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Athens, Democracy and Slavery

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The poet Homer described the Trojan War as the doings of Greece's gods, acting outside of humanity's reason, through humanity's emotions. But let us put aside the idea heard today – about god in the singular rather plural – that "God is Great." As you read these pages please don't credit or blame the gods. Let's consider instead human beings meeting circumstance with conflicting intentionalites and emotional impulses stronger than their understanding of what was happening.

Athens was about 25 by 50 miles by the Aegean Sea, in an area called Attica. Its people were primarily engaged in agriculture but also in maritime trade and commerce. Athens was ruled by a wealthy elite – an oligarchy – with its surrounding countryside communities dominated by a local family of wealth.

With population increases in the 600s BCE, lands were divided among sons into smaller and smaller plots, and people began plowing land only marginally suitable for growing crops. Over-plowing increased soil exhaustion. For the average Athenian prosperity had declined, and some Athenians were looking for opportunities abroad.

Common farmers were in debt, and increasingly lenders were selling borrowers as slaves abroad. There was hunger. There was a political shift away from "what will be will be" (a sort of laissez-faire) to government action. The ruler Draco (for whom the word draconian is derived) created a penalty of death for idleness or the stealing of food, while unrest continued to frighten the landed wealthy – the aristocrats. Some aristocrats sought to diminish the unrest by supporting a fellow aristocrat, Solon, who believed in a justice that was decreed by Zeus for all Athenian citizens. Solon prohibited debt bondage and enslavement of the poor. He ended tenant farming and limited the size of land that any one person could own. Solon reduced the penalty for idleness to a small fine, and he enacted laws to care for widows and orphans. He outlawed the pimping and male prostitution that had come with poverty, and he had the city removed the dead from its streets.

Much of the land was left to the aristocracy, and the aristocrats continued to hold top government jobs and seats on deliberative bodies. Athens continued to be overpopulated in relation to the productivity of its agriculture and the availability of land for new generations. Solon's laws didn't quell the unrest. With no democratic process to change government, more change came through violence. An enterprising aristocrat, Pisistratus, bought himself an army (unlike today in the US where they try to buy elections). He led a violent overthrow of city authority. He took as hostages the sons of leading families, while the head of some families fled into exile. (But he left their property unconfiscated.) He had all but his own active forces disarmed, and he tolerated no political grouping other than his own.

Today, Pisistratus is classified as a "tyrant." He might also be described as a populist. He sponsored religious festivals and public games. He made available to common farmers the loans at decent rates they needed between harvests. He helped trade by building roads. He improved the city's means of obtaining fresh water. He beautified the city by sponsoring sculpture for public places and by improving the city's temples. His projects gave Athenians full employment. He died after 34 years of rule (in 527) and was succeeded by two sons who were to rule jointly.

Among the Athenian aristocrats was a young man who assassinated one of the sons. The head of a leading Athenian family won support from the city-state of Sparta in a plan to overthrow the remaining son. Sparta viewed what had been happening in Athens as against the will of Apollo – a god of Truth among other things. In the year 510, Sparta sent an army that defeated the other son and sent him fleeing to Persia. Sparta put in power in Athens an oligarchy of Athenians aristocrats. But the Athenians were not inclined to tolerate it. In 508 a clique of progressive members of the upper classes – the Roosevelts of their day – united commoners and led a popular response that brought them to power, and Athens became a democracy, of sorts.


A result of migrations, the Athenians were a mix of people unrelated by blood. A constitution was written that divided Athens into ten "tribes" based on where people lived. Each tribe had its own military unit, shrine, priest and political assembly. A new enthusiasm for their city arose among the Athenians, a new morale that strengthened Athens militarily.

That strength was soon tested. In the year 506, Sparta and its allies invaded Athens, hoping to crush the democracy and what they saw as the Athenian defiance of religious tradition. The Athenians defeated the invasion, and to stave off future aggression it made an alliance with the great imperial power Persia.

Revolutions would never be perfect, and democratic Athens had its faults. It remained a slave state, and women were still without a voice in political affairs. Of the 40,000 adult males free to participate in deciding issues, less that a sixth did so. Athens lacked a professional civil service, and a few ambitious politicians were able to use their knowledge of the workings of government to maintain power and influence. Politics and the judiciary remained under the influence of people of wealth. Venal judges presided at courts of law marked by corruption and perjury. Common people did not have the leisure to serve their city as officials or as members of juries.

Some wealthy Athenians grumbled about the vulgarity of democratic politics. Among them was the playwright Aristophanes. He disliked seeing men attempt to create a following by promising rewards and playing on superstitions. Some men of wealth felt exploited for the sake of what they saw as the ignorant, disorderly mob. Some found government too slow in making judgments and getting things done. And Athens, still pursuing its place as a maritime trader in the world and concerned with its military power relative to other powers, had big challenges ahead.

CONTINUE READING: Greeks against Persia and Themselves

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.