Sunday, January 25, 2015

Athens: Democracy Restored

Statue honoring the tyrannicides
Pisistratus of Athens ruled for 17 years of peace and prosperity and died at a ripe old age.  After he was dead, his sons, Hippias and *Hipparchus, the Pisistratidae (sons of Pisistratus) inherited his power.  Thucydides says that they continued to rule in much the same manner as their father and to be popular, while Aristotle says the sons of Pisistratus were a mixed bag, and not up to their father's standards.  (Some modern historians has postulated that Athens hit an economic bump for reasons unrelated to its rulers, but that it nonetheless caused their popularity to slip).  All sources agree that Hipparchus was assassinated when he made the moves on another man's boyfriend and was rejected.  Hipparchus retaliated by publicly and offensively forbidding the boy's (unmarried) sister from carrying a basket in the upcoming festival because the role was limited to virgins.  The male lovers and some of their friends then formed a conspiracy to kill the man who had insulted them.  The killing took place during a religious procession.  By popular account, this was because members of the procession carried ceremonial weapons and this was the only time a large gathering of armed men was allowed.  (Aristotle denies this and says that carrying arms in the festival was a later practice).  Thucydides somewhat contradictorily says that the whole thing was just a lover's quarrel with Hipparchus rather than a political plot, but also that Hippias was the initial target and that the conspirators hoped to provoke an armed uprising by the procession.  In any event, one of the conspirators was seen talking to Hippias and the others panicked, thinking they had been given away, and killed Hipparchus right away.  Hippias promptly ordered a crackdown.

It was from this plot that the cult of the tyrannicide began.  The Athenians raised statues to the pair and honored their descendants by allowing them to dine at public expense in the town hall.  But, all accounts agree, all the assassination actually achieved was to make Hippias suspicious and paranoid and crack down, becoming a true tyrant in that later sense.  No details are given, except perhaps Herodotus' account of Kimon** son of Stesagoras.  Kimon son of Stesagoras was an Athenian aristocrat banished by Pisistratus and an excellent chariot driver who won the chariot race at the Olympics.  Kimon apparently later regretted his exile and wanted to return, so when he won the chariot race at the next Olympics, he waived the prize and dedicated his victory to Pisistratus.  The dictator then allowed him to return.  After Pisistratus died, Herodotus reports, his sons killed Kimon. No motive given.

Herodotus, in any event, has by far the most complete account of Hippias' overthrow and its aftermath.  The exiled Alcaeomids*** under the leadership of Cleisthenes, son of Megacles,**** were immensely rich despite their exile and agreed to finance a refurbishing of the temple at Delphi.  They went beyond what was asked for in exchange for the priestess agreeing to call on the Spartans to free Athens from its tyrants.  Hippias called on Thessaly for help, but the Spartans drove them off. Hippias and his party retreated to the Acropolis for a siege, but sought to smuggle out their children. The children were caught, giving the besiegers hostages, so they were able to negotiate Hippias' exile.

The dictator being overthrown, fighting promptly broke out between the democratic party led by Cleisthenes and the oligarchic party led by Isagoras. Cleisthenes and the democrats had the support of the majority of the population, but Isagoras appealed to the Spartans to drive him out on the grounds of the ancestral curse.  The Spartans returned and drove out Cleisthenes and 700 families who Isagoras identified as being under the curse.  (Presumably they were actually political rivals). Isagoras then sought to dissolve the Council, the group elected or chosen by lot to handle the day-to-day business of governing, and replace it with 300 supporters.  At this point, Athens rose up and besieged Isagoras, his followers, and the Spartan force in the Acropolis.  After two days, a truce was called and the Athenians allowed the Isagoras and the Spartans to leave, but executed his followers.  (Wikipedia gives the number executed as 300, based on the supporters Isagoras intended for his council.  Herodotus does not give a number).  A Spartan attempt to join with allies, invade and put Isagoras back in power failed when Corinth defected and the two Spartan kings started quarreling.  A second attempt to invade and restore Hippias failed when all of Sparta's allies refused to join.

When I was in school, Cleisthenes was mentioned mostly for introducing ostracism, a ten-year exile by vote without due process, but with the possibility of early recall.  Exile without due process did not seem like a great advance to me, but the practice had the advantage of getting rid of potential trouble makers without killing them (which would have encouraged civil wars) or permanent exile (which would have encouraged them to raise foreign armies and seek to return by force) or corrupting the criminal justice system (not so much in the narrow sense of bribing, but in the broader sense of subverting to an improper purpose).  Not so much emphasized -- he replaced the four existing tribes, traditional among all Ionian Greeks with ten new tribes, and he took care to include in each tribe members of the city, the coast and the plain.  Modern historians believe that this was an attempt to break up traditional power centers (the tribes and regions) that posed a challenge to the state, and whose feuding had mightily contributed to the undoing of Solon's democracy.  This is precisely the sort of radical reform challenging powerful interests that I predicted democracy was ill-suited to enact.  I can only assume that Cleisthenes was able to get away with it because of the general upheaval.  So radical a measure would probably not be possible in a mature and established democracy.

Although Solon was regarded in ancient times as the founder of Athenian democracy, many modern historians award that honor to Cleisthenes.  He, at least, was the one who set it on a stable foundation. As for Isagoras' attempt to seize power and the Spartans' attempt to back him, I count these as rough spots in getting the democracy started, not as failures.  (Besides, they are only documented in Herodotus, which is not enough to allow for in-depth analysis).  But keep an eye on them.  We will be seeing that pattern return.

*And his father's name was Hippocrates.  (No relation to the Hippocrates; it was a common name). What is with all these "hip"'s?  Well, it turns out, "hip" was Greek for horse.  Since "hip" implied that the family owned horses, anyone with a "hip" in his (or her) name is generally presumed to have been an aristocrat.
**This name is most commonly given as Cimon (Simon), although Kimon (Keemon) is the more accurate.  I am generally favoring familiarity and accessibility over technical accuracy, but I will make an exception for men named Kimon for one simple reason.  It was the name of my earliest childhood playmate, whose father wanted him to have a Greek name that was not the name of a saint. So, in honor of my childhood friend, Kimon, I will spell this one correctly.
***Remember them, the leading family said to be under a curse?
****Remember him, leader of the coastal faction, Pisistratus' sometime partner and sometime rival?

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