Political absenteeism in ancient Athens

athena-politics

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…

Proud faith in democracy

akropolis-athens

In these last weeks a sudden and unexpected wave of optimism, proud patriotism and faith in the power of democracy has moved on and been spreading almost all over the world. The glowing hopes and the great expectations for the time to come seem to have overcome even the most deep rooted scepticism.

Indeed attachment and loyalty to the community had an extraordinary significance especially in the ancient world, it was a sacrosanct duty and certainly had a remarkable influence on citizens and politicians alike. Patriotism was also the most effective means of cohesion, perhaps the true basic proviso able to achieve – or at least to grant the preconditions of – social stability and widespread respect for the laws and institutions.

In truth there are quite several examples in ancient Greek literature of expressions of  the pride to belong to a community and praising its foundations and traditions. Very likely the most famous eulogy to one’s country and frank praise of democracy is Pericles’ speech to commemorate the Athenian soldiers who perished in the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-430 b.C.). This episode is masterly narrated by Thucydides and, albeit according to his writing style it cannot be considered utterly authentic: meaning not a true and fair journalistic report of the facts, it certainly is a honest artistically well structured and written memoir of this outstanding actual event. During this tribute the supreme στρατεγος took the opportunity not simply to condole the parents, wives and children of the war victims, but also to celebrate the institutions of his πολις, its social and political achievements and its remarkably highly advanced customs and lifestyle: a model for the other Greek πολεις – and, as we have then well learnt, altogether a most refined and enlightened civilisation leadership under whose influence we still live today:

“I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour… but what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men…

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life… But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

… We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger… And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger…

In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause.

Not so rarely, even the Greek tragedies of the V century b.C. report plain hints of acclamation towards the achievements of Athens and the nationalistic courage of its citizens and soldiers. In the Persians, written by Aeschylus in 472 b.C., the plot’s background is the naval victory the Greeks (lead by the Athenians) on the Persians in the waters of Salamina in 480 b.C.; Aeschylus places the tragic leverage on showing the events under the perspective of the defeated army and court: Xerses, his mother Queen Atossa and thus the whole dialogues among the Persians aim at amply show the enormous differences between the two contenders:

ATOSSAYou, its first interpreter, have indeed read the meaning of my dream with goodwill, at least, toward my son and house. May the outcome then prove beneficial! When I return to the palace, I will perform for the gods and my dear ones beneath the earth all those rites which you recommend. Meanwhile, my friends, I would like to learn where Athens is located.

CHORUSFar from here, to the west where the last rays of our Lord the Sun set.

ATOSSACan it then really be that my son had the keen desire to make this city his prey?

CHORUSYes, for then all Hellas would be subject to the King.

ATOSSADoes their army have such a multitude of men?

CHORUSYes, it is an army of such magnitude that it has caused great disaster for the Medes.

ATOSSAAnd what else have they besides? Do they have sufficient wealth in their homes?

CHORUSOf silver they possess a veritable fountain, a treasure chest in their soil.

ATOSSAIs the bow-stretching arrow particularly suited to their hands?

CHORUSFar from it; they have lances for close fight and shields that serve them for armour.

ATOSSAAnd who is set over them as shepherd and is master of their host?

CHORUSOf no man are they called the slaves or vassals.

ATOSSAHow then can they withstand the attack of an invading foe?

CHORUSSo well as to have destroyed Darius’ great and courageous host.

ATOSSAIn truth, your words have given the fathers and mothers of those who are now on their way there dire food for thought.

CHORUSNo, rather I think that you will soon learn the truth of the matter. For here comes one who is beyond a doubt a Persian courier. He bears clear tidings of some issue, be it good or bad.

A more accurate praise of Athens democratic foundations and their social and political success in governing the golden πολις, is plainly stated by Euripides in his Suppliants (424 b.C.), where the author compares the institutions of Thebe with the constitution of Athens. Within the plot Theseus, king of Athens, confronts the messenger of Creon (the king of Thebe) explaining to him what were – and still are – most unanimously considered the greatest attainments of Athens’ democracy:

THEBAN HERALDWho is the tyrant of this land? To whom must I announce the message of Creon who rules over the land of Cadmus, since Eteocles was slain by the hand of his brother Polyneices, at the sevenfold gates of Thebes?

THESEUS - You have made a false beginning to your speech, stranger, in seeking a dictator here. For this city is not ruled by one man, but is free. The people rule in succession year by year, allowing no preference to wealth, but the poor man shares equally with the rich.

THEBAN HERALD - You give me here an advantage, as in a game of checkers; for the city from which I come is ruled by one man only, not by the mob; no one there puffs up the citizens with specious words, and for his own advantage twists them this way or that, one moment dear to them and lavish of his favours, the next harmful to all; and yet by fresh calumnies of others he hides his former failures and escapes punishment. Besides, how would the people, if it cannot form true judgments, be able rightly to direct the state? No, it is time, not haste, that affords a better understanding. A poor farmer, even if he were not unschooled, would still be unable from his toil to give his mind to politics. Truly the better sort count it no healthy sign when the worthless man obtains a reputation by beguiling with words the populace, though before he was nothing.

THESEUSThis herald is a clever fellow, a dabbler in the art of talk. But since you have thus entered the contest with me, listen awhile, for it was you that challenged a discussion. Nothing is more hostile to a city than a despot; where he is, there are first no laws common to all, but one man is tyrant, in whose keeping and in his alone the law resides, and in that case equality is at an end. But when the laws are written down, rich and weak alike have equal justice, and it is open to the weaker to use the same language to the prosperous when he is reviled by him, and the weaker prevails over the stronger if he has justice on his side. Freedom’s mark is also seen in this: “Who has wholesome counsel to declare unto the state?” And he who chooses to do so gains renown, while he, who has no wish, remains silent. What greater equality can there be in a city?

Again, where the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having a reserve of youthful citizens, while a king counts this a hostile element, and strives to slay the leading men, all such as he thinks discreet, fearing for his power. How then could a city remain stable, where one cuts short all enterprise and mows down the young like meadow-flowers in spring-time? What good is it to acquire wealth and livelihood for children, merely to add to the tyrant’s substance by one’s toil? Why train up daughters virtuously in our homes to gratify a tyrant’s whim, whenever he wishes, and cause tears to those who rear them? May my life end if ever my children are to be wedded by violence! This bolt I launch in answer to your words.

Pride, celebration, self-praise truly characterised those years and, in a more nostalgic nuance, many more to come… Unfortunately Athens’ Golden Age did not last too long, though. Nonetheless it is undeniable that the achievements of the Pentecontaetia still somehow reverberate their fair light onto our world.

“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” [Aristotle]

Dignified slaves, venerable masters

Slavery in ancient Greece was a significant social and economical feature; this was – likewise anywhere else in the ancient world – undeniably a widespread custom that characterised Hellenic poleis, and further political institutions, during their entire development and history. There were a few actual forms of slavery: mainly chattel slavery, but also there were state-owned-slaves (as the Athens’ Scythians guards) as well as serfdom (the helots in Sparta or the penestaeΠενέσται of Thessaly). Any of all of these forms were generally accepted, deemed ordinary and quite indispensable to the normal course of economy, war and general living as it was deeply analysed by Aristotle in his Politics and by Plato in his Laws as well.

Ancient Greek comedy (and its largely transposed Latin versions as well) has plenty examples of various slave characters: helpful and devote, astute and pitiless and ignorant and stupid, yet always within the unquestioned social framework where they maintained their status of mere personal properties. Nevertheless, in spite of this generalised reduction to very objects – just belongings to fully dispose of – during the end of the classic age, perhaps further to the evolution of the civil thought and maybe under the wave of the spreading Sophistic phenomenon, it is possible to gather examples of a rather modern reappraisal of the slave as human being, albeit to some extent quite lamely and without any legal influence on his/her destiny.

In literature a remarkable example of the consideration that slaves were slightly gaining is for instance palpable during this moving dialogue by Euripides in his tragedy Helen:

MESSENGER: Whoever pays no reverence to his master’s affairs, rejoicing with him and grieving with his troubles, is worthless. Although I was born a servant, let me still be numbered among honest slaves; my mind is free, if not my name. For this is better than to suffer double misery as one man: to have a worthless heart and, being a slave, to owe obedience to any other.

MENELAUS: Come, old man – often by my shield you have had your full share of trouble and hard work now also have a share in my success.

Once again, the same Euripides, in another work – namely Ion – focuses on loyalty and dignity of this servant and solicits a greatly important distinction between social/legal status and actual decorum and humanity:

TUTOR: I wish to help you in this work, and kill the boy, entering the house where he is preparing the feast, and when I have paid back my living to my masters, either to die, or live and see the light.

There is one thing in slavery that brings shame, the name; in all other respects a good slave is no worse than the free-born.

It is striking remarkable though, that these promising examples from the ancient Greek literature do not come only from tragedy. Actually the most significant contributions in terms of what nowadays we would probably call defence of the human rights came from speeches written by logographers (i.e. speechwriters who used to be hired to arrange and write speeches that were meant to be delivered by another person) or rhetors with political and/or legal professional background and skills.

One interesting example is found in a scholiast to Aristotle’s Rhetoric: in the very paragraph where he is trying to define justice and law:

“Let us now classify just and unjust actions generally, starting from what follows. Justice and injustice have been defined in reference to laws and persons in two ways. Now there are two kinds of laws, particular and general. By particular laws I mean those established by each people in reference to themselves, which again are divided into written and unwritten; by general laws I mean those based upon nature. In fact, there is a general idea of just and unjust in accordance with nature, as all men in a manner divine, even if there is neither communication nor agreement between them

where is quoted a fragment of a speech – the Messeniakos – delivered by Alcidamas of Elaea (a scholar of Gorgias the sophist) a renowned orator, in favour of the insurgency of the Messenians against Sparta:

God has left all men free; nature has made none a slave”.

Another famous Athenian rethor, Antiphon, had particularly modern ideas in so far as equality and human dignity are concerned:

“By nature we all equally possess with all respect the same origin, both Greeks and Barbarians”

Nonetheless they all seem quite weak and rather isolated voices, within a strongly consolidated practice and social framework, as Xenophon in his Memorabilia reports within this insightful dialogue:

EUTHERUS “I came home when the war ended, Socrates, and am now living here,” he replied. “Since we have lost our foreign property, and my father left me nothing in Attica, I am forced to settle down here now and work for my living with my hands. I think it’s better than begging, especially as I have no security to offer for a loan.”

SOCRATES “And how long will you have the strength, do you think, to earn your living by your work?”

EUTHERUS “Oh, not long, of course.”

SOCRATES “But remember, when you get old you will have to spend money, and nobody will be willing to pay you for your labour.”

EUTHERUS “True.”

SOCRATES “Then it would be better to take up some kind of work at once that will assure you a competence when you get old, and to go to somebody who is better off and wants an assistant, and get a return for your services by acting as his bailiff, helping to get in his crops and looking after his property.”

EUTHERUS “I shouldn’t like to make myself a slave, Socrates.”

SOCRATES “But surely those who control their cities and take charge of public affairs are thought more respectable, not more slavish on that account.”

EUTHERUS “Briefly, Socrates, I have no inclination to expose myself to any man’s censure.”

SOCRATES – “But, you see, Eutherus, it is by no means easy to find a post in which one is not liable to censure. Whatever one does, it is difficult to avoid mistakes, and it is difficult to escape unfair criticism even if one makes no mistakes. I wonder if you find it easy to avoid complaints entirely even from your peasant employers. You should try, therefore, to have no truck with grumblers and to attach yourself to considerate masters; to undertake such duties as you can perform and beware of any that are too much for you, and, whatever you do, to give of your best and put your heart into the business. In this way, I think, you are most likely to escape censure, find relief from your difficulties, live in ease and security, and obtain an ample competence for old age.”

However, although the question was merely slightly raised in maybe some of the more progressist Athenian intellectual circles, apparently there is no trace of a motion submitted to the attention, discussion or vote of the ecclesia on this matter, hence there is no evidence that an actual political or institutional change took place with reference to slavery whatsoever – well small wonder considering it as such a huge industry, profitable business and strong economic infrastructural backbone.

It is albeit quite impressive that this debate developed concurrently with the descending glory of post-Pericles’ age; a circumstance perhaps more than purely coincidental with Hermann Broch’s epoch: a period (1920/1940) he considered as the sunset of spiritual certainties and the eclipse of what was deemed sacred in Mitteleuropa, entirely swept by the fury of the mass propelled by creed discrepancies and inhuman ethnic pseudo-ideologies. He portrayed, in an extremely thorny style, Virgil on his deathbed dialoguing with his Emperor Caesar Octavian Augustus, and the divine poet – the very same who wrote of Turnus begging for mercy and yet hard-heartedly slain by Aeneas – solicits two acts of kindness of the Emperor, namely to set free his slave and to prove compassion to the subjugated:

be lenient to the conquered and temper your arrogance to that end.