Saturday, January 24, 2015

Athenian Democracy -- A Background

Solon, founder of Athenian democracy
Although I am writing about how democracies fail, rather than how they are established, how they function, or how they are restored, but the subjects are inextricably linked.  So here goes.

We begin our series on failures of democracy where democracy began, in ancient Greece. And it turns out that the earliest failures of democracy were of the type I predicted would be the exception, the left wing populist charismatic dictator. Specifically with one most people today have probably never heard of, Pisistratus of Athens.  Nor was Pisistratus of Athens in any way exceptional. Similar dictators were popping up all over Greece at about the same time.  But Athens is by far the best-documented of the Greek city-states, so I will have to stick to Athens and assume that it was fairly typical. But even in Athens, the question of documentation is problematic.

The word "classical" is usually applied to ancient Greece and Rome, but it is sometimes applied to other countries as well, such as India and China.  Histories speak of an "ancient" era followed by a "classical" era.  The difference, so far as I can tell, is that "ancient" refers to a time the we lack significant written records for and therefore cannot write a reliable history about, but must rely on archeology and legend.  Classical is a time for which we have enough written records to write a reliable history.  Of course, there is usually a fuzzy time that lies somewhere in between the two. Pisistratus and his older contemporary, Solon, the founder of Athenian democracy lived in that fuzzy time between ancient and classical.  It is not seriously doubted that Solon and Pisistratus were actual, historical figures, but the earliest accounts of them are from Herodotus, who lived about a hundred years later and Aristotle, two hundred years later.  And Herodotus tells many charming stories that sound more like folk tales than actual history, so history is not always easy to sort out from legend.*

The origins of Athens are ancient, in the sense that the city was founded before we have any reliable historical record.  It rates no more than a single mention in the Iliad (in the catalog of ships) and one in the Odyssey (when Odysseus raises the spirits of the dead, Ariadne, daughter of Minos who ran off to Athens with Theseus is among them).  Like other city-states, it was originally ruled by kings. Unlike the Romans, who celebrated the downfall of the monarchy as a glorious event, the Athenians appear to have gradually evolved past kings.  According to legend, the last king was named Codrus.  By one account, Codrus heard an oracle that a Dorian invasion would succeed if he survived a battle with them, so he arranged to be killed. After that no one felt worth to be his successor.  More plausibly, his son was a weakling who was not considered worthy of the title of king and was given the title of archon instead.  Given that archon, in fact, meant ruler, and that he was hereditary archon for life, it can take a lot of squinting to see the difference.  The main difference appears to have been that archon is more subject to evolution.  More archons were added, until there was a total of nine.  The office became elective instead of hereditary, although all candidates had to come from the old nobility, the eupatrides.**  Over time, the office went from being life-long to being for ten years, and finally for one.  One of the archons continued to be called the archon basileus -- the king archon, and to have to belong to the old royal family, but he was by no means the most important.

During these turbulent times most Athenian were peasants who were serfs or sharecroppers (the distinction can be blurry), paying a sixth of their to the nobility in exchange for protection from the war and violence that was endemic.  As war and violence began dying down, the peasantry began to become resentful of these burdens.  In the meantime, trade and commerce were picking up.  As the commercial classes became wealthier, they began to resent their subordination to the old nobility. More commerce meant more debt.  Poor men were often forced to borrow using themselves as collateral and were sold as slaves if they failed to pay.  Assemblies, juries, elective office and office chosen by lot existed at the time, although it appears that only property owners could participate, and that offices had fairly stiff property requirements.  The first code of law came from Draco, who gave the world the word draconian because of the harshness of his code.  But have a written code of law at all was important progress -- it meant that law was no longer an esoteric secret of the powerful, but could be known by all.

To resolve their strife, Athenians turned to Solon.  Solon is described as an aristocrat who also took part in commerce, a poet, a man of irreproachable integrity, and general who persuaded Athens to go to war against its neighbor, Megara, for the island of Salamis.  When the war ended in deadlock, the difference was submitted to the Spartans for arbitration, he was able to persuade them of Athens' historic claims.  It was presumably because of his record in recovering Salamis by war and diplomacy that the Athenians turned to Solon to resolve their disputes and allowed him to add lawgiver to his resume.  Solon replaced the harsh code of Draco with a milder set of laws, removed any hereditary privileges of the nobility, and made all free, native men of Athens, even the poorest, into citizens with the right to vote and serve on juries. Citizens did not mean equal citizens.  While even the poorest could vote in the Assembly or serve on juries, office holding continued to have a means test.  Citizens were divided into four classes by wealth with the highest offices reserved to the richest class and the poorest class barred from any office.  Pledging of the person for debt was banned, debt slaves were freed, and the one-sixth sharecropping was ended.  He is described both as cancelling debts and as shrinking them by inflationary policies, so make of it what you will.

Athens was a poor, rocky, barren land, with population pressing against its meager agricultural capacity, leading to food shortages that contributed mightily to the unrest.  Solon appears to have recognized this and also recognized that the city's future therefore lay in trade and commercialization.  He therefore required all fathers to enroll their sons in trade on penalty of losing their right to be supported in old age and encouraged skilled foreigners to come to Athens to ply their trades. He also ended the rule that property must be inherited by fixed laws and legalized wills instead.  To fight food shortages, he encouraged the export of pottery and olive oil and forbade the export of any other crops.

Such was Solon's prestige that the Athenians offered him dictatorial powers to suppress their factional strife, but Solon refused.  Like all compromises, his reforms pleased no one.  The old nobility resented the reduction of their power and privilege.  Creditors resented the cancellations of debt.  The poor found themselves freed from the risk of slavery but cut off from credit, and many, though released from slavery, remained propertyless and wanted their land back.  Everyone wanted changes.  Solon made everyone vow to uphold his laws for ten or one hundred (sources differ) years and then went into a ten-year exile to prevent himself from making any changes.

Most of the charming stories and legends about Solon date from his exile.  In his absence, the strife continued and grew.

*Although the stories with a legendary sound are usually about Solon.
**Literally, offspring of good fathers, often translated as Well-born.  I prefer nobility.  Less clear is who did the electing.

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