Our democracies today are representative. We elect politicians, politicians govern us. In Ancient Athens, you were ruling yourself.
Participation was seen as a fundamental element of Democracy. Athenians that behaved as ‘private citizens’ were seen through a negative eye and actually the Greek word for private citizen is “idiotes”, which is where the word ‘idiot’ comes from!
Plato wrote that ‘one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.’
It was a direct, in-your-face democracy.
So, what affected the vote of a citizen, really mattered…
Imagine a system of taxation where only the rich contribute, while middle and lower class citizens don’t have to pay any taxes. On top of that, imagine that in this system, the rich love to pay their taxes and they sometimes compete who’s going to pay more!
Sounds crazy? The monument of Lysicratres in Athens, stands as a solid proof that this crazy idea was once a reality! It was erected by a very wealthy citizen of Athens (Lysicrates) 24 centuries ago and he was a sponsor of musical performances at the theater of Dionysus. One of those performances got him the award of first prize.
The way citizens were taxed in ancient Athens was genius! Whenever Athens was in need of cash, the state didn’t have to draw funds from the public treasury. The rich were called upon and they acted as sponsors. This is what the Athenians called ‘choregia’ or as we know it today: sponsorship.
This financial contribution rather than being enforced by the state it was seen as a voluntary gesture that showed that rich citizens did care about their fellow citizens. It showed that the rich were true citizens (polites) and not private citizens (idiotes). And that’s the level of awesomeness that the Athenian democracy reached.
As far back in time as 632 BC, an athlete tried to establish a tyranny in Athens. His name was Kylon. An ambitious Olympic Victor that came really close to taking over absolute power so as to Make Athens Great Again. For many, Kylon was just some guy… He wasn’t a member of the royal family his actions were not ‘dictated’ by some God. He wasn’t even some high-ranking officer of the army.
But he was armed with burning ambition, a group of dedicated friends, a few good ‘connections’ (the ruler of the neighboring city of Megara, Theagenes, happened to be his father in law) and decided to seize power. Why? As absurd as it may sound, the answer is: why not?? The amazing thing was that this is one of the earliest examples of someone trying to be #1, not because he is chosen by the gods or because he inherited this right by his king-father. He was trying, just because he could!
Bear in mind that the word ‘tyrant’ didn’t actually mean a ruler that brutally exercised absolute power. Today, when we hear of a tyrant, we think of an autocrat, unrestrained by law or constitution.
In 6th century BC Greece, things were different: for a citizen of a Greek city-state, a tyrant was someone that took control of power by the use of force, without possessing any legitimate rights. He was then judged according to his deeds and the good he did to his city. So, there could be good tyrants and bad tyrants.
What’s really unique here, is that a former nobody, could now be somebody!
From the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Great Kings of Persia, to the Mycenaean monarchs and Jewish chieftains, most rulers were ‘God sent’ chosen by some god or/and they were members of some elite social cast, like, a royal family. Most rulers up until then claimed direct descendant from some god. Either that or God personally chose them to rule over their subjects. Strangely enough (or naturally enough, if you prefer) most societies accepted this claim as almost self-evident, accepting at the same time the rule of that ‘divine’ monarch. We can see why the ‘tyrant phenomenon’ in archaic Greece was so unique and introduced new ground-breaking ideas about politics to the masses.
Kylon inspired to become a tyrant of Athens.
Unfortunately for Kylon his attempt failed. Lack of popular support followed by the violent reaction of his opponents led to the total failure of Kylon’s plan, himself barely escaping. What followed next was notoriously terrible as Kylon’s followers where all put to death! Even though they were promised safe conduct, in the end they were all executed. This savage act was so brutal that it was limiting blasphemy and it became known as ‘Kylonion Agos’ (the word ‘agos’ having a meaning of an impious crime of sacrilege and desecration) it felt as if a curse sent by the gods, fell upon the city.
Recent excavations near the south coast of Athens (at Faliron) have unearthed mass burials of around 80 men that were executed. There is a good chance that these poor men, can be followers of Kylon. All the victims are of relatively young age, they all appear to have been in good health when put to death and the most chilling detail is that all their hands were tied up.
We have to be very careful jumping into conclusions here, as the same area of Faliron, is known since the beginning of the 20th century for being rich in different burials of people that were executed in different horrible ways, most of them using the method of ‘apotympanismos’. Those condemned, were chained on a wooden plank and were left to die there exposed to the elements (much like what the Romans used to do later when they used crucifixion as a method of execution). That’s the way that the city of Athens executed criminals and those skeletons that were excavated back in 1920s by Greek archaeologists Kourouniotis and Pelekidis. Those executed may have been pirates and according to a well-documented study by professor Keramopoulos that was published in 1923, execution by chaining on a wooden board was relatively common from the 7th c. BC till the 4th c. BC
Ο αποτυμπανισμός : Συμβολή αρχαιολογική εις την ιστορίαν του ποινικού δικαίου και την λαογραφίαν -ΑΝΤΩΝΙΟΣ ΚΕΡΑΜΟΠΟΥΛΟΣ (εκδ.Εστια, 1923)
We have to wait for the forensic examination of the human remains unearthed at Faliron. This data, combined with the study of different findings that were excavated and the re-reading of ancient sources, will give us a clearer picture of the twilight of the Athenian Democracy.
John F. Kennedy’s Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, April 27, 1961
‘Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.’
The politically fertile ground of Athens needed someone to sow the seeds of Democracy. That someone was Solon.
‘Society is well governed when its people obey the magistrates, and the magistrates obey the law’
Growing up in 6th c.BC Athens, he was fortunate enough to receive his education by the best teachers and he used to frequent among the most respected philosophers of the day. That superior education earned him the reputation of not only being the most learned Athenian of the day but also one of the wisest law-givers of the ancient world, admired both by Greeks and Romans.
Athenian society was on the brink of collapse and Solon was called in to save the day. He immediately introduced a number of measures:
He cancelled all debts
He forbade loans
He freed the enslaved
All this was possible after he persuaded all citizens of Athens that from now on, the Law and only the Law shall be above all.
We have to keep in mind that Solon lived during an age of tyrants. Athens was governed by rulers that were in possession of political power through violence and force. Solon’s behavior in this politically hostile and perilous environment was always dictated by his zest for freedom, equality and social justice.
‘Men keep their agreements when it is an advantage to both parties not to break them; and I shall so frame my laws that it will be evident to the Athenians that it will be for their interest to observe them’
Even when he was really old he never stopped reminding his fellow citizens that it was their duty to get rid of all tyrants as soon as possible -and he did this publicly, displaying unprecedented boldness.
He even ignored the continuous threats of the notorious Peisistratus -one of the most powerful and feared demagogues of the day. Even though Peisistratus’ rule was actually fair and temperate (Aristotle notes that his administration was ” more like constitutional government than a tyranny”) in the eyes of Solon, Peisistratus was still a tyrant, as he wasn’t chosen by ‘The People’. When the ruler’s attempts to shut the wise statesman ‘s mouth proved fruitless, Peisistratus asked him what makes him so determined to continuously oppose his government! Solon answered: “My old age” [Diod.Sic. Book 9,4]
I know that it may be just a detail but whenever I see depictions of the Roman Senate in session (in movies, paintings etc) senators are seated in a semicircular fashion around an open space where the speaker stands and addresses the Senate. Uhm… Sorry. That’s actually wrong.
Senators’ seats -at least since J.Caesar’s time- were arranged in straight and parallel lines on either side of the interior of the Curia Julia (i.e the Senate House).
Aeschines, an ancient Athenian politician, stated back in the 4th century BC that the defining characteristic of democracy is that it is rule by the Law! Not rule by a person, a group of chosen ones, not even rule by the people. In a democracy it’s a set of principles as expressed by a number of laws that govern a city. In a monarchy, an aristocracy or an oligarchy, in contrast, rule is by individuals and through intimidation.
“It is acknowledged, namely, that there are in the world three forms of government, autocracy, oligarchy, and democracy: autocracies and oligarchies are administered according to the tempers of their lords, but democratic states according to established laws. And be assured, fellow citizens, that in a democracy it is the laws that guard the person of the citizen and the constitution of the state, whereas the despot and the oligarch find their protection in suspicion and in armed guards. Men, therefore, who administer an oligarchy, or any government based on inequality, must be on their guard against those who attempt revolution by the law of force; but you, who have a government based upon equality and law, must guard against those whose words violate the laws or whose lives have defied them; for then only will you be strong, when you cherish the laws, and when the revolutionary attempts of lawless men shall have ceased.”
-Aeschines Against Timarchus
Or, as a US President repeated centuries later:
“Democracy is not so much a form of government as a set of principles.”