Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Invention of Politics in Archaic Greece

Steve Muhlberger
We begin today with a definition of a key word: polis.

Conventionally, this word is translated as "city-state."  This is somewhat inaccurate, because not all poleis were cities in our sense of the word (and even the biggest these days would look pretty small to us).  Poleis  varied in size, constitution, and wealth.  Some had an extensive territory covered with many villages; others were quite small, hardly bigger than the main city or town at their cores.

Each polis, however, was considered by its inhabitants to be a single community, with a single religious center, a single judicial center, a single market.  A polis was a community where the whole numerous citizen body could gather together to do business, fight, or celebrate quite easily; where the citizens often met most of their fellows face to face.

Ancient Greeks believed that people (or should we say "men," as they did?) were meant to live in such small intimate communities. When Aristotle made the famous statement "Man is a political animal," he was really saying, in the words of the translation we are using in our book, "Man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis." Men outside of such an association could not attain the good life. If they were isolated, or members of a very small group, they were hicks, or more likely savages without justice. If they lived in a larger grouping, such as an extensive kingdom, the individual would be swamped. A polis allowed people to cooperate and compete in an environment large enough and small enough to bring out the best in them.

The Greeks prized the polis precisely because they thought it was human-scale. The things that people prize about Greek culture came out of the poleis in the archaic and classical periods, between roughly 800 B.C. and 323 B.C.

During the archaic period, an important idea emerged in these communities. It was that in some essential way, all citizens (not, we should note, all inhabitants), all free men, were equal. Athens eventually took this idea quite far, and created Greek democracy. But the idea of citizen equality was not restricted to Athens. Neither was it just a political idea in our narrow sense of the word. It was an important cultural idea, too, one that made possible the great achievements of the classical period, especially Athens. That is why we are looking at politics first.

Let's begin, once again, with the Homeric society we have looked at briefly before,  that heroic, aristocratic society of the warriors before Troy or of Odysseus' Ithaka, which existed before 800 B.C.. How was it run? What was its structure?

Briefly, it was run by family connections. What family, what clan, and what larger kin-group you belonged to, and your position you held in those groups determined your status within the community at large. The subjection of slaves was symbolized and made concrete by the fact that they had no family at all. If there was a serf population, as in Sparta, they were outside the whole system.

The free all lived within a recognized network of kin relationships that supported them and sometimes oppressed them. Every free person was a member of an oikos or household, roughly similar to our own families with parents, children and sometimes other relatives living under a single roof. Each oikos was joined with others in a clan, called a genos.  Further up, each genos  was grouped with others in a phratry, like the clan  based on a supposed common descent. Phratries were grouped in tribes, and two or three tribes made up the community. The details of this scheme are not important -- just the idea that your social position depended on your family and clan connections. Even in the free population, not all families were equal.

The great families dominated the councils under the kings (where there were kings) or ran the communities themselves.   At times, especially when some big decision had to be made, an assembly of all the free men was called together. The lesser men, however, were there to listen, not to talk.

There is a telling scene in the Iliad that demonstrates this. A man called Thersites, "the ugliest man that had come to Ilium," criticized King Agamemnon. Odysseus immediately put him in his place:

"Thersites, this may be eloquence, but we have had enough of it. You drivelling fool, how dare you stand up to the kings? It is not for you, the meanest wretch of all that followed the Atreidae to Ilium, to hold forth with the kings' names on your tongue"...and as he finished Odysseus struck him on the back and shoulders with his staff. Thersites flinched and burst into tears...He sat down terrified while the rest of the assembly had a hearty laugh. "Good work," cried one man...and [said] what they were all feeling..."I do not think that Thersites will be in a hurry to come here again and sling insults at the kings."
W.G. Forrest, who supplied me with the above passage, has this comment on it: "Thersites ... was not a lovable man but he was not beaten just for that. He was beaten because he did not know his place."

In fact Odysseus had made clear the place of the lesser members of the army when he was convening the assembly: "When he found any man of the demos [common people] giving tongue, he struck him with his sceptre and rated him severely. 'You there,' he said, 'sit still and wait for orders from your betters, you who are no warrior and a weakling, counting for nothing in battle or debate.'" [Forrest, 63-64]

The political and social superiority of the Homeric and early archaic aristocrats was due to two things: their military role and their wealth. The princes were single combat champions, who because of their superior armor and specialized skills made a big impact on the field of battle, where most fought with light weapons and no armor. Like the medieval knight, the Homeric hero was worth a dozen lesser men. Like the medieval knight, his military capability was related to his economic superiority:  the hero could afford equipment and training. In both war and peace, lesser men clustered around the great for protection. Thersites and the other members of the demos were not anywhere near the bottom of society -- but  even within the more privileged part of society, men had masters. The heads of the phratries had economic, social, and judicial power over their free dependents. This dark age/early archaic society of 800 B.C. is obviously not the dynamic and innovative society of classical Greece.

The dynamic polis of later times only slowly emerged from this aristocratic framework. Three factors led to the formation of the polis of equal citizens. One was increased contact with the outside world; the second was economic change; the third was developments in military equipment and tactics. We have already said something about the first, outside contacts. From 800 B.C. on, colonization opened up the world to the Greeks. It led them to meet foreigners, and compare their traditional customs with Greek customs. Colonization involved the setting up of new communities, in which the old customs did not apply in quite the same way that they had in the mother city.

Of course colonization had important economic results, too. Most Greek poleis were soon involved in a wide trade network, and this shook up the local economy. Commerce shakes things up -- makes some people richer, others poorer, and life in general just a little more unpredictable. Thus the static rank structure of the early archaic community came under tension, both psychologically and economically.

As some Greek poleis became considerably wealthier, and the wealth became a little more widely spread, the aristocrats also found their military prominence threatened. When war came, they no longer dominated the battlefield in quite the same way.  Increasingly the support troops, those men like Thersites, were not just throwing stones, but wearing good armor and carrying shields, things that were now more available because Greece was wealthier and the small farmers were wealthier.

These new armored troops were the hoplites, and they introduced a new era into Greek warfare. Hoplites were not just more single-combat champions.  Hoplites fought in formation, turning a group of warriors into a small fortification plus battering ram, that could best not only champions but even cavalry. The appearance of large numbers of hoplites, fighting differently, as a group, newly confident in their common strength, eventually undermined the old aristocratic style of war and government.

Recall that Odysseus had berated the common man at Troy as being "no warrior and a weakling, counting for nothing in battle or debate." Now that common man counted for something in battle. Eventually his voice would also have to be heard in debate.

So in the early archaic period, Greek society was being changed in a variety of ways. Revolution was a possibility. Three archaic revolutions, all of which took place between about 675 and 590 B.C. show us the direction of political movement in Greek society.

These revolutions took place in Corinth, Sparta and Athens.

The Corinthian revolution took place in 657 B.C. At that point, Corinth was the leading Greek commercial city.  The polis, like many others, was run by a single dominant clan, the Bacchiads, and their allies. They must be rated as pretty successful rulers, given the wealth of the city, but the prosperity itself undermined their hold. Other people, especially wealthy people who were excluded from the favored circle, resented the Bacchiad monopoly of power. Lesser people had their own resentments.

In 657, some of the dissatisfied supported a bastard member of the Bacchiad family, a talented soldier named Kypselos, who took over the government. With the backing of aristocrats, hoplites, and the sanction of the gods (as indicated by an oracle from Delphi), Kypselos ruled Corinth as a tyrant (tyrannos).

What does it mean that Kypselos was a tyrant? It doesn't mean that he was brutal, as the term usually does today.  To be a tyrant was to seize power by untraditional means, and establish a non-traditional, one-man rule. Kypselos, like many Greek tyrants, appealed to resentment of the arbitary rule of the traditional rulers. His slogan, to be echoed later, was dikaiosei Korinthon, "putting Corinth to rights."

This was a first step to political theory. People in Corinth were unwilling to defer to the men in charge, just because they were in charge. They could visualize something better, a type of government that was less arbitrary, and somewhat less exclusive. Though Kypselos was a one-man ruler in one sense, he had his allies and tools, and they at least felt that the government had been opened up.

Tyranny of this sort became quite common in archaic and classical Greece. The very existence of tyranny further shook up any society that experienced it. There was now a boss able and willing to change the rules, even, quite often, to write down the rules. Written rules hemmed in the traditional aristocrats, who had run things on a purely personal and family basis, and created the possibility of political participation for people lower down on the social scale -- such as the hoplite class.

Kypselos's family became a dynasty, which was eventually overthrown, to be replaced by an oligarchy of important people. Political participation did not widen very much. But similar shake-ups elsewhere led to more radical re-adjustments.

Sparta is an excellent example of a society rewriting the rules extensively. Sparta usually passes for the most conservative of Greek societies, which from some points of view it was. It was a non-commercial inland society, where a small group of citizens (if that's the word) dominated a much larger number of serfs.

Sometime before 700, the Spartans conquered their neighbors, the Messenians, and became masters of a vast underclass of helots. This forced them to always be on their guard against revolts.  In the years after 700, conflict among the rulers endangered the very existence of the Spartan community. About 675, by one chronology {Forrest's}, a legislator was appointed, or perhaps took power: his name was Lykurgus, and he wrote the rules that Sparta would live by for centuries.

Detail about the Spartan constitution will come later.The point to remember is that there was a detailed Spartan constitution: one that regulated the life of each citizen in great detail and subjected most citizens to equal obligations:  they wereequally subject to a strict military discipline that prepared them for war, especially war against their own serfs.

To create this equality, the old tribal and family methods of organization were broken down and replaced with an organization based on geographical principles.  Also, the idea was established in Sparta that was not present in Kypselos's Corinth: constitutionalism, the supremacy of law over all individuals and their interests. Kypselos put Corinth to rights, or said that he did, or would. Lykurgus defined precisely what was right, and how right would be enforced.

 It is in Athens that the idea of constitutionalism was taken up, and led to a whole line of further development.

In the year 650, Athens was a slowly developing commercial polis run by a group not unlike the Bacchiads of Corinth -- though instead of a single family, you had a group called the Eupatrids, "the well-born."  As at Corinth, dynamism threatened stability. In 620, to avoid civil war, the polis turned to a respected figure, Drakon (Draco), to set up a written code of law, so that everyone would know what was what. Drakon's laws were harsh, in particular on debtors, who could be sold into slavery, even slavery abroad, but they were a first step toward constitutionalism.

It has been suggested that the very existence of Drakon's code made the inequalities in Athens less tolerable. Not only was there the law of debt -- there was also a form of sharecropping in which many small farmers owed their aristocratic master a sixth of their harvest. If times were bad and the 1/6 share could not be paid, a sharecropper might also be sold into slavery. At the same time, growing commercial opportunities were giving some people a new prosperity. Export of olive oil made some larger farmers much richer than they had been. Yet they still found themselves excluded from real political power.

These two kinds of dissatisfaction led to the reforms of Solon in 594. Solon undertook the difficult task of dissuading Athenians from bloodshed, civil war, and confiscation and redistribution of property. Rather than become a tyrant, he became the Athenian Lykurgus. He freed the sharecroppers from their 1/6 obligation; he forbade the enslavement of debtors, and brought home people who had been sold abroad; and gave the poorer citizens relief from aristocratic justice. The decision of an aristocratic magistrate could now be appealed to the citizen assembly or a court appointed by it.

At the same time the new rich were appeased. The monopoly of top offices by the Eupatrids was ended by making wealth and wealth alone the qualification for them. Solon's settlement was far from revolutionary. The old rich kept their estates, their position on the council, their prestige, and in most cases their predominance over their lesser neighbors.

Solon had given Athens a balanced constitution -- one that satisfied the main political forces of the time. He also, by abolishing debt slavery and sharecropping, made possible a republic based on the small freeholder and the free urban citizen.

This is the beginning of developments in Athens that would lead to the development of its famous democratic system.


H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks (NU)
W.G. Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy, 800-400 B.C. (NU)
George Forrest, "Greece: The History of the Archaic Period," Oxford History of the Classical World (NU)

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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.