Democracy in Athens

By Namit Arora | Jan 2007 | Comments

(Below is an excerpt from a chapter on the Greeks from my review of Herodotus' Histories. Any resemblance between classical Athens (5th cent. BCE) and a modern nation-state is not purely coincidental.)  

Parthenon The liberal-popular and the conservative-aristocratic emerged as the two dominant factions in Athenian democracy. The spirit of the agon (competition), fame, glory, honor and the desire to surpass all others were values enshrined even in the Homeric poems, particularly the Iliad. "It was widely accepted as 'natural', that the members of the community were unequal in resources, skills and style of life."

In Herodotus' prime, Athens was the dominant naval and imperial power. It offered military protection to members of the Athenian (Delian) league in exchange for tributes, euphemistically called contributions—other euphemisms include protection for military occupation; prison was dwelling; an Athenian military defeat was to have a misfortune. Athenians were granted homesteads in the colonies, cementing further their hold on them and squelching any moral objection from the participants. Athens relied on imports of fruits and merchandise from distant lands to supplement local produce like corn and salted fish, and maintained permanent garrisons abroad to ensure a steady supply. Many of the colonized though, even when they resented the politics of Athens, found its popular culture irresistible.

The professed objective of Athenian foreign policy was to aggressively promote democracies abroad in direct opposition to the more muted Spartan confederacy's preference for oligarchies. But exceptions to high principle were frequently made for illiberal ends. At times, foreign territory was grabbed in the name of goddess Athena herself. In reality, wars were used to acquire wealth, to keep the economy humming, to flex their muscle of growing power, and to distract citizens from domestic issues.

Classical Athens soon turned into a wartime economy. Special interest groups in popular assemblies cloaked their impassioned speeches in the rhetoric of national interest and glory—deemed acceptable grounds for hostile military action even when others' legitimate rights were mauled. Athens began asserting itself in all manner of allied causes and interfered in other nations' internal matters. It had shrewd orators—demagogues, idealists, pragmatists, with the ability to manipulate public opinion to catastrophic ends—illustrated by the Mitylene debate when the popular assembly, following the frenzied instigation of the demagogue Cleon, rashly voted to condemn all men in the rebellious colony to death to set an example.

In greater Hellas, Athens repeatedly invoked its role in the Persian wars as moral justification for present domination, backing it up with militant aggression, much to the exasperation of the second-rank powers and other 'inward-looking' city-states.  A generation after Herodotus, the great historian Thucydides thought the Peloponnesian war inevitable: Athens had become an unprincipled bully; they had to be checked. Their cultural effulgence had a dark side; they were victims of their own cupidity and recklessness. Their conduct towards other city-states, with its own self-serving logic and momentum, had set them on a road to disaster.

Some Athenians believed that a just society needed an inspired combination of philosophy and real-politick in a leader—a philosopher-king, but the production and predictable supply of such men proved utopian. Their democracy, too, depended on public awareness, responsibility, and participation to provide a bulwark against any willful abuse of power; conscious citizens were vital for its success in their asking—who are these men making decisions for me and my people? The disparity between the rich and the poor, and the knowledge gap between the civilized few and the superstitious many, had become enormous in Athens. Class conflict between wealthy landowners and less fortunate craftsmen, sailors and small traders became pervasive; the poor began asking awkward questions when reminded of their obligation to the polis. Thucydides portrays the fragile and corruptible nature of popular government and noble institutions, the twin spectacle of the juggernaut of history and an endlessly vulnerable humanity, egocentric leaders lusting for power and glory, and at times inevitability, in light of the often blind and contending cultural instincts of peoples—his is a stage portrait of man, the political animal.

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