Thursday, August 26, 2021

Ancient Athens: The Tyrant of Ancient Greece

The Athenians called their leader Pericles, Zeus Pericles. He had a thundering voice. When he spoke at the Athenian Assembly (the Agora), the crowd would have the feeling that Zeus was thundering at the mortals from heaven. Pericles used to appear at the Athenian Assembly bearing the arms traditionally associated with Zeus. Before beginning his speech, he would make a show of praying to the Gods. He was the longest lasting democratic leader of Athens—the period in which he led Athens, roughly from 461 to 429 BC, is known as the Age of Pericles.

When the Athenian assembly was in session, the mob of voters would gather in the assembly and create a ruckus. Scuffles between the political factions was a regular feature of the assembly—at times people would get injured or even killed. The noise at the Athenian assembly would be so great that unless a leader had a thundering voice he could not control the restive crowd and make himself heard. Cimon, the military general who was Pericles’s rival in Athenian politics for several years, is known to have complained that Pericles was favored by the Athenians because his voice was louder than mine.

Which class of individuals is capable of speaking in a thundering voice? Obviously, the military generals who have the experience of screaming orders to troops in battles. A civilian from a humble background had no chance of winning the support of the Athenian crowd because his voice would not get heard. From the sixth century BC, when the Athenian democracy developed, to 322 BC, when the Macedonians conquered Athens and wiped out the democratic system, every leader elected by the Athenians was a loud-talking warmongering military general.

Athens was a democracy in name only. It was a militaristic, aristocratic, and bloodthirsty republic. A series of powerful military families dominated Attica and held political office in Athens. Most voters were financially dependent on the military generals of aristocratic lineage who held the mortgages and controlled the land. The population of Athens was 250,000. Majority of the people were slaves who had no rights and lived in extreme destitution. Only about ten percent, about 25000 people, had rights and could participate in the government. The adult male citizens who had completed their military training had the right to vote.

Unless there was a war in which Athens performed well, the generals could not make a favorable impression on the mob of voters. For their own political survival, the generals of Athens had to get their city-state into new battles which they could quickly win in time for the next election. Only the generals who won in the battles went on to win the elections. The losing generals were either exiled or executed by the Athenian voters. The notion of checks and balances was not part of the Athenian system—the Athenian voters were truly sovereign. They could vote for the confiscation of anyone’s property, or having him exiled, or even executed.

Athenian democracy was the major cause of instability, violence, and warfare in the Balkans, South Europe, and the Levant. The Athenians fought battle after battle with Sparta for almost 150 years. Strange thing is that neither side could win a decisive victory during this period despite conducting a humungous slaughter of each other’s populations. The root cause of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks was always the Athenians. The Athenians did not have the military power or the political strategy to conquer Persian territory but they kept attacking again and again, like a bloodthirsty mosquito buzzing around a lion. They caused massive bloodshed, but they hardly ever won a significant territory outside the traditional boundary of Athens. 

In 478 BC, about 200 Greek city-states aligned to Athens met on the island of Delos and formed the Delian League whose purpose was to capture the vulnerable areas of the Persian Empire. But the Athenians turned the Delian League into their own Athenian Empire. They shifted the treasury of the Delian League from the island of Demos to the Acropolis in Athens. This move enabled them to use the funds belonging to the Delian League for their own purposes. They misused the Delian League’s military power to suppress the freedom of other city-states. If any city-state tried to leave the Delian League, the Athenians would attack it and slaughter its population.

In 446–445 BC, the Athenians enacted a policy mandating that all adult male citizens of the city-states that were a part of the Delian League had to swear an oath of loyalty to Athens. Such oaths of loyalty were inconsistent with the notions of autonomy and freedom in the ancient world. Even the Persian Empire did not demand such an oath of loyalty from its Greek allies. Other Greek city-states, including Sparta, regarded Athens as a violent tyranny which was aiming to impose its system of governance over all city-states. The slogan of the Spartans during their war with Athens was “freedom for all Greeks.” What they meant was—freedom from Athenian tyranny. They fought with Athens because they wanted to be free.

The naive and biased Western conservatives and libertarians of the modern age want people to think that the Athenian democracy was the first paradise of liberty on earth. But the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Thracians, and the Persians despised the Athenian democracy. They knew that Athens was the land of demagoguery, mob violence, instability, militaristic oligarchy, corruption, economic decline, and endless wars.

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