Saturday, September 26, 2015

Athens: The Conspiracy Loses its Purpose but Continues

So, to recap, Alcibiades persuaded the Athenian military commanders, holed up on the island of Samos, that he could bring assistance from the Persian satrap if they would only replace the democracy with an oligarchy.  The officers agreed, and both soldiers and sailors in the field and the Assembly back home reluctantly agreed to suspend the democracy in exchange for Persian assistance, intending to restore it later.  It soon became apparent that Alcibiades could not deliver.  But the conspirators, at home and abroad, decided to continue, without the promise of Persian aid and without Alcibiades, who they decided was not cut out to be an oligarch anyhow.

The forces in Samos started by establishing an oligarchy there.*  The conspirators went on to replace democracies with oligarchies in other subject states as well.  The main result was to remove the primary obstacle to revolt, not to attach any of these cities more closely to Athens.**  When Peisander and his co-conspirators returned to Athens from Samos, they found that the political  "clubs" had prepared the way for them.  They had assassinated Androcles, one of the leaders of the popular party who had had a major role in banishing Alcibiades.***  In this they hoped to gain the support of Alcibiades and the Persians, not realizing that that had already fallen through.  They killed several unnamed popular politicians as well.  The Assembly and the Council continued to meet and to maintain the forms of the democracy, but drained of all substance.  The only business brought before them was introduced by the conspirators, and the speakers were all members of the conspiracy, giving pre-arranged speeches.  Anyone who spoke against them had good cause to fear for his life, and none of these murders were prosecuted, even when people had strong suspicions who the killers were.  Democrats approached each other with suspicion, never knowing who might be in on the conspiracy, especially since it had often included some of the most unlikely people.  It was into this atmosphere that Peisander and his companions arrived.

The leader of the domestic conspiracy was Antiphon, who Thucydides describes as:
[A] man inferior in virtue to none of his contemporaries, and possessed of remarkable powers of thought and gifts of speech. He did not like to come forward in the assembly, or in any other public arena. To the multitude, who were suspicious of his great abilities, he was an object of dislike; but there was no man who could do more for any who consulted him, whether their business lay in the courts of justice or in the assembly.
In short, he was a teacher of rhetoric and a speech writer, both for speeches to the Assembly and in the law courts.  He was the inventor of the new profession of logographer, or speech writer, particularly of speeches before the courts.  He was regarded with the sort of suspicion that lawyers have been regarded ever since -- as a hired gun without principles, selling his advocacy to the highest bidder.  Andocides (who would also adopt the profession of logographer) also identifies an Antiphon as one of many who fled for his life when accused of profaning the Mysteries.  It is not clear if this is the same Antiphon, but no one mentions such a connection, so probably not.  The lead conspirator returning was, of course, Peisander, now joined by Phrynichus.  Despite his initial opposition to establishing an oligarchy, Phrynichus had now joined the conspiracy, largely because he thought that establishing an oligarchy was the best way to keep his arch-enemy Alcibiades away.  Rounding out the leadership (Thucydides does not say whether at home or from abroad) was Theramenes, who Thucydides describes as "a good speaker and a sagacious man."  And, yes, this is the same Theramenes who Aristotle identifies and an outstanding, though controversial, leader.  Controversial is an understatement!

But the question remains, why did they do it?  The initial decision to suspend the democracy was understandable.  It seemed a necessary evil to procure the support of Alcibiades and assistance from Persia.  The Assembly acquiesced, however reluctantly.  But once support from Persia proved a barren hope, why did the conspiracy proceed?  Thucydides to some extent implies that, having been compromised, Peisander and the others saw no choice but to proceed.  This argument is unconvincing.  Peisander and his companions were not compromised conspirators.  They had already openly persuaded the Assembly to agree to a suspension of the democracy in exchange for Persian aid. Granted, the Assembly would not have taken kindly to submitting to Peisander's suggestion that they suspend the democracy in exchange for Persian aid, only to see him come up empty-handed.  The Athenians had a deplorable record of executing or exiling defeated generals.  Peisander might have legitimately feared a similar fate.  But Peisander was abroad and safely outside the Assembly's reach. If he had been acting in good faith, he would have had two other options.  One was to stay abroad until he had a victory to boast of, at which time all would be forgiven.  That is what the general Demosthenes had done, and what Alcibiades would soon do.  The other option was voluntary exile.

But it is clear that Peisander had not been acting in good faith. If he had been acting in good faith, then once the Assembly agreed to suspend the democracy, he would not ave approached the "clubs" to discuss advancing matters further.  As for the clubs, they may very well have believed that suspending the democracy would bring Persian support and not have realized that Peisander's mission had failed.  But, once again, the clubs were clearly not acting in good faith, or they would not have instituted their campaign of terror and murder against a populace that had already agreed, however reluctantly, to the suspension of democracy.  Why did they proceed?

The modern historian Donald Kagan gives a number of reasons why the Athenian upper classes might have turned against the democracy.  Greek tradition was aristocratic, with democracy as an exception, and a suspect one at that.  Even under the best circumstances, Athens' richer citizens had a heavy burden of taxes, paying to outfit ships and finance choruses and other religious functions and athletic competitions.  Under more normal circumstances, these burdens had their compensations.  Outfitting a ship made a man a military commander, the usual stepping stone to a political career.  Payment for choruses brought the sponsor great prestige.  But the war raised these burdens to unprecedented levels, such that many of Athens'  andwealthier citizens were facing financial ruin.  Kagan estimates that the number of men of the hoplite class an above had fallen from as many as 25,000 to 9,000.  With revenue from the empire cut off, Athens relied more and more on taxes from its wealthier citizens.  The old aristocracy seemed to be losing its grip on the leadership.  The new generation of leaders seemed to be men like Cleon, a non-aristocrat with no military experience, whose power depended entirely on his rabble-rousing oratory.  Even the aristocrat and general Alcibiades had adopted the same demagogic style.  But above all else, the common people, against the advice of much of the aristocracy, had supported the Sicilian expedition, which had ended in disaster and now was threatening the city with total ruin.  It was easy for the upper classes to believe that, after opposing such a rash measure, they were better qualified to govern in general, and to fight the war in particular.

My guess, though, is that there was another thing that served to alienate much of the aristocracy from the democracy -- the moral panic following the vandalism of the herms.  The episode was, indeed, a serious black mark on the democracy.  Athens' leading citizens had gone in such fear that they  "ceased going abroad even into the Agora, because you each expected arrest" all on the word of such an obvious scoundrel as Diocleides.  The democracy had always had a certain tendency toward paranoia, as Thucydides expresses in earnest and Aristophanes in jest.  In Knights, Cleon and the sausage seller get into a denouncing contest and, when out maneuvered, Cleon denounces the whole thing as a conspiracy.  The general mood of paranoia is also mocked in Wasps.  And it would appear that a major target of the paranoia were the political "clubs" or hetairaiai, in which leading citizens met for entertainment and political caucusing.  These clubs were also known as synomosia -- taking an oath together.  This latter name is pejorative, often translated as conspiracies.  The clubs were secret societies, with oaths of secrecy and initiation rites.  Think if the paranoia that has often surrounded Masonic lodges in modern times because of their secrecy and quasi-religious initiation rites and transport it backward into ancient Athens and you may get some concept.

Of course, the Masons and their network of lodges really were a large-scale organization with at least the capacity for wide-spread conspiracies.  The political clubs were not.  They may have had a tendency toward oligarchic leanings, but little clusters of 25 men or less were simply caucuses -- they lacked the scope to do any serious harm.  Or so it appeared until one of them (probably) vandalized all the herms in the city in one night.  Although Andocides never says so, presumably the clubs were a major target of paranoia in the ensuing moral panic.  I have speculated that Andocides may have been so successful in quelling the panic because the upper classes recognized the men he denounced as his club, realized that such an organization was tight enough to conceive and carry out such a conspiracy, and managed to convey this fact to the general public.  But it must have been a source of great resentment to them that all such clubs came under suspicion when only one was guilty of the crime.  And then there was the matter of the Mysteries.  Several clubs were exposed as having mocked the Mysteries in their secret initiation rites.  Who knows how many other clubs had done things the orthodox would not approve of and now stood in fear of the slaves and women in their household, wondering how much they had seen and what they might tell.

Critics of the democracy had long feared that it would put an end to all hierarchy and distinction. An anti-democratic pamphlet from the early years of the Peloponnesian War accused the democracy of setting up equality between slave and free, citizen and metic.  Many an aristocrat who had previously dismissed such complaints and grossly exaggerated may have had second thoughts in the midst of the moral panic, when confronted with the sight of many of Athens leading citizens arrested, fleeing for their lives, or even executed on the word of metics, slaves, and women; or of members of the Council unconstitutionally threatened with torture on the denunciation of so sleazy a character as Diocleides.  Suddenly such grumblings must have seemed less like idle fears and more like living reality.  

Certainly, critics of democracy must have known what sort of mercy oligarchs who attempt to overthrow a democracy could expect if defeated.  Athens' own history offered the example of  Isagoras, a friend of the Spartan king Cleomenes, who holed up in the Acropolis with Cleomenes, a Spartan force, and at least 300 followers.  The besieged soon surrendered, and the Athenians let the king and the Spartans go (to have done otherwise would have been to invite a war), and also released Isagoras because he was the king's friend, but executed all of his followers.  They also had the more recent examples of Corcyra, Argos, and most recently Samos.  Of course, these all reached the stage of an actual or attempted oligarchic coup, not merely persuading the Assembly to suspend democracy on the hope of Persian aid, only to see that aid fail to materialize.  It seems realistic upon learning that it had all been for nothing that the democratic public might have spent its rage on Peisander and his delegation, but there is no reason to believe they would have turned against the upper classes in general.

Unless the upper classes actually went so far as to stage or attempt a coup.  And now numerous political clubs, each by itself too small to do any serious damage, had now joined forced into a grand conspiracy to do just that.

*It is not clear whether this oligarchy consisted of the old, dispossessed, landed aristocracy, or whether old leader of the democratic party were setting themselves up as a new oligarchy.
**Here Thucydides strongly seems to imply that oligarchy was an improvement over democracy,
another sign that he was a critic of democracy.  But he also appears, once again, to acknowledge that the impetus for revolt came from the oligarchs, not the democrats.
***Plutarch names Androcles as the leader who first accused Alcibiades of profaning the mysteries and produced witnesses.  Andocides, by contrast, attributes this to a man by the name of Pythonicus  and mentions Androcles only as wanting the reward for information to go the the Council as a whole.  (Presumably he was a member).

No comments:

Post a Comment