Ancient Athens and Decentralization of the Greek States

Pericles delivering Funeral Oration in Athens Ostrakon

Plutarch describes the power struggle in Greece from 510 BC onward as fitting into three types when he describes Persia, Sparta, and Athens. When these forms are not hit exactly, their perversions and exaggerations are what are called tyranny, the predominance of great families, or mob-rule: that is, when royalty breeds violence and irresponsible action, oligarchy arrogance and presumptuousness; democracy breeds anarchy, equality, excess, and all of them folly" (On Monarchy, Oligarchy, and Democracy).

The disruption, and ultimately, destruction of Greece was caused by the divisions between the Persian Monarchy, the Spartan Oligarchy, and Athenian democracy. Constant civil war between Sparta and Athens, told by Plutarch's History of the Peloponnesian War, demonstrate the refusal of the two differing democracies to compromise their differences for the defense of Greece. Disputes between the individual states caused them to fall to foreign influences, and ultimately led to the destruction of Athens. Without a unified central government, alliances were unreliable, causing foreign powers to have superior numbers in battle. 

While Athens instituted a popular democracy after the defeat of Sparta in a civil war ending in 508 BC, Sparta remained committed to the oligarchical regime set up by Lycurgus, that strove for equality and unity. Athens on the other hand, cared for unity, but sought it by exercising individual liberty in their city state. 

Fear of tyrants and aristocrats led Athenian thinker Aristotle to coin the term "tyranos" to portray "tyrants as enemies of free speech and assembly, employers of spies, builders of distrust, impovershers of the people, and initiators of war" (Richard, 35).

The rise of Athenian democracy, governed by the masses was set up by the appointed magistrate, Cleisthenes, in 508 BC, who like Lycurgus in Sparta, set about himself to revise old laws to reform society in the hopes of a harmonious and representative citizenry.

Cleisthenes' "Ecclesia" (assembly of all citizens) established:

  1. citizens defined as adult males over the age of 20, who were non-slaves and non-foreigners, have a voice in the legislative body of Athens
  2. Laws could not be appealed to a higher authority; the voice of the people reigned supreme
  3. Assemblies of the ecclesia were held every ten days. Newly introduced legislation was voted on at every assembly, with an average attendance of 5,000.
  4. The Council of 500 was established as chosen citizenzry, where each public citizen could expect to serve at least one term in their life, with no more than two terms.
  5. The Council of 500 executed laws, handled public finances, and received foreign envoys.
  6. Established the 10 tribes of Athens
  7. Ostracism - (487 BC) annual banishment of one Athenian for 10 years of exile

Famously, the practice of Ostracism led to the trial of Socrates, as told by Plato in The Apology of Socrates. As seen in the picture, citizens voted for who they wished to be ostracised on broken pieces of pottery called "Ostrakon." When Socrates is sentenced to death rather than exile, for charges of believing in false gods and corrupting the youth, he warns his fellow Athenians  that "It is not death which is difficult to escape, gentlemen; no, it is far more difficult to escape wickedness, which pursues us more swiftly." 

Socrates' student, Plato, wrote The Republic, to illustrate the flaws of a democratic government that is ruled by the passions of the public and the dangers of "mob-rule" as Plutarch said. He also "penned a series of practical treatises on politics, in the process of introducing the influential theory of mixed government" (Richard, 77). The idea of mixed government became a central theme in Aristotle's Politics as he wrote about the need for level-headed middle men.

Aristotle thought that it would be hard for a city with too many people to be well legislated because "nobility exists in limits of number and size" (IV.4.1326a29). Controlling population is just as important to controlling the spirits of those within the regime in order to preserve the community.

The writings of Plato and Aristotle were preserved, and the idea of mixed government spread to the Roman authory, Polybius, who influenced one of the Founding Fathers' "most revered" authors, Cicero (Richard, 77).         

Ancient Athens and Decentralization of the Greek States