Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Spartan Society and Institutions

Unlike Athens, Sparta was clearly an important state in Homeric times. Helen of Troy is properly called Helen of Sparta, since she was the heiress to Sparta.  Menelaus was king of Sparta through his marriage to her.  Castor and Pollux, honored as gods especially in Sparta, were two Spartans heroes, brothers of Helen.  People have often spoken of these legendary figures as if they were classical Spartans. Euripides' play Andromache speaks of Helen as a typically shameless Spartan woman.  I recall a TV movie in which Menelaus tells the famous story of the Spartan boy hiding a live fox under his cloak who let it claw him to death rather than endure the same of not being able to withstand pain.  And many people have expressed surprise reading the Iliad that Menelaus, though king of Sparta, is not a particularly distinguished warrior.

But these are anachronisms.  They confuse the Sparta of Homeric times with the Sparta of classical times centuries later.  The Greeks of Homeric times were Achaean Greeks of the Mycenaean civilization. Classical Spartans were descendants of Dorian Greeks who invaded and subjugated the Achaeans.  Dorians overran the Peloponnese.  One such group settled in the town of Sparta and made its capital there.  From Sparta they spread out and conquered the plain of Lacedamon or Laconia, which is why classical sources often refer to the Spartans as Lacedamonians or Laconians. They then went on to conquer to plain of Messenia.  The Achaean population, descendants of the Homeric Spartans, were reduced to helots, or serfs. Originally the Spartans were as fond of comfort and fine art as anyone else. But a comfortable and cultured lifestyle proved to be an unsustainable luxury while holding down a hostile subject population.  It was then that Spartans adopted the barracks life for which they are famous.

The term Sparta/Spartan is more familiar these days than Lacedamon/Lacedamonian, but when referring to the army, Lacedamonian is more accurate.  The Spartiate, i.e., full citizens who lived in the town of Sparta, were the elite forces, but a minority of the total.  They were joined by the periocoi, free but non-citizen "dwellers around" who were the bulk of Lacedamon's craftsmen and traders.  Freer, in some ways, than full citizens, they lived private lives, could leave the country without special permission (necessary for foreign trade) and often had limited municipal government. Also joining them were mothax, (disenfranchised citizens or sons of Spartiate men and helot women) noeodamodes (helots freed for service to Sparta), and even helots, although helots during training had the handles removed from their shields before they were allowed to take them home.  In war they were allowed a shield but not a spear (except, presumably, in actual combat), and Spartiates ranged around them with spears, waiting for trouble.  Herodotus describes the Lacedamonians as providing 5000 citizen hoplites (heavy armed infantry), 5000 free non-citizen hoplites, and 35,000 helots as light forces.  This is the source of the common estimate that helots outnumbered citizens by seven to one.  Thucydides mentions 392 Lacedamonians taken prisoner, including 120 Spartiates, i.e., about 40% of the total.  Xenophon, writing at a time the citizen population had been depleted by wars and demotions, says that of 4,000 people in the agora, only 40 besides the Council and Ephors were citizens!  Whatever the exact figures, the Spartiate were badly outnumbered face with serious domestic security problems.  It was because of these problems that they adopted their famous barracks lifestyle.

Our main sources on the subject are Xenophon's Polity of the Lacedamonians and Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus.  Both agree that the Spartiate considered manual labor beneath them, things to be done by helots or periocoi while citizens devoted themselves to being full-time warriors.  Spinning, weaving, and other women's work was considered beneath the dignity of Spartiate women who should leave such things to slaves and focus on being mothers of warriors.  Spartan women alone among the Greeks engaged in athletic training and competitions (in the nude, just like men) in the belief that they would have stronger sons that way.

All Spartiate males from age seven up were forbidden from eating at home and ate at communal dining tables instead.  Leaving after dark, they were forbidden a torch so they would learn to find their way in the dark. Excess drinking, which could make them stumble, was considered shameful.   Plutarch says that boys were taken from their mothers and sent to military school at age seven, and that men continued to sleep at the barracks until they retired at sixty.  Xenophon agrees with the communal dining, but seems to imply private households.  He speaks, for instance, of boys being out in the community rather than segregated in military schools, or of money being so bulky that it would be impossible to bring any significant amount into the house without attracting attention. On the other hand, both agree that it was considered shameful for a man to be seen entering his wife's bed chamber, so he had to sneak in on the sly.  If Spartiate men lived in private households rather than the barracks, how would anyone know?  (Gossip by servants, maybe?)  The theory here was that infrequent sex would be more passionate than frequent sex and produce stronger children.  Like other warrior societies, Spartans valued fertility over chastity and permitted husbands to share their wives with any warrior they thought was good breeding stock.  Older men with younger wives were encouraged to do so.  But, with a strangely male obtuseness that the real limiting factor on fertility is the number women who can have babies, they did not follow other warrior societies in allowing men to take plural wives, even if wars caused large numbers of men to be dead or absent.

Plutarch says that boys were sent to military school at age seven.  Xenophon seems to imply that boys remained at home and in the community, but under the supervision of a "warden," backed by young men with whips.  In the absence of the warden, any Spartiate man could punish a boy he saw misbehave.  Invariably the boy's own father would also punish him upon finding out.  Both agree that boys were given only one garment and no shoes.  To teach them to live off the land, they were given deliberately insufficient rations and encouraged to make up the deficiency by stealing.  Even offerings on the sacred altar were considered fair game!  But the boy caught stealing was whipped, not for theft, but for being so incompetent as to be caught.  Adolescent boys were taught to go about with their hands inside their cloaks and their eyes downcast, silent in public, modest and demure as a young bride.  When young men came of age, the Ephors would choose three of the best as Commanders of the Guard.  Each of the three would choose 100 young men for his group, giving his reasons for preferring one and rejecting another.*  Each group is pledged to uphold the group's honor and do nothing to bring disgrace on it.  Each also resented the other groups and kept a zealous eye on them, eager to detect and report any breach of honor. Members of rival groups would invariably fight when they met.  This was encouraged as a way of keeping in practice, but kept in bounds because members were required to stop fighting whenever anyone in authority told them to stop.

Contrary to my earlier impression, Ephors were not the only regularly elected officials.  Xenophon refers to other, unspecified officials elected to one-year terms, but clearly subordinate to the Ephors. Indeed, the Ephors were given quasi-despotic powers, to fine, depose, or even arrest any subordinate official they see misbehaving. Ephors were also given power to fine or otherwise punish any other minor offender on the spot.  For major crimes they could arrest and bring charges; trial was by the Council of Elders.  Of course, there was an important constraint on the power of the Ephors -- they held it for only one year.  At the end of that time, they returned to being regular guys.  But over all obedience to authority received a very strong emphasis in Sparta, as one would expect in a military society.

Besides war and military training, Spartans learned reading and writing (with an emphasis on military skills like dispatch writing and map reading), sang martial songs composed by Sparta's leading poets (and possibly composed their own), and learned the laconic art of the short, witty comment (often directed at putting the other person in the wrong).  Like other Greeks, they had many religious festivals, celebrated with dancing and singing choruses.  To this Spartans added the women's chorus.

*Xenophon does not explain whether, given the small citizen body, this 300 accounted for all men in the age group, or whether some were left out altogether.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Athenians Kicking Down: Foreigners and the Athenian Empire

Any description of the Athenian Empire is meaningless without a map, so here is one to help explain it.
When it comes to kicking down, as a matter of serious political controversy, the main instance for Athens was in the Delian League, which later came to be known as the Athenian Empire.  It is by no means the only empire that could be said to have been acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness. Certainly when the Athenians emerged triumphant from the Persian Wars, they had no intention of starting an empire of their own.

A little background is necessary here.  The Greeks of the day were by no means confined to Greece proper, but had spread out and formed colonies throughout Asia Minor.  These colonies were all made up of Ionian Greeks.  The Athenians were also Ionians and therefore considered the colonies as kin, perhaps even as offspring of an Athenian mother country.  The colonies in Asia Minor fell under the domination of the Persian Empire.  When they began to revolt, Athens gave them assistance.  It was this assistance that led the Persians to set their sights on Greece proper in the first place.  Once the Persians were defeated and driven out of Greece proper, it was the Athenians who took the lead in liberating the Ionian colonies -- and why not?  The Spartans were not a naval power, which made them a poor choice to lead what would, after all, be a naval war, and besides, they were Dorians and therefore lacked the ties of common blood.

Athens' liberation of the Ionians was successful, but what was to stop the Persians from coming back? To prevent that from happening, the Greek city-states around the Aegean formed the Delian League, an alliance against Persia to which all members contributed ships, sailors, or money.  Ships and sailors were too great a burden for the smaller and weaker powers, so they just contributed money. More and more of them were happy to shirk in contributing ships and sailors and preferred just to contribute money instead.  Only over time did they start to notice that this meant that an all-Athenian navy was knocking at their doors, asking them to pay up.  More and more, any Ionian state that did not pay was apt to find the Athenian navy at their doors, asking them to reconsider.

Some qualification is in order here.  So far as I can tell, no Greek city-state, not Athens, not Sparta, not Thebes, nor any other, ever became a true imperial power in the sense that Persia was, or that Macedonia would become under Alexander the Great. None showed any real interest on conquering or subjugating non-Greeks. And with regard to Greeks, all presupposed a system of independent, self-governing city-states.  But not equal city-states.  The most powerful would become the dominant hegemon.  Sparta had for some time been dominant hegemon in the Peloponnese (the peninsula off the Greek mainland) and formed the Peloponnesian League.  These states coordinated foreign policy and joined together in wars.  But it was understood on all hands that Sparta would lead, that a vote of the League could bind any outvoted member except for Sparta, and the withdrawing was not an option. Sparta did not collect tribute and does not appear to have meddled in members' domestic politics, although it somehow seems to have assured that most were oligarchies.

Map showing Delos
The Athenians began moving toward a more aggressive form of hegemony.  The clear sign was that it moved the League treasury from Delos to Athens.  Pericles then diverted parts of the treasure, which was supposed to go to the common defense, to build the Parthenon and other public works.  With these he made Athens a beautiful city, and he fought unemployment with public works, but naturally what had once been dues paid to the common defense started looking more and more like tribute.  Incidentally, one could probably partly justify Pericles' actions.  During the Persian War, the Persians reduced Athens to a pile of rubble as punishment for its defiance.*  So the Athenians, having seen their city destroyed in the war for common liberty, had some justification in asking for help in rebuilding it.  Then again, the Persians had destroyed other cities that defied them, so those cities would have just as good a claim on common funds to rebuild.  And the Athenians did not bring the matter to the league to be debated and voted upon; they simply helped themselves without consent.

Athenians engaged in other imperialistic (or at least hegemonic) acts as well.  They sought to establish democracy in the allies.  What this usually meant was either imposing it by force if an ally revolted, or intervening on behalf of the democratic party in cases of internal strife.  Then as now, attempts to impose democracy by force ran into trouble.  Nonetheless, the result tended to be that city-states within the Athenian Empire/Hegemony were divided between a pro-Athenian democratic faction and a pro-Spartan oligarchic faction.  But assuming that then, as now, democracy tends to be associated with belligerent nationalism (and it certainly was in Athens), many high-handed Athenian policies must have offended even their friends in the democratic parties.  Democracies, when imposed, were based on the Athenian model, without much regard to local custom and tradition.  Athens also began to insist that its coinage be used throughout the empire.  To understand the problems that currency union without political union can cause, ask anyone in modern Athens.**

Probably the most blatant form of imperial kicking down was the cleruchy or colony the Athenians established in strategic places, another system of fighting unemployment at home by squeezing allies. The cleruchs would establish a garrison, ostensibly to guard against the Persians, more realistically to maintain the empire.  Cleruchs would receive a land grant in the community -- not enough to become large landlords, just enough to be small holders, but certainly enough to incur the resentment of the former owners.  Poor Athenians flocked to such colonies eager to become small holders.  Cleruchs established their own state-within-a-state, loyal to Athens and not to the locality.  Cleruchs had extra-territorial rights, i.e., they were not tried in local courts, which would be biased against them, but in Athenian courts, which were naturally biased in their favor.  A growing of other cases were also tried in Athens, to the great resentment of litigants who were forced to travel all the way to Athens and pay for food and lodging while there.  (Note here that there is a strong correlation between places where revolts broke out and cleruchies.  However, the causation appears to have gone the other way.  In other words, allies were not rebelling because they resented the presence of Athenian garrisons. Rather, the Athenians were installing garrisons to control places where there had been trouble).

It seems a safe assumption that the oligarchic faction of all members thoroughly hated that Athenians and wanted full independence.  For the democratic faction, it must have been a more difficult tradeoff to decide which was the lesser evil, Athenian domination, or the risk of oligarchy.  No doubt the choice depended on many factors.

As resentment grew, revolts became more frequent.  Thucydides and Plutarch recite the grim parade of rebellion and repression.
468 BC, Naxos revolts, is besieged, and forced back into the League.
465 BC, Thasos revolts, is besieged for three years.  Upon surrender, Athenians demolish its walls, destroy its fleet, assess a fine, and deprive it of its claims to the mainland and mines.
446 BC, Euobea (a peninsula with several cities) revolts and is besieged and defeated.  Pericles drives the oligarchs from the city of Chalcis and drives out the entire population from the city of Hestiaea, replacing them with an Athenian colony.  Pericles justified this extreme measure because the Histeans had captures an Athenian ship and killed everyone on board.
440 BC, Samos revolts.  Athenians take 50 of the leading citizens hostage, establish a democracy, and leave behind a garrison.  Oligarchs rescue the hostages, seize power again, and revolt.  Athenians blockade the island and, when it surrenders after a nine month siege, tear down the walls, destroy the fleet, assess a fine, and take hostages again. Plutarch reports that the later historian Duris of Samos as charging numerous acts of cruelty and slaughter not mentioned by any other historian, and pronounces the allegations implausible.  Speaking as a non-Classical scholar, I am inclined to agree, mostly because from then on, Samos remained Athens' strongest ally.
432 BC, Athens seeks preempt a possible alliance between Corinth and Potidea by demanding that Potidea demolish one side of its walls, send hostages to Athens, and banish Corinthians from the city. Potidea revolts and the Athenians blockade it.  This was one of the incidents that precipitated the Peloponnesian War.  Potidea ultimately surrendered nearly two years later, when they were starving to the point of resorting to cannibalism.  The terms negotiated with the generals required the entire population to leave, with no more than a single garment for men and two for women, plus a fixed some of money.  The people of Athens were angry that the generals for not holding out for unconditional surrender.

And as the war continued and the parties became brutalized, things would only get worse.

Athenian domination would become so resented that the other states would turn to Sparta for deliverance.  That raises the subject of Sparta, which has already played a significant role and will play a bigger one soon.  And, because there was a large pro-Spartan faction within Athens, Sparta really needs to be addressed further.  That will be addressed in my next post(s).
*But without loss of life.  Athens had been evacuated by then.
**OK, I'm being a bit snide.  That was before the invention of fiat money, so a country could not expand or contract its money supply at will.  Rather, it depended on how much silver was coming out of the mines.  

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Brief Digression on Aristophanes

In learning about Athenian democracy, one of my sources has been Aristophanes, the comic poet.  Classical scholar Edith Hamilton compares Aristophanes to William S. Gilbert.  It may seem like an odd comparison -- Aristophanes can be too raunchy for any but the most avaunt guard audience even today, while Gilbert had to stick to strict Victorian propriety -- but both share a truly wacky imagination and create such wild fantasy worlds that the reader is left thinking something in between, "Why can't I imagine anything that crazy?" and "What is this guy smoking?"

Athens would later develop professional speech writers, who would prepare speeches to be given to the Assembly, or to juries (the Athenians were very litigious), which would serve as our major source of information on everyday life in Athens.  But in the 5th Century BC this still lay in the future.  Our main source of information on everyday life in Athens of the day, and how the democracy actually worked in practice, if from Aristophanes.  Needless to say, a comic playwright every bit as wacky as William S. Gilbert is not a reliable source.  But, as with Monty Python, surprisingly accurate information (in a sort of non-literal way) can peep through the many layers of nuttery.

Which leads to his play The Wasps.  This may be the first recorded instance of anyone referring to addiction as a disease.  It begins with two slaves keeping an old man locked up in his son's house to keep him from indulging his terrible disease, i.e., his addiction. But not the usual addictions to gambling or alcohol or high living.  No, the old man is addicted to jury service.

Which calls for some back story. In ancient times, and until quite recently, sons were expected to support their parents in their old age.  In Classical Athens, this was an obligation enforceable by law, and some failings as a father were punishable by forfeiture of the right of support.  But it is never a comfortable situation.  As a child, the father is the provider and the son the dependent; the father the authority and the son the bound to obey.  But when a son supports his aged parents, he is the supporter and the parents the dependents; the son has the power, but the father is supposed to retain the authority.  Such a situation is made to order for conflict.

So, when Pericles began offering pay for jury service, a lot of old men were eager to accept.  The pay was probably less than even an unskilled job would offer, and certainly no more, but having a little money in their pocket offered old men some of the independence and dignity that they had lost, and a chance to exercise real authority. It also encouraged Athenians in their general litigiousness and (Aristophanes charges) made it easier for sleazy politicians to bring unfounded charges against their rivals.  (He also hints that some poor men were quitting their day jobs to be full-time professional jurors, but my understanding is that that did not become common until later).

In his previous play, The Clouds, Aristophanes used a son beating his father to represent the overturning of the moral and social order, the very embodiment of all that is shocking.  In Wasps, a son is forcibly restraining his father and locking him in the house, and we are expected to take the son's side.  After the old man is thwarted in various comic attempts to escape, he and his son start talking about it.  The old man likes the pocket money and power that go with being on a jury.  The son tries to persuade him that he is just abetting corrupt politicians like Cleon.  But his father just can't give up the addiction, so the son arranges for him to try the family dog, Labes for stealing a Sicilian cheese.  Labes is accused by a rival dog, Cleoncur, with various kitchen utensils serving as witnesses.  (See what I mean about Aristophanes' Gilbertian wackiness?)

The general consensus appears to be that this is not just a satire on how Athenians trials took place, but a commentary on a particular trial, the trial of Laches, a general whose expedition to Sicily failed and was put on trial by Cleon, possibly for taking a bribe from the Sicilians to botch the expedition. The Athenians had a deplorable habit of trying any general who lost an important battle, and acquittals were very rare.  Laches was apparently an exception; the charges against him were so patently unfair that the jury acquitted.  Aristophanes mocks the way trials were conducted -- Labes the Dog pleads his excellent service as a guard dog, calls the cheese grater to testify that he shared the cheese with his follow soldiers, calls in his puppies to beg for mercy, and says that he lacks education and never learned to play the lyre.  The old man ends up acquitting for the first time in his jury career.  He never learned to play the lyre either.  The horror of have acquitted a defendant quite breaks the old man's addiction to jury service, so his son invites him to a fashionable dinner party, where the old man indulges any number of other vices less becoming his age -- he gets drunk, quarrels, assaults guests, damages valuables and carries off the flute girl.  He ends up with enough lawsuits against him to keep Athens' juries busy for a long time.

But what is with the dog that never learned to play the lyre?  My translator ended up throwing up his hands in despair, saying that he had no idea what Aristophanes was talking about, the comment was complete nonsense, and that might be the point, since Aristophanes was a master of nonsense. Speaking as a non-classical scholar, my own guess is that if the trial of Labes the Dog really does represent the trial of Laches the General, the reference is probably topical.  Maybe Laches never learned to play the lyre and used his lack of musical talent to burnish his regular guy credentials with his jurors, most of whom never learned to play the lyre either.  This is pure guesswork on my part, obviously, but at least it makes sense.  The translator points out, though, that this is one of those happy coincidences in which something may work better in translation than in the original.  In English, there is an obvious pun, not present in Greek, on play the lyre and play the liar.  So if the dog pleads that he is a simple, uneducated dog who never learned to play the lyre/liar, that comment becomes a lot more pungent than Aristophanes intended.  (And to be more pungent than Aristophanes intends is a spectacular feat, indeed).  In fact, it works a little too well in English.  The double meaning could be conveyed to a reader of the play, but to convey it on stage, one would have strum a lyre conspicuously or the audience would never pick up on Aristophanes' intended meaning at all.

"Will You Take Away My Health Insurance?"

David Frum has an article, written from the dwindling perspective of a moderate Republican warning about a serious danger Republicans face in the upcoming election.  They have put immense energy into denouncing Obamacare and vowing its repeal.  Meantime, Obamacare has come into effect and as many as 20 million people have gotten health insurance through it.  Sooner or later, some of them are going to start asking Republican candidates, "Will you take away my health insurance?"

What is a Republican candidate to say?

I suppose you could rally the base by saying, "Anyone wicked enough to accept health insurance from Obamacare deserves to lose it."  But that is a surefire loser with everyone else, so I don't imagine we will be hearing it.

Not much better would be saying, "I'm sorry to take away your health insurance, but the fact that you have it has ended all liberty, turned our country into a Communist dictatorship, and my lead to the murder of my grandmother.  I'm sure you will agree that giving up your health insurance is a small price to pay for ending this nightmare of oppression that has resulted from you having it."

You could say that repealing Obamacare may take away your health insurance tomorrow, but it will make it more accessible in the long run.  But I doubt that would go over well.  After all, we all know what Keynes said about the long run.

The best a Republican can say is that, although he intends to repeal the system some 20 million people may use to get health insurance, Republicans plan to replace it with something better.  But Frum points out the problems with that approach.  For one thing, people who have access to healthcare don't like the thought of their insurance system being monkeyed with.  Republicans have been using that fact very much to their advantage since 2010.  Now it may come back to haunt them.  Second, Republicans have yet to give any coherent account of what they would replace Obamacare with.  Any plan they come up with will invariably have losers as well as winner, and the losers will be a lot angrier than the winners are happy.  Third, to the extent Republicans have any alternative, it invariably involves covering fewer conditions, higher copays, higher deductibles, and generally attempting to shift more costs to the consumer in an attempt to encourage people to consume less.  Raise your hand if you think that will be popular.

If people who have gotten health insurance through Obamacare ask Republicans if they intend to take it away, and if Republicans are unable to give any coherent answer, people who are insured through Obamacare will draw the appropriate conclusions and vote accordingly.

Any Democratic candidate with any sense should be arranging to set up as many such encounters as possible.  Of course "Democratic candidate with any sense" is an important qualifier.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Another Quick Visit to Modern Greece

And now a quick break from Classical Greece to comment on modern Greece, which may be back in the headlines soon.  I just couldn't resist commenting on a fairly unremarkable article on why the euro was a terrible mistake.  The problem, the author says, is that people simply aren't willing to make the sacrifices for outsiders that they are for their own.  West Germans, for instance, were willing to undertake considerable effort rebuilding East Germany because they were coming to the aid of their fellow Germans.  But they are unwilling to give even a small break to Greece because there just isn't enough fellow-feeling as Europeans.
With no shared sense of tribe comes a sharp reduction in compassion and attendant willingness to help. The elites who designed the Euro may genuinely have believed and even felt a sense that Europe is all about "us", but the currency's recent struggles show that for too many Europeans, it's more about us and them.
In my opinion, the author is being far too generous to the European elites who designed the euro. These elites may, indeed, have embraced all of Europe in a sense of "us."  But in their case "us" did not mean all Europeans, but "we, the Eurocratic elite."  To that elite, ordinary people throughout Europe are "them."

That is what ultimately underlies this crisis.

Athenians Kicking Down: Metics

Another group Athenian participants oppressed were metics, or resident foreigners.  Athens, as a prosperous and commercial city, attracted many immigrants.  But it did not admit them to citizenship, even if they had lived there for generations.  A metic had all the disadvantages of a citizen without the advantages.  Metics paid taxes and were subject to the draft.  They were excluded, of course, from the Assembly, from jury service, and from holding office.  Nor could they receive emergency rations, which were for citizens only.  A metic could not own real estate and was required to have a citizen sponsor.  Metics, unlike citizens, were subject to judicial torture and to enslavement for some offenses.  Killing a metic was ranked with killing a slave or accidental homicide as a non-capital offense.  And a metic was required to have a citizen sponsor.  At the same time, metics could own movable property, form binding contracts, and sue or prosecute (or be sued or prosecuted) on the same basis as a citizen.  Most metics were poor laborers; some were freed slaves; but some were rich and influential.

Such was the status of a metic.  Unlike slaves or women, metics were subjects of real controversy, mostly over the question of extending citizenship.  As we have seen, Solon and Cleisthenes were generous in extending citizenship.  But over time Athenians became stingier with it, first limiting citizenship to children of an Athenian father, and, under Pericles, requiring that both parents by citizens.  Plutarch reports that some 5,000 people were enslaved for the crime of falsely passing themselves off as citizens.  And, as we shall later see, when the democracy was overthrown and then restored, the leader of the restoration would propose to extend citizenship to all metics, foreigners, and slaves who took part, only to be rejected by an offended citizenry.  So clearly there was controversy over the status of metics and kicking down at them (whether by refusing to extent citizenship, by making citizenship harder to get, or by purging the citizen body and punishing impersonators) was popular with the democratic public.

But once again, democracy's aristocratic critics did not condemn it for that; they were more likely criticize it for handing out citizenship too easily.  Aristotle's Politics, for instance, criticizes Cleisthenes for extending citizenship to people who were not properly citizens.  And his Athenian Constitution expresses approval of rejecting a proposal to extend citizenship to anyone who took part in restoring the democracy, even slaves.  In short, restricting access to citizenship appears to have been popular with democrats and aristocrats alike.

And, I should add, I have seen no evidence of other, uglier forms of kicking down against metics.  I see no evidence, for instance, of denunciations of rich metics for leaching off the city, or calls to drive them out and seize their wealth.  Nor have I seen any evidence, even under conditions of high unemployment, of any populist politician denouncing poor metics as unfair competition for citizen laborers or calling for them to be expelled.  If there were anti-metic riots, pogroms, or persecutions, I have not yet seen evidence of them.  And this is worth noting, considering the outbreaks of violence so many societies (including our own) have experienced against powerless minorities.

In short, although Athens undoubtedly oppressed its women, slaves and metics, I no signs of any concerted populist attempt to kick down against any of these groups, opposed by the more aristocratic faction.  Athens does not appear to have practiced the worst forms of kicking down as a domestic political movement.

On the international level, though, the story is quite different.  Athens did, in fact, come to dominate and exploit numerous foreign city-states that became resentful, and to behave with extreme cruelty and brutality toward anyone who rebelled.  It was this that led to the Peloponnesian War and (at least temporarily) the downfall of Athenian democracy.  And here there can be no doubt.  The popular party was the imperialist party and the war party.  The aristocratic party opposed war and expansion, to say nothing of Athens' cruel and brutal acts toward rebellious allies.  This was the consistent pattern, beginning before the war and continuing after.  This is the kicking down that did become a political movement that I intend to address shortly.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Athenians Kicking Down: Slaves

[NOTE: Modified from its original form after I saw speeches referring to the law against random violence against slaves].

Besides keeping their women secluded, the Athenians also owned a great many slaves. The practice of slavery was unquestioned, or nearly so, in Classical times.*

Our knowledge of slaves in ancient times is limited; most people simply considered them beneath notice.  However, it would appear that enough slaves were being brought in to make them cheap -- cheaper to buy than to breed.  Most households had a few slaves -- to have none was a sign of extreme poverty, but the vast (and impersonal and brutal) slave plantations of Rome did not exist in rugged, barren Greece.  What was extremely brutal (in Athens, Rome, and throughout Classical Antiquity) was the lot of the mine slaves, which also went unquestioned, or nearly so.

But one does now and then hear a certain humanitarian concern for slaves.  Recall what Aeschylus had to say on the subject:
An upstart lord,
To whom wealth's harvest came beyond his hope,
Is as a lion to his slaves
Certainly in our own (U.S.) experience, it was understood that a gentlemen felt a certain paternalistic obligation toward his slaves and was expected to include them in a gentleman's general obligation to be gracious to his social inferiors.  To be cruel was to be "trashy" and lower class.  

So, did the critics of democracy complain that poor men admitted to citizenship grew arrogant in their power and acted as tyrants over their slaves?  Quite the contrary, the aristocratic critics of democracy were more likely to complain that the spirit of liberty and equality had gotten so out of hand that even slaves had caught it.  An anonymous critic (referred to as the Old Oligarch) complained:
Another point is the extraordinary amount of license[21] granted to slaves and resident aliens at Athens, where a blow is illegal, and a slave will not step aside to let you pass him in the street. I will explain the reason of this peculiar custom. Supposing it were legal for a slave to be beaten by a free citizen, or for a resident alien or freedman to be beaten by a citizen, it would frequently happen that an Athenian might be mistaken for a slave or an alien and receive a beating; since the Athenian People is no better clothed than the slave or alien, nor in personal appearance is there any superiority. Or if the fact itself that slaves in Athens are allowed to indulge in luxury, and indeed in some cases to live magnificently . . . .** It is for this reason then that we have established an equality between our slaves and free men; and again between our resident aliens and full citizens,[26] because the city stands in need of her resident aliens to meet the requirements of such a multiplicity of arts and for the purposes of her navy. That is, I repeat, the justification for the equality conferred upon our resident aliens.
So, how much of this reflects reality and how much reflects upper class fears and prejudices? Slavery in ancient times was not based on race, of course, nor do Athenian slaves (or metics) appear to have been required to wear any special badge of their status.  Since poor men were also citizens, a citizen would not necessarily be any better dressed than a slave.  So it might, indeed, not be possible to distinguish a slave from a citizen on the street.

Athenian slaves could be beaten by their owners at a whim. However, a master's power over his slaves was not absolute.  Killing a citizen was punished by death; killing a slave (including by the owner) was punished by exile.  Serious mistreatment of a slave could be prosecuted; in some cases of mistreatment, a slave could flee to sanctuary and demand to be sold to a better master.

Slaves could be tortured by the state as part of an inquiry.  Indeed, by law a slave's testimony was not admitted unless under torture.  Slaves could also be beaten by the state as punishment for a crime (though only with a proper trial).  Where citizens were punished for crimes with a fine, slaves were punished with flogging -- one lash per drachma.

But the Old Oligarch is clearly right when he says that slaves were protected from random violence from every stranger on the street.  Such laws are (later) alluded to in lawsuits.  Nor is the reason given for this "peculiar custom" the danger of striking a citizen by mistake.  Some cite the fear that allowing citizens to be petty tyrants over slaves would encourage a sort of arrogance incompatible with democracy:
[I]t was not for the slaves that the lawgiver was concerned, but he wished to accustom you to keep a long distance away from the crime of outraging free men, and so he added the prohibition against the outraging even of slaves. In a word, he was convinced that in a democracy that man is unfit for citizenship who outrages any person whatsoever.
Or they cite the law as a glory to Athens for being so mild and humane:
Athenians, you hear the humanity of the law, which does not permit even slaves to be assaulted. In heaven's name, think what this means. Suppose someone carried this law to the barbarous nations from whom we import our slaves; suppose he praised you and described your city to them in these words: “There are in Greece men so mild and humane in disposition that though they have often been wronged by you, and though they have inherited a natural hostility towards you, yet they permit no insult to be offered even to the men whom they have bought for a price and keep as their slaves. Nay, they have publicly established this law forbidding such insult, and they have already punished many of the transgressors with death.”
Whether the "barbarous nations" would agree is a different matter, obviously.  And it is anyone's guess how often such laws were actually enforced.  But the Old Oligarch is not the only aristocratic critic of the democracy to complain that it indulged its slaves. Consider Plato:
The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female, is just as free as his or her purchaser; nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other.
Why not, as Aeschylus says, utter the word which rises to our lips?
That is what I am doing, I replied; and I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at any body who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty.
This, now, is clearly hyperbolic and not to be taken literally.  We know quite well that Athenian women did not share in the state's liberty and equality.  (This passage also calls into question just how seriously Plato took the equality of women he elsewhere advocates).  And it seems most unlikely that the status of domestic animals was any different in Athens than elsewhere.  Rather, it reflects the old upper class fear that if their own power and hegemony is threatened, all order and hierarchy will cease.  The truth is quite different.  Everyone all up and down the hierarchy is eager to maintain is eager to maintain their own dominance over everyone below them.

In other words, kicking down is popular.  Nonetheless, there does not appear to have been a political movement in Athens to see how viciously one could kick down against slaves.  Rather, the Athenians
gave slaves at least some modest protection against random violence, and when democratic speech writers alluded to such laws, they called them glorious and befitting democracy. And at least some aristocratic critics did not approve of this "peculiar custom."

*Aristotle defends the practice of slavery, a thing that would be necessary only if someone had criticized it.  However, the work he is refuting in defending slavery has been lost, so we cannot tell what its critics said.  In any event, to the extent that slavery had critics, they were a few obscure ivory tower philosophers of no practical influence.
**The deleted passage is too garbled to make any sense.  The translator says that the garbling is in the original, which appears to be corrupted.  

Athenians Kicking Down: Women

So, it is my hypothesis that the worst traits of democracy are its tendency toward belligerent nationalism and the popularity of kicking down.  I will get to Athens' belligerent nationalism later and only say now that it would be the city's undoing.  But were the Athenians prone to kicking down?

This is really two questions. First, did Athenian participants oppress people who were not eligible participants in the democracy?  That one is easy.  There is no question that they did.  Women had no legal capacity and were kept in the house, locked away in the women's quarters.  Metics (resident foreigners) were excluded from citizenship no matter how many generations they lived in the city. And slaves may well have been an absolute majority of the population.

The more difficult question is whether oppressing non-eligibles was a political movement.  In other words, was there controversy over how to treat non-eligibles?  And, if so, did the democratic public favor treating them worse than the democracy's aristocratic critics?  Note that this can take at least three forms.  There can be a movement to improve the lot of non-eligibles, and opposition to it.  There can be a movement to worsen the lot of non-eligibles and opposition to it.  Or the position of non-eligibles can be uncontroversial in the democratic body politic, but certain aristocratic critics can tut-tut over how unenlightened the common people are.  Let us consider, then, how Athens treated the three groups of inhabitants who were not eligible participants.

Women.  Undoubtedly Athens treated its women abominably.  Women were kept locked up in the women's quarters, leaving the house only for festivals or funerals, and told that the ideal woman was she who was least on the tongues of men, for good or ill.  Furthermore, it would appear that the high point for democracy was a low point in the treatment of women.  Women in Homeric times are not portrayed as veiled and secluded; women's position rose again in Hellenistic times (i.e., the Greek empires created by Alexander the Great).  It is hard to tell how much of this was coincidence and how much was related.

Certainly it is no secret that in highly hierarchical societies, women as wives and mothers of rulers can exercise political power in ways not available to women in more egalitarian societies.  This applies to Greece no less than other societies.  For instance Herodotus recounts that in the Greek colonies under Persian control, Artemisia of Halicarnassus succeeded her husband to rule as queen because their son was under age.  She accompanied Xerxes on his expedition and was Xerxes' best adviser, the only one to warn him not to engage the Greeks in a sea battle.  When Xerxes, despite suspecting that she was right, proceeded with the attack, Artemisia fought in the Battle of Salamis and commanded five of the best ships.  Afterward, she advised Xerxes to get out while the going was good, and this time he listened.  Likewise, in oligarchic Sparta, women were not secluded, but traveled about freely, engaged in athletic training, lorded over the helots, and ran the household, and sometimes the community, in the men's absence.  In egalitarian Athens, women were shut out from political power altogether.

Women need not have access to political power to excel in other ways.  In the late seventh and early sixth century, B.C., on the Island of Lesbos, Sappho became a poet so great that men did not rebuke her for her unwomanly behavior, but looked upon her poetry with unqualified admiration.  She was classified as one of the nine great lyric poets all educated young men should read (the other eight, of course, were all men) and hailed as the tenth muse.  Solon, himself a poet, was said to have said after learning one of her poems that now he could die happy.  Classical Athens was the scene of a great flourishing of culture, art, and intellect, but that flourishing appears to have been an all-male affair. Not one women is named as a writer, poet, artist or philosopher.

Well, the opportunities of women of the elite tell us little about the lives of ordinary women.  In Egypt, women had legal capacity and could own property, contract and sue.  In Athens, women had no legal capacity and were entirely under the guardianship of their nearest male relative.  Roman women lacked legal capacity, but were not kept secluded, but could come and go as they pleased and served as hostess along with their husbands.  Finally, I note that the columnist Georgie Anne Geyer has remarked (won't bother looking for link) that advancements in the position of women always take place under at least somewhat repressive regimes because under a democracy men are invariable able to block any improvements for women.  Kicking down is popular.

In short, Athens clearly treated half its population badly.  I see no evidence, however, that this was a political movement.  It appears to have been completely uncontroversial and challenged by no one, including the women themselves.  Certainly so far as I am aware, there was no political movement afoot either to give women greater rights or to reduce them.  Nor do the democracy's critics seem to have tut-tutted much over how it treated its women.  Critics often derided the Assembly as a bunch of rowdy rabble.  But, despite the proverbial violence of lower class men toward their wives, I am not aware of anyone speaking of them as the sort of riff-raff who beat their wives or made similar comments.  Plato, it is true, proposed in The Republic to give women complete equality.  But there are little clues here and there that he didn't really mean it.  Aristotle, commenting on Sparta, listed the greater liberty it offered to women as one of its defects.  And Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus defended Spartan women against charges that they were immodest or promiscuous. Yet in his ultimate assessment, he said:
And so their women, it is said, were bold and masculine, overbearing to their husbands in the first place, absolute mistresses in their houses, giving their opinions about public matters freely, and speaking openly even on the most important subjects. But the matrons, under the government of Numa, still indeed received from their husbands all that high respect and honour which had been paid them under Romulus as a sort of atonement for the violence done to them; nevertheless, great modesty was enjoined upon them; all busy intermeddling forbidden, sobriety insisted on, and silence made habitual. Wine they were not to touch at all, nor to speak, except in their husband's company, even on the most ordinary subjects. So that once when a woman had the confidence to plead her own cause in a court of judicature, the senate, it is said, sent to inquire of the oracle what the prodigy did portend; and, indeed, their general good behaviour and submissiveness is justly proved by the record of those that were otherwise. . . . . Their respective regulations for marrying the young women are in accordance with those for their education. Lycurgus made them brides when they were of full age and inclination for it. Intercourse, where nature was thus consulted, would produce, he thought, love and tenderness, instead of the dislike and fear attending an unnatural compulsion; and their bodies, also, would be better able to bear the trials of breeding and of bearing children, in his judgment the one end of marriage.

The Romans, on the other hand, gave their daughters in marriage as early as twelve years old, or even under; thus the thought their bodies alike and minds would be delivered to the future husband pure and undefiled. The way of Lycurgus seems the more natural with a view to the birth of children; the other, looking to a life to be spent together, is more moral. 
Such was the view of women by democracy's aristocratic critics.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Athens: Diffuse Government, Ostracism, and Tall Poppy Syndrome

So, in Athens of the 5th Century BC, we have a government that is diffuse to the point of absurdity.  All legislation an important foreign policy decisions are made by an Assembly in which all adult male citizens (eligible participants) are free to attend.  Any participant can propose, debate, or amend any measure.  Drafting proposed legislation, setting the agenda, and receiving ambassadors is handled by a Council of 500, chosen by lot to one-year terms and limited to two terms in a lifetime.  There are some 500 executive officials, each presiding over a very small area of day-to-day government, each chosen by lot for a single one-year term.  Because they are chosen by lot, none of these officials require any significant popular following.  Because they serve for only one year, none of them can use his office as a significant base of power.  The only elective officials are military and treasury officials.  And only military officials are not subject to term limits.

There seems to be a clear danger here.  When military officials are the only ones who are elective and therefore need a significant popular following, and when military officials were not bound by strict term limits and could use their office to build a base of power, the implications are clear.  The leadership will always consist of victorious generals.  There will be a natural tendency toward military dictatorship.

This proved to be half-true.  Athenian leaders in the 5th Century B.C. did, indeed, tend to be victorious generals.  But there was no tendency toward military dictatorship.  Military glory proved to be most disastrous in the sense that it whetted the appetite for more and led (as we shall see) to imperial overreach and ultimately to defeat and ruin.  But it did not lead to military dictatorship, even though Athens chose victorious generals as its leaders.

What prevented military dictatorship?  Several things appear to have been at work.

Overall Greek culture was opposed to one-man rule.  That's very vague, I realize.  But the age of the tyrannoi had come and gone and no one wanted it to return.  The public was distrustful of any aspiring military dictator and victorious generals were products of the same culture.  And if anyone doubts that appeals to the general culture matter, consider what stopped George Washington from becoming a military dictator, no matter how inept the Continental government was.

Greek armies were citizen armies and had no interests apart from the citizenry.  This is a more concrete explanation.  The ancient Greek armies consisted of regular citizens, who provided their own gear.  What could compel a citizen army to stage a coup against the citizenry?  At this point we start heading into the issue much discussed in classical times -- the value of an armed citizenry able to resist usurpation.  To disarm the citizenry was the mark of a dictator.  But before we start endorsing the NRA on this one, it is also well to remember that the logic of arms = power was neither dictatorship nor democracy, but oligarchy because large numbers of poor men could not afford arms.

Athens was a naval power.  Navies, being off at sea, are ill-equipped to form military dictatorships. Besides, sailors were typically poor men who could not afford arms and were therefore ill-equipped to resort to force against countrymen who could afford arms.

Even military command was diffuse.  The Athenians, not trusting command to a single general, had ten elective generals, one from each tribe.  If one general started to act like a military dictator, the others would overrule him.  Thus military success was not enough to make for a leader.  For a general to be a true leader, he also had to convince the Assembly.  Leaders were not just victorious generals, but good talkers.  It is no wonder that Persuasion (Peitho) was personified as a goddess and greatly honored.

Abundant use of ostracism. To recap, ostracism did not mean social rejection in Ancient Athens.  It was a ten-year exile that could be imposed without due process.  It did not carry any overtone of crime or infamy, but was purely political.  Ostracism appears to have served two purposes.  Without the concept of formal political parties or loyal opposition, the Athenians appear to have ostracized the loser of any major political controversy in order to keep rival factions from tearing the democracy apart.  They also distrusted anyone too powerful, too eminent, or even too popular as a potential dictator, and therefore cast out anyone who was starting to look to powerful.

Herodotus gives the story of the tyrant Periander of Corinth who sent a messenger to ask his neighboring tyrant, Thrasybulus of Miletus for advice.  Instead of speaking, Thrasybulus took the  messenger out into a wheat field and cut down all the tallest stalks.  Periander understood the message well -- chop of the heads of anyone who raises them too high.  The Romans later adopted this same story to a Roman setting and substituted poppies for ears of wheat but the lesson was the same.  It if from this story that we derive the term tall poppy syndrome.

But tall poppy syndrome is not limited to dictators.  The democracy had an acute case of it.  The Greeks dreaded the goddess Nemesis, who brought ruin to anyone who rose too high or was too fortunate. And looking at their politics, it is easy to see why.

Miltiades, hero of the Battle of Marathon, the next year was thrown into prison and died of complications of a wound.*

Aristides, described by Herodotus as the "most worthy and most just" of the Athenians was nonetheless ostracized for leading the faction that opposed Themistocles' navy.  He was later recalled and shared in the command of the Persian War.

Themistocles, founder of the Athenian navy, hero of the Battle of Salamis in which the Greeks destroyed the vastly greater Persian navy, responsible for rebuilding the walls of Athens and establishing a fortified port, and setting the foundation for Athenian naval supremacy.  Ostracized, later falsely accused of treasonable correspondence with the Persians and forced to flee Greece for his life and and take up service with the Persians after all.**

Kimon, the son of Miltiades, took the war to Persia, liberate the Ionian colonies from Persian rule and encouraged many non-Greek vassals of the Persians to revolt.  Ostracized for pro-Spartan policies. He, too, was later recalled and gave the city further honorable service.

Pericles, cautious but successful general, under whom Athens reached its height of power built its most beautiful architecture, and established itself for all time as a great center of culture and learning, also blundered into the Peloponnesian War.  When the war went badly, his enemies brought charges against him and he was fined between 15 and 50 talents.  But he nonetheless managed to be reelected the next year.  (He died shortly afterward, heartbroken).

The practice of ostracism prevented strife between factions from tearing the city asunder.  It may, perhaps, have blunted any possible drift that might otherwise have occurred.  But it also appears to confirm the fears of democracy's aristocratic critics, that engages in destructive punching up.  This desire to humble the city's greatest leaders looks very much like that.  But some qualifications are in order here.  This destructive punching up was directed at individual leaders.  There does not appear to have been any broad movement to dispossess the upper classes.  Nor did the socially conservative or anti-intellectual tendencies of any populist government keep Athens from shining as an unmatched center of culture and learning.  Nor were oligarchs in any way immune from Tall Poppy Syndrome themselves.  Quite the contrary, oligarchs fear dictatorship every bit as much as democrats.***

But then again, it is my belief that the real flaw of democracy (and the demos that makes it up) is not any excess in punching up, the the attractions of kicking down.  So the next question has to be, did the Athenians kick down.

*In fairness to the Athenians, Miltiades was not an altogether admirable character.  He was himself a former dictator, overthrown after leading an unsuccessful revolt against the Persians.  According to Herodotus, after his victory at Marathon, Miltiades went off and started a war with a minor city-state solely for the sake of a private grudge.  Herodotus also says that Miltiades took his death wound, not in honorable combat, but invading a women's shrine to Demeter where men were not allowed.  The goddess gave some expression of her displeasure that so frightened Miltiades that he frantically began climbing over the wall around the shrine, fell and injured himself.
**Themistocles was not an altogether admirable character either.  His wiliness and willingness to use deception were presumably acceptable among a people who honored Odysseus as a hero.  He was also prone to taking bribes and squeezing allies, and considered destroying the fleets of all the allies to establish complete supremacy, but Aristides overruled hiam.
***And with some justification.  Let us not forget how many classical dictators, from Pisistratus to Caesar, were of the popular faction and took the role of champion of the common people against the oligarchy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Trajectory of Athenian Democracy: More Diffuse But Narrower

Although the overall trajectory of Athenian democracy from the time of Solon to its fall is often described as one of every-increasing democracy, that is only half true.  It is true in the sense that poor citizens had an ever-growing opportunity to participate, i.e., becoming more diffuse.  But the citizen body as a share of the total population almost certainly shrank and became less and less permeable, i.e., what was (by modern standards) not a true democracy but a broad oligarchy became steadily narrower.

Recall that under Solon all free, native-born Athenian men, however poor, became citizens. But they were not equal citizens.  Although distinctions of birth were abolished among citizens, they were grouped into four classes by wealth.  Although all could serve in the assembly or on juries, only the first three classes (i.e., property holders) could belong to the Council. And only members of the first class (by some accounts) or the first two classes (the cavalry, by other accounts) could hold the archonship.  The nine archons appear to have been powerful officials, holding the executive power of the state.  And there was a body of ex-archons, serving for life known as the Areopagus.  Its function is somewhat unclear, but Aristotle says:
The Council of Areopagus had as its constitutionally assigned duty the protection of the laws; but in point of fact it administered the greater and most important part of the government of the state, and inflicted personal punishments and fines summarily upon all who misbehaved themselves.
In other words, Solon's government was moderately tight.  Poor men could only vote and serve on juries, not hold office.  And the bulk of power probably rested with the nine archons and lifetime body of ex-archons.  But it was also broad.  Solon restored citizenship to anyone disenfranchised before him, except for treason or murder.  He offered citizenship to any immigrant prepared to move to Athens with his family and conduct a useful trade.  So it would appear that if Solon had had his way, there would have been no permanent class of metics, or unnaturalized immigrants.  As for slaves, we have no idea of knowing how many there were.  However, Athens was poorer and less commercial than it would become, so in all probability there were fewer.  (Herodotus mentions that at this time many families did not have household slaves and instead sent their daughters to fetch water).  In short, in all probability citizens made up a larger share of the population, and citizenship was easier to get in Solon's day than it would be at any time in the future.

When Cleisthenes restored the democracy, he appears to have resolved disputes over who was and was not a legitimate citizen by the simple expedient of granting citizenship to all free, native-born residents but saying that in the future, a citizen must have an Athenian father.  In other words, he made government temporarily broader, but ensured that it would narrow over time.  Aristotle says that Cleisthenes made the government more democratic than before, which appears to mean that he made it more diffuse.  For instance, while the archon polemarch was originally the supreme commander-in-chief, Cleisthenes replaced him with ten generals (one from each tribe).  By Aristotle's time, the polemarch apparently had no command at all and was simply responsible for all religious ceremonies relating to war.  Presumably other archons started seeing their power restricted and spread in similar fashion.  (Again, see Aristotle for how little importance these once-powerful officials had left).

The next great diffusion in power came with the Persian Wars.  The four rights of first-class citizenship, from ancient times to the present, are the right to vote, to hold office, to sit on juries and to serve in the military.  Poor Athenians since Solon's time had had the right to vote and to sit on juries but were barred from holding office.  As for military service, poor men were not barred outright, but each soldier was required to supply his own gear.  Poor men who could not afford gear (beyond, perhaps, a sling), could not serve.  And military importance was closely linked with political power.  This began to change between the famous Battle of Marathon, which took place a mere twenty years after democracy was restored, and the bulk of the Persian War ten years later.  A leader named Themistocles, of humble and obscure origin, and perhaps something of a rough and ready populist, called for building a navy to meet the Persians if they returned.  Although the debate was formally over how best to defend the city, the political implications were clear.  Men too poor to serve in the army could serve as sailors* and earn the political power that comes with military importance. Put differently, it is well known that Athens was both a democracy and the supreme naval power of its day.  Less well understood were how closely linked democracy and naval power were. Athens' reliance on naval power successfully defeated the Persians.  As a reward to the efforts of Athens' poor citizens, their restrictions on office were lifted.

Finally, radical democrats Ephialtes and Pericles diminished the powers of the Areopagus (the body of ex-archons serving for life) to trials of murder and some religious matters.  Classical authorities are unanimous in condemning this action, saying that it removed the last brake on the democracy and allowed the people to run wild.  Unfortunately, none of them are very clear on what the Areopagus' functions were** or precisely what happened as a result of cutting back on its power, so any modern opinion on the subject cannot be much more than guesswork.

Then there was the matter of holding office.  Although removing the means test removed any formal barrier to poor men holding office, the amount of work involved was a full-time job, which effectively barred office to anyone who couldn't afford to take a year off of work without pay.  The democrats therefore introduced pay (quite modest) for office holding.  Pericles also introduced pay (even more modest) for jury service to make it easier for poor men.

But if Athenian democracy became steadily more diffuse, it also became narrower.  In Solon's day, any Greek moving to Athens and settling there permanently with his whole family to pursue a useful trade could become a citizen.  As the numbers of these immigrants swelled, the rule changed to allow only children of an Athenian father to become citizens.  Still, this allowed metics (especially wealthy ones) to marry their daughters to citizens and have citizen grand children.  Even an Athenian man's children by his slaves might become citizens.  Many of Athens' greatest statesmen in its early days had non-citizen mothers.  But Pericles changes the law to require both parents to be citizens for their children to be citizens.  According to Plutarch, some 5,000 people were convicted of falsifying citizenship and sold as slaves.  This was a major narrowing that caused the citizen body to dwindle over time.  It also seems a fair assumption that, as Athens became richer and more commercial, the slave population swelled.

Thus the assumption that Athens simply became more democratic over time is an over simplification, at least from the modern perspective.

*Technically, as rowers, but that raises certain unfortunate -- and false -- associations.  So I will stick with the admitted euphemism "sailors."
**Although they apparently included trials for treason.

Monday, April 13, 2015

And while other people have been going in hysterics over who may or may not be forced to bake a cake at a gay wedding, New Mexico has passed a first-in-the nation ban on civil forfeiture.  Hurray!!! It was unanimously passed by both houses of the Legislature, no less, and signed by the Governor.  It still allows forfeiture of property used in a crime, but only after conviction.  And the proceeds will go into the general fund, not the local police coffers.

I wish it had gotten even a fraction of the attention.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What Makes an Oligarchy "Narrow" and "Tight"?

I have used the term "narrow and tight oligarchy" in the past without giving too much thought to its meaning.  Ultimately, I have assumed that the two terms interchangeably, assuming that they mean the same thing, more or less treating the use of both as a mere intensifier.  But, thinking it over, how "narrow" and how "tight" a government is are two separate issues.  Both measure a government in terms of democracy versus oligarchy, but they do not measure it in the same way.

As I will use the terms, at least while discussing the subject of Classical Antiquity, how "narrow" or "broad" a government is will mean how large a portion of the population it allows to participate in government. How "tight" or "diffuse" government is will mean the degree of participation open to the average participant.  If this seems vague, perhaps I can offer some tangible examples to illustrate what I mean.

To recap.  All city-states in Classical Greece would count by today's standards as oligarchies.  That is to say, all allowed democratic participation by the citizen body, but in all cases the citizen body was a minority of the population.  Nonetheless, these oligarchies ranged greatly in their breadth and tightness, with Sparta far at the "narrow and tight" range of the spectrum and Athens far at the "broad and diffuse" end.

Artist's recreation of the Athenian Assembly
Breadth is easy.  Solon's democratic reforms admitted to citizenship all free, native born Athenians and made naturalization comparatively easy.  This led to great disputes over who was and was not a citizen.  When Cleisthenes restored the democracy, he resolved these dispute by simply admitting all free, native-born Athenians of the time as citizens but made naturalization difficult in the future. Both reformers eliminated any distinctions of birth among citizens and allowed even the poorest to vote and sit on juries.  Citizens were nonetheless a minority of the population.  Wikipedia gives as an estimate that in the 4th Century, B.C. Athens had a total population of about 300,000 of whom 100,000 were citizen families, making citizens about a third of the population.  Of course, half of these citizens were women, who were ineligible to participate, so the share of the population with any prospect of participating was about 50,000, or one in six.  Furthermore, some male citizens were under age.  The estimate of adult, male citizens who were eligible to take part in the city's political life was about 30,000, or 10% of the population.  However, most assembly meetings were nowhere near this large -- 6,000 was generally considered a good turnout.  To avoid confusion in terms, when speaking of Ancient Greece or Rome, I will speak of all citizens, including women and children as the "total citizen body" or "citizen families."  I will speak of those citizens who were allowed to participate in the city's political life as "eligible participants" or "eligibles."  And I will speak of the share who actually did participate as "active participants" or just "participants."  Hence Athens may seem narrow to us, with only a third of the population citizens, only 10% eligible participants, and fewer still as active participants.  But by Classical standards, this was a very broad share of participants.  Indeed, a larger share of the population participated actively in the city's government than in any other society, before or since.

In Sparta, the peak number of eligible participants is estimated at 8,000.  The usual estimate is that helots (serfs) outnumbered citizens by seven to one. (This is based on Herodotus' estimate that for every heavy-armed citizen soldier, the Spartans produced seven helot assistants).  Sparta also had its resident aliens, demoted citizens (status unclear) and probably chattel slaves (numbers unknown). This was very narrow citizenry, narrow enough to cause serious domestic security problems.

"Tightness" is a separate issue, but Athens and Sparta were also on opposite ends of the tight-diffuse spectrum.  In all city-states, ultimate sovereignty rested with the Assembly, consisting of all participants.  But even with the narrowest citizenry, the Assembly would be too large to be an effective governing body, so significant amounts of power had to devolve on a Council and various executive officials.  But there was a broad range of how this could be done.

In Athens, Council had 500 members, 50 from each of the ten tribes.  These were not elected (election was considered oligarchic), but chosen by lot from candidates selected by the tribes.*  They served one-year terms and were limited to two terms in a lifetime.  Council members served various jobs on a rotating basis.  Some were administrative, but the more important ones conducted foreign policy and decided what matters to present to the Assembly.  Any participant could propose a law; the Council actually drafted legislation and presented it to the Assembly.  The Assembly debated proposed laws and foreign policy decisions with any member allowed to speak, made amendments as they saw necessary, and voted by show of hands.  Besides the Council, there were about 500 other administrative officials, most quite narrow and with limited power, also chosen by lot for single, one-year terms.  This means that about one in thirty eligible participants held office at any given time, and that a participant who was so minded had well over a lifetime worth of offices available.  Only offices calling for skill were elective.  The main elective offices were military and treasury.  Military officers were indefinitely re-eligible.  This is an extremely diffuse system, allowing any participant so minded to propose, debate, or amend laws and to hold any number of offices.

In Sparta, the Assembly also consisted of all eligible participants, met about once a month, and voted on legislation and important foreign policy issues such as decisions of war and peace.  However, participants could not propose, debate, or amend legislation.  They simply voted up or down proposals by the Council.  Voting was by voice vote.  The Council had thirty members, two hereditary kings, and twenty-eight members elected for life by the Assembly (also by voice vote). Since members had to be at least 60 years old, "life" was shorter and elections more frequent than if younger men had been allowed.  It is generally assumed that members always belonged to one of Sparta's most prominent families.  Day-to-day government was managed by the Ephors, elected by the Assembly by voice vote from the total body of eligible participants.  There were five Ephors, elected to one-year terms and ineligible for re-election.  The two "kings" appear, in fact, to have been hereditary generals with decidedly limited powers and subordinate to the Ephors. They commanded forces in the field, but always under supervision of at least Ephors,  The Ephors could override a king, arrest him, and even threaten him with execution.  Ephors, in short, had immense power, but only for a single one-year term, after which they returned to the general citizen body.  This is a much tighter system, but not so tight as to be an oligarchy within an oligarchy.  It was widely admired in Classical Antiquity as an example of "mixed" government combining government of the (comparatively) many (the Assembly and Ephors) the few (the Council) and the one (well, two, the "kings.")  The Ephors, incidentally, were added later than these other features.  Before the Ephors were added, the system was much tighter, almost to the point of being a junta in the guise of an oligarchy.

By modern standards, then, the Athenian government would be considered moderately narrow, and diffuse to the point of absurdity.  The Spartan government would be considered extremely narrow, but not particularly tight once the Ephors were added.  The history of Athens is often described as one of ever-increasing democracy, but this is so only in the sense of ever-increasing diffuseness.  Over time, the citizen body shrank as a share of the population, making the government of Athens grow narrower over time.  As for Sparta, the citizen body shrank at an alarming rate, making the oligarchy ever narrower, eventually to the point of having only 700 eligible participants.  But this diminution necessarily made power more diffuse, as each participant's chance of serving as Ephor grew the more the citizen body shrank.

It also means that I was mistaken in saying that Sulla wanted to create a "narrow and tight oligarchy" similar to the patrician oligarchy that ruled at the beginning of the Roman Republic.  In fact, there had recently been a major broadening of the Republic by extending citizenship to (many of) the Italian Allies.  Sulla made no attempt to reverse this broadening.  What he did do was greatly tighten the system.  Recall that the Roman Senate had no actual power to pass legislation; it could merely recommend it.  For legislation to be binding it had to pass one of three popular Assemblies.  (Any one would do).  Consuls, Praetors and Tribunes could introduce legislation to the Assemblies without consulting the Senate, or against the recommendation of the Senate, and if the measure passed it would be binding law despite the Senate.  Sulla limited the Assemblies to voting up or down measures approved by the Senate.  He rigged the Centuriate Assembly (the only Roman Assembly to be organized by class), so that the First Class (the richest Romans, a distinct minority) would have nearly half the votes.  Finally, he made the rigged Centuriate Assembly the only one with the power to pass legislation.  (The other Assemblies could still elect certain officials).  Since Sulla did nothing to shrink the number of participants, and, indeed, accepted the recent broadening of their number, he could not technically be said to have narrowed the oligarchy.  But he tightened it to the point that participation for most became purely nominal.**

This also makes another point.  Tightening of power, even if not accompanied by any formal narrowing of the eligible participants, can create a de facto oligarchy (or oligarchy within an oligarchy) even in a formally democratic (or broadly oligarchic) system.  Yet too diffuse power can make a system dysfunctional to the point of being non-functional.  This, too, is not merely a matter of ancient history.  For instance, when the U.S. Constitution was drafted, it was widely denounced as undemocratic.  Certainly, this was not because it meant any narrowing of power.  To the contrary, it moved election to Congress from state legislatures to the people directly and guaranteed that eligibility to vote for the House of Representatives would be on the broadest basis allowed by each state.***  What it did do, however, was to tighten power in the federal government.  Likewise, although this provision ensured that the federal government could not be any narrower than the state governments, it was tighter than the states.  Indeed, government on so wide a scale cannot be as diffuse is is possible on a narrower scale.  This was one of the reasons so many people distrusted any strengthening of the federal government.  (Alexis de Tocqueville, by contrast, saw it as a distinct advantage of the federal government).

Finally, it should be noted that extremely diffuse government can have a paradoxical narrowing tendency.  Simply put, giving people an ever greater degree of participation in government makes such participation more and more work.  Most people don't want to participate as much as champions of extremely diffuse government could wish.  As noted above, although Athens had some 30,000 eligible participants who were free to propose legislation and debate in the Assembly, only a fraction of that number actually showed up.****  Presumably the Spartan Assembly, which required no more than shouting a measure up or down, had higher turnout.

Albion's Seed found a similar pattern in the English colonies.  Political power in New England was very diffuse, being the main example of direct democracy besides Athens.  There, too, participants met in the direct democracy of the town meeting where they proposed, debated, modified and enacted town ordinances; made the town's major policy decisions; elected numerous town officials to one-year terms; and annually elected and instructed representatives to the colonial legislature.  Turnout was low, with no more than 10-30% of eligible participants showing up for most meetings.  (Turnout surged during crises and when something important was being debated).  In Virginia, political power was much tighter, with the only elective offices being to the colonial legislature, and elections (combined with instruction of representatives) being held only once every seven years.  Turnout was much higher.  Finally, Pennsylvania was intermediate, with participation being limited to electing officials, but such elections being very frequent -- as many as five a year.  Turnout was intermediate.

Or consider the length of the ballot these days -- candidates for county commission, county clerk, assessor, surveyor, initiatives, referendums, bond levies, and so forth.  To say nothing of intermediate elections for school board, mill levy, sales tax, etc.  Is it any wonder that turnout is often so low?  In California, initiatives have become so numerous and complex that the combined pamphlet of all initiatives can run to hundreds of pages.

In short, too-tight government creates an informal oligarchy, even in a system that is formally democratic.  But too-diffuse government invariably proves that there is only so much democracy most people can stomach.  Striking the right balance is a difficult and delicate operation.

And now, on to Classical Athens, perhaps the most diffuse government ever invented!

*The method of selection varied over time, but in all cases the candidates had to volunteer for the office and be at least minimally qualified.
**Keep in mind, though, that they retained other benefits of citizenship, such as not being subject to enslavement for debt.
***Many states set a higher property qualification to vote for the upper house of their legislature than the lower house, or set a property qualification to vote for the upper house and none for the lower house.  The US Constitution said that whoever could vote for the lower house of the state legislature could vote for the U.S. House of Representatives.
****As in Rome, though, citizenship had advantages even for those who chose not to participate.