Thursday, October 1, 2015

Athen: The 400 Stage a Coup

As we last left Athens, Peisander and the other military commanders were sailing back, their negotiations to bring in Alcibiades and a Persian alliance unsuccessful, but determined to proceed anyhow.  Joining him was Phrynichus, the only commander to oppose the plan, but now its most ardent supporter because he believed oligarchy would be the most effective way to keep Alcibiades away.  Although Thucydides does not say so, it must have occurred to Phrynichus that Alcibiades held his life in his hand.  He (Phrynichus) had engaged in treasonous correspondence with the Spartan Admiral, encouraging him to attack and destroy the Athenian fleet to thwart Alcibiades!  The admiral then passed the letter on to Alcibiades, who warned the fleet but was not believed.  Still, Phryichus must have realized that if Alcibiades ever produced the letter, that would be the end.

In the meantime, the oligarchic clubs, under the leadership of Antiphon, the rhetoric master had launched a plot of assassination and terrorism of democratic leaders to terrorize the populace into submission.  I should add, for what it is worth, that this is an interesting reversal of the usual roles.  Recall that Cleon, the foremost popular leader after Pericles died, was despised by the upper classes for his non-aristocratic origins, his rabble-rousing style, and his lack of military experience.  For a politician to base his power on his speaking skills before the Assembly, rather than a military record, was something new and disturbing.  The populist Cleophon would soon follow the same course.  Yet here we have Peisander and Phrynichus, hitherto populists (and Peisander a downright demagogue in the most pejorative sense) honorably making their political careers as military commanders, while the aristocrat Antiphon, who despised the common people, made his career in the world of rhetoric -- not by making speeches himself, but by writing speeches for others and manipulating events behind the scenes.  And he had proved a master manipulator here, orchestrating and directing the campaign of terror.

Up to this point, the people of Athens knew that Peisander had appeared before the Assembly and persuaded them to suspend the democracy in exchange for Persian assistance.  And they knew that shortly afterward oligarchically minded citizens began proposing limiting the number of eligible participants to 5,000 "who were best able to serve the state in person and with their money," and an end to pay for civilian offices, an action that would restrict such offices to men rich enough to afford to serve without pay.  And they knew that anyone who spoke too openly against this program was apt to by mysteriously killed.  Presumably they connected these things.  But whether they knew Peisander was in on the terrorist plot is not something Thucydides addresses.

Any doubts the people may have had were soon cleared up.  Peisander, upon arriving, persuaded the Assembly to elect ten commissioners to draw up the new constitution, to be considered on a fixed day.  On that day, for reasons that are unclear, Peisander then called an Assembly, not in its usual meeting place, but outside the city walls, despite the countryside being overrun by hostile forces.* The ten simply proposed that all suggestions be allowed, without penalty.  This was significant because normally the graphe paranomon was in place, allowing penalties against anyone who made an "unconstitutional" proposal.  Indeed, it was not unheard of to forbid certain suggestions on penalty of death!**  To suspend graphe paranomon was an extreme measure.  And this extreme measure was the forerunner to more extreme measures still.  Immediately, Peisander proposed to end all pay for civilian offices and:
to choose a presiding board of five; these five were to choose a hundred, and each of the hundred was to co-opt three others. The Four Hundred thus selected were to meet in the council-chamber; they were to have absolute authority, and might govern as they deemed best; the Five Thousand were to be summoned by them whenever they chose.
The Assembly, intimidated, ratified the proposal with no one daring to speak against it, and was dissolved.  Thucydides adds that although Peisander was the one who formally made this proposal, he was merely the front man; it was Antiphon who actually came up with it.

This is the account of Thucydides.  Aristotle gives rather a different account.  He omits the details of Alcibiades' role, the conspiracy at Samos, and the oligarchic campaign of terror and instead treats the whole thing as voluntary.  Modern historians generally dismiss that part as absurd and assume that Thucydides was right.  He did, however, apparently have access to documents prepared and submitted to the Assembly and is therefore considered a better source on the details of what passed there (just as Andocides is probably a better source on the mutilation of the herms and ensuing moral panic).  Aristotle says that the original motion was produced not by Peisander by by Pythodorus of Anaphlystus and introduced by a Melobius.  These names are otherwise unknown to us.  Pythodorus  proposed that in addition to the ten existing probouloi, twenty others be added, to make any constitutional proposals they wished.  Cleitophon proposed that any proposal follow the constitution of Cleisthenes, the point being that really the constitution of Cleisthenes was much more restrained in its democracy than the currently existing state of affairs.  Aristotle then agrees with Thucydides that these thirty (not ten as in Thucydides) proposed that the graphe paranomon be suspended and all proposals allowed.  Aristotle then agrees that what the thirty proposed was to end all pay for civilian offices, except a token sum for the Archons and Presidents of the Council, and to limit the number of eligible participants to 5,000 "who in person and property were most capable of serving the state."

Presumably Aristotle's account is more accurate here as to the precise individuals involved and exactly what they proposed.  He omits only one detail -- that behind the appearance of legality, all these proposals and the individuals to be elected had been decided behind the scenes and that no one, out of fear of the roving assassins, dared to oppose them.  Aristotle differs from Thucydides in saying that the 400 were elected by the 5,000, rather than chosen in the highly top-down fashion Thucydides described.  Thucydides' account here being the more detailed, the general assumption is that it is the more accurate.  Aristotle then proceeds to give a detailed and rather dull account of the  new constitution proposed.  The practical upshot is that the Council of 400 would be annually chosen by lot from the 5,000 and would serve without pay.  All other officials would be chosen from the Council, either by election or by lot and would serve without pay.  The immediate Council was to be elected.  All officials would be limited to a single term, except military officials and members of the Council.***  Click on the links if you actually care about these dull details.  Antiphon and his colleagues were apparently busy.  Thucydides does not give such a detailed account of what was being proposed partly, perhaps, because he did not have the actual document that Aristotle apparently did, but also because he regarded the whole thing as so much window dressing, designed to disguise the plotters' real design -- an extremely narrow and tight oligarchy consisting only of the 400.

Aristotle reports that this proposal was approved by the Assembly, omitting the terror and intimidation involved.  He then goes on to say that the current Council was dissolved on the 14th day of the month Thargelion (May 31) and the 400 came into office seven days later, treating the process as smooth and voluntary.  (Although he faintly hints otherwise when he days that they "entered the council chamber and governed the state."  He does acknowledge that they only nominally chose the 5,000 and actually governed in an autocratic fashion.

Thucydides has rather a different account.  Because of the presence of a hostile army in the countryside, Athens was under guard at all times.  On the day of the coup, the conspirators dismissed the guards who were not part of the conspiracy, but had the conspirators remain, joined by several hundred foreign mercenaries and Athenian colonists.  The Four Hundred, with daggers hidden under their garments, entered the Council Chamber backed by 120 "Hellenic youths" who they used for their dirty work.  They gave the Council their pay and ordered them to leave, the threat presumably being implied rather than spoken outright.

The coup was then complete.  The coup was complete.  The 400 received no resistance, either from the Council or the general citizen body.  They nonetheless made some executions, though not many, and had some potential opponents imprisoned or exiled.  They also made peace overtures to Agis, the Spartan King at Decelea.  Agis assumed that the city would be easily conquered under conditions of civil strife and marched forth, but found the city's defenses in good order, so he marched back and accepted negotiations.

They also sent ten commissioners to Samos to put the best possible spin on events to a hostile army and navy.  Recall that in Samos, Peisander and the others had also sought to install an oligarchy.  Some 300 Samian conspirators, including many leaders of the popular party who had just overthrown the oligarchy, had joined with Peisander in seeking to install an oligarchy.  In conjunction with one of the generals (named Charminus) and some pro-oligarchic Athenians, they assassinated an Athenian named Hyperbolus who had been ostracized.  Of Hyperbolus and his exile, Thucydides says only that he was "an Athenian of no character, who, not for any fear of his power and influence, but for his villany, and because the city was ashamed of him, had been ostracised."  Given that the practice of ostracism had not been used in 25 years, this is a rather more significant event than Thucydides would indicate.  According to Plutarch, the rivalry between Nicias and Alcibiades, which was really a proxy for rivalry between the war party and the peace party had become so intense that one of them had to go.  Neither one wanting to be banished, they united to banish the despised Hyperbolus instead.  He goes on to say that the only people who opposed ostracizing Hyperbolus were ones who thought the punishment was too dignified for him!  Plutarch also had access to the works of comic poets (now lost to us) mocking Hyperbolus.

And, speaking of Plutarch, I should probably add his comments on the oligarchic coup from his Life of Alcibiades.  He really does not add anything to Thucydides, but it is worth noting his  overall judgment:
But as soon as the so-called Five Thousand (they were really only four hundred) got the power and took control of affairs, they at once neglected Alcibiades entirely, and waged the war with less vigor, partly because they distrusted the citizens, who still looked askance at the new form of government, and partly because they thought that the Lacedaemonians, who always looked with favour on an oligarchy, would be more lenient towards them. The popular party in the city was constrained by fear to keep quiet, because many of those who openly opposed the Four Hundred had been slain.
Finally, I should comment on those "Hellenic youths" who backed the 400 in their coup and were presumably their main agents in their general terror.  My own translation, copyright 1954, puts the phrase in quotation marks, presumably aware of just how sinister it would sound to a contemporary audience.  It would not, of course, have sounded as sinister in Ancient Greece, or to pre-20th Century translators.  All the versions I have seen have used a similar expression, though disagreeing somewhat on who those youth were.  Benjamin Jowett (1881) calls them "Hellenic youths."  Thomas Hobbes calls them "young men of Greece."  A 1910 translation says "Hellenic youths."  George Grote (page 268) assumes that they were "young men from various Grecian cities," in the general assumption that the sons of the aristocracy were unlikely to sully themselves with such dirty work. Finally the Perseus' Project's attempt to analyze the original believes they were young aristocrats from the clubs, and speculates that it may be a corruption of the name of the most aristocratic of the four Ionian tribes.  Make of it what you will.

Clearly the democracy had been overthrown for all intents and purposes well before these "Hellenic youth," whoever they may have been, burst into the Council Chamber and staged the actual and final coup.  It is also clear that, despite their manifestly illegal behavior, the 400 clung firmly to at least the forms of legality.  The Assembly continued to meet, to have motions and speakers, and to vote, even though all speakers had been pre-determined and coordinated in advance, and everyone else was intimidated into silence.  Presumably the clubs had done a certain amount of advance planning and staging before (such is the nature of any caucus), but the nature of the intimidation was unprecedented, even as the outward forms would seem unchanged to any casual observer.

To the modern reader, it all seems disturbingly familiar.  I do not think it is too great a violation of Godwin's Law to think of Hitler's Enabling Act of 1933.  The Republic had, for all intents and purposes, been overthrown.  Hitler's Brown Shirts ruled the streets and intimidated his opponents.  The Act, by passing the Reichstag, maintained the forms of legality, but effectively ended the Republic and established Hitler as dictator.  When Hitler did not have the necessary 2/3 vote to pass the measure, he simply had all the Communist deputies arrested, together with enough Social Democrats to ensure him the 2/3 necessary.  His Brown Shirts surrounded the building, a clear threat to anyone bold enough to resist.  The Catholic Center Party was persuaded to vote yes by promises to respect Catholic autonomy.  Only the Social Democratic chairman dared speak against the Act. Only the Social Democrats dared vote against it.  (Most of them then went into exile).  But can anyone seriously believe that if the Catholic Center Party had found a similar courage and denied Hitler his 2/3 majority, it would have made any difference?  Neither would it have made any difference for the Assembly to have voted down Antiphon's proposed constitution.  In both cases the rule of law had been overthrown.  The only question was whether it would provide a formal cloak to cover its overthrow or not.  In both cases, the rule of law buckled and did so.  In neither case would it have mattered if it had not.

Next up:  The coup overthrown

UPDATE:  Ah, the perils of the amateur historian!  It appears the names of Pythodorus, Melobius, and Cleitophon are not quite so unknown as I thought.  A Melobius was among the Thirty Tyrants  who seized power after the war.  And the archon under the Thirty was Pythodorus.  It is possible, of course, that these were simply other men with the same name, but it seems more likely that the one who introduced the motion to give power to the 400 and the one who spoke in support of it would hold important office under the Thirty as well.  Cleitophon, who was possibly a moderating influence, gets a later mention as well.  Aristotle names him, along with Archinus, Anytus, and Theramenes as wanting to reign in the democracy but not belonging to any conspiracies against it.  Of these Theramenes joined the Thirty but was executed when he protested its excesses, while Archinus and Anytus went into exile and played major roles in restoring the democracy.  Cleitophon's further actions under the Thirty are unknown.

*Thucydides does not so much as hint at why they would hold an Assembly in a vulnerable location.  George Grote (p. 265) suggests that it was to protect the conspirators from violent reaction against their proposals, and to give them a good excuse to have their own armed forces present, both as protection against foreign soldiers, and to intimidate the Assembly.
**One such proposal was made in the early years of the war, to set aside 1,000 talents and 100 ships not to be used unless Athens came under attack with a fleet.  This reserve was finally tapped at the time of the Chios revolt.
***It should go without saying that if there are 5,000 participants and a Council of 400 serving one-year terms, then limiting then to a single term would not be practical, since one out of every 12.5 participants would be on the Council at any given time.

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