Saturday, January 24, 2015

Failures of Democracy: Pisistratus of Athens

Pericles, said to have resembled Pisistratus
After Solon departed, strife continued in Athens, although details are sparse. Aristotle offers as proof of the strife that in the fifth and tenth year after Solon departed no archon was was appointed, and that one archon unconstitutionally served for two years a two months and had to be remove by force.  (He also points out that the amount of strife over appointment of archon shows that it was a powerful office).

There were three main factions.  The People of the Plain were the old nobility and their dependents, who controlled the best farm land and therefore the food supply.  (And risked the hatred of all if they tried using food as a weapon).  They were the oligarchic faction, led by Lycurgus, which was also the name of the founder of Sparta's militaristic constitution and may tell us something about what they had in mind.  The People of the Coast were merchants, petty traders, craftsmen, fishermen, and others of an outward looking, commercial outlook.  They tended to favor an intermediate system. Their leader was Megacles the Alcaemonid.  The Alcaemonids were one of Athens' most prominent families, but they were believed to be under a curse because one of their forbears had killed men who took refuge in a sanctuary.  

The hardcore democrats were the People of the Hill -- hardscrabble farmers on poor land, some squeezed out and moving into the city to become an unemployed throng.  Aristotle adds to their number general malcontents such as creditors who had seen the debts to them cancelled and people who had received citizenship despite not being of pure Athenian descent who feared being found out. In any event, the Hill People, though by far the largest group, were scattered and unorganized until Pisistratus came along.  

Pisistratus appears to have been a hill country aristocrat, named for a character in the Odyssey, the youngest son of Nestor, from whom he claimed descent.  He also claimed descent from Codrus, the last king.  He was also a friend, kinsman, one time supporter, and possible former gay lover* of Solon, and a victorious general from Athens' wars against Megara.  Plutarch says that Pisistratus was Solon's right-hand man and fellow hero from the war over Salamis, but Aristotle says that the Salamis war took place too early for Pisistratus to have participated.  But this does not rule out Pisistratus being the victorious general of some later war with Megara.  Some historians have speculated that he may have broken a Megaran blockade of Athenian trade and relieved food shortages.  (If so, this must have made him very popular indeed).  Plutarch describes him (plausibly enough) as a "smooth and engaging" speaker and a good dissembler who knew how to act reasonable and conceal his power lust.  Still, one suspects he must have been something of a rabble-rouser to be able to organize the scattered and hitherto passive Hill People.

Pisistratus slashed himself and his mules and then ran into the agora, claiming to have been attacked by his enemies.  Solon saw through the trick and warned others not to be deceived, but the Assembly voted him a bodyguard of 50 men with clubs, presumably his Hill Country followers.  Pisistratus enlarged his bodyguard until they were numerous enough to seize the Acropolis and stage a coup.** Solon publicly denounced his actions and called for resistance.  When no one responded, he laid his arms out on his porch and denounced his countrymen for their cowardice.  His coup did not last long, however; Lycurgus and Megacles soon combined factions to drive Pisistratus out.

Athena blesses Pisistratus' second coup
Diogenes Laertius tells another, charming story about Solon and the coup.  It was about this time that theater was beginning in Athens. Where once the chorus had simply chanted their story, the actor Thespis began stepping forward and acting it out.  Solon strongly disapproved, regarding acting as just a form of lying. When Pisistratus wounded himself and claimed to have been attacked, Solon called it the result of too much theater! He did not live to see Pisistratus' second coup, but it was even more theatrical.  As soon as he was gone, Lycurgus and Megacles took to fighting among themselves.  Soon Megacles invited Pisistratus back, on the condition that he marry his daughter.  Pisistratus rode in on a chariot with a tall, handsome woman dressed as Athena, saying that the goddess was blessing him!  (How many people were fooled is anyone's guess).  But this coup was also short-lived.  Pisistratus agreed to marry Megacles' daughter, but he did not want children by her because he already all the sons he wanted, and because of the supposed curse on Megacles' family, so he had only "unnatural" relations with her. When the girl complained to her mother, word soon got back to Megacles, and the alliance was off.  Pisistratus was once again driven out.

The third time he seized power, Pisistratus eschewed theater and popular grandstanding in favor of raw power.  This time he was in exile for ten years, during which time he called in every favor he could, raise huge sums, invested in silver mines, and raised a private army of foreign mercenaries. Then he marched on the city and camped on the plain of Marathon, where he was joined by many domestic supporters, and opposed by the Athenian army.  According to Herodotus, he attacked around noon when the other army were occupied with eating, sleeping, or playing dice and scattered them with minimal resistance.  According to Aristotle, he then called an assembly and had the citizens parade with all their arms and addressed them.  When they complained that they could not hear him, he invited them into the Acropolis.  They set their arms aside before entering and listened to the speech.  As he was speaking, he had his men gather up the arms and secure them.  His mercenary army was then unopposed.  His enemies fled.  If any wished to stay, he allowed them, but took their sons hostage and gave them for safekeeping to a neighboring dictator.  Finally, it should be noted that, while Megacles' descendants went into exile and later returned and become one of Athens most influential families despite the purported curse on them, one hears no more of either Lycurgus or his descendants.

*This was, of course, completely acceptable to the Greeks, so long as the affair was between a mature man/mentor in the "male" role and an adolescent boy/pupil in the "female" role.
**Aristotle very specifically dates this coup to the 32nd year after Solon enacted his laws.  Where his ten-year exile fit in is not clear.

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