Athens & the Beginning of Greek Politics

A quick preface to this post. It will be the first of five covering the classical world. I’ll cover the big names in ancient Greece – Plato and Aristotle, move on to the Romans with Polybius and Cicero, and finish with St Augustine in the early days of Christianity.

The ancient Greeks considered that they practiced ‘political’ government while their Persian neighbours did not. Politics can only exist in a self-governing state with citizens under the rule of law, not where a great king is a master of slaves. As Herodotus wrote, Xerxes supposed that free men would not choose to fight in battle against great odds. However, the Greeks would fight and die to preserve their freedom. Ancient Greeks were only subject to the rule of law, and they feared losing that more than anything else. Their rulers could not make and change laws on a whim, but democracy – rule by the many (literally meaning “people power”), was not implicit in Greek politics. It was most notably practiced in Athens, and was very narrow by modern standards in that only citizens could participate. The largest group in society were slaves who could never become citizens (nether could foreigners). The existence of rich and poor citizens was accepted as the natural state of things. Women could not officially participate in politics. For those people who could participate it was said that a man who takes no notice of politics has no business here at all.

The victory of Athens against the Persians in the 5th century BC was followed by the rise and fall of radical Athenian democracy (radical in terms of mass participation – ‘direct’ rather than modern ‘representative’ democracy). Athens became an empire with tributary states (there was no moral concern – it was the law of nature that the strong dominate the weak). Some of this tribute subsidised the more active political life of poorer citizens. The Athenian state was governed by the Assembly, which was composed in theory of every citizen. The Assembly was legislature, judiciary and executive. From within the Assembly there was a 500 strong Governing Council and a smaller Managing Committee. The members of both were chosen by lottery every year and most citizens were eligible. Absolute power was given to ‘the people’. Any citizen could be dismissed from office by the Assembly and any citizen could be prosecutor.

While capable administrators could be expelled from the state by the Assembly on flimsy grounds, this system did create loyal Generals and citizen soldiers who maintained Athens’ power. However, the need to subsidise their political system caused Athens to be almost always at war. The need to win wars allowed successful Generals to become demagogues and upset the balance of power. One of those demagogues persuaded the Assembly to declare a high-risk war against Syracuse while Athens was still at war with Sparta. After the war started he was expelled by the Assembly due to allegations of blasphemy, and then defected to the Spartans. The war went against Athens but the need to win and their overconfidence caused Athens to reject reasonable peace terms. They were soundly defeated and lost their empire. In the 4th century BC they would lose their political freedom entirely at the hands of Macedonia.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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