Friday, December 30, 2016

Hail Kleisthenes

As I had mentioned I have been on an ancient Greek thing lately. I have made my way through the lion's share of Greek tragedies, Euripides through Sophocles, and have greatly increased my knowledge of both the culture and mythology. Herotodus next.

I have just finished reading Richard Billows book Marathon; How One Battle Changed Western Civilization. Marathon was a battle that occurred between the Athenians and the Persians in 490 b.c.e. in which a greatly outnumbered Greek force decimated the Persian invaders. The casualty count at the aftermath was 203 Greeks killed and 6400 Persians.

The battle itself was a strategic wonder. Armies of the time typically formed rectangular blocks of phalanxes and moved against each other en masse.

At Marathon the brilliant Greek General Miltiades devised a plan for lengthening the phalanx and forming two mobile wings, thinning the center position.

They ran towards their Median enemy, also uncustomary, and lessoned their exposure to Persian arrowshot. They managed to flank and encircle their enemy and win the day. Heavily outmanned, they won the battle with innovative strategy and superior weaponry and armor.

Following the battle the Athenian army climbed a steep mountain in full battle gear and ran back eighteen more miles to defend their seaport from a large flotilla of Persian ships, who then also retreated. An amazing story.

But while the book is ostensibly about a battle I also learned how important ancient Athens was to what we now know as modern democratic society.  Early Greece was compartmentalized into separate city states and ruled by kings, oligarchs and tyrants (tyrannos), hereditary aristocracies known as Eupatridai. The word tyrant is not what we hold it to be today, some of these autocratic rulers were kind and just.

In any case, an aristocrat named Kylon attempted to install himself as tyrant of Athens some time around 632 b.c.e. and was thwarted by a family called the Alkmaionidai. Kylon's family subsequently bribed the Oracle at Delphi, causing a curse to be put on the Alkmaionidai family.

The continuing disputes soured the Athenians' views of rulers and tyrants. They insisted that the Eupatridai codify and write down laws and instill them in a public place where ordinary citizens could read them.  In 621 an aristocrat named Drakon did just so but his laws were overly harsh, hence the modern term draconian.

Soon a new magistrate was appointed, named Solon, and he is one of the most important and visionary figures in developing democratic law the world has ever seen.

Solon was also a poet and wrote of the excessive greed of the wealthy. He seized the land of the aristocracy and divvied it up amongst the people who actually worked the land, a reform program known as seisachtheia or "throwing off a burden."

He created four separate property classes, the upper two were eligible to be magistrates and to sit on the Areopagos Council. While this seems slightly barbaric by todays standards prior to that land was only passed through descent.

Solon repealed Drakon's death sentence for trivial crimes, cancelled debts and mortgages and allowed families sold into slavery to pay off their debts and redeem themselves.

He obligated children to take care of their aging parents and instituted a system of weights and measures. Solon encouraged immigration and practiced amnesty.

Other innovators followed Solon, including Pesistratos, who created the Pananthenaia festival every four years, the basis for the modern Olympics. But the most important of all was a man named Kleisthenes, who might be the father of democracy as we know it today.

Kleisthenes reformed the Athenian system around 508. The people became the foundation for the government, citizens all had equal rights and they met in assemblies to decide and debate policy. The new system was called demokrateia or rule by the people.

The book delves into these reforms at length, read it if it sounds interesting and if nothing else you will get a better understanding of hoplite warfare. I found one portion quite interesting.

Every year at an assembly of 6000 citizens, the Athenian people would be queried if, in their opinion, there was a leader whose power was too great and a threat to democracy.

If the vote was affirmative that person would be exiled from Athens for a ten year period, without loss of property or civil rights, nor with any dishonor to his family. This power was called ostrakismos, which we now know as ostracism.

Maybe not such a bad idea for today's rulers. But we will have to do it by popular vote. It's much more demokratic.


Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

What an army!!! When you recycle the book back to the store, I'll take a
shot at it.

Blue Heron said...

Got this one at the library, not the Bottom Shelf. Going back today.

island guy said...

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has some interesting takes on standard understanding in our culture about Greek and Roman thinkers which I think you would like. His book (which Shawn recommended) 'Antifragile' goes over some of this in the course of setting up what he wanted to say about his main thesis, which is more about an resiliant systems and economic theory. His description of his own learning process is also fascinating and you probably are closer to him on that than anybody else I know.......

Blue Heron said...

Thank you Ricardo, High praise to be mentioned in that company. Will check antifragile out.