In which the Athenians follow a dangerous demagogue to their doom.
Welcome to The Worst Form Of Government: a history of democracy from Tyrannicides to Trump. Chapter Two.
The Persian Wars brought Athenian democracy to maturity. Government of, by and for the people had proven it could mobilize the population to fight off a threat without being entirely crippled by infighting and without elevating a savior dictator to tell them what to do.
Having defeated the Persian invasion, Athens organized the Delian League, an alliance of city-states all around the Aegean Sea, to fight off the Persians if they ever tried again. Members were required to maintain a certain number of warships, or else pay the cost of building these warships into the League’s treasury. As it turned out, most members found it a lot easier to just pay the money and let Athens build the ships; however, Athens soon decided it had enough warships, so it began diverting the League’s funds towards its own pet projects. Athens spent the defense treasury to beautify their city by building, for example, the Parthenon. When the allies complained, the Athenians offered the excuse that as long as Athens adequately defended the League they didn’t need to account for every missing penny. They explained that a glorious Athens benefited everyone.① When disgruntled allies tried to pull out of the League, they were told that they had signed up for a permanent arrangement – don’t even think of leaving. Any crack in the alliance could tempt the Persians to invade again – plus the money from the allies was too lucrative to let go. Countless commentators over the centuries have noted the obvious hypocrisy of Athens, democratic at home, imperialist abroad.
By this time, Athenian democracy had worked out a lot of the bugs and functioned smoothly with some 60,000 voting citizens in 450 BCE. The Athenians believed their system of government to be the pinnacle of political development, a shining city on a hill. They felt all nations could learn a lesson from them. While orating in honor of the Athenian war dead, Pericles, the alpha Athenian of this golden age, provided one of history’s earliest and best descriptions of the democratic ideal:
We are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. … In our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes... A spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws. ⓐ
This Periclean golden age was destroyed by the Peloponnesian Wars, a series of little wars of limited objectives that began in 431 BCE. Pericles himself died of a war-generated plague just as the fight was getting started but his successors kept it going. The first battles often involved Athenian satellites trying to pull out of the Delian League, usually with the help of Sparta. These quickly blended into a kind of geographic chess game between Athens and Sparta for control of the Greek world.
One of the earliest chess moves of the war involved the island of Corcyra (called Corfu now), which had the second largest fleet in the Greek world, after Athens. While quarreling with neighbors and recruiting allies, Corcyra was forced to pick a side in the larger struggle, and being democratic, it went with Athens as a kindred spirit. This sort of thing was happening all over the Greek world. Meanwhile oligarchies like Megara and Corinth and monarchies like Macedonia seemed to gravitate towards Sparta, which was run by a fanatically strict military aristocracy under a pair of kings.
In time, the wars began to look like an ideological power struggle, possibly the first in history, between democrats and oligarchs. The evangelical streak that is so obvious in Pericles’ description of Athenian democracy came out in foreign policy. Athens usually supported factions of radical democrats inside disputed city-states, so almost any state that Athens took control of became a democracy if it wasn’t already. Sparta preferred to deal with small governments that could guarantee cooperation, rather than undisciplined mobs that might suddenly turn against them. Sparta found allies among local oligarchs, usually councils of the rich or the leaders of important families who would not want Athens coming in and establishing unrestrained democracy.
For example, a few years into the fighting, Athens sponsored a popular uprising in Argos, a neutral bystander on the mainland. The uprising replaced the ruling oligarchy with a broad democracy. The ruling democrats in Argos were then happy to join Athens in order to keep the ousted oligarchs from coming back. This brought Argos into the war, but after a particularly vicious round of fighting, the Athenian general Nicias pulled back and negotiated a peace treaty with Sparta that included a nominal alliance between Athens and Sparta. Without their protector, Argos was now left high and dry, so in 420 BCE they assembled their own alliance with the nearby democracies Mantinea and Elis to hold off Spartan retaliation; however, when the inevitable new war flared up, Athens joined its fellow democracies against Sparta as usual.
Even so, ideology was not the only factor in how the sides lined up. In 415 BCE, Athens invaded Sicily to deal with Syracuse, the dominant city-state on the island and the colonial daughter of Athens’ longtime rival Corinth. Syracuse, however, was just as democratic as Athens. The Syracusans had managed to carve out a 60-year democratic interlude in 465 BCE when Thrasybulus, the last tyrant for a while, was ousted by rivals within his family, but they failed to consolidate control before the mob got the upper hand and established a direct democracy with policy decisions in the hands of the people in the assembly.
The Sicilian Expedition was the pet project of the charismatic young Athenian general Alcibiades. The orphaned son of another famous general, Alcibiades was fostered by the statesmen Pericles and he had recently entered politics when he was around 30. He was so handsome that both women and men wanted him – this was Greece after all. Socrates, his teacher and army tentmate, doted on him for his intellect and beauty and even saved his life in battle. Always hot-headed, Alcibiades once thrashed a rich man in the street for an imagined insult. Later, upon reconsideration, he regretted it and went to the man’s house to apologize. Alcibiades did such a fine job of making amends that the man gave Alcibiades his daughter, a much-coveted heiress, to be his wife.
The original plan for the Sicilian Expedition was to send a small expedition of forty ships to shore up the military standing of a minor Athenian ally on Sicily. It was generally agreed that a small force would be the best way to show support and avoid an exhausting commitment in a faraway land. However, after the votes were taken and the plan approved, as the debate was winding down, Nicias, the reluctant general who would be joint commander on this expedition, tried to talk everyone out of it by demanding a larger commitment of troops before he would even attempt it. Unfortunately, the hawks called his bluff and more than doubled his force to 100 ships.
This raised the stakes of the expedition to something Athens could not afford to lose. Meanwhile, it actually weakened the Athenian position. Seeing a much larger force coming in their direction, the Athenian allies in the west panicked. It looked too much like Athens had empire building in mind. Local allies withdrew logistical support for the operation, so rather than having a safe base already set up on the toe of Italy, the Athenians had to seize one from the enemy.
However, even before the Athenian fleet left, a political drama erupted that would undermine the war effort. In the dead of night, unknown parties went around the city and desecrated the herms, the sacred begenitaled idols that guarded Greek crossroads. This was probably carried out by antiwar or pro-Spartan activists to frighten superstitious Athenians into abandoning the expedition, but during the investigation, it was brought out that Alcibiades was a smart-aleck atheist in private with no respect for religious matters. Although his supporters pointed out that he had no logical reason to deface the shrines, his reputation plummeted as many Athenians decided that this only proved how utterly depraved Alcibiades must be: He was going to all that trouble vandalizing shrines he didn’t even believe in, to sabotage an expedition he was leading, for no reason whatsoever.
Once Alcibiades and all his supporters were halfway to Sicily, the remaining assembly members met in Athens again and subpoenaed him back home to answer charges of vandalizing the herms. Even though he had no reason to have desecrated the shrines, no one remained in Athens to speak on his behalf, so rather than return to certain arrest and execution, Alcibiades defected to Sparta. Primary command of the expedition now went to Nicias, who had been against it from the start but was too far in to pull out. After this, bad luck and bad choices chiseled away at the Athenian army over the next year until the last stranded survivors surrendered and spent the rest of their miserable lives as slaves in Sicilian quarries.
Democracy didn’t last much longer in Syracuse. Dionysius, the commander of the Syracusan army that had beaten the Athenians, faked an attack on his life and was given permission to keep 600 mercenaries as a personal bodyguard. That was enough to give him an edge over the assembly when he staged a coup in 405 BCE and resumed the rule of tyrants in Syracuse.
Meanwhile, Alcibiades escaped the disaster and did quite well among the Spartans. In spite of having lived recently in wealthy Athenian luxury, Alcibiades adapted easily to the austere Spartan lifestyle.② His strategic advice won battles for them. He won Olympic Games on their behalf. In fact, he so completely outclassed the Spartans at their own badassery, they began to resent him. When he impregnated their king’s wife, Alcibiades found it best to skip town, ending up in Persian-controlled Asia Minor (Turkey nowadays).
Alcibiades quickly let everyone back home know that he had totally become the most trusted advisor to the Persian governor Tissaphernes. Hearing this, friends in the Athenian army asked Alcibiades if he could get money and warships from Tissaphernes to support a coup in Athens. The war had been going badly since the disaster in Sicily, and they wanted to take control from the mob. They believed that Persia would more willingly ally itself to a city run by a disciplined oligarchy and not a rabble. Tissaphernes, however, preferred to sit back and let these Greeks kill each other without getting himself involved, so he refused the request. The plotters went ahead anyway and overthrew the government in Athens in June 411 BCE while the Athenian navy, always a bedrock of democratic commitment, was away. They set up a junta called the Four Hundred and killed anyone who objected.
The oligarchs also planned a coup at Samos, an island democracy allied to Athens where the fleet and much of the army were stationed. The Athenian forces at Samos remained committed to democracy, so they put down the coup at Samos on behalf of the local assembly and declared themselves to be the legitimate government of Athens. They elected new leaders, including Thrasybulus, an ordinary hoplite in the ranks who was turning into a natural leader.③
Anyway when the democrats heard from Alcibiades that he definitely had Persian support in his pocket and could give it to whichever side he wanted, they invited him back from exile to lead them in restoring freedom to their city.
Meanwhile, extremists in the Four Hundred planned to call in the Spartans to prop up their regime in Athens, but when their faction chief got assassinated, moderates in the junta seized control. They replaced the Four Hundred with a broader oligarchy called the Five Thousand, which returned power to the landed aristocracy that provided the hoplites for the army. The next year the fleet under Alcibiades and Thrasybulus scored some major victories against the Spartans at Abydos and Cyzicus, even though the Persian support Alcibiades promised never materialized. Regardless, with everything working out for Athens again, the Five Thousand restored full democracy in 410.
Unsure of what kind of welcome was waiting for him in Athens after his numerous defections and shenanigans, Alcibiades stayed with the forces in the field for a couple of years. He scored a few more victories before he returned home in a magnificent warship, adorned with trophies from his latest victories, the rhythm of the oars accompanied by new hymns of triumph from Athens’ greatest musicians. The crowd whooped and celebrated his arrival in a massive blowout.
Eventually, Alcibiades lost a battle; it was a minor battle and a small loss, but it was enough for his enemies to get the upper hand in the assembly. Alcibiades was exiled in disgrace, so he drifted back to Persian territory and resumed his old friendships. When the Athenians finally and utterly lost the war in 404 BCE, the Spartans installed a puppet oligarchy in Athens called the Thirty Tyrants as part of the surrender terms. Rather than leave Alcibiades to rally the Athenians and lead them back to democracy and empire, the Spartans arranged his removal. As Alcibiades was dolling himself up, preparing to meet with important Persians (most Greeks hated that Persian men used makeup, but Alcibiades was adaptable), Spartan agents set fire to his house and peppered him with arrows when he ran outside. Although, typical for Alcibiades, there’s another less heroic, more scandalous story that claims his killers were actually the brothers of a local girl he seduced.
The Thirty Tyrants launched a bloodbath in Athens to eradicate all the democratic habits the people had gotten into. Fifteen hundred democrats were rounded up killed, and 5,000 more were driven from the city. Among the first to speak out and be chased away was Thrasybulus, former leader of democratic Athenian forces at Samos. He and many fellow exiles gathered in the nearby city-state of Thebes until there were enough armed refugees for him to invade Attica. After winning a few battles against the oligarchs and their Spartan protectors, Thrasybulus restored democracy to Athens in 403 BCE.
The Thirty Tyrants had killed or exiled most of the dedicated democrats, so anyone who had survived their rule intact was suspect. The philosopher Socrates, for example, had stayed behind and lived under the Thirty without getting into any trouble. Critias, the leader of the Thirty, had been one of his students. Socrates never actively cooperated with the Thirty, but he had never denounced them either. He had always been something of an anti-democratic curmudgeon with disdain for the ignorance of the common man, but rather than lie low and keep his mouth shut during the bitter witch hunts that followed the restoration of democracy, he continued being the annoying wiseguy he had always been. Before the Thirty Tyrants, he was seen as a funny old crank, like everyone’s favorite uncle, but now as the mentor of Alcibiades and Critias, he didn’t seem so funny anymore. Because of a general amnesty declared after the democratic restoration, he couldn’t be prosecuted for anything that happened before 403 BCE, but by 399 BCE he had given his enemies enough ammunition to put him on trial for impiety, which can be a pretty serious crime if deities really exist. After all, provoking the gods invites their wrath down on the nation and endangers everyone.
The Athenian government probably didn’t plan to kill Socrates at first. Most likely they just wanted him to shut up or leave town. Unfortunately, at his trial before 500 random jurors, Socrates refused to back away from anything he had said. He stuck to his principles and was found guilty by a narrow margin of votes – 280 to 220. The jury then had to decide to either sentence him to an agonizing, twisted death by poisonous hemlock or just have him pay a fine. Again Socrates refused to repent. He lectured and scolded them, suggesting that maybe instead he should be rewarded like an Olympic champion for performing the valuable service of challenging their preconceived notions. When he was done, more jurors (360) voted for his death than had even voted for his guilt. In other words, 80 jurors who thought he was innocent still felt he should die. That’s how annoying Socrates could be.
Now that Athens lost the Peloponnesian Wars and fell to second-class status, the historical spotlight usually moves elsewhere and follows the struggles of other primary city-states such as Sparta and Thebes, eventually leaving Greece altogether for Carthage and Rome. However, democracy survived forgotten for another century in Athens with less pizazz but just as much freedom. In fact, without its previous war madness, Athenian democracy settled down and became a lot less manic-depressive. Thrasybulus even tried to broaden democracy in Athens and get the city to give the vote to resident foreigners. Part of why history books skip this time period is because a smoothly operating state is so dreadfully boring.
Democracy wasn’t permanently knocked off the top tier. Thebes, which was moving up in the international standings, had already had a brief democratic interlude beginning sometime before 456 until 447 while it lived under the shadow of Athens. Then the city turned to oligarchy after it joined Sparta; however, the alliance with Sparta became closer to vassalage as the Peloponnesian Wars progressed.
With the oligarchy tarnished by its growing subservience to Sparta, the citizens of Thebes, led by the exile Pelopidas in 379, threw out their ruling oligarchs along with the Spartan garrison that propped them up, in favor of a democratic constitution. The citizens realized that only a broad-based popular government could avoid being dominated by foreigners. Pelopidas and his colleague Epaminondas also trained a new army of Thebans capable of beating the Spartans.④ With this new army, they set about liberating the surrounding city states from the Spartans. Following the final destruction of the Spartan army at Leuctra in 371, city-states all over the Greek mainland set up democratic governments under Theban protection.ⓑ
If you’re having trouble keeping track of the factional squabbling among all these little city-states, don’t worry about it. History will now become a lot less complicated. On the northern edge of Greece, King Philip II of Macedon was assembling a massive new power that would soon come crashing down on everyone and simplify matters. The chief Athenian was now Demosthenes. Since Athens was less of a military power at this point, Demosthenes was no glorious general in the mold of Themistocles or Alcibiades. He was nothing more than an ordinary hoplite in the militia and closer to what we would call a lawyer in civilian life. Now he used all of his oratorical skill to demonize King Philip II and rally the Greeks against looming threat of Macedon.
A steady war smoldered in the north against Philip until the Macedonians finally defeated Thebes and Athens for control of Greece at the battle of Chaeronea in 338. Philip bundled all the Greeks together into a unified League of Corinth that he could control as a bloc. Then he reinstalled an oligarchy in Thebes to keep the city under control. Unfortunately that didn’t work as well as he had hoped, so Philip’s son Alexander the Great destroyed and depopulated Thebes after crushing an unsuccessful revolt in 335.
Out of admiration for Athenian high culture, Philip allowed the Athenians to continue settling local matters democratically, as long as they minded their manners and left foreign affairs up to the League. He even allowed Demosthenes (taken prisoner at Chaeronea) to talk his way out of a summary execution for all the nasty things he had said about Philip; Alexander followed his father’s example and left Athens alone when he took over; however in 322 BCE, news arrived from the east that Alexander the Great had died unexpectedly. In the confusion, the Athenians tried their luck at throwing off the Macedonian yoke. Antipater, the Macedonian general Alexander had left behind to watch Greece, slapped them down and demanded the assembly turn over the troublemakers. Demosthenes fled into hiding and committed suicide one step ahead of his pursuers. Antipater shut down democracy in Athens and installed his own people to run things.ⓒ
Once the era of city-states had given way to the gigantic empires that followed Alexander the Great, the reputation of Greek democracy plummeted and remained low for the next two millennia. Later Europeans usually admired the warrior aristocracy of Sparta more than the noisy mob of Athens which had worshipped Alcibiades and killed Socrates. They considered the collapse of Athenian democracy a good thing and used it as a perfect example of how not to run a country.
By the 1830s, however, the world was ready to see democracy in a favorable light again. One of the first people to revitalize the reputation of Athenian democracy was the popular Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, nowadays known mostly for beginning a novel with “It was a dark and stormy night.” By 1837 he had published the first two volumes of his book Athens: Its Rise and Fall, but when he learned that a couple of serious and more respected scholars were planning similar works, he was disheartened and deterred from finishing the third volume. In any case, the academic paradigm definitively shifted in favor of Athens when George Grote published the first 2 volumes of the eventual 12-volume “History of Greece” in 1846.⑤ ⓓ ① The Athenians were correct of course. Two thousand years later, no one cares how many warships the League had, but the Parthenon is a world treasure. This is one of the few times in history that a defense budget was diverted to support the arts rather than vice versa, so we should savor the moment; however, militarism had the last laugh in 1689 when the Turks were storing gunpowder in the Parthenon during a siege and an enemy mortar shell blew it up. ② The ancient historian Plutarch likened Alcibiades to a chameleon in that he became exactly the same as his surroundings – and this was before that metaphor was a cliché. This may even be its first appearance in literature. In any case, Plutarch emphasized that Alcibiades wasn’t evil per se. He wasn’t anything per se. He was virtuous around the virtuous, wicked around the wicked, austere around the austere, and so on. Now in Sparta, he became a badass among badasses. ③ This Thrasybulus was no relation to the Syracusan Thrasybulus I mentioned earlier, whom you’ve probably forgotten by now. ④ The backbone of the Theban army was the famous Sacred Band, 150 pairs of male lovers, all seasoned warriors ready to fight their hardest to defend and impress their partner. Also, Epaminondas figured out that loading up one wing and attacking at an angle to the enemy’s front line would disrupt, break up and overwhelm their solid phalanx, making them much easier to kill (the oblique order of battle). ⑤ Nowadays the reputation of Athenian democracy seems to be falling again. The standard textbook account of Greek history can’t get very far without emphasizing that Athenian democracy was incomplete because it excluded slaves, women, and foreigners. That’s true of course, but the United States did the same until 1870 for slaves, 1920 for women and still does for foreigners. Since political scientists usually count the United States of the 1840s as a perfectly acceptable 10‑point democracy, maybe we should do the same for ancient Athens. ⓐ Thucydides, translated into English, to which is prefixed an essay on inscriptions and a note on the geography of Thucydides, by Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881. §2.37 ⓑ Arthur Henry Walker, Primer of Greek Constitutional History (B. H. Blackwell, 1902) pp.61-66 ⓒ Hansen, Mogens Herman, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Robinson, Eric W., Democracy Beyond Athens: Popular Government in the Greek Classical Age. Cambridge University Press, 2011. ⓓ Allan Conrad Christensen (ed.), The Subverting Vision of Bulwer Lytton: Bicentenary Reflections (University of Delaware Press, 2004) p.134. Nadia Urbinati, Review: “Edward Bulwer Lytton, Athens: Its Rise and Fall. Bicentenary edition”, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.02