Athens in the Golden Age and After
A long stretch of the fifth century saw Athens’ greatest achievements. By 479 the city had established an unprecedented democracy, and working together with Sparta had twice stopped the Persian Empire from conquering Greece. For fifty years after Persia’s retreat, Athens built its own grand alliance, first with the alleged purpose of defending against the return of the Empire, then to resist encroachments by the Spartan alliance that rivaled the Athenian group for control of Greek territory. The alliance was supposedly a mutual-defense pact, but from an early date almost all the other cities involved found it more convenient to let Athens provide the defense of the group and to pay a cash tribute instead. Athens in turn built the fleet and trained the infantry that it took to defend the alliance, and made good use of the funds from its allies. Soon enough the alliance functioned as an empire, for the member states learned that Athens would not let an ally withdraw.
The alliance brought Athens prosperity and a fair measure of peace. During the years between the decisive stand against Persia at Plataea and the beginning of war between Athens and Sparta in 431, Athens built its great temples and a huge harbor at Piraeus, perfected the dramatic forms of tragedy and comedy, and otherwise encouraged the arts, scientific speculation, and general intellectual inquiry. The war, the protracted struggle against Sparta that has long been known as the Peloponnesian War, brought the end of this grand era. Off and on for twenty-seven years, Athens squandered the prestige and wealth it had amassed since the end of the Persian War.
At first the city much exceeded Sparta in wealth, in number of allies, and in the naval power that had recently become decisive to warfare. Athens felt confident of victory. But early on the great democratic leader Pericles died; and after some years of mixed results on the battlefield and a welcome truce, Athens attempted a huge military expedition to Sicily in 415. It was an overreaching move and a doomed invasion. Nearly all the participating Athenians were killed and their fleet destroyed. The war would drag on for a
decade after the Sicilian Expedition, but Athens was on the defensive now, and finally had to accept humbling terms from the Spartans in 404.
For close to a year after this loss, Athens was governed by a pair of dictatorial committees that were known together as the Thirty Tyrants. Plato’s own relatives Critias and Charmides belonged to this group; in fact they were among its most bloodthirsty members, who made an easy transition back to democracy impossible. But the democratic forces did prevail, and Athens continued as a democratic, autonomous city until after the death of Plato.
Plato saw the democracy close up. Except for a brief oligarchic coup when he was a teenager, the Thirty Tyrants created the only break in democratic governance that he would have seen. Athens ran itself according to principles of direct democracy and defined itself as a place of equal political rights for its citizens.
Plato’s dialogues regularly refer to the fact that Athens is a democracy, especially the dialogues that focus on politics as the Republic does. With few exceptions the references are negative, sometimes suspicious of this inefficient way to run a city, more often repelled by the corruption that democracy represents. Plato is called a reactionary for his attitude toward democracy, or at least that vaguer thing a ‘conservative’; but while this description does capture something about his distaste for contemporary politics and his yearning for old-fashioned values, Plato rarely advocates a simple return to the good old days. From enlightened governance to structured education, his political proposals contain as many new ideas as rehashes of old customs. For better or for worse Plato envisions a society that resembles no society known thus far, more than it resembles any past version of Athens.
Above all Plato has a talent for not saying what you might expect him to. This is another reason not to call him a conservative, because such labels presuppose someone’s attachment to a known cluster of beliefs. Plato sounds like a traditionalist about the warrior class that runs his new city; then he seems to be the most progressive Greek of his time when he advocates
including women in that class, or having philosophers govern the warriors.
The Athenian democracy itself is not always what the modern residents of democratic societies expect. Democracy means the general public’s right to vote. But in almost all democracies today, the public votes to elect its political leaders and representatives. The Athenian public mostly voted, in the frequently convened assembly, to enact legislation. A few public offices were elected ones, the most important of these being the ten generals who commanded Athenian troops; but most offices were chosen by lot. Five hundred citizens were selected at random each year to represent the complex districts of Athens in its boulê ‘council,’ which prepared legislation for assembly meetings and formed executive committees to administer the city’s daily business. The assembly met too frequently to be superseded on substantive matters even by this important council, and the assembly’s quorum of 5,000 ensured that legislation reflected the will of at least a very large minority of the population. Thus the actions of the state had more to do with the immediate wishes of its voting public than the actions of modern democracies have to do with their publics’ wishes.
It is a restriction on Athenian democracy, of course, that only a fraction of its inhabitants were voting citizens. Slaves, resident aliens, and women made up a large neglected percentage of the whole. This innocuous word ‘population’ should always be qualified as ‘free adult-male citizen population’ when describing the Athenian government. Calling it ‘direct democracy’ to contrast with modern representative democracies should not be taken to imply that all the people participated.
Scholars of ancient thought observe that the first political theory came into existence in the Athenian democracy; unfortunately (paradoxically) the theorizing that came out of the democracy all seems to have argued against
democracy. From the pamphleteering Constitution of Athens
whose unknown author is now called the ‘Old Oligarch,’ through the portrayal of Athens in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War
and Plato’s dialogues, to Aristotle’s Politics
and the work Athenians
probably written by a member of Aristotle’s school, a century’s worth of observations on
Athenian democracy viewed that form of government with greater or lesser contempt but never approval, more suspicion or less but never trust. The arguments brought against Athenian democracy by this disapproving tradition influenced later readers so strongly that, until well into the twentieth century, modern scholars joined the ancients in declaring the Athenian democracy inefficient, fickle, and lawless; they looked back more fondly on the armed camp that was Sparta as forebear of the West than they did on unreliable democratic Athens.
The Athenian intellectuals’ own arguments against democracy may be unfortunate, but they are not inexplicable. Perhaps for the first time in history, a culture’s intellectual elite did not belong to its governing class or serve that class. This is an astonishing development: the alienated thinker, the elitist expelled from the halls of power. However wealthy and educated they were, the intellectuals of Athens were not, as ancient intellectuals before them had been, advisers to kings or sloganeers on the kings’ behalf. Lacking political power, they were reduced to developing arguments that would win their readers’ agreement, or rhetoric that seized the readers’ hearts, because they could no longer simply command agreement.
In other words political theory came into existence because democracy marginalized its elite writers. The theory those writers produced was undemocratic not by an unhappy coincidence of history but as a token of the democracy’s power.
The historian Thucydides emphasizes the irresponsibility in Athens. When the news sank in that the Sicilian Expedition had been destroyed, the Athenians blamed the politicians who had convinced them of its merits, ‘just as if they had not voted for it themselves’ (History of the Peloponnesian War
8.1.1). Another episode in his chronicle shows the chilling difference this democratic irresponsibility could make. Thucydides tells of the day in 427 (coincidentally the year of Plato’s birth) when an angry assembly voted to kill all the men of Mitylene and enslave its women and children, after that city had unsuccessfully tried to withdraw from the Athenian alliance. Next day, even as the ship sped to carry out liquidation, the men in the assembly changed their minds and sent a second ship speeding after the first one to rescind the deadly
order, and execute only the revolt’s leaders (History of the Peloponnesian War
3.36–50). The will of the people had changed overnight.
While other antidemocratic authors stressed the capriciousness of democracy, its disrespect for moral standards, or the downright wrongness that some saw in treating unequal people as equals, Plato’s dialogues emphasize what is unreasoning about democracy. Democratic deliberation gives no weight to expert opinion but treats every vote as equal to every other one, no matter how ignorantly a citizen votes. The most knowledgeable speakers do not always prevail; if anything they tend not to. Knowledge, wisdom, expertise lose to guesswork and personal interest – to bodily desire, old wives’ tales, and newfangled speculation. Although the dialogues show aristocrats and oligarchs letting their own selfish opinions likewise run roughshod over temperate deliberation too, Plato does not oppose philosophical governance equally to all other regimes. Most of all he pits philosophy against democracy. The Republic’s proposal that philosophers rule the good city is the ultimate expression of Plato’s call for expertise in governance over against the ignorant governance practiced by democracies.
Other differences between the constitution that the Republic calls for and the type that Plato grew up observing are more indirect. Consider imperialism, which in today’s political vocabulary is practiced by political and economic elites. It is seen as the work of capitalistic nations, which behave undemocratically as they dominate other countries. It is commonly assumed that in a representative democracy the ‘conservatives’ and the rich and powerful will support a bellicose foreign policy, while progressives and other liberals, and the poor and disenfranchised, argue for peace and coexistence with the state’s alleged enemies.
In Athens the opposite happened. The city’s wealthy families were the first to tire of war with Sparta, a war in which they bore a disproportionate burden of the cost, e.g. by having to pay for the new ships of Athens’ fleet. Many aristocrats sympathized with Spartan culture. The poorest citizens, on the other hand, could earn a subsistence wage by rowing the navy’s ships; and the large alliance of cities that this navy permitted Athens to lead – an alliance
that increasingly resembled an Athenian empire – brought a wealth of tribute money to the city. That money found its way to the general population by funding pay for jury duty and pay for attendance at the assembly, the modernization of the city’s harbors (which meant many days’ wages) and the temples on the Acropolis (again, wages for many workers). Both the empire and the long war benefited the city’s urban voters. Plato joined other wealthy Athenians, and the property-holding farmers who were neither wealthy nor poor, in hoping for a city that held itself aloof rather than embroil itself in alliances, and especially a kind of city that did not float that symbol of democratic aggressiveness the navy.
Democracy was far from the standard form of government for these independent Greek cities. Many of them did operate according to some version of a democratic constitution, and by the fifth century monarchies had largely disappeared, but most cities were either run oligarchically – by the wealthiest minority – or tyrannically, by a single dictator who had seized power. The extreme opposite to Athenian democracy seems to have been Sparta, whose reputation for boot-camp austerity is as widespread as the picture of Athens as freethinking. The warrior-citizens of Sparta lived abstemiously, spending their lives training for battle. Within their home city they kept the majority of the population, the Helots, working the land as cowed serfs. Beyond the horizons of their own land they enjoyed a reputation as the most fearsome and successful fighters in Greece.
Most Athenians who criticized its democratic institutions – this especially includes Socrates – sympathized with Sparta and wished that their society could be more Spartan. Socrates wore simple clothes and walked barefoot not because he was impoverished (his reputation for poverty seems to have been exaggerated), but because this was how Spartan men dressed, insensitive to bad weather and careless of personal luxury. Such sympathies only grew when Sparta finally won the long and brutal war between the cities, for that victory appeared to have demonstrated the superiority of the Spartan state.
Plato does not appear to have affected Spartan manners or wardrobe, but he did take Sparta as one of his models when designing
’s city. His city differs from Sparta in important ways, but the permanent separation of productive workers from soldiers, and those soldiers’ lives in barracks, closely resemble, if not actual life in classical Sparta, at least that life as sympathetic Athenians envisioned it.
The Sophists and Socrates
The wealth of Athens made it the most desirable stopping point for the Greek world’s itinerant intellectuals. Poets traveled from city to city; so did rhapsodes, who recited and interpreted the epics of Homer; so did those all-round experts known as Sophists.
When the Sophists arrived in Athens they saw that they could fill a void in the locals’ education. In Athens of the early classical age, schoolboys memorized passages from Homer, learning writing syllable by syllable in the process. Once they could read and write and knew a fair quantity of Homer, their formal education was over, maybe at the age of twelve.
A society that farmed and warred did not need more education. Doctors, carpenters, musicians, and other experts received their specialized training as apprentices. But as Athens became more complex, wealthy families sought out teachers for their adolescent sons who could prepare them for public life. At first such preparation meant all-round tutoring that would turn a literate boy into a man of culture. The Sophist Hippias appears in the pages of Plato, in one of the dialogues that bear his name, boasting of the wide range of subjects he could teach: astronomy, genealogy, and grammar.
Learning from a universal expert must have seemed glamorous. The word for these smart men, ‘Sophists,’ is still at work in the English word ‘sophisticated.’ But of all the skills that made a young gentleman impressive, it soon emerged that the one most useful in the city’s growing democracy was skill at public speaking. The assembly held all policy-making authority in Athens; and the assembly’s laws were enforced in the courts, in which both criminal cases and lawsuits were tried. One citizen would bring charges against another and they both argued their cases before large juries, from 51 jurors in routine cases to 501 or even more when someone faced a capital charge (as Socrates did in the year 399).
The origins of the Athenian judicial system are obscure, but one significant factor in its development was Pericles, who intr...