SOUTH STOA II
STREET STOA OF ATTALOS
STOA OF ZEUS ROYAL STOA
S.W. FOUNTAIN HOUSE
II CENT. B.C.
Fig. 4 %e Athenian Agora. %e Agora was cleared in the early sixth century and was
then gradually lined with public buildings including those for o*cials and the council
(bouleuterion). %e larger stoas were later Hellenistic additions. %e route of the
Panathenaic festival, to the Acropolis, ran across the square. Note also the temple to
Hephaestus on higher ground to the west.
democracy and empire | 257
understand why all this public throwing of dirt was so entertaining. $e comic poet
Aristophanes satirizes a juror who had become trans%xed by his role, to the extent
of sleeping in the courts and keeping a beachful of voting pebbles in his house so
that he should never run short. ($e speeches that survive from these cases provide
excellent material on what was and what was not valued in an Athenian citizen.)
$e demands of this democratic system were heavy. It has been calculated that
between 5 and 6 per cent of citizens over the age of 30 would be required each year if
all the posts on the Boule, the juries, and administration were to be %lled. With the
ban on reselection for most posts, this meant that virtually everyone was involved in
administration or government at some point in their lives. Even Socrates, who attempted to avoid political life completely, served his time on the Boule, and the playwright Euripides, who was well known for lack of sociability, went on an o)cial
embassy to Syracuse. $is is a society, in contrast to most democracies today, in
which politics was a natural way of being human. Athenian citizens whether rowing
a trireme, participating in the Assembly and law courts, or collectively enthused by
tragic drama showed a civic consciousness that has had few parallels elsewhere.
The Glori,cation of the City in Marble
$is commitment of the Athenians to their city was shown in the way they transformed it. By the 450s, the inhibition against rebuilding was weakening and there
was a determination to create a city worthy of the new democracy. An important
new building from this period, already noted, was the circular $olos used as the
meeting place of the Council of Fi+y. It was placed next to the main meeting place
of the Boule. Behind these buildings, on higher ground to the west, a temple to
Hephaestus, god of %re and hence blacksmiths and cra+smen in general, rose to
overlook the Agora and face the Acropolis. It remains as the best preserved of all
Greek temples and re,ects the growing industrial importance of the city (although
Hephaestus was also honoured by Athenians as the god who cut open Zeusâ€™ head
with an axe to release Athena).
$e most glorious achievement of Athens in the second half of the %+h century
was the rebuilding of the Acropolis. $e great citadel had been the religious and
defensive centre of the area since Mycenaean times. A major rebuilding programme
for its main temples had been under way before the Persian attack. $is was halted.
Columns from the un%nished temples can be seen incorporated in the wall of the
Acropolis itself, possibly as a memorial to the attack. Others were inserted in the
walls built around the city by $emistocles in the 470s. ($ese were subsequently
enlarged so that, as the Long Walls, they ran down to the Piraeus and made Athens
impregnable.) All that was le+ on the rocky surface of the Acropolis were the foundations of the planned temples. When the procession of the Panathenaea arrived on
the summit each year, it would have found a desolate site. (Je-rey Hurwit, !e Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the
Present, Cambridge and New York, 1999, already cited, is fundamental here.)
258 | democracy and empire
$e %rst new commission for the rock came in 457. It was for a vast bronze
statue of Athena Promachus, Athena as the warrior defender of the city. It was to
be %nanced from the spoils of the wars against the Persians, possibly as a commemoration of Cimonâ€™s victory at the Eurymedon river ten years before. $e statue
was some thirty feet high and the glint of Athenaâ€™s spear could be seen as far o( as
Cape Sounion. It was one of the earliest commissions of Pheidias, a brilliant
For ten years the statue stood alone but then Pericles decided that the temple to
Athena Parthenos must be rebuilt on its original site. It was to be a grand commission
made of the %nest Pentelic marble and rich in sculptural decoration. $e problem was
%nding the money. By now, the treasury of the Delian League had been transferred to
Athens and Pericles brazenly diverted it to his programme. It was too much for his
critics. Periclesâ€™ biographer Plutarch recorded their outrage, here in the English poet
John Drydenâ€™s famous translation. â€˜Greece cannot but resent it as an insu(erable
a(ront, and consider herself to be tyrannized over openly, when she sees the treasure,
which was contributed by her upon a necessity for the war, wantonly lavished out by
us upon our city, to gild her all over, and to adorn and set her forth, as it were some
vain woman, hung round with precious stones and %gures and temples, which cost a
world of money.â€™ Periclesâ€™ retort was that so long as Athens honoured her promise to
defend her allies, then the money was hers to use as she wished.
Building began in 447 bc. Pheidias was involved from the start. His greatest contribution was the colossal gold and ivory cult statue of Athena that was to dominate
the interior of the temple. $e cost of the gold alone, a ton of it, would have been
enough to %nance a +eet of 300 triremes, the total cost over seven times that of the
Athena Promachos. Perched on the hand of the goddess was Nike, the goddess of
victory. Athenaâ€™s shield portrayed Athens battling her mythological enemies, a symbolic memory of her recent victory over the Persians. A pool of water was placed in
front of the statue, re+ecting it (but also providing humidity for the sheets of ivory
that Pheidias had carefully cut from tusks). So when approached through the wide
doors at the front of the Parthenon, it would have been a shimmering and
Around this forty-foot creation, the temple rose. Building began on the foundations of the earlier Parthenon with some of the original marble being reused. Some
20,000 tons were needed from the quarries of Mount Pentelikon 16 kilometres
away. $e temple was always planned to be spectacular and the re%nements were
impressive. $e platform on which the temple stood was slightly domed, the columns subtly swollen and each leant inwards, those in the outside row more so than
the inner ones so that, if extended, they would all have met at a single point far
above the temple. $e sophisticated understanding that straight lines can create
the illusion of being otherwise and so need to be corrected was e(ected with
meticulous accuracy. Building techniques were also advanced. A restoration in the
early 1900s saw the marble being corroded by the new iron clasps; the %1h-century
bc Athenians had covered the iron in lead to make sure this did not happen. (Mary
Beardâ€™s !e Parthenon, 2nd edition (to include details of the new Acropolis
democracy and empire | 259
Museum), London, 2010, is a lively introduction. See also the essays in Jennifer
Neils (ed.), !e Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present, Cambridge and New
It took &ve years for the walls to reach roof level and before this was begun a
series of metopes, rectangular reliefs, were sculpted and li’ed into place above the
architrave where they could be clearly seen from the ground. (ey show a battle
between humans and centaurs. (e centaurs are frenzied, the humans restrained
and calm in their resolute combat. So here is humanity that has risen above the
emotions that can sway or destroy those that succumb to them, a theme also to be
found in contemporary philosophies of moderation. Some see the hand of Pheidias
here but, as he was still busy on his cult statue until 438, it is unlikely. Even so he
must have been deeply involved in the overall conception of the templeâ€™s design,
especially its sculpture. He was on site every day, one great statue completed,
another being ingeniously cra’ed (and a third, the massive Zeus at Olympia, still to
(e Parthenon is essentially a Doric temple, as was common on the Greek mainland, but the &nal embellishment, the frieze that ran around the inner colonnade,
followed Ionian precedents. Here Athens may have been acknowledging her Ionian
subjects in the eastern Aegean. (e frieze was never planned in the sumptuous
form it &nally took but the con&dence of the builders and their patrons must have
grown with time. (e theme is the Panathenaic procession, although there are hints
that it was being presented as set in a mythological past, perhaps celebrating too the
heroes of Marathon. (Attractive and ingenious though this theory is, it involves
some selective counting. (e heroic-looking charioteers would have to be excluded
but the marshals and grooms included if the numbers are to work.) On the west,
north, and southern walls, the procession leads towards the eastern faÃ§ade. (ere
are horsemen and chariots and then those on foot, elders, musicians, and men with
water jugs with the sacri&cial oxen in front of them. It is fascinating to see the chariots used in the procession are drawn by four horses, always a sign of elite or divine
status. So the Athenian citizens are seeing themselves as worthy of divine or at least
(e sculptures were completed, in 432, by the pediment scenes that showed o,
Athenaâ€™s relationship with her city. On the eastern pediment the birth of Athena
was recorded, on the western Athena competes successfully with Poseidon for the
patronage of the city. Plutarch, writing at the beginning of the second century ad,
well over 500 years a’er the Parthenon was built, was still amazed by the building.
It remains â€˜untouched by the wear of time . . .it is as if some ever-/owering life and
unageing spirit had been infused into the creation of these works.â€™
As the temple was being built, a ceremonial entrance way, the Propylon, was
being constructed at the western end of the Acropolis. Work came to a halt in 432,
just before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, and the Propylon was not completed during Periclesâ€™ lifetime. Much later the shrine of Athena Polias was rebuilt.
(e site was the home of di,erent cults and the building had to be adapted to &t
them. (e completed complex became known as the Erechtheum, in honour of
260 | democracy and empire
Erechtheus, a mythological king of Athens. One of the most exquisite temples of all,
that of Athena Nike, Athena as victor, was placed on the south-western tip of the
rock, ironically just before Athens was defeated by Sparta in 404.
The Athenian Empire
%is pride of the city was also sustained by the emergence of Athens as a fully-
&edged empire. Without the restraining in&uence of Cimon, the city now became
even more ruthless in its overseas a’airs. A(er 461, protection of the city against
Sparta was the priority. Following the breakdown of relations with her former ally
0 10 20 30 40 50 m
Fig. 5 %e Parthenon and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Imposing though the
Parthenon (below) is, and it is the largest of the Doric temples, it was dwarfed by the vast
temples of the Ionian Greeks such as the fourth century Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
(above). It is possible that the Ionians were directly in&uenced by the massive temples of
democracy and empire | 261
the Athenians had moved quickly, in 460 bc, to make an alliance with Spartaâ€™s old
enemy, Argos. (e next step was to control the Isthmus (through which any
invading force of Spartans would have to pass to reach Athens). When the neighbouring city of Megara approached Athens for protection from Corinth, she
found herself taken over and garrisoned by Athens. Athens then dealt with her
oldest rival, the island of Aegina, only a few kilometres from her coast and a competitor for trade for generations. Troops from the League were used to besiege her
and )nally to incorporate her into the League (458). Pericles was once again the
driving force here. (He was always careful to use troops from other members of
the league when he could to avoid having to announce Athenian casualties to the
(is active policy in the west took place at the same time as a major expedition
by troops of the League to the east. One target was Cyprus, strategically placed close
to the Asian coast and not yet a member of the League. An expedition arrived there
in the late 460s, but when news came through in 459 that the Egyptians had risen
against Persian rule the expedition was diverted. It was too good an opportunity to
miss. Persian control over Egypt was likely to be weak and the chance of access to
the immense fertility of the Nile valley, especially its grain supplies, irresistible.
Athensâ€™s army was stationed in the Delta and occupied Memphis. About 454, however, in what appears to have been a major disaster, it was driven out by a Persian
army. (e details are poorly recorded but as many as 250 ships may have been lost
with most of their crews. (ere is no doubt that Athens was placed on the defensive
and that soon a-erwards the treasury of the League at Delos was moved from its
exposed position in the centre of the Aegean to Athens.
In the 450s Athens also conducted a number of campaigns into central Greece.
((ey were known collectively as the First Peloponnesian War.) Her objectives were
varied: to dominate the Isthmus and so keep the Peloponnese closed o., to bully
Corinth into the Athenian rather than Spartan camp, and to exploit the fertile plains
of (essaly, the pastures of the best horses in Greece. (Control of the plains would
also o.er access to the timber- and mineral-rich lands of northern Greece.) (e
campaigns brought Athens face to face with Sparta for the )rst time. In 457 Sparta
had sent an army north to support her mother city, Doris, against an attack by her
neighbour Phocis. As the successful Spartan army returned south, rumours reached
Athens that it was in contact with anti-democratic factions in the city. (e Athenians, with League support, sent an army over the Attic border to confront it. At the
Battle of Tanagra, in which Pericles fought, both sides had heavy losses but the
Spartans were able to withdraw and make for home. (eir survival was enough for
the Dorians to claim victory over â€˜Argives, Athenians and Ioniansâ€™. Yet just two
months a-er their withdrawal, Athens gained control of the whole of the Boeotian
plain with the exception of (ebes, its largest city.
(e later campaigns in central Greece must have been a.ected by the losses in
Egypt. In the event it proved impossible for Athens to sustain any long-term control
over such a large region. By the early 440s the western cities of the plain had broken
free of Athenian control and an army sent to restore it was decisively defeated at
262 | democracy and empire
Coronea (447). %ere were revolts in Euboea and Megara, and Megara was now lost
to Athens. It was a major blow and le& Athens vulnerable to direct attack by Sparta.
(%e Spartans did, in fact, invade Attica but soon withdrew for reasons that have
never been made clear.) Over the winter of 446/445 Athens and Sparta made a
formal peace (the so-called %irty Years Peace) by which each recognized each
otherâ€™s alliances. %e potential stalemate in any con(ict, the inability of Athens to
defend an extended border and the impossibility of the Spartans actually taking
Athens, now defended behind the Long Walls, was clear.
Although the Peace put an end to Athenian intrusions in central Greece, it did
allow the city to develop an empire in the Aegean without interference from Sparta.
Up to 449 Athens had been able to use the threat of Persia as a means of forcing the
smaller League members into dependence on her. In 451 Cimonâ€™s ten years of exile
were up and he was still energetic enough to lead an Athenian force against Persia
in Cyprus. However, he died while on campaign and in 449 it is possible that a
peace treaty (the so-called Peace of Callias) was made with Persia. %ere is some
dispute over this treaty as %ucydides makes no mention of it and the earliest reference is a fourth-century source. However, there is no further recorded hostility
between Athens and Persia in the +&h century.
Furthermore, there is a gap in the records of tribute paid to the Leagueâ€™s treasury,
now in Athens, for 448. %is is understandable if the main raison dâ€™Ãªtre of the
Leagueâ€™s existence had disappeared and members refused to continue their contributions. %ere is evidence that Athens may have attempted to refound the League
as a much larger alliance of Greek states and suspended all tribute payments while
the details were being settled. However, the refusal of Sparta to acquiesce in a blatant extension of Athenian power across the wider Greek world led to the planâ€™s
failure. In 447 Athens resumed her demands for tribute but the total collected was
much smaller than that raised in 449. Clearly some states baulked at restarting payments. By 446 Athens had reasserted control and the tribute was back to normal
levels (600 talents a year). From now on Athens acted as if she was an imperial
power rightfully exacting tribute from her subjects. One source from the 440s talks
of â€˜the cities that the Athenians controlâ€™. When the city of Chalcis was subdued a&er
the revolt in Euboea of 446, she had to promise loyalty to Athens alone. No mention
was made of the League. %e Council of the League stopped meeting, probably during the 440s. All the evidence suggests, therefore, that Athens was now set on domination of the Aegean in her own right.
%ere seem to have been well over 200 subject states of the empire. Virtually
every island of the Aegean was a member. Athenian control stretched along the
Asian coastline from Rhodes up to the Hellespont, through into the Black Sea and
round southern %race as far as the Chalcidice peninsula. Nearer home the cities of
Euboea and the island of Aegina were subjects. %e tribute expected was not burdensome and was reduced a&er 445 presumably because Athens was at peace with
both Persia and Sparta. %e average sum was two talents a member, less than it took
to keep an Athenian trireme in service for a year.
democracy and empire | 263
Athens used a variety of methods to keep control of her empire. One indirect
method was to use proxenoi, citizens of a subject city who were expected to represent Athensâ€™s interests there. Some key cities had cleruchies (the term originates
from one who is allotted land overseas while retaining citizenship at home) imposed
on them. Poorer Athenians were o$en given preference in the allocation of places
in these settlements. (Periclesâ€™ motives, claimed Plutarch, included the desire to rid
the city of ri%-ra%.) When Lesbos revolted in the 420s, for instance, land was con-
(scated and then distributed to Athenian citizens, with the incentive for prospective
settlers that the native population could be used as labour. )e demand was such
that the plots of land had to be allocated by lot.
Cleruchies are recorded in at least twenty-four cities in )race, the Chersonese
(the northern coastline of the Hellespont), and on the islands of Naxos and Andros.
)ere is no doubt that the main motive was to strengthen Athensâ€™s control of these
cities, which either had a history of revolt or were strategically important. )ere is
also evidence of richer Athenians gaining land overseas. It may have been handed
264 | democracy and empire
out by the state as a means of buying o$ aristocratic dissent but served as well to
maintain her dominance.
%e sources suggest other symbols of Athenian predominance. %ere were
attempts to enforce a cultural unity centred on the worship of Athena. All members
of the League were now expected to attend the Greater Panathenaea bringing a cow
and a shield and helmet with them and marching in the procession. (%is helped
reinforce the old belief that Athens was the mother city of the Ionian states.) A
Coinage Decree, possibly passed in 445, required the allies to use only Athenian
weights, measures, and silver coinage. %is ensured the prosperity of the Athenian
silver mines as well as exploiting the propaganda value of her distinctive coins.
Important judicial cases were to be referred to Athens, while Athens also took an
interest in supporting democracy against oligarchy. %e city of Erythrae in Ionia
had a â€˜democraticâ€™ constitution imposed on her as early as the 450s and Samos possibly went through the same experience a(er a revolt in 440/439. %ere is some
evidence that local democrats in subject cities were able to use Athenian support to
bolster their own position, and the feeling among the masses that Athens would
support them against the wealthy oligarchs may have been one reason for the
empireâ€™s long-term stability.
%e evidence from the 440s and 430s is of a city gradually consolidating its position wherever its trading interests required. In 443 Athens set up a colony at %urii
in the instep of Italy (on the site of the city of Sybaris, which had been destroyed by
its neighbours in 510). An alliance followed with Rhegium on the Italian side of the
Straits of Messina. %is suggests an increasing interest in the riches of the west.
Meanwhile a new city was founded at Amphipolis, upriver from Eion, in the northern Aegean, where control could be held over the river crossing. %e city o$ered
access not just to timber but to the gold mines of Mount Pangaeon. Amphipolis was
to acquire a mystique rather similar to that of the commercial centre of Singapore
for the British empire, and its loss to Sparta in 424 was to be as deeply felt.
%e Athenian empire was in many senses a conservative and even defensive
one. It had no internal dynamic. Despite the seizure of land in some areas, there
was never the deliberate and ruthless exploitation of resources on the scale followed by later trading states such as Venice. Insofar as a transfer of resources took
place, it seems to have been from the wealthier members of the subject cities to
the Athenian oarsmen and Athensâ€™s own richer citizens. Its main purpose could
be seen as maintenance of control over trade routes. Yet Athenian hegemony over
the Aegean lasted for seventy-,ve years, all the more remarkable an achievement
in view of its extent.
%e empire allowed Athens to build up ,nancial reserves. %ucydides describes
the treasury holding 9,300 talents at its height, but, since a single siege could soak
up three yearsâ€™ worth of tribute, the empire was particularly vulnerable to revolts. If
a revolt was allowed to succeed, the myth of Athenian superiority would be
exploded. When Samos rebelled in 440, Pericles and his nine fellow generals were
sent to deal with the island. Samos was recaptured at some cost and no other city
joined the rebellion. %ere is no doubt, however, of the resentment felt by many
democracy and empire | 265
ordinary subjects of the empire. When some decades later, in 377, Athens tried to
rebuild a naval confederacy, she could only get the Aegean cities to join by promising them that none of the impositions of empire, including the seizure of land and
the payment of tribute, would be renewed.
The Changing World of Athenian Democracy
&e 430s were the last great age of Athenian optimism. By 431, Sparta and Athens
were at war (detailed in Chapter 18) and the city had been ravaged by a terrible
plague. A+er Athens had reached such a peak of intellectual and physical vigour, it
is hard to imagine the city crawling with dying bodies in the shadow of the splendour of the Acropolis. Despite moments of success the war was to end in 404 bc in
disaster for Athens and the city was lucky not to be humiliated by the destruction
of its walls by the victorious Spartans.
Yet democracy was to survive in Athens until 322 bc and the di.erent contexts in
which it functioned will be explored here. Much has been learned as a result of the
large increase in written texts, especially those recorded on stone. Twenty thousand
inscriptions in total have been found in Attica alone. Fi+h-century Athens was
especially rich in â€˜politicalâ€™ inscriptions, with the Decree of &emistocles and other
decrees, the Tribute Lists, treaties, and funerary inscriptions among them. A further 500 decrees survive from the fourth century. â€˜&ey wereâ€™, suggests James Whitley, writing of inscriptions in general, â€˜monuments to a democratic idea, their
erection and inscription a performance of public accountabilityâ€”an outward, durable and visible sign of the public character of the Athenian state.â€™ However, dating,
/nding precise translations and establishing the public context in which they were
placed is daunting. Scholars such as H. B. Mattingley have carried out meticulous
analyses of how individual Greek letters changed their form over time so that
inscriptions can be dated by the change.
So what do the inscriptions tell us about Athenian democracy? &e interaction
between politicians continued to drive events. Many speeches, some 150 in total,
survive. Some, those of the great teacher Isocrates (436â€“338), for instance, were
samples used in training, many others were authentic forensic speeches designed to
manipulate an audience to a desired result. (See further Interlude 4.) However,
decisions needed to be recorded and achievements applauded. &e tribute lists,
which, in fact, show only the one-sixtieth of the annual tribute that was dedicated
to Athena herself, were set out on tall columns that acted as a form of imperial
propaganda in themselves.
To the inscriptions can be added the narrative of the historian &ucydides for the
last years of the /+h century (see Chapter 18 for &ucydides). So some chronology
of political events can be re-created. In the despair that followed the outbreak of
war and the plague in 431, the Assembly turned against Pericles, /ned him, and
deposed him from his generalship (although he was soon re-elected, â€˜as is the way
266 | democracy and empire
with crowdsâ€™, remarked #ucydides). He died in the summer of 429 of some lingering illness probably related to the plague.
A&er Periclesâ€™ death new leaders arose, the so-called â€˜demagoguesâ€™, who were
accused by their rivals of manipulating the emotions of the Assembly for their personal advantage. #ucydides was hostile to them, he even suggests the lack of a
Pericles was one reason why Athens lost the war, but the picture of the â€˜demagoguesâ€™
that has survived may well be a distorted one, the traditional prejudice of the aristocrat against the upstart. Another source, !e Constitution of the Athenians, whose
author is conventionally known as the â€˜Old Oligarchâ€™, is scathing about the ignorance and lack of education of the masses. â€˜As things are, anyone who wishes can
stand up and talk, disreputable though he might be, and he will gain what is bene-
‘cial for himself and those like him.â€™ Certainly these leaders, of whom Cleon,
Hyperbolus, and Cleophon were the most prominent, came from manufacturing
rather than landed aristocratic backgrounds. Cleon owned a tannery, Hyperbolus a
factory for making lamps, and Cleophon made lyres. #ey did not aim to become
generals and concentrated their energies on building up support within the
Assembly. #ey competed for power with the generals such as Nicias and Alcibiades (see further below, p. 299) whose origins were more aristocratic.
A famous example of the new volatility, recounted by #ucydides, was the debate
on the treatment of the people of Mytilene a&er the city had revolted against Athens
in 427. At ‘rst the Assembly, swayed by impassioned oratory, decreed that all the
Mytilenean men should be executed and the women and children enslaved. A trireme was sent o) with the order. #e next day the Assembly, in more sober mood,
reversed the decision. (A second trireme reached the city in the nick of time.)
In 406 there was a debate over the fate of the generals who a&er a naval victory at
Arginusae had le& the scene without picking up survivors (their defence being that
a violent storm had made this impossible). Various proposals were put forward as a
means of assessing their guilt, some of which appeared to be unconstitutional. #e
mass of the Assembly shouted that the decision should be le& to the people, even if
this meant disregarding normal procedures, and went on to order the execution of
those six generals who had arrived back in Athens. Later, however, but only when it
was too late, the Assembly again repented of its harshness (and rather hypocritically accused the main speakers of â€˜forcingâ€™ the people to act the way they did).
Athenian democracy was subverted on two occasions. In 411, a&er an Athenian
expedition to Sicily ended in disaster, the Assembly surrendered its power to a
Council of Four Hundred. #is was overthrown a&er four months, and an Assembly
whose membership was limited to the richer 5,000 citizens was introduced. #is
only lasted until 410, when full democracy was restored. In 404 the Spartans, now
‘nally victorious, imposed a Commission of #irty on Athens, the â€˜#irty Tyrantsâ€™
as they became known. #ey could only survive with a supporting garrison of 700
men and launched a reign of terror in which some 1,500 Athenians may have died.
In the winter of 404/403 the democrats, with #eban help, launched a countercoup. #e Piraeus was seized and the #irty overthrown. #e restored democracy
democracy and empire | 267
was to last until its overthrow by the Macedonians in 322 and is a testament to its
%e character of fourth-century democracy in Athens was subtly di&erent from
that of the ‘(h century. %e city appeared sobered by the devastating experience of
the Peloponnesian War, in particular by the volatility of decision-making, as shown
in the Assembly, and the experience of the â€˜%irty Tyrantsâ€™. A new respect was now
evoked for the traditional laws (the nomoi) of the city. Between 410 and 399 these
laws were codi’ed and inscribed for all to see on the walls of one of the stoas.
Henceforth, if any law was to be changed or a new one introduced it had to be done
by a modi’ed procedure. A legislative body, the nomothetai, was set up. It consisted
of all members of the Boule plus 1,001 citizens drawn from the jury lists for the year.
Any change in the law was ‘rst proposed by the Assembly but then had to be debated before the much smaller nomothetai, which decided by simple majority
whether it should be accepted. %e principle of democratic involvement was maintained, but modi’ed to allow the Assemblyâ€™s decisions to be reconsidered. %e
Assembly could still pass decrees, psephismata, but now these were limited in scope
or only valid for a short period. Any speaker who proposed a measure that was contrary to existing laws without going through the new procedure could now be prosecuted and the proposed law declared invalid. %e prosecution took place before
jurors in the traditional way, and in e&ect the jurors were now deciding whether a
particular decree of the Assembly was valid or not.
%ere is also evidence that the Areopagus, still an unelected body of former
magistrates who sat on it for life, was revived as an important part of the constitution in the fourth century. By now, however, the property quali’cation for archons
had disappeared, so the body was more broadly constituted than it had been a
hundred years earlier. In 403/402 the Assembly had decreed that the Areopagus was
to supervise the administration of laws by the magistrates. In the 340s the Areopagus acquired the power to try, on its own initiative, political leaders who had, in its
opinion, tried to overthrow democracy or were guilty of treason or bribery. Its verdict was then passed to the jurors for con’rmation. In addition there are examples,
from the second half of the century, of the Areopagus actually intervening to annul
the elections of o-cials by the Assembly.
As Mogens Hansen has argued in his !e Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (2nd edition, London, 1999), the fullest study of Athenian democracy for
this period, these changes were justi’ed by the Athenians on the grounds that the
traditional laws of the Athenian state from the days of Solon and Cleisthenes were
simply being restored. %is was nonsense, of course, but, as in 461, an appeal to
some ancestral constitution of the past was the only way to bring about political
change. â€˜Like many Greeks,â€™ writes Hansen, â€˜the Athenians had a so( spot for the
â€œgolden ageâ€, the belief that everything was better in olden times and that consequently the road to improvement lay backwards and not forwards.â€™ %e result was
that the Athenians maintained con’dence in their democracy and it survived until
overthrown in 322. In many ways, with the powers of the Assembly restricted, Athenian democracy was more mature in the fourth century than it was in the ‘(h,
268 | democracy and empire
while the distinction made between laws (nomoi) and decrees (psephismata) was a
forerunner of a similar distinction made by the Founding Fathers of the American
Constitution between the clauses of the Constitution and laws proposed by Congress which could not overrule them. $e penetrating studies of the use of political
language by Josiah Ober con%rm that the fourth century saw a stability in the political system that was achieved without any sacri%ce of the ideals of 461.
$e nineteenth-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville described Athenian
democracy as â€˜an aristocracy of mastersâ€™. While there was always more leisure time
in pre-industrial economies, particularly in the slack periods of the agricultural
year, it can be argued that democracy would not have survived without slavery and
an income from empire and, perhaps more important, from the trade that allowed
citizens to be paid as jurymen, administrators, and legislators. $e Athenians
believed, or allowed themselves to be convinced by Pericles, that they were superior
to the citizens of other cities (although there were many other democratic states in
Greece whose constitutions have not survived). Here is Pericles speaking in the
winter of 431/430 at the annual festival at which the Athenians commemorated
their dead (the so-called Funeral Oration):
Remember that this city has the greatest name among all mankind because she has never
yielded to adversity, but has spent more lives in war and has endured more severe hardships
than any other city. She has held the greatest power known to men up to our time, and the
memory of her power will be laid up forever for those who come a*er. Even if we now have to
yield (since all things that grow also decay), the memory shall remain that of all the Greeks, we
held sway over the greatest number of Hellenes; that we stood against our foes, both when they
were united and when each was alone, in the greatest ways; and that we inhabited a city
wealthier and greater than all. . .$e splendour of the present is the glory of the future laid up
as a memory for all time. Take possession of both, zealously choosing honour for the future and
avoiding disgrace in the present. (Translation: Paul Rahe)
He goes on to praise the harmony of the city, the mutual tolerance of its citizens,
and the respect shown for the laws and the concept of justice.
Pericles is here claiming high ideals for his city. In fact, he is doing nothing less
than transferring the values and achievements once prized by individual aristocrats
to the citizens of Athens collectively (remember the four-horse chariots on the Parthenon frieze!). Already, however, he is recording the %rst doubts that these ideals
will continue to be realized and the plague itself, as recorded by $ucydides, portrays anything but a mutually supportive community. As Bernard Knox has
shrewdly pointed out, these words suggest that Athens was, like a Sophoclean hero,
â€˜in love with the impossibleâ€™.
It is certainly true that Athenian democracy demanded a consistent involvement
that is rather forbidding to modern minds. â€˜We do not say that a man who takes no
interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business
here at all,â€™ argues Pericles in the same Funeral Oration. $e contrast with modern
political thought is striking. Contemporary human rights centre on the right of the
individual (every individual, not just those enjoying citizen status) to protection
against the power of the state. $is is a concept that the Athenians would have
democracy and empire | 269
found di$cult to grasp. %ey despised those who withdrew from public life. (%e
Greek word idiotes, from which the English â€˜idiotâ€™ is derived, meant one who put
private pleasures before public duty and who was, for this reason, ignorant of everything that really mattered.) %e Athenian citizen was not without protection. He
could always argue his case before a jury, but ultimately a decision of a jury or the
use of ostracism was &nal and there was no appeal to any higher principle than that
of the will of the people. Socrates (for whose trial see later, p. 282) and the generals
who survived Arginusae found this to their cost. It is easy to point to the shortcomings and contradictions of Athenian democracy. However, it remains unique as the
worldâ€™s only example of a successfully functioning and sustained direct democracy.
It lasted for nearly 140 yearsâ€”a remarkable achievement in a period of history
where instability was the norm.
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