May 21, 2022

1. Pericles

I’d like to continue discussing Donald Kagan’s biography of Pericles.

Pericles built his power on a coalition of the lower class and the middle class. He reduced the power of the upper class, and made Athens fully democratic. To enable the lower class to sit on juries, attend assemblies, etc., Pericles paid them to do so. He also paid soldiers and sailors. Kagan says that more than 20,000 Athenians received pay at the same time. One might say that political affairs were a full-time occupation for many Athenians. “To a degree hard for us to grasp, politics was primary in the ancient Greek city, and the form of the constitution was understood and expected to shape the character of its citizens.”1

In addition to reforming the Athenian constitution and making Athens more democratic, Pericles set forth a vision for Athens, a “vision of a great city that gave meaning to the lives of all its citizens.”2 He tried to make the citizens proud to be Athenians. In his famous Funeral Oration, Pericles said,

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... 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....

And we have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirits many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and sacrifices throughout the year; our homes are beautiful and elegant; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps to banish sorrow. Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as our own....

Athens is the school of Hellas.... There are mighty monuments of our power which will make us the wonder of this and of succeeding ages.... We have compelled every land and every sea to open a path for our valor, and have everywhere planted eternal memorials of our friendship and of our enmity. Such is the city for whose sake these men nobly fought and died.3

While Pericles made Athens more democratic, some people were still excluded. “The Athenians limited the right to vote, hold office, and serve on juries to adult males who were citizens. Slaves, resident aliens, women, and male citizens under the age of twenty were denied these privileges.”

In the time of Pericles, there were some 40,000 citizens who could vote, hold office, etc. All 40,000 could attend the assembly, but since it was a long walk for many people, there were often about 5,000 people present. They would sit on the side of a hill called the Pnyx, while the speaker would stand on a low platform.

The Pnyx overlooked the Agora (marketplace), and some people preferred to linger in the Agora rather than come to the assembly. So all the exits from the Agora were closed except the one that led to the Pnyx, and a rope dripping with red dye was carried through the Agora, sweeping people to the assembly. Those who were stained by the dye were fined.

Meetings took place about once a week, “and special meetings were called when needed.” At the second meeting of each month, “anyone who wishes can address the people on whatever subject he likes, whether private or public.”4 Even the most critical decisions, such as how to cope with an invading army, were taken by the assembly, not by elected representatives. “There can be no stronger evidence of the full and final sovereignty of the Athenian people.”

The power of the popular assembly wasn’t limited by a judiciary or a constitution or a Bill of Rights. “Almost no constitutional barrier prevented a majority of the citizens assembled on the Pnyx on a particular day from doing anything they liked.” There was no President, no cabinet, no bureaucracy; “there was nothing that Americans would call an ‘administration.’”

But not all government business was conducted at the assembly. There was also a Council of 500, chosen by lot. The chief task of this Council was “to prepare legislation for consideration by the people.”

There were also ten generals, elected by the people for one-year terms (Pericles was one of these generals). Lest a general become too powerful, ten times a year the assembly would review the conduct of generals. So the Athenian democracy kept officials on a short leash.

While generals, naval architects, and a few other officials were elected, most Athenian officials were chosen by lot, in order to keep power in the hands of the people, and prevent an elite from controlling the city. Athens followed “the democratic principle that any citizen was capable of performing civic responsibilities well enough.” Among the officials chosen by lot were the Council of 500, treasurers, accountants, and purchasers. Kagan says, “To a degree that is amazing to the modern mind the Athenians kept the management of their public life in the hands of the ordinary citizen, away from professionals, experts, bureaucrats, and politicians.” William F. Buckley said, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty.” Buckley would have been happy in Athens.

The legal system resembled the legislature. There was a pool of 6,000 jurors; each day, certain jurors were assigned to certain cases. The usual number of jurors assigned to a particular case was 501. To avoid bribery and jury-tampering, “the Athenians evolved an astonishingly complicated system of assignments.”5

There were no lawyers, no judges, and no public prosecutor. Each side argued their case to the jury. “Anyone was free to hire a speechwriter to help him prepare his case, and the profession flourished, although it didn’t reach its peak until many years after the days of Pericles.” The jury voted by secret ballot without deliberating; cases were decided by majority vote. “No trial lasted more than a single day.... The Athenian system was simple, speedy, open, and easily understood by its citizens.”

If a guilty verdict was reached, “the plaintiff proposed one penalty, the defendant a different one; the jury voted to choose one of these but could not propose any other. Normally, this process led both sides to suggest moderate penalties, for the jury would be put off by an unreasonable suggestion.” When Socrates was convicted, he could have proposed a moderate penalty, and the jury might have opted for that. Instead, he proposed a trivial penalty, so the jury chose the plaintiff’s penalty, which was execution.

To discourage frivolous lawsuits, the plaintiff was fined if he didn’t win a certain percentage of the jury’s votes; “this must have served as a significant deterrent to frivolous, malevolent, and merely adventurous suits.”6

Kagan says that the Athenian legal system has some advantages over ours:

Whatever the merits of the Athenian legal system, and the Athenian political system, ancient writers were often critical. Plato, for example, said that the Athenians let anyone weigh in on affairs of state, though they allowed only qualified people to discuss the building of a house or ship. Plato valued learning over common-sense, knowledge over intuition. The Athenian government was based on the idea that politics isn’t a science, that one can’t be an expert at policy or justice, and even if one could be an expert in those fields, one might not use one’s expertise for the public good. Kagan thinks that the Athenian attitude was sensible: “It is not clear that the experience of the last twenty-five hundred years has shown [the Athenians] to be wrong.”

Kagan says that the Athenian assembly wasn’t “an ignorant multitude,” it was a group of people with vast experience, a group that had listened to many political arguments. People who were weren’t well informed would be deterred from speaking by “shyness and fear of embarrassment.”7

Kagan says that, like Plato, Aristotle and Polybius were critical of democracy, and believed that democracy was the rule of the mob, and led to confiscation of wealth, and cancellation of debts. Those who founded the U.S. were influenced by ancient opinion, and took a dim view of democracy. Madison wrote, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” The Founders tried to build a system that would check the power of the majority.

Kagan says that this negative view of democracy is contradicted by Athenian history. The Athenians didn’t confiscate the property of the wealthy. For almost 200 years, “Athenian democracy persisted and showed a restraint and moderation rarely equaled by any regime.”8 The Athenians respected private property, and their jurors swore, “I will not allow private debts to be cancelled, nor lands or houses belonging to Athenian citizens to be redistributed.”

But the negative view of democracy is not entirely without merit. The oath sworn by Athenian jurors shows that democracy had a tendency to do the very things that the oath prohibits — otherwise there would be no need for the oath. In other words, democracy had a tendency to abolish debts and confiscate wealth. This oath shows that the Athenians knew what vices democracies were prone to, and the Athenians were determined to prevent these things from happening.

Freud liked to quote the old saying, “Three things are impossible for man: to govern, to educate, and to cure.” Government is so difficult that every political system, when seen at close range, appears to be a failure. Those who experience democracy, like Plato, see its weaknesses, and often conclude that a different system would be better. But if they see a different system up close, they may well decide that it’s even worse. Plato had a special reason to dislike democracy: it had executed the man he respected most, Socrates.

* * * * *

At the outset of Pericles’ career, Athens became embroiled in a war known as the First Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 460 to 445 BC. I had never heard of the First Peloponnesian War, I had only heard of the “main” Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 BC. And then there are the Persian Wars, which lasted from 499 to 449 BC.

So many wars! So little peace! Greece seemed destined for constant war as long as it was divided into numerous city-states. Is it better to be part of a large empire, rather than to be an independent city-state constantly at war? If you’re part of a large empire, it’s less likely that you’ll be at war with neighboring cities; you might even enjoy a prolonged period of peace.

When was Greece’s Golden Age? Was it the age of Pericles, when war was frequent? Or was Greece better off when it became part of the Macedonian Empire (in 338 BC), and later when it became part of the Roman Empire (around 150 BC)?9

It’s difficult for democracy to function in a large empire; democracy seems more vibrant in a small state, where everyone feels that they can make a difference. But small states might make war more frequent. So it’s difficult to say when was the Golden Age of Greece, it’s difficult to say whether Greece was better off with small states, or as part of a large empire.

Herodotus wrote a famous account of the Persian Wars, Thucydides an even more famous account of the “main” Peloponnesian War, but there’s little information about the First Peloponnesian War, so Kagan must piece together his account as best he can. He begins by saying, “The First Peloponnesian War [was] a contest between the Delian League led by Athens and the Peloponnesian League under Spartan hegemony.”10

Since the Greek city-states were constantly at war, one can understand why the Spartans arranged their whole society around military training. If history is a series of wars, and if it’s better to win wars than to lose them, it’s not a bad idea to spend your life training for war.

Then why didn’t every city-state take this approach? Why did only Sparta decide that life should be a preparation for war? Around 725 BC, Sparta conquered its neighbor, Messenia, and turned the Messenians into slaves (helots). Helots outnumbered free Spartans (Kagan says helots outnumbered free Spartans “perhaps ten to one,” though this is hard to believe).

So the Spartans didn’t need to spend their time farming, trading, etc., since the helots did most of the work for them. On the other hand, the Spartans needed to be vigilant to prevent a helot revolt. While other Greek city-states needed military training to cope with foreign foes, Sparta had to cope with domestic foes (helots) as well as foreign foes. In the last issue, I mentioned that “An earthquake struck Sparta, and Sparta’s serfs (known as ‘helots’) had seized the opportunity to revolt. The helots had taken refuge on a mountain, and the Spartans were struggling to defeat them, so the Spartans appealed to the Athenians for help.” The Spartans had to be constantly ready for war, so they arranged all of life to prepare for war, and maximize their chance of winning.

While Athens fostered individual freedom, Sparta fostered individual sacrifice for the city, from the time of birth,

when state officials decided which infants were physically fit to survive. At the age of seven, each Spartan boy was taken from his mother and turned over to instructors who trained him in athletics and the military arts and taught him to endure privation, bear physical pain, and live off the country, by theft if necessary. At twenty, the Spartan youth was enrolled in the army and lived in barracks with his companions until the age of thirty. Bonding between generations was achieved by a homosexual liaison between a young man and an older man in which the physical relationship was supposed by be subordinate to the improvement of the younger man’s character by his older mentor. When this rite of passage was complete the physical relationship ended; the personal bond, however, was meant to last and helped tie the community together.

Marriage was permitted for these young men, but it was a strange sort of marriage. A young Spartan man could visit his wife only infrequently and then only by stealth. At thirty, the Spartan man became a full citizen.... He took his meals at a public mess in the company of fourteen comrades.... Military service was required to the age of sixty; only then could the Spartan retire to his home and family.

Should we infer that the Spartan boy had little contact with his father? The Spartan boy certainly had a lot of contact with his peers and with older men. Perhaps there were hazing rituals, as in armies and private schools. Homosexuality was common in Sparta, and it was probably common in Athens and other Greek cities, too.11

Spartan soldiers carried a large shield with their left arm, a long pike with their right arm, and a short sword at their waist. If they fled the battlefield, they would drop their shield, lest it encumber their flight. If they were victorious, they would come home with their shield. If they died, they would be carried on their shield. Courage was highly valued, cowardice was the greatest shame. A Spartan mother told her son to return “with his shield or on it.”

Thoreau alludes to this saying in Walden, when he describes a battle between red ants and black ants:

They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs. Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle-cry was “Conquer or die.” In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had dispatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus.12

Kagan concludes his remarks on Sparta thus:

The entire system was designed to change the natural feelings of devotion to wife, children, and family into a more powerful commitment to the polis. Privacy, luxury, and even comfort were sacrificed to the purpose of producing soldiers whose physical powers, training, and discipline made them the best in the world. Nothing that might turn the mind away from duty was permitted. Neither family nor money — coin itself was forbidden lest it corrupt the desires of Spartans — were allowed to interfere with the only permitted ambition: to win glory and respect by bravery in war.13

Should we view the wars between Sparta and Athens as “idea wars,” clashes between different political systems, different ways of life? If so, we might compare them to the Cold War between Communism and Capitalism, or we might compare them to the War on Terror between the U.S. and Islamic radicals.

Or should we view the wars between Sparta and Athens as “power wars,” struggles for power between two prominent states and their respective allies? If so, we might compare them to World War I, or to the “Punic Wars” between Rome and Carthage.

Or were the wars between Sparta and Athens both “idea wars” and “power wars”? How important is ideology/lifestyle as a cause of war? During the Cold War, there was friction between China and Russia despite their shared ideology (Communism). Perhaps “great powers” like Sparta and Athens are destined to clash, and differences of ideology/lifestyle exacerbate the conflict, but don’t cause it.14

The difference in lifestyle between Sparta and Athens was matched by a difference in military strategy: Sparta excelled at land war, and their army was boosted by troops from their allies, while Athens specialized in naval war, and their navy was boosted by ships from their allies.

When the First Peloponnesian War began in 460 BC, Athens was still embroiled in the Persian Wars, which didn’t end until 449 BC. Athens was battling Corinth, an ally of Sparta, while simultaneously sending a fleet of 200 ships to the Nile, to support a rebellion against Persia. Tackling both these challenges at once was, Kagan says, “more than a little reckless.” The Athenians and their allies fought against the Persians in Egypt for seven years (461 to 454 BC), and were eventually defeated, losing 8,000 men and 40 ships; Kagan calls it a “terrible disaster [that] shook the foundations of the empire and threatened the safety of Athens itself.” Such are the chances of war.

So the Athenians were fighting two wars at once — one against the Persians in Egypt, the other against the Corinthians. As if this weren’t enough, the Athenians became involved in a war against the island of Aegina, a large island near Athens, an island that “had once been the leading naval power in Greece.”

So Athens was fighting three wars at once, and was running short of manpower. Athens decided to enlist age-groups that normally weren’t enlisted — “boys under twenty and men over fifty.” Athens was victorious over both Aegina and Corinth, so Athens had some consolation for its loss to the Persians.

One advantage that Athens enjoyed was that Sparta was at odds with some of its neighbors on the Peloponnesus, such as Argos. Argos was now a democracy, and had concluded a treaty with Athens. In the western Peloponnesus, Elis and Mantinea had also become democracies, and Kagan thinks they sympathized with democracies like Argos and Athens, not with Sparta.

Around 460 BC, Argos and Athens defeated Sparta at a town called Oenoe. “It was not a great battle,” Kagan writes, “but to win any battle on land against the Spartans was a remarkable achievement. The Argives dedicated a group of sculptures to commemorate it at Delphi, and the Athenians put up a commemorative painting on the famous Painted Porch (Stoa Poikile) in the Agora, near the painting of the battle of Marathon.”15 (In Greece, painters were esteemed as highly as sculptors, but Greek paintings haven’t survived.)

As for Pericles, he was personally engaged in battles. Plutarch, one of the best sources of information about Pericles, says that in one battle, Pericles was “the most conspicuous of all in taking no care for his safety.” But if Pericles was willing to risk his own life, he was cautious with the lives of the soldiers under him; Kagan says that Pericles had a “well-deserved reputation as a cautious general, sparing of the lives of his men.”16

Kagan says that the Athenians reached “the height of their power” in 457 BC. Their fleet “dominated the Aegean without challenge.” The Delian League, which eventually became The Athenian Empire, was “loyal and secure and provided an annual revenue to support [the Athenian fleet].” The Athenians had allies on the Peloponnesus, on the isthmus between the Peloponnesus and Athens, and in the region north of Athens known as Boeotia. The Athenians also had a giant wall that ringed Athens, and ran down to the port of Piraeus.

But all this power and security made the Athenians somewhat headstrong, and made their foes nervous. Their chief foe, Sparta, was still a force to be reckoned with. And what if Persia decided to help Sparta? What if some members of the Delian League grew tired of Athenian domination, grew tired of paying tribute to Athens? Would Athenian power lead to hubris, and would hubris lead to nemesis?

Next Pericles

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1. p. 48 back
2. Ch. 3, p. 46 back
3. It can be argued that this speech, which is found in Thucydides, isn’t really by Pericles, it’s by Thucydides. But the important fact, in my view, is that Pericles tried to lead and inspire by presenting a vision of Athenian life, Athenian glory.

Notice how Pericles puts enmity on the same level as friendship (“eternal memorials of our friendship and of our enmity”). In our time, statesmen usually say “We don’t seek vengeance...” but Pericles says “We do seek vengeance.” He says of the dead, “None of these men... hesitated to resign the pleasures of life.... Deeming that the punishment of their enemies was sweeter than any of these things, and that they could fall in no nobler cause, they determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorably avenged, and to leave the rest.” I’m reminded of Homer’s remark, “Revenge is sweeter than honey” (quoted by Nietzsche in Genealogy of Morals, I, 14; Nietzsche mentions Pericles’ Funeral Oration in I, 11).

Christianity has taught us to love our enemies, and not to seek vengeance (“I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you...” Matthew 5:44). This doesn’t mean that we actually will love our enemies, but it does mean that we won’t speak of vengeance as openly as the Greeks did. We view vengeance as a vice, the Greeks classed it among the virtues. The Greek maxim was “help friends and harm enemies.” This maxim “pervades the whole of Greek literature from Homer to Alexander, and was a basic moral principle for determining behavior.” back

4. p. 52. I’m using the word “month” for the sake of simplicity. Actually “the official year” was divided into “ten periods,” and there were “four fixed meetings” in each period. back
5. p. 56 back
6. p. 57 back
7. p. 60 back
8. p. 61 back
9. As Gibbon said, “Whatever evils either reason or declamation have imputed to extensive empire, the power of Rome was attended with some beneficial consequences to mankind.... The tranquil and prosperous state of the empire was warmly felt, and honestly confessed, by the provincials as well as Romans.... They celebrate the increasing splendor of the cities, the beautiful face of the country, cultivated and adorned like an immense garden; and the long festival of peace which was enjoyed by so many nations, forgetful of the ancient animosities, and delivered from the apprehension of future danger.... If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian [96 AD] to the accession of Commodus [180 AD]. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” back
10. Ch. 4, p. 65 back
11. Was homosexuality connected to the custom of shaving (or plucking facial hair)? Shaving was a way for a young man (say, 22 years old) to look like a boy, or to look more feminine, and thus be more attractive to an older man. The custom of shaving probably came to Rome from Greece around 150 BC. “Pliny the Elder says that the Younger Scipio (died 129 B.C.) was the first Roman to shave every day.” Romans like Cato the Elder decried shaving as effeminate.

Kagan says, “For trade and the manufacture of whatever they needed, the Spartans relied on the perioikoi — people who lived in free communities in Laconia, gave control of foreign policy to the Spartans, and served under Spartan command in the army. For their food, the Spartans relied on the helots — slaves of the Spartan state who outnumbered the Spartans by at least seven to one, bitterly hated their masters, and, in the words of [Xenophon] ‘would gladly eat them raw.’”(pp. 139, 140) back

12. Thoreau was well versed in the lore and languages of antiquity. After talking with Thoreau, Hawthorne said he had a “high and classic cultivation.” back
13. Ch. 4, p. 68. The Spartan soldiers might be compared to the elite Ottoman soldiers known as Janissaries. Janissaries were taken from Christian families as children, and were “famed for internal cohesion.”(Wikipedia, “Janissary”) back
14. Kagan says, “The wars between Sparta and Athens that dominated the last six decades of the fifth century represented a struggle not only between great states but between competing ideas, political systems, and ways of life.”(p. 68) back
15. p. 75 back
16. p. 83 back