Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Ancient Athenian Democracy: It wasn’t the democracy it was the Athenians

Been reading about Ancient Athenian democracy. I decided it has gotten a bad rap. Wasn’t the democracy that was unstable it was the ancient Athenians. They were out of control; too busy doing other things, like establishing trade empires and inventing Western culture.

The run up to official democracy should be a tip-off that the place was out of control, no matter what kind of government they tried. They asked Draco for a law code around 620 BCE, and he listed out a bunch of laws for everything from loitering to murder and prescribed the death penalty for everything. So, anyone should see the place was out of control.

Then Solon came along around 590, and he said he would only work up a constitution if everyone promised to obey it for ten years, at which point he said he would leave the city, before they decided to ignore all his work, and all hell broke loose. So, he knew them better than we do, and obviously he didn’t have much confidence.

Solon prohibited a person from putting up their freedom as a collateral for a loan, he established the right to appeal a court decision to a trial by jury, officials were selected by lot, and he divided Athens up into four groups by wealth, and allowed the chief executive (the Archon) to come from the top three. This worked for a while, but then Athens fell into chaos again.

Then Athens had a time-out for tyranny. A fellow named Pisistratus wanted to become a tyrant real bad. Pisistratus was kind of combination of PT Barnum and Juan Peron (but better macro-economic management skills than Peron). One day Pisistratus pretended to be ambushed by soldiers from a neighboring enemy state and rushed into town to display his wounds. He talked Athens into giving him fifty armed guards, and he used them to take over. People were a bit upset, and he got deposed a short time later. So he rode into Athens with very tall, very beautiful women who he dressed up as Minerva. His old bodyguards and some foreign soldiers ran ahead into Athens screaming that the goddess Minerva had come down to earth; she was upset that Pisistratus had been deposed, and would soon arrive with him in a chariot. And right after them, Pisistratus drove in with this fake Minerva by his side in a chariot. When the confusion died down, Pisistratus was tyrant again (This is from Herodotus, so it must be true.)

Pisistratus was a popular tyrant. He kept most of Solon’s reforms and also instituted circuit courts, so people could go to trial in their own communities. His main innovation was that all officials had to be one of his relatives -that is where the tyrant part came in. Pisistratus reduced taxes on the poor, completed major public works projects, supported the arts, and influenced policy to increase foreign trade. Pisistratus was very popular, and Athens prospered under his rule. Interesting that much of Athens prosperity at the dawn of its famous classical democracy was due to the tyrant Pisistratus.

Unfortunately Pisistratus left the tyranny to his two sons, who were thugs, and things fell apart again. One son was assassinated and the other was exiled, and Athens was a leaderless mess again by 510 BCE. So the stage was set for making the classical Athenian democracy we all know. The end of the story, and Votinglinks little moral from it, will come soon.

http://www.stoa.org/projects/demos/article_democracy_development http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa121900a.htm