Commentary

In my quest to read the books I own that I haven’t read yet, I’ve made my way to Will Durant’s 1939 The Life of Greece, a tome of the history of ancient Greece. I’m unsure how some of his details – nevermind his inclination to give the Greeks’ own classical historians as much creedence as possible – hold up to more modern scholarship, but the outline looks familiar enough. Durant clearly holds to the dictum that historical events are there to learn from: the following selections come from his account of the rise of Athens’ democracy.

Hesiod

“Hesiod, with rough candor, shows us the ugly farmers upon whose toil rested all the splendor and war [and?] sport of the aristocracy and the kings. Homer sang of heroes and princes for lords and ladies; Hesiod knew no princes, but sang his lays of common men, and pitched his tune accordingly. In his verses we hear the rumblings of those peasant revolts that would produce in Attica the reforms of Solon and the dictatorship of Peisistratus.”

Quirks of Language

“In [southern Boeotia] once lived an insignificant tribe, the Graii, who joined the Euboeans in sending a colony to Cumae, near Naples; from them the Romans gave to all the Hellenes… the name Graici, Greeks; and from that circumstance all the world came to know Hellas by a term which its own inhabitants never applied to themselves.”

Tourism Old and New

“The traveler entering Attica from eastern Boeotia would come first to Oropus… a frontier town as terrifying to the tourist as any such today. ‘Oropus,’ says Dicaearchus about 300 B.C., ‘is a nest of hucksters. The greed of the customhouse officials here is unsurpassed… Most of the people are coarse and truculent in their manners, for the have knocked the decent members of the community on the head.'”

Motives

“As in Sparta and Rome, so in Athens the overthrow of the monarchy represented not a victory for the commons, or any intentional advance towards democracy, but a recapture of mastery by a feudal aristocracy…”

Draco

“…[Draco] attached to his laws penalties so drastic that after most of his legislation had been superseded by Solon’s he was remembered for his punishments rather than his laws. Draco’s code congealed the cruel customs of an unregulated feudalism: it did nothing to relieve debtors [sold into] slavery, or to mitigate the exploitation of the weak by the strong; and… it left to the Eupatrid [aristocratic] class full control of the courts, and the power to interpret… all laws…

“The poor, finding their situation worse with each year… began to talk of a violent revolt, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth. The rich, unable any longer to collect the debts legally due them… prepared to defend themselves by force against a mob that seemed to threaten not only property but all established… civilization.”

Solon

“[Solon] disappointed the extreme radicals by making no move to redivide the land… But by his famous Seisachtheia, or Removal of Burdens, Solon canceled, says Aristotle, ‘all existing debts…’ …and cleared Attic lands of all mortgages. All persons enslaved or [enserfed] for debt were released…

“Solon [began] with an act of amnesty freeing or restoring all persons who had been jailed or banished for political offenses short of trying to usurp the government. … It was in itself a revolution that the laws of Solon were applied without distinction to all freemen…

“Invited to make himself a permanent dictator he refused, saying that dictatorship was ‘a very fair spot, but the was no way down from it.’ Radicals criticized him for failing to establish equality of possessions and power; conservatives denounced him for admitting the commons to the franchise and the courts… He [had] followed the mean and preserved the state…

“Legally his work marks… the beginning of government [in Greece] by written and permanent law. Asked what made an orderly and well-constituted state, he replied, ‘When the people obey the rulers, and the rulers obey the laws.'” …[T]he establishment of a peasant proprietor class [in] ownership of the soil made the little armies of Athens suffice to preserve her liberties for many generations.”

Aside

Durant, recounting the legend of Solon’s advice to Croesus, translates the Greek hubris – in his transliteration “hybris” – with the remarkable turn of phrase “insolent prosperity”. The phenomenon – whether it properly accounts for the Greek term – is undeniable; conclusions are here left as an exercise for the reader.

Peisistratus

“…[T]he Assembly voted that Peisistratus should be allowed a force of fifty men. Peisistratus collected four hundred men instead of fifty, seized the Acropolis, and declared a dictatorship. Solon [] published to the Athenians his opinion that ‘each man of you, individually, walketh with the tread of a fox, but collectively ye are geese,’ … [and] resign[ed] his interest in politics…

“The wealthy [factions] of the Shore and the Plain… expelled the dictator. But Peisistratus… re-entered Athens under circumstances that seemed to corroborate Solon’s judgment of the collective intelligence. A tall and beautful woman…. costume[d as] Athena… led the forces of Peisistratus into the city, while heralds announced that the patron deity of Athens was herself restoring him to power.”

“…[T]he wisdom of [Peisistratus’] policies almost redeemed the [] unscrupulousness of his means. … He made few reprisals… He improved the army and built up the fleet… but he kept Athens out of war…

“Archons were elected as usual, and the Assembly and the popular courts, the Council of Four Hundred and the Senate of the Areopagus met and functioned as before, except that the suggestions of Peisistratus found a very favorable hearing. … When… the dictatorship was removed, these habits of order and the framework of Solon’s constitution remained as a heritage for democracy. …

“He gave employment to the needy by undertaking extensive public works… To finance these undertakings he laid [a new] tax… The poor were made less poor, the rich not less rich. The concentration of wealth which had nearly torn the city into civil war was brought under control…

“[N]ew buildings of stone and marble reflected the radiance of the day… By establishing the Panathenaic games… Peisistratus brought to his city not honor only, but the stimulus of foreign faces, competition, and ways… A committee appointed by him gave to the Iliad and the Odyssey the form in which we know them.”

In Context

“The ‘tyranny’ of Peisistratus was part of a general movement… to replace [] feudal rule… with the political dominance of the middle class in temporary alliance with the poor. Such dictatorships were brought on by the pathological concentration of wealth, and the inability of the wealthy to agree on a compromise. …[T]he only political freedom capable of enduring is one that is so pruned as to keep the rich from denuding the poor by ability or subtlely and the poor from robbing the rich by violence or votes.”

Cleisthenaic Coda

“The Athenians were not quite pleased to see the leadership of the state pass down without their consent to the young Peisistratids, and began to realize that the dictatorship had give them everything but the stimulus of freedom. …Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who had conspired [against Peisistratus’ son Hippias] for [] passion rather than for democracy, were transformed by popular imagination into the martyrs of liberty. …

“The [banished] Alcmaeonid [aristocrats], led by [] Cleisthenes, entered Athens in triumph… Cleisthenes.. set up a popular dictatorship… [then] proceeded to establish democracy. …

“The democracy was not complete; it applied only to freemen, and still placed a modest property limitation upon eligibility to individual office. But it gave all legislative, executive, and judicial power to an Assembly and a Court composed of the citizens, to magistrat[es] appointed by and responsible to the Assembly, and to a Council for whose members all citizens might vote, and… by the operation of the lot, [in which] at least one third of them actually [participated] for at least a year of their lives.”