Friday, January 1, 2016

Reflections on the Rule of the Thirty

So, under the Thirty, citizenship was restricted to a small body of 3000 eligible participants -- the cavalry and a few members of the infantry chosen for their political reliability.  Above this small citizen body was a Council of 500 members and the Thirty.  Anyone not on the short list of citizens could be executed without trial on orders of the Thirty.  Only full citizens had the right to trial, which took place before the Council.

Does any of this sound familiar?  These institutions were, in all probability, borrowed from Sparta. Recall that Sparta had a small citizen body compared to the total population, a Council of thirty (required to be over 60 and elected for life by voice vote), and five Ephors, elected to a single one-year term.  The Ephors had the semi-despotic power to remove any lesser magistrate from office before his term was up, and to impose minor punishments on citizens without trial and in their own judgment, and the despotic power to order the execution without trial of any non-citizen.  Citizens facing major charges (presumably, anything carrying a sentence of execution, exile, or imprisonment) had the right to trial.  Trial was by the Council.  Nor should this be surprising, Critias, after all admired Sparta and called theirs "the best of all constitutions."  Presumably the Thirty were based on the five Ephors, and both trial by the Council and allowing executive powers to order any non-citizen executed without trial were borrowed from similar provisions in Sparta.

Obviously there were differences.  The Thirty had a Council of 500 members, as opposed to the Spartan Council of 30.  How the Thirty's Council was chosen and the length of their terms is not told. Perhaps the Thirty were not in power long enough to iron out that sort of detail.  Likewise, Sparta had five Ephors, and they were elected to a single one-year term.  Presumably knowing that they would permanently return to being private citizens when their one-year term was up restrained the Ephors from the sorts of abuse of power that would otherwise have been tempting to near-despots.  The Thirty had no such constraints.  We are not told if they even considered setting a term or system of election, but to judge from their behavior, probably not.  Nor are we told how the number of thirty was decided.  Since Athens had ten tribes and chose most offices by a certain number of holders per tribe, it is certainly possible that the Thirty were three from each tribe.  But it is also possible that the number was based on the Spartan Council.

The Ephors' authority to order a non-citizen executed without trial was a brutal one.  Many seemingly random killings of helots were probably targeted killings ordered by the Ephors.  Thucydides recounts a shocking mass killing, and smaller scale instances may have happened on occasion.  Could the Ephors order an ex-citizen executed without trial?  And who decided to strip a Spartan of his citizenship, and how?  I did not find the answer to either of these questions; most likely we do not know.  It seems unlikely that the Ephors could have an ex-citizen executed without trial.  Loss of citizenship in Sparta was not necessarily for any infamous act.  Sometimes it was simply because a participant could no longer afford to pay for his meals at the common dining hall.  As for the procedure required to disenfranchise a citizen, who knows.  But it seems safe to assume that it would have been unheard-of and unthinkable for the Ephors to arbitrarily strip one of their own number of his citizenship and have him executed almost on the spot!  In short, although the Ephors' power over non-citizens was a despotic one, and although their minor punishments of citizens may see arbitrary  to us, but they never descended into the sort of unrestrained lawlessness we see by the Thirty.

The expression narrow and tight oligarchy certainly applies to the Thirty.  Recall the estimate that Attica (Athens and the surrounding countryside that made up the state) had approximately 300,000 inhabitants, of with about 100,000 (a third of the total) were citizen families, and about 30,000 adult male citizens, i.e., eligible participants.  If correct, that would make eligible participants about 10% of the population.  The Thirty would have reduced the number of eligible participants to 3,000, making up about a tenth of their former number, and about 1% of the total population.  This is a narrow oligarchy.  And the Thirty seem to have made it very tight indeed.  They replaced trial by jury with trial by the Council in criminal cases, and restricted the jury's discretion in civil cases.  They apparently had the Council pass laws without recourse to the Assembly, an unheard-of thing for Greek city-states.  And there is rather strong evidence that the Thirty reduced even the Council to a mere rubber stamp.  They were "ordered" to pass this measure; of all those tried before the Council, only one was acquitted,* and above all, the conviction of Theramenes, procured at dagger-point, made clear that the real power lay with the Thirty and their bully-boys, and the Council were no more than window dressing.  The Thirty were so narrow and tight an oligarchy they might better be termed a junta, or at least a triandarchy.  And it seems most plausible that Critias would have preferred a personal dictatorship.

Then there were the 1500 killed, more men killed without trial in three months, says the orator than the total number of allies the Athenians compelled to go to Athens for trial throughout the duration of her empire.  I must admit with some shame that my first reaction to this was that by standards of modern-day totalitarianism, it doesn't sound like all that much.  Even granting that the population was much smaller in those days, 1500 amounts to one-half of one percent of the total population, or about 5% of the number of eligible participants.**  But clearly the number shocked contemporaries, who found their own points of comparison.  Isocrates, as we have seen, called it more than the total number of allies brought to Athens for trial for the duration of the empire. Xenophon calls it "almost more" that the Peloponnesians killed in ten years of war.***

And what of the 5000 who fled the city?  This is hard to say.  Presumably after Athens surrendered large numbers of rural residents who had been forced to take refuge in the city walls left voluntarily. And, if Xenophon is to be believed, everyone not on the list of 3000 (and their immediate households, of course) was ordered to leave.  Still, even with the understanding that "the plural of anecdote is not data," I think our best understanding of what Athens must have looked like during the declining days of the oligarchy must come from Xenophon's Memorabilia.  A friend lamented that so many of kinsmen had fled to the Piraeus and left their womenfolk in his care that he now had 14 people in the house, not counting slaves, and there were so few people left in the city that he could not get anything out of his house property (presumably meaning that there was no one to rent to). This is probably the most vivid portrait we have of Athens in the final days before the oligarchy fell.

A subject I will address in my next post.

*Again, though, it is not clear whether that means total, or only in the case of this particular batch of defendants.
**Then again, it was half the size of the number of participants the Thirty would have allowed, which is considerable.
***If so, then clearly reports of a massacre of 3000 or 4000 captured sailors after Athens' final defeat are a gross exaggeration.

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