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.