POLITICS IN CLASSICAL HELLAS – What did it mean in the early times?

WHILST it may seem an inane question to begin this work, without a firm grasp of what the concept of politics implied to those who lived in the Classical world, no deeper understanding of the systems and their subsequent effects and the struggles they brought about can be achieved to any significant level. The Hellenes had, at various times and in various areas of Hellas, experience of almost every possible form of governmental system that can be imagined. They used the whole gamut of social hierarchies and consequent economic and personal relationships as well as international relations – the Cold War was not an invention of the twentieth century and imperialist ambitions were not confined to early modern European kingdoms. Oligarchy, extreme wealth, radical democracy, tyranny and abject poverty were all part of what made Hellas into Hellas.

A key area to look at prior to anything else, however, is the physical geography of Greece, as this dictated certain boundaries as well as agricultural and economic output that in turn had a great effect on the political spheres of influence as well as whether states turned inward, looked outward in expansionism or turned to sea faring.

The majority of the Greek mainland is dominated by a rugged landscape of limestone mountain ranges, with the Pindus dividing the peninsula north – south. They divide the plains of Thessaly from Boeotia and Attika in the east and run along the littoral in the west. These mountains continue through Peloponnesos and out into the seas to form the Aegean islands with innumerable narrow valleys and gulfs separating the highest ridges. Fertile land is divided into small plains, there being very few large areas of fertile soil – there are no sweeping plains of high yielding land such as are to be found in the Italian peninsula or on the Black Sea littoral forming the modern day wheat fields of Ukraine. As such, where fertile soils did yield good crops, their importance in the ancient economy is hard to over estimate. An example is the Achaean Plain which sweeps down along the southern coast of the Gulf of Corinth or the Lakonian Plain in the Peloponnese which is encircled by high mountain ranges. Fertile soil on the Plains of Thessaly and Thrace or the littoral of Asia Minor was a true premium, and from early periods, dangerous journeys through the Bosphorus Straits to trade for wheat from Colchis across the Black Sea were undertaken to feed the populace of the poleis lacking in the requisite levels of food production.

The mountain ranges were not only a problem in depriving the populace of fertile arable land, however. They supplied natural barriers which gave a significant level of protection to the individual poleis and, although armies did traverse these mountains on invasion, they offered security from many prospective enemies due to the need to cross via narrow passes, allowing for much smaller forces to defend against a much more numerous aggressor, though not always with ultimate success – the perfect example of this is Leonidas and his 300 Spartans and a small contingent of allied troops holding back the might of Persia at Thermopylae in 480. The main result was, in the early period, an almost guaranteed level of isolation from the rest of the Hellenic world, allowing for majorly different political systems and societies to develop almost juxtaposed, separated from one another by a high mountain range. Evidently there were many other factors, but it is all too easy to underestimate the importance of the landscape in the creation of the interweaving complexities of the evolution of the Hellenic world, giving individuals a sense of definite rather than split loyalty, a defined political and economic centre of power and above all, a sense of belonging, however grudging that may have been for the poorest in society. Bradley puts it succinctly:

‘The corporate life of a polis – in which town and country were bound together – was enjoyed by all citizens, and the physical conditions enabled them to realise what they called autarkeia (self-sufficiency).’ (Bradley, Ancient Greece Using Evidence, CUP, 2001, 3)

The question of what defined a citizen is one to which I shall return; suffice to say at present that this was most certainly not the majority of the populace.

However, these all combined to lead to an ardent level of nationalistic outlook regarding the central poleis, and as such to an almost innate inability to produce any true form of internal unity amongst the Hellenes at any point – even under the threat of being swamped by the massive forces of the Persian Empire, there were poleis which remained neutral, others which joined the Pan Hellenic League and further ones which chose to medise in the face of the Great King’s military might, the major example being most probably Thebes, the dominant Boeotian polis. Quarrels and mutual distrust, even pure antipathy, frequently led to a ‘cold war’ or almost as often outright armed conflict being a common state of affairs in Hellas.

The paucity of arable land led to a level of expansionism over the seas which had probably never been seen until this point in the 8th and 7th centuries, where colonies, klerukhies and new poleis were set up at a tremendous rate in the scramble for land which could not only produce foodstuffs for the mother city, but also provided a much needed pressure release valve for a burgeoning populace, such being set up as far east as the Black Sea eastern littoral and as far west as Marseilles in France and even in Spain and Cyrene in North Africa. The mountains did provide deposits of fantastic quality marble which would be used in immense public building works, the northern stretches provided pine and cedar for almost inexhaustible supplies of fuel, the construction of houses and above all ships. Very early in their history, the Hellenes put their limited natural resources to their best use, demonstrating the nous for problem solving which was to become one of the greatest achievements of the Hellenic civilisation. However, perhaps the geographical situation that was to be the most influential in Hellenic growth was not the land, but the sea. The inaccessibility of so much of the Greek mainland due to the rugged landscape meant that the seas became almost a highway system for the Hellenes as they outgrew their limited land. The plethora of small islands gave stopping points for the ships as they travelled the seas with neither map nor compass, and easily became defensible colonial outposts or major players in their own right, such as Samos, Lesbos, Khios, Crete and Rhodes; indeed, archaeological evidence points to the Hellenes taking to the seas as early as the Neolithic period of prehistory. It can be easily argued that this outward looking attitude had an enormous effect on the social and philosophical developments of the poleis and frequent contact with the whole Aegean and eastern Mediterranean world gave the sea going Greeks an ability to accept new ideas, question ‘truths’ and think on a wider level than many of their contemporaries, though they still viewed themselves as superior to those around them. For example, it has been suggested that the hugely important concept of eunomia was at least influenced by the Egyptian concept of Ma’at, though was never given a divine incarnation as in the Twin Lands (Fadinger, V, in Gehrke and Möller, Vergangenheit und Lebenswelt, Tübingen, 1996, 179-218. This is, however a somewhat questionable assumption, seemingly tied in with the Greek idea of prōtos heuretēs – first discoverer, that each idea is discovered once and brought back from its point of origin by travellers.). The sea also brought a level of economic prosperity, easily visible in Athens and the surrounding area of Attika, whereas areas, which lacked the facilities for natural ports such as Thessaly, showed a much diminished level of development and prosperity in comparison. Plato refers to the colonists as being ‘swarms of bees’ and Thucydides makes the need for land a priority:

‘For they, especially those who had insufficient land, made expeditions against the islands and subdued them.’ (1.15.1)

The major poleis to send out colonists were Corinth, Megara, Eretria, Phocaea, Miletus, Akhaea and Khalkis. Their position on or near the coast was a common factor in all of these, as well as access to fertile land, but which was limited by unfavourable terrains or clashes with powerful neighbouring poleis, the former allowing for an expanding population which needed to have somewhere to go. The first colonies were set up in the Italian peninsula and on Sicily, just a short journey away from the Greek peninsula and the closest expanses of fertile land. To the east, the islands of the Aegean were the targets. Khalkis and Euboea founded Naxos (734), Leontini (728) and Katana; Corinth founded Syracuse (734), Akhaeans settled at Sybaris (720), Kroton (c. 710) and Metapontum (c. 700) on the Italian mainland. Eretria placed settlements in Khalkidike and along the coast of Thrace, and Megarans colonised Khalkedon (c. 687) and Byzantion (c. 660) on both sides of the Bosphoros while Miletus sent colonists to the littoral of the Black Sea.

The expansion in populace in the latter half of the 8th century, backed by archaeological evidence, shows that the need for fertile land was the major cause for these usually dangerous journeys and settling processes. It is know, for example, that Syracuse was settled by agrarian workers from Tenea who understood the importance of the fertile volcanic soils on Sicily. Hellenic tradition split lands equally between the male offspring rather than any concept of primogeniture inheritance, and a such it would appear that by this time, the parcels of land in the homelands were becoming too small to support the families. The importance of the agrarian workforce is emphasised by Aristotle some four centuries later:

‘…the largest class of men live from the land and the cultivation of the fruits of the earth.’ (Politics, 1.1256a)

The Hellenes themselves realised the problems of a surplus population, particularly in those areas which had no access to the sea and hence greater difficulties in sending their surplus citizenry abroad. Hesiod, a Boeotian, wrote in c. 700:

‘Let there be but one son to support the father’s household; in this way there will be an increase in wealth in that home.’ (Work and Days, 376-377)

Hesiod does, however, give another reason why the colonists were willing to undertake the hardships which their choice or obligation implied – the misuse of power by the ruling aristocracies who acquired fertile lands for their own benefit:

‘But let us resolve our dispute here with the true judgment which comes from Zeus and is thus best. For we have already divided up our parcel of land, but you seized and made away with the greater part by great flattery to the bribe devouring kings who wish to judge all such cases.’ (ibid, 35-39)

By kings he here means the basilēes, aristocrats who made the legal decisions and who doubtlessly encouraged the emigration of those who had lost their land as it removed a potential threat from the homeland, as well as putting the new colony under the rule of an aristocratic oikistes (founder) who most probably was not amongst those who had benefitted from such land seizures and therefore might potentially be a leader or organiser of any possible revolt through resorting to demagoguery.

Archaeological evidence in grave numbers gives a rough idea of the level of increase in population in Attika, where, over the period 800 – 700, there are approximately six times as many graves as in previous centuries. As it is over the hundred year period, short term causes, such as famine or pestilence, can most likely be discounted.

The polis is a much more complex institution to define than many of the other ancient civilisations’ concepts of the city due to the idea of political involvement by the citizen body. In Mesopotamia, the development of the urban metropolis was arguably the key factor in the evolution of the consequent governmental system (Yoffee, N, Myths of the Archaic State. Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States and Civilisations, Cambridge 2005, 42-62), whereas in Egypt, a near neighbour, the growth of the proto-urban settlements into great cities played very little role in the Pharaonic system. The Hellenes cast a radically different light on their poleis and politeia. This was due to the role of the citizen body and its highlighted part in the life of the polis. As Kōiv points out, ‘…the Greek polis was not only a city-state, but also a citizen state…’ (Urbanisation and Political Community in Early Greece, 151) Aristotle (Pol, 1274b-1275a1) stated that the polis was the citizen body, reiterating the earlier poets (Alkaios of Lesbos fr 112 ‘the men form the bulwark of the polis’ inter alia.).

Deciding what constituted the early polis is still hotly debated. Was it the city or the state – a tight, compacted group living in an urban settlement or a more incohesive group bound together by equal self interest on a wider geographic level? Whilst the former idea was accepted for the greater part of the 20th century AD, Finley challenged this in that, by the definition of a set, confined urban settlement, many poleis were insufficiently populated (The Ancient Greeks, London 1963, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, Harmondworth, 1983), though as far back as 1937, Ehrenberg raised the question (When did the polis arise? 1937) coming to the conclusion that the date for a polis structure should be placed somewhere in the 800s due to its absence in the Iliad but central importance in the Odyssey. De Polignac centres his argument for the polis around the major temples and sanctuaries along with the cult of the hero (La naissance de la cité greque, Paris 1984), emphasising the role of religious practice in the metropolis’ birth. Whilst the symbiotic connection between the polis as urbanisation and the polis as the politically active citizen body is relatively easy to trace in the Classical Era, it is a much more difficult problem to untangle when referring to the Archaic Era.

The only account for the processes involved in the mother polis for setting up a colony comes from much later in Herodotus’ retelling of both the Theran account and the Cyreneaean account of the colony’s foundation in North Africa. The only other evidence comes from a 4th century inscription at Cyrene itself granting equal rights for Theran citizens at Cyrene, reiterating the initial colonial agreement of c. 630. This is key in that it purports to contain the original wording of the 7th century settlers’ oath and the decree made by the Assembly at Thera.

Herodotus states that the Therans’ account of the colony begins with an oracle from Apollo issued at Delphi. As they were ignorant of Libya, they ignored the oracle and were cursed by a drought which purportedly lasted for seven years for not acting on the wishes of the god (4.151). After a second command from Delphi, the Therans ‘discovered where Libya lies’, and decided upon a colony. The key part of this lies in how the colonists were chosen by the Assembly:

‘The Therans decided to send out men, with brother being chosen by lot from brother, and with men chosen from all seven villages, and to appoint Battos as their leader and king. Thus they sent two fifty-oared ships to Platea.’ [This Platea was an island which lay just off the Libyan coast.] (4.153)

Two points stand out in this – that ‘brother was chosen from brother’, implying that there would remain enough men in Thera for the families there to continue and to carry out the work for which they were responsible, and that there were men from all the seven villages which composed Thera such that not one village bore an unfair, unequal burden of providing colonists – or possibly also to stop the entire population of a village choosing to head for pastures new, leaving a whole local area abandoned. It is the Decree from Thera which tells us of the punishments awaiting anyone who refused to sail out as a colonist:

‘Whoever refuses to sail, having been sent out by the polis, will be liable to the death penalty and his property will be given to the people. If anyone harbours or conceals him, whether it be a father protecting his son or a brother his brother, he will suffer the same penalty as the one who refused to sail.’ (ML 5)

Whilst this seems to be an exceptionally draconian punishment system, it does imply that the subdivisions of farmland on Thera had reached such extreme proportions that the situation was desperate.

There is further written evidence that colonists, when they found the life too hard through starvation or other difficulties, were driven back by the autochthonous people or were driven out by colonists from another polis, they were refused permission to return to the mother city. We are told that the Therans did chase off citizens who attempted to return, and we have further accounts that Eretrian colonists, evicted from Kerkyra by subsequent colonists from Korinth, were forcibly driven back by the Eretrians themselves and had to settle at a new colony of Methone in Khalkidike (Plutarch, Moralia, 293b – he further tells us that they were nicknamed ‘the slung out’).

These actions only underline the shortage of arable land to provide food for the growing populace and the desperate measure each mother city was forced to take to ensure the survival of their people (Buckley, Aspects of Greek History 750-323 BC Routledge, 2010, 34-35).

The social structure which built up around this period was generally rather localised, the basic unit was the oikia or household, which Forrest defines as:

‘…roughly a man, his children and his grandchildren – this at all levels in society except the slave.’ (The Emergence of Greek Democracy, World University Library, 1966, 51)

It is interesting to note that the available evidence shows this to have been apposite to every economic stratum in the social structure at the time. Above this came the genos or clan. A genos consisted of a group of oikiai who would all claim a common ancestor, so whilst still a familial group, one with much looser blood ties. In this, social classes did, however, differ in that high ranking, powerful genoi would often claim descent from either a hero or, for the most influential and powerful, even a god or goddess. This is in no way an unusual structure thus far; indeed it can easily be interpreted as being the logical and obvious grouping in a primitive society.

The next level was the phratry. Again, the name implies an underlying level of kinship amongst the group as etymologically it stems from phratros – brother. The level of kinship, however, at this level becomes much more tenuous, and in reality somewhat difficult to credit. The largest division in the social structure was the tribe which consisted of the grouping of a significant number of phratreis. Amongst Ionian communities there were generally four tribes and three amongst Dorian, though on rare occasions, there may have been a greater number of tribes due to later admissions to their local community. The recorded names of the tribes give the definite likelihood that the tribal system was something which had developed naturally in the days before the Doric invasions and, like the genos was a natural development due to the growing populations on mainland Greece, both through extended life expectancy and the influx of people after the invasion, but prior to the colonial population drift.

As Forrest has pointed out, though, the question arises as to where the phratry fitted in and how it developed prior to the late 9th century. Homer refers to the phratry in the Iliad:

‘Draw up your men by tribes and phratries, Agamemnon, that phratry may stand by phratry, tribe by tribe.’ (II, 362-3)

Where this term came from we do not know – it has been suggested that the original idea was based upon a brotherhood of warriors, a theory which does seem to link with the quote from the Iliad above, thereby allowing for a lack of blood kinship amongst the members whilst still allowing for a kinship of sorts through military bonds. By the 7th century the membership of a phratry and the necessity to prove that belonging became a prerequisite for the status of citizen.

The 7th century did see two key events at Athens, however: the Conspiracy of Kylon and the earliest law code laid down by Drako.

Kylon was an Olympic victor who, through his marriage, had connections to the tyrant of Megara, a certain Theagenes. With Megaran military backing, Kylon seized the Akropolis with the clear intention of becoming the tyrannos of Athens, but instead found that the Athenians turned against him and besieged him and his supporters. When the would be tyrannos and his brother escaped, however, his supporters took refuge at the altar of Athena claiming sanctuary. The nine arkhontes for the year guaranteed them safe passage and so, with a thread attached to the cult statue of the goddess, and therefore still under her divine protection, they came down from the Akropolis, only to be slaughtered by the arkhon Megakles and his supporters when the thread snapped, which showed that the protectress had withdrawn her sanctuary and thereby rendering the hapless supporters of Kylon open to the punishment meted out by the duly appointed arkhon. The demos, however, ever fearful of divine retribution, accused Megakles of sacrilege and expelled him, his family and the bones of his ancestors from Attika. Kylon himself plays no other role in the development of Athens, but this is the first appearance of a family that was to become one of the chief protagonists of the Athenian political drama – the Alkmaeonids, the family of Megakles – as this family would produce such great figures as Kleisthenes and Perikles.

The second event was the rather shadowy, perhaps mythical figure of Drakon sometime around 620. It is in certain quarters argued that, as drakōn is the Greek for snake, a sacred animal at the Athens of this time and worshipped in the temples on the Akropolis, the law code was in fact laid down by the priestly caste and imposed upon the Athenians, though, as Pomeroy has, somewhat light heartedly, put it, ‘If Britain can accommodate a politician named Mr. Fox, why deny Athens a Mr. Snake?’ (Pomeroy et al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social and Cultural History, Oxford, 2012, 191)

The law code of Drakon is legendary for its harshness and unforgiving attitude and has a main concern with the crime of murder; Plutarch states:

‘There was one penalty for just about all offenders: death, such that those convicted of idleness were put to death and those who stole vegetables or fruit received the same punishment as temple robbers or killers. As such, Demades, in later times hit the point when he said that Drakon’s laws were written in blood rather than ink. It is said Drakon himself, when he was asked why he fixed death as the penalty for most offences, answered by saying that he felt small offences deserved death and for greater ones he knew no greater penalty.’ (Solon, 17, 2-4)

It does, however have certain key, judicial reforms. The arbiter of the law is from this point on the state, not the family of the wronged party and there is a clear distinction brought in regarding the ‘blood guilt’ of intentional killing and non-intentional killing. Rather than compensation being set by the victim’s family and the perpetrator while the latter was under sanctuary in a temple, the case had to be prosecuted by the family or the deceased’s phratry in a court of law before duly appointed magistrates. The only other references remaining to the punishments laid down by the Draconian law code seem harsh in the extreme – death is the punishment for most offences, even as low as stealing a head of lettuce (though as, in times of direst need, a head of lettuce might mean the difference between eating and starving, it could be posited that the punishment did in fact fit the crime) – they did serve to make the state the ultimate judicial authority rather than allowing any one class (ie the Eupatridai) to make judgements on whim tied to personal links with any individual under trial, thereby giving advantage to the nobility over all others. The problem of debt bondage was still paramount, however, and was a sore in the minds of the peasantry which was growing ever larger and ever more septic.


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