- Democracy’s Slaves: A Political History of Ancient Greece by Paulin Ismard, translated by Jane Marie Todd
Harvard, 188 pp, £25.95, January 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 66007 6
At first sight – and indeed after careful investigation – ancient Athens looks anything but an ideal spot for the incubation and development of democracy, whether direct, representative, or the uneasy compromise that eventually emerged. Athens prided itself on having been the sole city not to fall to invaders during the general collapse of Mycenaean dynasties in Greece c.1200 BCE; and even if this claim, like that to autochthony, is questionable, it indicates, at least in the upper crust, a stubborn adherence to, and preference for, the type of rule that was vanishing: that of local royal aristocracies obsessed with blood and lineage, hunting, horsemanship, and the peculiar sense of honour contingent on successful warfare and the code of the warrior. To this culture both the gold funeral masks of Mycenae, with their terrifying impression of inbred contemptuous power, and the surviving traditions of that world in Homer’s Iliad – hugely popular in a society from which it could hardly have been more different – bear eloquent witness.
The tradition thus preserved became an extraordinarily persistent and pervasive legacy. It embodied all the social prejudices associated with a class of blue-blooded landowners, in particular their ingrained hierarchical outlook, rooted in agriculture and warfare, that nursed a withering contempt for those who soiled their hands with any kind of trade or commerce, not least when such people began to threaten their previously undisputed position of authority. Their ideal was a self-sufficient landed estate, with flocks, cattle and arable land, farmed by nameless workers who got protection in time of war as a quid pro quo. But from the seventh century BCE onwards, colonialism, with the consequent expansion of trade and horizons, led to new, competitive ways of making a good living. Among upper-class conservatives this was seen, rightly, as a threat to their unquestioned pre-eminence. Thersites, the Iliad’s one real radical, is an early symptom of coming change: but he is whipped for his presumption by Odysseus, and the rank and file applaud this as a fine joke.
When, in the early sixth century, a real effort to deal with Athenian economic distress is made, by the aristocratic politician Solon, it was almost entirely devoted to relieving the hardships incurred by unlucky small farmers. His seisachtheia, or ‘shaking off of burdens’, involved the cancellation of defaulted agricultural debts (a common result of bad harvests) and the abolition of enslavement for such defaults. Details are not clear, but the possible redistribution of land was a fiercely contested issue: it seems that the victims leased the land they were working, and failed to deliver a proportion of their crops to those who, in whatever sense, were financing them.
Solon reorganised Athenian citizens into four property classes, each determined, in theory, by the minimum amount of produce their land was held to yield annually. His categories, ranging from 500 to less than 200 medimnoi (a medimnos is somewhat more than a bushel), only minimally extended traditional social status in the face of economic change, and caused resentment at all levels. Small farmers thought the classes inadequate; the nobility objected to their very existence. Solon’s institutions made little real difference. Major offices of state could be held only by the two top categories, and minor ones by the third; members of the lowest group could attend the assembly but were ineligible for public office.
In Solonian Athens, in other words, as in so many later societies, a prime requirement for voting rights was the ownership of land, the possession of a physical stake in the community. Solon’s bottom category didn’t include those with no property at all. The large and various body of the landless, the plethos, was socially disregarded, and its members objects of particular contempt when they bettered themselves by way of commerce – as became increasingly possible from about 650 BCE onwards. The surprising requirement of a city like Thebes that such men remove themselves from trade for up to ten years before becoming eligible for public office is far more understandable if the first use they made of their acquired wealth was to buy the real estate that would admit them to the franchise. Solon made occasional grants of citizenship to immigrant technical specialists. These are generally interpreted as moves towards a more mercantile economy; but there may well have been a shortage of native talent as a result of alarmed opposition exercised by those in authority, who resented new paths to advancement that bypassed old landed values altogether. When the poet Theognis complained that money was now the root of all evil, it was because of the unrestricted upward mobility it offered.
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