Ancient Greece


Athens

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The Areopagus

   Athens entered the Archaic Period in the same way so many of its neighbors, as a city-state ruled by a basileus , or "king." Unlike Sparta, however, Athens' history was not dominated by invasion of a neighbor, for the land around Athens was agriculturally rich and the city had a harbor so that it could trade easily with city-states around the Aegean. The power of the basileus slowly faded; underneath the basileus was a council of nobles, which were called the Areopagus, from the name of the hill on which they met. In the eighth century BC, these nobles gradually became very wealthy, particularly off of the cash crops of wine and olive oil, both of which require great wealth to get started. As their wealth increased, the nobles of the Areopagus slowly stripped the king of power until Athenian government imperceptibly became an oligarchy. The Areopagus consisted of a varying number of members, and it elected nine archons, or "rulers," to run the state. The archons, however, always had to submit to the approval or veto of the Areopagus, and they also became members of the Areopagus when their term in office expired, so, in reality, the Areopagus ruled the country.

   Rule by the wealthy, however, is often inherently unstable. In Athens, the farmers in the surrounding countryside produced mainly wheat, while the wealthy and nobility owned estates that produced wine and olive oil. Wheat-farming was badly managed, however; the average Athenian farmer didn't rotate crops or let fields lie fallow. Production of wheath plummeted at the same time that Athenians began to import wheat and to export olive oil and wine. So not only did production of wheat fall, so did its price. Pretty soon, even though the wealthy farmers were making money hand over fist, the average farmer had fallen deeply into debt to the wealthiest members of society. To pay for that debt, farmers sold their children, their wives, and even themselves into (limited) slavery both in Athens and abroad. The situation was a powder-keg waiting to go off; suffering under unmanageable debts, sold into slavery, with the government under the control of the wealthy people that were the causes of their problems, the average Athenian farmer was primed for revolution.

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The Reforms of Solon

   But history takes strange turns sometimes. Recognizing the danger of the situation, in 594 BC, the Areopagus and the people of Athens agreed to hand over all political power to a single individual, Solon. In effect a tyrant, Solon's mission was to reform the government to stem the tide of privation and exploitation and set up a system to guarantee that Athens didn't slip into such a situation again.

   Solon immediately dismissed all outstanding debts, and he freed as many Athenians as he could from the slavery they had sold themselves into. He banned any loans that are secured by a promise to enter into slavery if the loan is defaulted, and he tried to bring people who had been sold into slavery abroad back to Athens. In addition, he encouraged the development of olive and wine production, so that by the end of the century, most of Athenian land was dedicated to these lucrative crops.

   As far as government is concerned, he divided Athenian society into four classes based on wealth. The two wealthiest classes were allowed to serve on the Areopagus. The third class were allowed to serve on an elected council of four hundred people. This council was organized according to the four tribes making up the Athenian people; each tribe was allowed to elect one hundred representatives from this third class. This council of four hundred served as a kind of balance or check to the power of the Areopagus. The fourth class, the poorest class, was allowed to participate in an assembly; this assembly voted on affairs brought to it by the council of four hundred, and even elected local magistrates. This class also participated in a new judicial court that gradually drew civil and military cases out of the hands of the wealthiest people, the Areopagus.

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Peisistratus and the Tyranny

   The Athenians considered Solon the great hero of their state and pointed to the reforms of Solon as the basis of their state. Solon's new state, however, lasted very briefly. Although he brilliantly reformed the government, he really didn't solve the economic crisis, and within a few years, Athens was collapsing in anarchy. A nobleman, Peisistratus, swept into power during this anarchy and set about restoring order. The tyranny of Peisistratus, however, was as important to the foundation of Athenian democracy as Solon's reforms had been. Although he was a military leader who backed up his power with a frightening mercenary army, Peisistratus began to actively build in and around Athens, and actively reform Athenian religion and religious practices, and, in particular, devoted his government to cultural reform. He sought out poets and artists in order to make Athens a culturally sophisticated and dynamic society. But, in particular, he launched a full attack on the power of the nobility. He increased the power of the Assembly and the courts associated with the poorest classes, and used all his power to make sure that the Solonian government worked smoothly and that elections were held (provided his supporters were elected).

   Like most tyrants, Peisistratus had monarchical ambitions; on his death, the tyranny fell to his son, Hippias. The life of a tyrant is not a comfortable one, and although Hippias began in the mold of his father, the assassination of his brother caused him great fright and consternation. He became suspicious and withdrawn and increasingly arbitrary. His enemies, which were many, if they hadn't already started, began plotting his overthrow. In particular, a wealthy family, the Alcmaeonids, who had been exiled by Peisistratus, prevailed on Sparta to assist them in the overthrow of Hippias. Under the Spartan king, Cleomenes I, Athens was overcome in 510 BC and Hippias ran to exile in Persia

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Cleisthenes

   The Spartans followed their usual practice and entered into a truce with Athens and installed their own hand-picked Athenians to lead the government. The Spartans, however, were too clever for their own good. They chose an individual, Isagoras, whom they felt was the most loyal to Sparta; Isagoras, however, was a bitter rival of the Alcmaeonids, who had been the original allies of Sparta. Isagoras, for his part, set about restoring the Solonic government, but he also set about "purifying" Athenian citizenship. Under Solon and later Peisistratus, a number of people had been enfranchised as citizens even though they weren't Athenian or who were doubtfully Athenian. For in the Greek world, you could only be the citizen of a city-state if you could trace your ancestorship back to the original inhabitants of the state. Isagoras, however, began to throw people off the citizenship rolls in great numbers. Cleisthenes, an Alcmaeonid noble, rallied popular support and threatened the power of Isagoras, who promptly called for the Spartans again. The Spartans invaded a second time, and Cleisthenes was expelled, but soon a popular uprising swept Isagoras from power and installed Cleisthenes.

   From 508 to 502 BC, Cleisthenes began a series of major reforms that would produce Athenian democracy. He enfranchised as citizens all free men living in Athens and Attica (the area surrounding Athens). He established a council which would be the chief arm of government with all executive and administrative control. Every citizen over the age of thirty was eligible to sit on this council; each year the members of the council would be chosen by lot. The Assembly, which included all male citizens, was allowed to veto any of the council's proposals and was the only branch of government that could declare war. In 487, long after Cleisthenes, the Athenians added the final aspect of Athenian democracy proper: ostracism. The Assembly could vote (voting was done on potsherds called ostra ) on expelling citizens from the state for a period of ten years. This ostracism would guarantee that individuals who were contemplating seizing power would be removed from the country before they got too powerful.

   So by 502 BC, Athens had pretty much established its culture and political structure, just as Sparta had pretty much established its culture and political structure by 550 BC. Athens was more or less a democracy; it had become primarily a trading and commercial center; a large part of the Athenian economy focussed on cash crops for export and crafts; it had become a center of art and literature; the city had become architecturally rich because of the building projects of Peisistratus—an architectural richness that far outshone other Greek city-states; and Athenian religious fesitivals were largely in place. The next one hundred years would be politically and culturally dominated by Athens; the event that would catapult Athens to the center of the Greek world was the invasion of the Persians in 490 BC.

 The Persian Wars

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-17-96