Choosing four hundred men they put in their hands the supreme authority to direct the conduct of the war; for they assumed that an oligarchy was more suitable than a democracy in critical circumstances like these. The events, however, did not turn out according to the judgement of those who held that opinion, but the Four Hundred conducted the war far less competently.Aristotle implies much the same:
In the period of the war therefore, so long as fortunes were evenly balanced, they continued to preserve the democracy. But when after the occurrence of the disaster in Sicily the Lacedaemonian side became very strong owing to the alliance with the king of Persia, they were compelled to overthrow the democracy and set up the government of the Four Hundred, Melobius making the speech on behalf of the resolution but Pythodorus of the deme Anaphlystus having drafted the motion, and the acquiescence of the mass of the citizens being chiefly due to the belief that the king would help them more in the war if they limited their constitution.But Thucydides, who describes events in by far the most detail, gives a very different picture.
last left the Athenian fleet wintering over (winter 412-411 B.C.) at Samos, on the east side of the Aegean, and Alcibiades, who had previous defected to Sparta, now defected to Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap. The plot to overthrow the democracy was initially instigated by Alcibiades himself. He sent word that he would return to Athens (a significant promise, given his skills as a general) and secure the alliance of the Tissaphernes if only the Athenians would get rid of the democracy and establish an oligarchy. It is not clear why he wanted an oligarchy. Presumably his real wish was to be a dictator, and democracies are more susceptible to charismatic leaders (Alcibiades, by all accounts, was extremely charismatic), while oligarchies distrust any individual oligarch who starts looking too big for his britches (a major reason he had to flee Sparta for his life). Thucydides seems to suggest that he just wanted to overthrow the democracy because of the shabby way it had treated him. Thucydides is also of the opinion that most of the officers were inclined to oligarchy anyhow and did not need much persuading. The rank-and-file were less enthusiastic, but the prospect of getting decent pay persuaded them to acquiesce. Only Phrynichus (the same admiral who persuaded the fleet to withdraw to Samos) dissented. Phrynichus recognized that Alcibiades cared nothing for oligarchy or democracy, but only for his own power and that the Persians distrusted Athens too much ever to make an alliance.
It was also apparently presumed that if Athens became an oligarchy, it would establish oligarchies in its dependencies as well. Thucydides does not exactly say so, but he seems to imply that the others assumed that, since it was usually the oligarchs who revolted against Athens, establishing and
backing oligarchies would make the empire more stable. Phrynichus dissented, saying that no government, democratic or oligarchic, would be seen as legitimate if it was complicit in their subjugation. Athens' satellites would not find an Athenian oligarchy any more amenable than a democracy. Quite the contrary, the wrongs done by the democracy were usually instigated by the upper classes. Oligarchy would simply remove whatever restraints the democracy had imposed.
The others were unconvinced, however and sent Peisander (the same Peisander who had been a raging populist and most aggressively pursued the mutilators of the herms) back to Athens to work for the recall of Alcibiades and the overthrow of the democracy. Phrynichus now anticipated that Alcibiades would be recalled and feared what revenge he might seek against Phrynichus for opposing him. There followed the most elaborate dance of betrayals and counter-betrayals that did credit to absolutely no one. Phrynichus sent a letter to Spartan Admiral at Miletus informing him of the plan and broadly hinting that he should kill Alcibiades. Since Alcibiades had already fled to the Persians, this was not possible anyhow. But the Spartan Admiral had been corrupted by the satrap and went straight to him and informed him and Alcibiades of the letter. Alcibiades then a letter to Samos calling for Phrynichus' execution. Phrynichus then wrote again to the Spartan Admiral, calling on him to attack and destroy the Athenian force at Samos and giving him extensive military details on how to do so! Once again, the Admiral passed the information on to Alcibiades. But then Phryinchus had second thoughts, realizing that the Spartan Admiral might once again pass his letter on to Alcibiades, so he warned that the Peloponnesians were about to attack and set the force to work fortifying their positions and preparing for attack. When the warning came from Alcibiades that Phrynichus had betrayed them, no one believed it, since Phrynichus had been so energetic in preparing for attack. It was assumed that Alcibiades was simply lying to discredit a personal enemy.
Meanwhile, Peisander and his companions had made their way to Athens and proposed that the Assembly recall Alcibiades and "modify" or "change" the democracy. The Assembly apparently knew a euphemism when they heard one and vociferously objected (to both proposals). To this Peisander answered that the alternative was total defeat and destruction, and that only Alcibiades and Persian alliance could save the city. Besides, he argued, suspending the democracy was simply a wartime expedient that could be reversed later.* The people reluctantly acquiesced, intending to restore the democracy later on when the crisis was over and authorized a delegation consisting of Peisander and ten others to negotiate with the satrap Tissaphernes. This is presumably the source of Aristotle's and Diodorus' misleading statements that that the Assembly instituted the oligarchy voluntarily. But Peisander's next actions make clear that his intentions were rather different. First, he had the Assembly relieve the troublesome Phrynichus of his command and replace him with other admirals. Next he secretly approached the political "clubs," hetaireiai, or caucuses to discuss ending the democracy.
When Peisander and the others presented to Tissaphernes, there soon proved to be a serious flaw in their plan. Tissaphernes, in fact, was not willing to ally with the Athenians, but had every intent of continuing to play the Greeks off against each other and wear them down. Rather than admit this, Alcibiades made exorbitant demands, intending for them to be rejected. He found out that his countrymen were prepared to swallow a lot more than he expected. First they agreed to cede all of Ionia (the same shameful condition the Spartans had agreed to, only more shameful because the Athenians were also Ionians). So Alcibiades upped the ante, demanding the right for the Persian king to sail warships along the Greek coast. Peisander and the others got the message. Alcibiades would not be able to deliver Persian aid.
At this point, one might expect the plotters to abandon their plan. But instead they decided to proceed, without Alcibiades (who they decided was not really cut out for oligarchy anyhow), and without the prospect of Persian aid. The obvious question is why. Thucydides attributes it partly to fear -- they were already compromised, so their only hope was to go through with it -- and partly to ambition -- if they seized power the spoils of war would be all theirs and they would not have to share. I hope to address that question in my next post, as well as describing how the plot proceeded.
*It should be pointed out the many democracies since then have partially suspended democratic operations as a wartime expedient and restored them afterward. Britain suspending elections during WWII, for instance.