EUNOMIA – Was it ever only the impossible Greek dream?

THE concept of the necessity for an ideal cosmic balance based on good order and truth was found in many ancient societies and, discounting the Hellenic idea of prōtos heuretēs, it could be seen as the single major aspiration of the earliest societies; remember in Egypt ‘good order’ was seen as being so intrinsically important for the correct functioning and therefore survival of society, that it was deified in the goddess Ma’at, represented by the Feather of Truth and against which all things, including the heart of a deceased who wished to enter the Fields of Reeds, were weighed and measured. The opposite, chaos through a lack of Ma’at was symbolised by the Red Land, the desert realm of the god Sutekh, and was the ultimate anathema for all Egyptians. The idea in Greek became the more philosophical term eunomia and its opposite dusnomia, the Hellenes not deifying either of the concepts. The key difference which existed between the Egyptian Ma’at and the idea of the Hellenic eunomia lies, in the words of Raaflaub, in that:

‘… ‘vertical solidarity’ typical of ma’at (that is, the responsibility of the strong and powerful for the well being of the weak and powerless) is less important in Solon’s thought and reforms than ‘horizontal solidarity’ in the community (that is, the citizens’ responsibility for each other).’ (Early Greek Thought in its Mediterranean Context in Greek and Roman Political Thought, 50)

It seems fully to support Berger and Luckman’s statement that ‘All societies are constructions in the face of chaos.’ (Berger & Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, New York, 1967, 11)

It was the desire to instigate Kosmos in its original sense; Order, or that which is brought about by eunomia in the face of dusnomia.

Here, it is clear that the Greek term gave equal responsibility to every member of society for the care and protection of his fellow citizens, implying, again, the importance of citizen participation in all aspects of the good running of the poleis rather than the social responsibilities of the upper echelons of society to guard and protect their inferiors in the social hierarchy such as existed in Egypt. Eunomia was de facto the duty of each individual who constituted part of the citizen body for the Hellenic mind, whatever that role be – hence why Herodotus’ Tellus is able to be content with what he has in his limited horizons and his ‘glorious’ death as they both signify his having played his part in the eunomia of the polis. Eunomia was, it would appear, something brought by the metrioi or mesoi, the middle men in society, not something brought by the greed of the wealthy, nor the struggling poor, though it would be through that eunomia that all would ultimately benefit, counteracting the oligarchy of the aristocrats and avoiding the okhlokratia, mob rule, of the poor.

  Perhaps the best definition of what eunomia meant to the Hellenes comes from Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics:

‘We deliberate not about ends, but about what promotes ends. A doctor, for example, does not deliberate about whether he will succeed in curing or an orator as to whether he will persuade, or a politician if he will produce eunomia – good order – as his telos – ultimate goal.’ (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1112b14)

This ultimate goal of all politicians must be and surely remain eunomia. In Politics he says that political regimes can only be properly discussed in the light of being successfully run through the practice of eunomia. (Aristotle, Pol. 1260b30) These are evidence that eunomia was the main principle in the running of the best of political regimes; it was not a system in itself but a principle, and that, by inference it was not a principle confined to Athens – Aristotle was examining the best political regimes [plural], not one singular regime. Furthermore, both Herodotus and Thucydides use the term in reference to the reforms of Lykourgos of Sparta. (Hdt. 1.65-66, Thuc. 1.18.6)

Eunomia was, again by inference, a pan-Hellenic concept in the ideal and well run society, whatever its basic tenets – after all, there can have been few more disparate systems than Athens’ radical democracy and the militaristic diarchy in Sparta. Plato overtly stated that his ideal society was ‘eunomos polis’ in both the Republic and Laws and in Definitions categorises it as ‘the obedience to noble laws’ (413e1 peitharkheia nomōn spoudaiōn) – the laws must be good, and they must be obeyed. (Aristotle, Pol. 1294a1ff – ‘But eunomia does not exist if the laws, however well established, are not obeyed. Thus we must take eunomia to exist in one way when the established laws are obeyed, and in another when the laws are in fact obeyed are well established – for even badly established laws may be obeyed.’)

There is, however, a caveat in the use of the term ‘law’. Greek uses two terms, thesmos and nomos. Ostwald puts it that the former, thesmos, is ‘…something imposed by an external agency, conceived as standing apart and on a higher plane to the ordinary…’ whereas the later term, nomos, dates from the 5th century and has the implication of something ‘…motivated less by the authority of the agent who imposed it than by the fact that it is regarded and accepted as valid by those who live under it.’ (Ostwald, M, Nomos and the beginnings of Athenian Democracy, Oxford, 1969, 55)

This is a key difference in interpretation when examining the primary texts – were the laws being referred to thesmoi or nomoi? Both words are generally translated as ‘law’, but nomos held a wider connotation in that it implies ‘by custom’. MacDowell puts it succinctly:

‘…it [nomos] is the term for a norm of action recognized by a society, what is agreed to be the right thing to do. So the use of this word does not necessarily mean that a particular rule has been written down. Nevertheless, by the fourth century nomos was the normal word for a statute, a law published in writing and validated by a political process.’ (MacDowell, DM, The Law and Classical Athens, Cornell, 1978, 44)

This shows an evolution and change in the concept of laws between the codes of Drakon and Solon, at which time thesmos was the written law code and nomos the laws of tradition; in other words, the gradual change to the democratic processes of government is reflected in the lexical change from the imposed law of thesmos to the agreed and therefore accepted law of nomos which in turn underlines the process of inclusion and participation to bring isonomia as opposed to the imposition of bad laws or unaccepted laws by either a king, an oligarchy or, as in the two cited cases, a law giver. Indeed, Ostwald (ibid) has gone as far as to suggest that the change in terminology was not a gradual evolution but rather a definite act of policy on the part of Kleisthenes, though this will inevitably remain a proposition which is impossible to prove or disprove.

The third method of making laws, or rather decrees, was through a proposition put to the Boulē by a private citizen and passed by vote by the Ekklesia. Such a law was termed a psephisma (from psephos; a pebble). The sources show an overlapping of the terms in the 5th century, nomos referring to the old laws such as those of Solon which had been imposed and psephismata referring to those passed by the Ekklesia in more recent times, again underlining the differences in the pre democratic period and the democratic period. In addition, the fact that the law of nomos would be inscribed on either wooden or stone tables and erected in the agora whereas the psephismata only were if the intention were that they become nomoi does seem to demonstrate a difference in the concept of the two different system (or occasionally three if a speaker chose to refer to the archaic term Thesmos in order to underline the antiquity of a law) for the contemporary populace at Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries.

A further implication lies in the fact that the Hellenic tyrannies and monarchies are never described using the term eunomia, though Spartan diarchy is (cf above), giving the idea that neither of these is a system which combines good laws with proper obedience by choice, an idea built in to the Greek word peitharkheia. From this we can intuit that eunomia held the wider connotation of voluntary obedience, participation in society and each individual citizen playing his role in the successful functioning of the running of that society, something which must have been part of the constitutional make up of Aegina, Korinth, Thebes, Sparta, Crete, Megara, Lokris and Opous as these cities are cited as examples of eunomia. (Though it is interesting to note that Hdt, 2. 124 refers to Egypt, a theocratic monarchy, as being pasan eunomiēn – well governed in every respect – until the beginning of the reign of Khufu, a renowned tyrannical ruler and builder of the Great Pyramid. This information he claimed to have gleaned from the Priests of Thoth.)

Ergo, though monarchy, aristocracy, tyranny, democracy was apparently the standard evolutionary process, it was in the states where the knowledge of belonging, the knowledge of the state, that brought the voluntary obedience to good law and therefore the balance of eunomia as opposed to the imbalance of dusnomia; in other words, Kosmos achieved Nomos through the process of Eunomia. In order to attain this, it can well be conceived that the right of the individual citizen to address his fellow citizens in the Ekklesia (isēgoria) and to speak freely (parrhēsia) would have been an integral part of that process. This was most certainly not something which suddenly appeared under Solon through one singular piece of legislative and constitutional reform; indeed, the lawgiver mentions that Assembly before which he laid down his proposals of reforms. (Fr. 36 in Ath Pol, 12.4) Whilst the pre reform power may have lain principally in the hands of the eupatridai, they did not dominate the meetings of the Ekklesia. (Wallace, R Revolutions and a New Order in Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, UCP, 2007, 64-65)

Solon brought the eunomia of the state by granting what he classed as fair reforms to the demos, yet still reigning them in; he

‘…argues the case of each side in turn against the other and goes on to exhort them to join in putting an end to the quarrel that had arisen.’ (Ath Pol, 5.2)

Eunomia required that both sides feel equally treated and that no particular level of favouritism be shown to either side – limiting the eupatridai, but avoiding the okhlokratia – mob rule, a situation which eventually placed a great level of control in the hands of what today would be termed a ‘middle class’ who were wealthy enough not to be overly influenced by the wealthy, nor of such small numbers as to be intimidated by hoi polloi as cited in Thucydides, Book 8, though complex evolutionary processes were required before this was achieved.

Solon’s social and economic reforms were not enough, however and therefore did not achieve the eunomia as the tyranny of 561 has proven, though, if we accept the sequential development of monarchy, aristocracy, tyranny, democracy, then the rule of the tyrant was an intrinsic step in the institution of the eunomia so emphasized in the ancient sources. Peisistratos’ rule was, however, what we would describe as benevolent. He ‘administered everything according to the laws;’ (Ath Pol, 16.8 also Hdt 1.59.6 and Thuc. 6.54.6) he showed a concern for the poor underclass, especially those in the agricultural world by granting loans, (Ath Pol, 16.2-3) though Aristotle does hint that this was to keep them in the rural areas and therefore much less concerned with the political realities in the polis proper. Peistratos himself was viewed as what modern news media might term ‘the people’s tyrant’ – a somewhat bizarre concept nowadays, but, with the positive view painted of the tyrant by the ancients, (Ath Pol, 16.7 ‘an age of Kronos’ ie a golden age) not odd for the contemporary Athenian populace who now had a level of economic prosperity. Hippias and Hipparkhos, his sons and successors, were credited with bringing poets to Athens such as Anakreon of Teos and Simonides of Keos – Ath Pol, 18.1 describes Hipparkhos as philomousos – a lover of the arts, though the other adjective, erotikos – of an amorous nature – was to be an intrinsic part of his assassination by Harmodios and Aristogeiton due to what can only be described as a lovers’ quarrel. 

The governance of Hippias and Hipparkhos began as a well organized and reconciliatory system. The list of arkhontes, though fragmentary, does make it clear that in 525/4 Kleisthenes, a member of the Alkmeonidai, served showing that the exile for the family was not only lifted, but that the political life was once again open to them. Further proof comes the following year with the archonship of Miltiades of the Philtaidai, another family who had been opposed to the tyranny. (ML 6)

Despite the fact that the Alkmaeonidai are known to have been in exile again prior to 512, this does show the apparent open nature of the rule at the start. There is further evidence that the policies of their father in both domestic and foreign affairs were continued by the sons until Hipparkhos – the erotikos – offended a young couple, Harmodios and Aristogeiton. The former is said to have rejected the advances of Hipparkhos, who took revenge by refusing Harmodios’ sister the right to participate in the Panathenaia festival. Such a public slight to family honour was not to be ignored and they in turn took their revenge.

Hipparkhos was assassinated in 514, after which Hippias assumed full control in Athens. Hippias’ government took on a front which we would much more associate with a tyranny. The popular tyranny was to be brought down as a result of a jealousy in love, resulting in the intervention of Sparta and the Kleisthenic reforms.

The tyranny was to last until 511/10 when ‘Harmodios and [Aristoge]iton killed [Hippa]rkhos the successor to Peisistratos and the Athenians expelled the Peisistraridai from the [P]elargic wall, 248 years, when the archon at Athens was Ha[r]p[aktides].’ (MP, epoch 45 in Harding, P, The Story of Athens Routledge, 2006, 96)

  The people now rejected the tyrant and his fully tyrannical rule of proscriptions, revenge, militaristic attitude and his turning towards the emerging power of Persia. It was the exiled Alkmaeonidai who were to lead the movement for the removal of Hippias, something which the Athenians, who now viewed the executed Harmodios and Aristogeiton as attempted liberators, were ready to support. They failed on their own, being heavily defeated at the Battle of Leipsydrion in the region of Akharnae and therefore widened their search for support. This they achieved by an act of piety. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, one of the most sacred sites in Hellas and home of the Pythia, Apollo’s chosen mouthpiece, through whom oracles were issued after interpretation by the priests – a priesthood with which the Alkmaeonidai had close contacts – had burnt down through accident. The sum required for its reconstruction was set at 300 talents, though only approximately a quarter of this was raised through a subscription for all the Hellenic poleis, this including, according to Herodotus (2.180), 100 talents of alum to protect timber from the Pharaoh of Egypt, Amasis. The rest of the funding was supplied from the wealth of the sacred site. The Alkmaeonidai took on the contract and, despite stone for the frontage being stipulated, they paid for it to be made from Parian marble at their own cost. After another slightly more successful attempt to take Athens under arms, managing to seize Leipsydrion on the spurs of Parnes, they turned to the Oracle to help. The Spartans, particularly pious amongst the Hellenes, received the same answer every time they asked for the god’s aid – ‘First free Athens’. This did put the Spartans in an awkward position. Peisistratos had cultivated the xenia – political friendship – with Sparta; breaking such would be a difficult decision. However, the command of the god on a spiritual level and the concerns over Hippias’ contacts with the Persians on  a political level were enough to overcome any misgivings amongst the pious Spartans; indeed, according to Schubert:

‘Die Machtstellung Spartas war in dieser Zeit unangefochten; Sparta konnte das peisistratidische Athen durchaus als abgehängige Polis betrachten.’

(Schubert, C, Athen und Sparta in klassischer Zeit, lehmanns, 2011, 15 ‘Sparta’s position of power at this time was indisputable; Sparta could choose to treat the Athens of the Peisistradidai as a dependent polis.’)

The first Spartan expeditionary force was routed, but a second, led by the king, Kleomenes, easily defeated the Thessalian cavalry which had saved Athens the first time and captured Hippias on the Akropolis. They further captured Hippias’ children, whom he was sending to safety outside of Attika, forcing the tyrant to surrender. Hippias was granted five days to take his entire family and household away and never to return, a pillar of atimia being set up on the Akropolis depriving the Peisistratidai of all rights in perpetuity. For the later Athenians, this was their day of liberation, and a short while later, a commemorative statue of the ‘Liberators’, carved by Antenor, was set up in the agora.

This ‘freedom’ did, however, serve to resurrect the social and political problems which had lain dormant for the best part of five decades under the tyranny. In 510, it became obvious that there was a need for a further reformation of the Solonic code in order that it be practicable and the foundation of a truly democratic system; the need for eunomia was as great as it had been in the post Solonic period. The difficulties showed themselves in the renewed conflict in desires at least between the Plain and the Coast, though this time under new leaders – Kleisthenes of the Alkmaeonidai and Isagoras.


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