Reading History: Athens

Copyright @ 2015 Robert M. Shurmer

Questions to consider:

  • What factors explain the fact that Greeks generally, and Athens more particularly, operated collectively without strong centralized political authority?
  • How did Athenians deal with the civil problems of the seventh century and how did their solutions bring about a democratic state?
  • What elements of the ancient Athenian state do you recognize in contemporary America?
Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens by Leo von Klenze, 1846. Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens by Leo von Klenze, 1846. Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

These are the punishments and as you behold them, remember Athens and remember Greece lest someone scorning the immediate blessings Heaven grants, lusting for others, pour away his worldly goods and happiness. (Aeschylus, ‘The Persians’)


When we hear about the agitation of pro-democracy movements in places such as Hong Kong or Ukraine, what comes to mind? Of course most Americans consider the United States to be a democracy, but then how much do ‘the people’ really control the day-to-day governance of the country? How many participate in public affairs, or even vote in elections? In Russia, both the authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin, and the groups opposing his government consider themselves democrats. And China’s president, Xi Jinping boasts of China becoming prosperous and democratic while launching campaigns against “Western ideas” such as constitutional democracy and a free press.  If we just listen to the chatter around us on the subject, by politicians, journalists, and activists, it becomes apparent that ‘democracy’ means a great many things even among the people who purport to support it.

The ancient Greeks city-states were not outright democracies either, though they tended to have popular assemblies as part of their governing systems. Because they were inclined to view government as a man-centered operation rather than an emanation of some divine will, Greeks were the first to discuss avidly how a state should be constituted and governed. Democracy was only part of the discussion and not particularly admired at that. The Spartan government, as we’ve seen, was especially praised throughout Greece because its blended government managed to keep several types of rule, aristocracy, monarchy, and democracy, in perfect balance. But then few outside of Sparta really cared to live like a Spartan. Recall also that the majority of Sparta’s population consisted of enslaved helots. With an eye to creating the most excellent state capable of nurturing the most excellent citizens, philosophers, statesmen, and historians throughout the Greek world grappled with the question of good government. They discussed, criticized, and argued over which type of government was better suited to a free people. Thus began the intellectual discipline of political theory, often called political science, which is now a mainstream field of study in every major university.

By about 550 BCE or so, the core of Greek world settled into an era of relative stability and prosperity. Contact had been re-established with the commercially significant non-Greek cities of the Near East. Important developments in art, architecture, and academics coincided with unprecedented economic activity. Sparta had contributed greatly to that stability by supporting, by way of the Peloponnesian League, the independence of small city-states and creating a vigorous foreign policy, backed up, of course, with the greatest military machine of the Greek world. But Sparta wasn’t the only influential Greek state that had undergone dynamic political transformation under the tutelage of a wise lawgiver. During this important period of increasing stability and wealth accumulation, Athens reworked its own institutions. Unlike Sparta which had instituted reforms in order to produce the most excellent citizen-soldiers, Athens set out on a path of reform to create an atmosphere conducive to cultivating excellence in all facets of life. Living the ‘good life’ in Athens meant direct political engagement and active contributions to productivity and commerce. In consequence, Athens attempted, and for awhile achieved, the most thoroughly realized democratic state in the ancient world.

Before looking at Athens directly, we might ask what institutional characteristics did all poleis share. There were about 1100 Greek states in existence by the sixth century BCE and they were spread out geographically along a rough line of about 2300 miles of Europe’s coastal underbelly, from modern Spain to Georgia. Greek city-states had also taken root on the eastern coast of the Aegean (Ionia), the western edge of modern Turkey and Syria. There were even a few poleis scattered along the North African coast. This vast collection of independent states contained a population of about eight million people who identified as Hellenes, or Greeks. By the mid-6th centuy BCE, though, the Greek cities of Ionia (i.e. modern Turkey) fell under the political domination of the Kingdom of Lydia, which sapped them of an independent foreign policy and left tyrants in control of local affairs. Different though they were governance and law, all city-states offered certain rights to those persons who had achieved the status of citizen. Technically we might call these ‘civil rights’, i.e. those rights shared by each citizen which were preserved by the institution of law within the polis (unless of course the polis were a tyranny, which might entail arbitrary rule, i.e. without law). These varied, of course, from state to state, but generally included what we might call the Big Three: 1) protection from physical harm, 2) protection from slander, and 2) protection from wrongful seizure of property.

Talk of civil rights and participatory government can sound rather modern and rather American — much that was established by our own Founding Fathers was inspired by Classical Greek and Roman models — but it would certainly be absurd to claim that all modern liberties stem from the ancient Greek root, just as it would be absurd to say that all Greeks enjoyed political and economic freedom. The Greek polis, it should be remembered, did sanction, like most societies until the 19th century, slavery, and women were generally excluded from public life.1 There are, however, exceptional characteristics the poleis shared that do strike us as especially enlightened. Above all, these include 1) a form of government based upon reasoning and institutional decision making and 2) an economy based on a high level of participation, labor specialization, exchange (trade), and wage labor (including wages paid to some slaves). The system created by the ancient Greeks, one that prioritized civic participation and adherence to man-made law, however distant functional different from that of modern democracies, did lay the intellectual foundations upon which the democratic state and civil society rests.


With regard to economic productivity and what we today call ‘standards of living’, the Greek World emerged as both exceptionally wealthy and broadly prosperous during the Classical Era (c.500-300 BCE). In his most recent book on the economic history of Classical Greece, Josiah Ober of Stanford has convincingly argued the following three premises concerning the Greek economy:

  1. It grew appreciably and steadily for nearly seven hundred years (from about 1000 to 300 BCE)
  2. Living standards remained high in a society that was both remarkably urbanized and densely populated.
  3. There existed a sizable middle class who lived well above subsistence level and wealth was distributed relatively equitably across citizen populations.2

These astonishing achievements in terms of living standards for a significant portion of the population surpassed most societies until the Industrial Age. Ober also directly links Greek economic and cultural achievements to the unique political system they devised. Astonishingly, tt was not until the twentieth century that Greece once again returned to a level of prosperity that it had achieved during the Classical Era. “Helas was great,” asserts Ober, “because of a cultural accomplishment that was supported by sustained economic growth. That growth was made possible by a distinctive approach to politics.”3

At the forefront of political innovation in the 6th century BCE was Athens , a city that dominated the region of Attica in central Greece. Athens, one of the largest and most important of the poleis, was situated on about 1000 sq. miles of territory, an area a little smaller than Yosemite National Park and one-third the size of Sparta. This may sound large, but most of its land consisted of lofty mountains. The city of Athens itself is situated in the middle of a plain of about 120 sq. miles, the size of Shenandoah National Park.  There are rivers of note. By the sixth century BCE Athens contained a population of about 250,000 (about equal to Sparta’s total population, helots inclusive), only about 30,000 of whom actually lived in the city of Athens. This makes Athens among the top three poleis in terms of size (the other two being Sparta and Syracuse). However, prior to about 600 BCE, there was little cohesion among the populations scattered across Attica and little security from predatory neighbors, inland (Megara) and seaward (Aegina). Athenian prosperity levels rose greatly due to the political reforms implemented between 594 and 510 BCE, reforms that set Athens apart as the first functional democracy of the ancient world.

The Reforms of Solon

I stood with a strong shield thrown before rich and poor, allowing neither to prevail unjustly over the other.  (Solon)

Prior to the sixth century BCE, the Athenian state was in turmoil. It had engaged in years grueling warfare with neighbors (Aegina and Meagra mostly), violent crime was rampant, and the economy favored only the wealthy few. A deep and widening chasm separating the majority poor from the wealthy elites consigned a large number of citizens to penury, debt, and even enslavement (not paying debts was dangerous to ones personal liberty).  Until the Athenian aristocrat named Solon was elected as chief archon of Athens in 594 BCE, Athens was no different than most other poleis of the day: a few families controlled the sytem and rigged it for their advantage. At the time, nine archons, who served for a single year, formed a ruling council of state in Athens: one served as the chief executive, one as the chief priest, one as the commander-in-chief of the military, and six as keepers of the law. During his tenure as chief archon, though, Solon instituted a number of substantive reforms that both decreased the power of aristocratic families in Athens and promoted business and trade in the polis.4

Written legal codes were still a new fixture in the Athenian state. Athens’ first surviving law code, written by a prominent legislator named Draco, followed a failed attempt by a self-serving Olympic athlete to seize control of the state in 632 BCE (the first datable event in Athenian history). Draco’s laws, which were written on pieces of wood and publicly displayed, sought to apply a single standard of justice to the entire population. The fact that most of the penalties seem unduly harsh (the modern adjective ‘draconian’ is the derivative) to modern sensibilities —  debtors, for example, were enslaved and the death penalty was used for a wide variety of even minor offenses, such as stealing a cabbage — indicates a rather high level of disorder in the Athenian state. Draco’s laws, however, established a precedent for Solon. They helped the ruling class establish a modicum of stability and security in the city and, due to their severity, left much room for substantive reform by Solon.

Historians consider Solon the founder of Athenian democracy due to the impact that he had upon the fundamental operations of law in the state. Aristotle tells us that Solon’s most significant and democratic reforms included: 1) ending the practice of using oneself as security for a loan, default on which ended in self-enslavement, 2) extending the right to seek justice, for oneself AND for another, before the courts to all citizens, rich and poor alike, and 3) offering citizens the right to appeal a case to a high court made up of citizens, i.e. a jury court.5  Letting any citizen, rich or poor, seek justice brought a measure equity to the Athenian legal system and the inception of the jury court allowed citizens to determine collectively their own community standards of behavior. Majority standards rather than aristocratic sentiment were now supposed to govern the legal judgements of the state. Solon also devised a much more abstract system of laws, one that sought to apply justice to every conceivable situation without actually thinking up every conceivable situation. He left most of the decision-making to the courts themselves, courts which were staffed by citizens. This diverges greatly from other ancient law codes. Hammurabi’s Code, you will recall, contained extremely specific instances (remember the one about the ‘nun that opens a bar in Babylon? No, this is not the start of a bad joke) deemed punishable by law.  Because so much was open-ended and left up to the decisions of the citizen-staffed courts, Athens was a state where the people, according to Aristotle, ‘became lord of the constitution.’

While Solon most probably did not permit the lower of the four classes of citizen, the thetes, to participate much in the governing of the state, he did lower the financial and social qualification for public elections. This meant that far more people engaged in public affairs. Prior to the reforms, wealthy oligarchs vied with each other for public office and, through control of the justice system, dominated the poor through debt-control schemes. After the reforms, many more men (women were excluded from participation in politics) were eligible to serve in public office and ALL citizens were deemed equal before the law.

Unlike the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, Solon avoided property or land redistribution (the cause of so much debt), which meant that the distribution of wealth fluctuated greatly among Athenian citizens. He did, however, establish a law that prohibited enslaving another citizen, so even a citizen who had fallen into debt would not have to fear the loss of his or his family’s freedom as well. Another legal innovation put an end to restricted movement within Attica, allowing citizens to travel where they wished. The classicist Josiah Ober points out that by establishing such civic rights, i.e. privileges granted to every Athenian citizen simply because he was a citizen, Solon fundamentally elevated citizenship itself. Athenians henceforth had claims to special status as a citizen. He had a stake in being Athenian, which, regardless of a man’s wealth, meant access to justice, freedom of movement, and freedom to assemble openly with others. It also meant that business deals could be ventured without the fear of being enslaved due to debt.6  Being Athenian mattered. And, as we shall see, it was something worth defending vigorously.

Solon’s legal reforms also touched upon the economic structure of the polis, encouraging both education (i.e. training for a profession) and foreign trade. While the reforms of Solon did not bring an end to the internal problems of Athens — in fact, it created a great deal of resentment by those wealthy debt-holders who lost their assets when Solon wiped out lower-class debt and self-enslavement — they did serve as precedents for later Athenian statesmen, a model of what was possible when both rich and poor played by the same rules and when all citizens took an interest in the welfare of the community.

The Tyranny of the Pisistratidae

By its very nature, popular government has the built-in possibility of installing public officials who are unfit for office and passing laws that, while popular, are unsound for the security of the state.  We are all familiar with the glad-handing politician who garners support from the masses by offering increased pension schemes and big pay-outs, who appeals to the electorate by staging high-energy patriotic rallies (with free food of course). Solon’s constitutional reforms did not prevent the wealthy, who were left in control of most public offices, from manipulating the system. Athens’ first experiment with democratic rule ran its course into populism and then tyranny (from the Greek word tyrannos, meaning one who rules without the law). Between about 550-510 BCE, Solon’s constitution broke down and Athens fell under the tyrannical sway of a single family, the Pisistratidae, who appealed to the lower classes by destroying the privileges of wealthy citizens, redistributing land, and instituting large public works programs for the benefit of the majority. The Pisistratidae succeeded in using the masses to destroy the authority of their aristocratic enemies, many of whom were sent into exile. And once the people, too, were disarmed (Pisistratus confiscated all weapons) and the dictates of a single person superseded the law codes, the tyrant’s rule was entrenched.

But before we  leap to conclusions about the woeful state of Athens under the tyranny of the Pisistratidae, it should be pointed out that under their rule Athens flourished both culturally and economically and the power of the state itself was exulted above family ties or regional loyalties. The Pisitratadae patronized religion and the arts, directing a great deal of state money and energy into reviving cults and building temples. Poetry, music, and drama were subsidized by the state treasury as part of religious festivals that attracted tourists and allowed the city to show off its wealth and culture. Two of the most famous sites of ancient Athens, the Acropolis (literally ‘the high city’), and the Agora (the marketplace) took shape during this period of history, products of cultural investment and a brisk foreign trade encouraged by state policies. They formed the heart of the public sphere of the city, civic spaces for government, religion, and commerce. By 525 BCE, Athens had even begun to mint its own coins, the famous silver Owls with the head of Athena on obverse (i.e. ‘heads’) and the owl on the reverse (i.e. ‘tails’), an indication that the Athenian economy was seriously energized.  By the time the Pisistratidae were overthrown, a generation of Athenians had been molded into a unified community of patriotic citizens, both conscious and proud of their identity as Athenians. The city exuded self-confidence and unprecedented prosperity. Athens was poised for perhaps the most radical political experiment of the ancient world, one that put the power of the state into the hands of the people.

Athenian Democracy Realized

In 510 BCE an oppositional party convinced Sparta to provide the military backing to oust the last of the Pisistratidae tyrants from Athens.7 The Spartan-backed faction forced the last of the tyrants, Hippias, who had made overtures of friendship to the Persian court of Darius, into exile. With broad support from the population, who had come to detest the harsh authoritarian measures of Hippias and his cronies, the leader of the new party in power, a man named Cleisthenes, recast the state constitution. Because no single aristocratic faction could ever hope to control the state without some measure of popular support, Cleisthenes reshaped Athenian government in 508 BCE along vastly expanded democratic principles. In so doing, he not only returned Athens to the rule of law, but Cleisthenes brought even more cohesion to the citizen population of Athens. Most importantly, Cleisthenes fundamentally reshaped the electoral system of the polis to represent all regions of Attica equally and created an advisory Council of Five Hundred citizens who were chosen by lot from candidates elected by each voting district (or demos, from which we derive the word democracy). His reforms — some go so far as to speak of a ‘revolution’ — subsequently unified the scattered populations of Attica, some large enough to be substantial poleis of their own, under the political umbrella of a broad-based system that drew strength from the collective energies of its ALL citizens. It is estimated that within a generation of the expulsion of Hippias, at least one in three Athenian citizens over age thirty had served a year on the council. Could we say the same about public service for the United States today? (The answer is ‘no’. In fact only about 40% of eligible voters in the U.S. even cast a vote on a regular basis, a number that has been falling since 1964.)8.

Not all the Greeks watched and wondered from the sidelines as Athens implemented its zany and, to most Greek, dangerous reforms. In 506 BCE a coalition of enemies, which included Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth, poleis with access to serious military capabilities, declared war against the fledgling democracy. Invigorated by their system and determined not to let the experiment in popular sovereignty fizzle out without a fight, Athens mobilized a citizen army of unprecedented size and tenacity. Athens chalked up two crushing victories over the allied states and both Corinth and Sparta reneged on their war promises and dropped out of the coalition. With the money gained by ransoming POWs, the Athenians, Herodotus tells us, cast a bronze chariot and placed it upon the left-hand side of the monumental gateway to the Acropolis. The inscription read:


Herodotus goes on to comment upon how decisive he thought the very political system was in determining the outcome of the war:

So Athens came to flourish — and to make manifest how important it is for everyone in a city to have an equal voice, not just on one level but on all. For although the Athenians, while subjects of a tyrant, had been no more proficient in battle than any of their neighbors, they emerged as supreme by far once liberated from tyranny. This is proof enough that the downtrodden will never willingly pull their weight, since their labors are all in the service of a master — whereas free men, because they have a stake in their own exertions, will set to them with enthusiasm.9

The victories were significant in boosting Athenian prestige and self-confidence at a pivotal period in her history, because Athens, and the entirety of the Greek world, was on the verge of a much greater conflict. Six years later, in 499 BCE, Athens decided to take on the mighty Persian Empire after a bungled revolt by an Ionian city prompted the new-styled democracy to intervene overseas. The subsequent civilizational clash is known now as the Persian War, and it’s outcome is crucial for setting Western Civilization apart from those already established in Asia and Africa. Athens had come online just when her wealth and arrogance was needed most.


You now should have a good understanding of how most ancient authoritarian governing systems functioned: a divinely appointed king, with his or her ear to the heavens, using priests as interpreters, translated the ‘will of the gods’ to the population by promulgating laws, which were, in turn, enforced by a royal military establishment. This had been the way of things for the cities of Egypt and the Near East since civilization arrived c.3500 BCE, and was also the way of the Persian Empire three thousand years later.  The Greeks, however, followed a different path of development, eschewing both priestly and royal institutions of centralized control. Greeks identified with each other as fellow citizens, a status that, despite differences in material wealth, had real meaning. This was manifested daily in Greek life. For example, not having grand class distinctions, Greek people tended to dress in similar fashion. While it might have been quite easy in Sparta to discern who was a peer and who a helot, the Spartiate goes out of its way to homogenize — in fact, the Greek word the Spartiate used to distinguish itself is Ὅμοιοι, or ‘those who are alike.’ Likewise in democratic Athens wealthy merchants, laborers, priests, and even slaves dressed pretty much alike.10 Can the same be said for the Persian court of Cyrus?

Why and how this occurred are major questions for historians. For one, if we look to founding myths, the Greeks lacked a religious narrative (what Plato called the ‘Noble Lie’ in his Republic) that elevated a single human or family to beloved status with the gods. Recall that no one person in The Iliad is loved equally by all the gods or elevated to special status by the will of Zeus. Greek laws were also generally acknowledged as products of humans. Both Spartan and Athenian laws might have been sanctioned by Apollo, but no Greek seems to have been under the impression that their legal codes had been devised by any agency other than human.

Follow-up Questions:

  • What do you think of Herodotus’ assertion about ‘the downtrodden never willingly pulling their weight’?
  • How is it that the unique Greek political and economic conditions, i.e. democracy and affluence, of ancient times have become the desired norm today?
  • Why does the shade of ancient Greece continue to linger into the twenty-first century, fondly remembered by intellectuals some 2300 years after the demise of the independent city-states?
  1. Ober, p. xv.
  2. Ober, p.80.
  3. Ober, pp.2-3
  4. Starr, pp.249-256
  5. Athenaion Politeia, bk9.
  6. Ober, pp.148-151.
  7. The story of how they accomplished this provides a fascinating glimpse into the workings of ancient oracles. Herodotus tells us that the exiled Athenian families developed a sort of contracting firm and, because of their wealth, received the contract to resurface some temples at Delphi by under-bidding all competitors. They then bribed the Pythia to add a pre-arranged message to every inquiry from the Spartans, that urged the Spartans to ‘set Athens free’. (Herodotus, 5.63.) The Spartans may have had less high-minded reasons for toppling the tyranny in Athens, but following the ‘will of Apollo’ was also a good bet in the public arena of Spartan politics.
  8. Ober, p. 164-165; See ‘United States Election Project’ by Michael McDonald.
  9. Histories 5.77-7 trans. Holland, 2013.
  10. Ober, p.31.

Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. bby Janet Lembke and C.J. Herington


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