Political absenteeism in ancient Athens


The vastly celebrated Athenian democracy, still nowadays almost unanimously considered as the mother of all the modern forms of government unfortunately had its own flaws, perhaps less grave in terms of its overall design, but most certainly – and modernly manifest – in so far as its actual functioning was concerned. According to the Athenian Constitution every adult male citizen was admitted to the Ecclesia (General Assembly), thus – at least in theory – conservatively over 25,000 nationals could attend its discussion and deliberations. Nevertheless, in truth the actual number of participants was far lower: as 6,000 citizens were considered a sufficient quorum representing and expressing the political will of the polis; besides the venue where the meetings used to take place was on a hill near the Acropolis named Pnyx which, before its enlargement under Lycurgus in late IV century b.C., could hardly host more than 6,000 discussants.

Within this bare statistics it is quite remarkable the number of voices within the ancient texts which report the widely diffused lack of interest showed by the citizens towards the opportunity of personally taking part to the factual administration of the res publica. This social aloofness emerges in several unmistakable behaviours including non attendance to the ekklesia or other political/administrative bodies, non-participation in discussions and voting, retreating from public life and even the studied refusal of contacts with the state and its institutions and/or representatives – and this even when the polis was facing dangers, as Thucydides reports:

They also sent ten commissioners to Samos, who were to pacify the army, and to explain that the oligarchy was not established with any design of injuring Athens or her citizens, but for the preservation of the whole state. The promoters of the change, they said, were five thousand, not four hundred; but never hitherto, owing to the pressure of war and of business abroad, had so many as five thousand assembled to deliberate even on the most important questions.

Additionally drastic measures were taken in order to coerce citizens to attend the assemblies: the stores and workshops must be closed, the only streets open to the public access were those leading to the Pnyx, plus a leash painted with vermilion used to be carried around the agora so that those who were there loitering, together with those who were still lingering outside of the venue could be impressed in red by the rope and consequently pay a penalty. Something that could not prevent Prytanes, Archons and the Epistatae, who shared the care of holding and directing the assemblies of the people from being late, though. Thus some citizens were gathered to participate, even though very much reluctantly – as this Aristophanes’ personage:

Still it is the day of assembly; all should be here at daybreak, and yet the Pnyx is still deserted. They are gossiping in the marketplace, slipping hither and thither to avoid the vermilioned rope. The Prytanes even do not come; they will be late, but when they come they will push and fight each other for a seat in the front row. They will never trouble themselves with the question of peace. Oh! Athens! Athens! As for myself, I do not fail to come here before all the rest, and now, finding myself alone, I groan, yawn, stretch, break wind, and know not what to do; I make sketches in the dust, pull out my loose hairs, muse, think of my fields, long for peace, curse town life and regret my dear country home…

Yet, in spite of all these efforts, seemingly there were still serious difficulties in involving the citizen in the governance of the πολις, and even in reaching the deliberative quorum. So much as that an attendance fee for all the participants had to be introduced, as Aristotle comments:

The proposal to introduce payment for attendance at the Assembly was on the first occasion rejected; but as people were not attending the Assembly but the presidents kept contriving a number of devices to get the multitude to attend for the passing of the resolution by show of hands, first Agyrrhius introduced a fee of an obol, and after him Heracleides of Clazomenae, nicknamed the King, two obols, and Agyrrhius again three obols.

Clearly this remedy generated, although not miraculously, some more audience at the assembly meetings, nonetheless it concomitantly compromised its quality, as somehow Plato remarks:

I say, in common with the rest of the Greeks, that the Athenians are wise. Now I observe, when we are collected for the Assembly, and the city has to deal with an affair of building, we send for builders to advise us on what is proposed to be built; and when it is a case of laying down a ship, we send for shipwrights; and so in all other matters which are considered learnable and teachable: but if anyone else, whom the people do not regard as a craftsman, attempts to advise them, no matter how handsome and wealthy and well-born he may be, not one of these things induces them to accept him; they merely laugh him to scorn and shout him down, until either the speaker retires from his attempt, overborne by the clamor, or the tipstaves pull him from his place or turn him out altogether by order of the chair. Such is their procedure in matters which they consider professional. But when they have to deliberate on something connected with the administration of the State, the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none, and nobody thinks of casting in his teeth, as one would in the former case, that his attempt to give advice is justified by no instruction obtained in any quarter, no guidance of any master; and obviously it is because they hold that here the thing cannot be taught. Nay further, it is not only so with the service of the State, but in private life our best and wisest citizens are unable to transmit this excellence of theirs to others; for Pericles, the father of these young fellows here, gave them a first-rate training in the subjects for which he found teachers, but in those of which he is himself a master.

Unfortunately, apart from the necessary transition to the “representative democracy” things have not changed that much, considering the current statistics of young people seriously and effectively committed to politics, not to mention the very scarce amount of active voters – whose  paucity is likely second only to the dearth of newly ordered priests…

Basileus, wanax and king in Homer


The precise contextualisation of the Homeric poems is still to a certain extent inconclusive: many scholars have pursued this undertaking yet reaching rather hesitant results. The Mycenaean epoch, even though widely recognised as the social framework within which the splendid Homeric narrative masterly develops, seems to correspond only partially to the scenario where the highly celebrated heroes dwell. From the political standpoint, however, it can be almost confidently affirmed that the Homeric heroes’ functions and their institutions appear less sophisticated and bureaucratic than those we can infer from the archaeological findings related to the Mycenaean world. Actually, in spite of the detailed descriptions of warfare tools, strategies and attires which almost comply with civilisation of Mycenae, several social, political and religious beliefs, behaviours and rituals must be considered somewhat modern and definitely more recent.

For instance the Basileus represented into both poems is deemed only partly as the reproduction of the Mycenaean king; for he can also be considered the chief of any of those communities who survived the decay of that evolute pre-Greek culture. His government his principally based on recognised power and strength rather than acclaimed wisdom and proved judgement. As Hector sustains talking about his son to his wife Andromache:

But he kissed his dear son, and fondled him in his arms, and spoke in prayer to Zeus and the other gods: “Zeus and ye other gods, grant that this my child may likewise prove, even as I, pre-eminent amid the Trojans, and as valiant in might, and that he rule mightily over Ilios. And some day may some man say of him as he cometh back from war, ‘He is better far than his father’; and may he bear the blood-stained spoils of the foeman he hath slain, and may his mother’s heart wax glad.

And as hopeless Telemachus laments before the Ithacan assembly enduring the long lasting siege perpetrated by Penelope’s suers:

For there is no man here, such as Odysseus was, to ward off ruin from the house. As for me, I am no-wise such as he to ward it off. Nay verily, even if I try I shall be found a weakling and one knowing naught of valour. Yet truly I would defend myself, if I had but the power

And as proudly Nausicaa claims the praises of her father king Alcinous when she meets Ulysses for the first time:

The Phaeacians possess this city and land, and I am the daughter of great-hearted Alcinous, upon whom depend the might and power of the Phaeacians.

The Homeric Basileus, similarly to the Mycenaean wanax, besides exercising his ruling functions is primarily in charge of the army and derives his powers directly from the Gods, as Odysseus points out to the assembly of the generals:

In no wise shall we Achaeans all be kings here. No good thing is a multitude of lords; let there be one lord, one king, to whom the son of crooked-counselling Cronos hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgments, that he may take counsel for his people.

The same creed is corroborated by Nestor when he speaks before a restricted counsel held in Agamemnon’s (commander in chief of the Achaean forces) tent:

He with good intent addressed their gathering and spoke among them: “Most glorious son of Atreus, Agamemnon, king of men, with thee will I begin and with thee make an end, for that thou art king over many hosts, and to thee Zeus hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgements, that thou mayest take counsel for thy people. Therefore it beseemeth thee above all others both to speak and to hearken, and to fulfil also for another whatsoever his heart may bid him speak for our profit; for on thee will depend whatsoever any man may begin.

What particularly strikes is the greatly confounding contrast between the description of Alcinous’ kingdom and residence – which strongly reminds of a typical palatial socio-political structure – and Ulysses’ realm:

Odysseus went to the glorious palace of Alcinous. There he stood, and his heart pondered much before he reached the threshold of bronze; for there was a gleam as of sun or moon over the high-roofed house of great-hearted Alcinous. Of bronze were the walls that stretched this way and that from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and around was a cornice of cyanus. Golden were the doors that shut in the well-built house, and doorposts of silver were set in a threshold of bronze. Of silver was the lintel above, and of gold the handle. On either side of the door there stood gold and silver dogs, which Hephaestus had fashioned with cunning skill to guard the palace of great-hearted Alcinous; immortal were they and ageless all their days. Within, seats were fixed along the wall on either hand, from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and on them were thrown robes of soft fabric, cunningly woven, the handiwork of women. On these the leaders of the Phaeacians were wont to sit drinking and eating, for they had unfailing store. And golden youths stood on well-built pedestals, holding lighted torches in their hands to give light by night to the banqueters in the hall. And fifty slave-women he had in the house, of whom some grind the yellow grain on the millstone, and others weave webs, or, as they sit, twirl the yarn, like unto the leaves of a tall poplar tree; and from the closely-woven linen the soft olive oil drips down. For as the Phaeacian men are skilled above all others in speeding a swift ship upon the sea, so are the women cunning workers at the loom, for Athena has given to them above all others skill in fair handiwork, and an understanding heart. But without the courtyard, hard by the door, is a great orchard of four acres, and a hedge runs about it on either side. Therein grow trees, tall and luxuriant, pears and pomegranates and apple-trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. Of these the fruit perishes not nor fails in winter or in summer, but lasts throughout the year; and ever does the west wind, as it blows, quicken to life some fruits, and ripen others; pear upon pear waxes ripe, apple upon apple, cluster upon cluster, and fig upon fig. There, too, is his fruitful vineyard planted, one part of which, a warm spot on level ground, is being dried in the sun, while other grapes men are gathering, and others, too, they are treading; but in front are unripe grapes that are shedding the blossom, and others that are turning purple. There again, by the last row of the vines, grow trim garden beds of every sort, blooming the year through, and therein are two springs, one of which sends its water throughout all the garden, while the other, over against it, flows beneath the threshold of the court toward the high house; from this the townsfolk drew their water. Such were the glorious gifts of the gods in the palace of Alcinous. There the much-enduring goodly Odysseus stood and gazed. But when he had marvelled in his heart at all things, he passed quickly over the threshold into the house.

Especially when compared Odysseus’ domains and patrimony, which albeit devotedly praised by his servant Eumaeus – who considers his masters’ possessions boundlessly abundant – seem quite distant from requiring and actually having a Minoan and/or Mycenaean palatial organisation and bureaucracy:

Verily his substance was great past telling, so much has no lord either on the dark mainland or in Ithaca itself; nay, not twenty men together have wealth so great. Lord, I will tell thee the tale thereof; twelve herds has he on the mainland; as many flocks of sheep; as many droves of swine; as many packed herds of goats do herdsmen, both foreigners and of his own people, pasture. And here too graze roving herds of goats on the borders of the island, eleven in all, and over them trusty men keep watch.

Ultimately it seems that the Homeric society is rather a melange of different stages of proto-Greek and pre-classic Greek world, starting from the Mycenaean era to the more recent period were the poems are believed to have been composed: thus embracing at least three-four centuries of slow evolution/involution – as this period includes what is commonly defined the Greek Dark Age. These mixed traditions and their scenery concoction, most likely due to the sedimentary oral composition of the poems, narratively blend elements and situations that historically could have never concomitantly existed, perhaps poetically enhanced by Homer’s frequent romantic glances to the good old mythical and Mycenaean days.