Monday, August 24, 2015

Back to Ancient Greece and a Note on Sources

So, back to Ancient Greece.  Up to now I given an account of the first ten years of the Peloponnesian War that was both too short and too long and says nothing about the failure of democracy in Athens. The upcoming series of posts will discuss the resumption of the war and the short-lived failure of democracy in Athens in 411 B.C.

The last time democracy had failed in Athens was when the dictator Pisistratus seized power.  We do not know the exact year that this happened, but Aristotle says that it was in the thirty-second year after Solon instituted the democracy, and that the interim years had been ones of turmoil.  Point of contrast -- the Weimar Republic last fourteen years (1919-1933), all of them turbulent.  Thus Pisistratus' takeover might be seen as a failure of a troubled young democracy struggling to establish itself.

When Athenian democracy was overthrown in 411 B.C., it had been 99 years (since 510) since Pisistratus' son Hippias had been overthrown and 97 years since the attempt by Isagoras to establish either a dictatorship or an oligarchy had been defeated and democracy established on a firm basis by Cleisthenes.  Point of contrast -- four score and seven (87) years passed between the Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Gettysburg.  And this exaggerates the age of the United States at the time.  If we take our continuous government as starting in 1788 (the first election under the Constitution), then a mere 72 years had elapsed between the the institution of a meaningful U.S. government and the secession of South Carolina.  But the United States was generally seen in 1860 as a mature democracy rather than a young and troubled regime.  The point here is that, regardless of how you measure it, Athens had a mature democracy when it was overthrown in 411, which had endured longer than the government of the US during our Civil War.

It also occurs to me that I really should say something about sources here, at the risk of sounding like the acknowledgments or preface section of a book.  Many thanks to for making it easier to order obscure books than it has ever been before.  And even more thanks to the Perseus Digital Library a collection of all sorts of works from Classical Antiquity, both in the original Greek or Latin and translated into English, with some commentary.  The huge advantage of the Perseus Project from a blogging perspective is that it allows one to link to a source with considerable precision.  I had not learned to navigate it when I started this series, which is why my earlier posts contain much less precise links that leave a lot of digging to do, while my later posts contain pinpoint links to Perseus.

Our main source of information on the 411 B.C. overthrow of Athenian democracy and the events leading up to it is from Thucydides.  Thucydides' work is unfinished; it abruptly breaks off shortly after the coup failed, almost leaving the impression of the author having a heart attack in mid-paragraph.  This keeps him from giving any account of the aftermath of the coup, so I have followed to the end of Alcibiades' career in two later historians, Xenophon writing as a contemporary and often eye witness, and Diodorus Siculus, writing in Roman times, but apparently drawing on much earlier sources.  Aristotle's Athenian Commonwealth* gives a very different account of the coup.  Plutarch's biography of Nicias does not reach the coup, but give important information on the background leading up to it.  In his life of Alcibiades, the coup takes place offstage, but we get at least an offstage look at it, as well as information on the events leading up and the aftermath.  Speeches made at this time were oral and not preserved in writing (Thucydides admits that the speeches in his work are either drawn from memory or made up altogether), but after the Peloponnesian War Athens began to have professional speech writers who made speeches to be given to the Assembly or to juries.  The speeches of Andocides are an important source in events leading up to the coup, and during it as well.  A few other speeches touch on the coup and one is specifically addressed to it.

The usual advice to lawyers researching an unfamiliar area of law is to begin with a secondary source. It might not be binding authority, but it is a useful guide to the binding authorities out there and can spare the researcher a lot of fruitless hunting.  The same goes for modern historians of ancient societies.  They rely on much the same sources and a lot of what they have to say is based on little more than conjecture, but they have the advantages of being able to read the classical sources in the original and pick up on subtleties that are lost in translation.  They also have access to truly obscure sources, to archaeological work, and to the opinions and conjectures of other scholars.  But above all, they have been immensely useful in leading me to available sources and sparing me having the hunting to find them.  I have made use of Donald Kagan's history of the Peloponnesian War and 19th Century historian George Grote, whose works are in the public domain and available online.

*My latest attempt to find some suitable translation of the Greek word politeia.

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