Saturday, October 3, 2015

My Standard Outline, Applied to the 411 Coup

All right.  We now have the account of how the Four Hundred overthrew the Athenian democracy in 411 B.C.  I have discussed earlier overthrows of democracy in Ancient Greece -- in Athens by Peisistratus, in Plataea, in Megara, in Corcyra, and in Argos.  But our information in all these cases is sketchy.  In Athens in 411 B.C., we finally have a failure of democracy that is well enough documented to allow some serious analysis.  So, let's see how my predictions hold.


Democracies fail as a result of extreme, out-of-control polarization and strife.
Understanding the need for political parties and a loyal opposition is essential to the success of a democracy.   I originally listed these as separate categories of consideration, but obviously they are closely related.  A society that understands and accepts political parties and a loyal opposition as normal is far less prone to extreme polarization and strife than one that does not.  The best measure we have of polarization and party strife is the practice of ostracism, or ten-year exile of powerful political leaders by vote.  The purpose of ostracism was to limit political strife by allowing the leader of the winning faction to banish the loser.  This made it possible to get rid of political rivals without killing them,  Implied here is that it was necessary to get rid of political rivals because keeping them around would mean endless and escalating strife.  Also implied is that the most dangerous polarization is individual rivalry for power, rather than deeper splits between interests or ideologies. The danger of factional strife is not removed if rivalry between individuals is simply a symptom of an underlying cleavage in the larger society.

This list of ostracisms is revealing.  In the 480's the practice was so rampant as to happen almost annually.  In the 470's, 460's and 450's, it diminished.  In the 440's there was an upsurge, as rival parties disputed the role of the Areopagus (Supreme Court). This is a fair barometer of the level of polarization and strife, and the Athenians' willingness to tolerate a long-term opposition.  For a quarter century after Pericles ostracized Thucydides (not the historian), the practice fell into disuse, suggesting that the country was not severely polarized, and that opposition was being kept within reasonable bounds.  Indeed, I am inclined to agree with George Grote (page 372) that Athens was developing a
[C]onstitutional morality -- a paramount reverence for the forms of the constitution, enforcing obedience to the authorities acting under and within these forms, yet combined with the habit of open speech, of action subject only to definite legal control, and unrestrained censure of those very authorities as to their all public acts -- combined too with a perfect confidence in the bosom of every citizen, amidst the bitterness of party contest, that the forms of the constitution will be not less sacred in the eyes of his opponents than his own.
Is it any wonder that democracy is hard to do?  Yet Athens was well on its way to developing such an outlook until they went back to war again after the Peace of Nicias.  Then the practice of ostracism was revived once more, for the last time.  Thucydides does not discuss the subject, but no doubt Plutarch is right when he says that the rivalry between Alcibiades and Nicias had become so great that one of them had to go.  But their personal rivalry was simply a proxy for the the strife between the war party (mostly young men) and the peace party (mostly older men).  Joining forces to banish Hyperbolus instead was clever, but did nothing to resolve the underlying tension.  The mutilation of the herms, in a presumed attempt to stop the Sicilian expedition, was another step in the escalation of polarization.  The ensuing moral panic was yet another.  And it is my suspicion that seeing so many of Athens' leading citizens arrested and threatened with torture and death on such flimsy evidence played as large a role in alienating the elite from the democracy as the military defeats that followed.

Abandonment of procedural norms.  The revival of ostracism after a 25-year lapse, the vandalism of the herms, the ensuing crackdown on Athens' leading citizens all sound like the abandonment of procedural norms.  But the biggest abandonment of all, of course, was by the political "clubs."  No doubt if your average Athenian had known of much of these clubs' behavior even in normal times, he would have seen it as procedurally dirty.  No doubt your average American throughout most of our history would have said the same about the caucusing in our own legislatures.  As the saying goes, two things you never want to see made are laws and sausages.  The clubs were secret societies, which are inherently suspect to outsiders (just ask any Mason).  Some apparently had initiation rites that mocked sacred religious ceremonies.  And they most likely they engaged in caucusing techniques the legislators do -- pre-planned in advance who would speak, what he would say, and what order they would speak in to give maximum effect.  Well before this, Plutarch reports, Pericles' rival Thucydides (not the historian) had arranged for his supporters to group together to show greater cohesion.  All this no doubt would seem dirty to outsiders, but it is how these things are done.  The difference is that after Peisander set the plot in motion, the "clubs" began working together, speeches and proposals were all of this pre-planned nature, and, by far the most serious and significant, violence was used to intimidate opponents.

Political violence, possibly in the form of private paramilitaries.  The oligarchs definitely resorted to political violence, and to the threat of violence.  They assassinated a prominent democratic leader and several others, kept their opponents intimidated by the threat of such violence, and disbursed the Council with daggers in hand and "Hellenic youths" backing them.

Danger is on the right.  If we define oligarchy as right wing and charismatic populist dictators promising to protect the common people from the oligarchs as left wing, then this revolt was clearly right wing.  Alcibiades, though, was willing to play whatever side was to his advantage.

Importance of the support of a strong middle class.  In this case, the formula appears to have gone the other way.  Nothing in Thucydides' account suggests that the democracy failed because the middle class turned against it.  Rather, the oligarchy failed because the hoplite middle class (1) resented being promised power and then excluded and (2) more immediately to the point, suspected the oligarchs of preparing to commit treason.


Driven by fear rather than ambition.  Both appear to have been at work here.  The plot was first inspired by fear -- not fear of revolt from below or of loss of property, but of complete, disastrous defeat.  (Kagan's account of the financial burdens the war was imposing on Athens' wealthier citizens suggests that may have been a factor as well).  Phrynichus was attached to the plot by a very personal and specific fear, fear that Alcibiades might expose his treasonous correspondence.  The rest appear to have acted mostly from ambition to rule, but to have been kept going mostly out of fear -- fear of what would happen to them if they were defeated.  The oligarchs had seen what happens to thwarted oligarchic plotters in Athens' history; in contemporary Corcyra, Argos and Samos; and doubtless in many other examples that we are not aware of.  At some point, they must have decided they had reached the point of no return and there was no going back.  Still, on the whole, as with other Greek oligarchic revolutions, this one appears to have been driven mostly by ambition.

Inability to tell radicals from moderates, fear of middle class being squeezed out.  These fit under the category of fear, specifically fear of domestic opponents.  If anything these issues have more to to with the failure of the coup.  Among the oligarchs the radicals split from the moderates; the middle class greatly resented the oligarchy, not the lower classes, for squeezing them out.

Not dependent on a charismatic leader.  The revolution was first inspired by Alcibiades who by all accounts was extremely charismatic.  Plutarch says of him:
And indeed no disposition could resist and no nature escape Alcibiades, so full of grace was his daily life and conversation. Even those who feared and hated him felt a rare and winning charm in his society and presence.
But Alcibiades merely inspired the revolt.  He was excluded from the actual execution.  Peisander, leader of the revolt in the fleet, man who started it going in Athens, and presumably the public face of the oligarchy, started as a popular/demagogic leader and was presumably charismatic as well.  But, Thucydides tells us, the real leader behind the scenes was Antiphon, brilliant but unpopular, a first-class speech writer, but reluctant to engage in public oratory himself.  Thucydides calls his speech when on trial for his life, "the best ever made by ally man tried on a capital charge down to my time." Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that a manipulating-from-behind-the-scenes sort of guy like Antiphon does not rate as a charismatic leader.

Typically triggered by military defeat or economic crisis:  This one was triggered both by the recent military defeat in Sicily and by the ongoing military crisis, as Athenians feared that without Persian assistance, all would truly be lost.


I listed subversion from within, military coup, civil war, foreign invasion, and perhaps others.  On "other," in Ancient Greece was foreign mercenary armies.  This one appears to be a combination.  The clubs, with their conspiratorial caucusing and use of terror, subverted the democracy from within.  They then staged a coup.  The "Hellenic youth" backing them may or may not have been foreign mercenaries.  The oligarchs appear to have employed a few hundred foreign mercenaries as well.  And, although there was neither civil war nor foreign invasion, all parties went very much in fear that the coup might lead to civil war, and as the oligarchs' position became more and more precarious, they became increasingly willing to submit to foreign invasion, if necessary, to remain in power.

Next up:  The old standby.  The 400 and fascism.

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