Classical Athens is famous for what is arguably the most fully developed democracy of premodern times and for its cultural revolution, which helped lay the foundations for the arts, literature and sciences of the ancient and modern worlds.
In 508BC the Athenian dēmos (“people”) rose up against a leader who was once again aiming for tyranny, expelled him and the foreign troops backing his attempt, and arrested and executed his upper-class supporters. They could no longer tolerate the internecine struggles of the elite and demanded an active role in the decision-making of the city.
This was quickly realised by the reforms of Cleisthenes, which made the assembly and a new popular council of 500 members the final arbiters of public actions and laws. By the early 450s the people had consolidated their new dēmokratia (“democracy”) by making decisions on an increasing range of public affairs and by taking over entirely the administration of justice and the oversight of magistrates.
Admittedly, Athenian leaders were still members of the upper class, struggling for pre-eminence with each other. Now, however, their rivalries were played out in agēnes or political debates, with the final decision to support this or that politician resting with predominantly non-elite assembly goers and councillors.
To win over such notoriously boisterous and censorious audiences, politicians were forced to negotiate and articulate the self-perceptions, norms and perceived interests of lower-class Athenians. Out of this dynamic of mass adjudicators and elite performers in competition with each other emerged a strong popular culture, which supported the liberty and political capability of every citizen, the rule of law and the open debating of policies and ideas.
Classical Athens was also the leading cultural centre of the Greek world. The disciplines of the visual arts, oratory, drama and literature were developed to a far higher level of quality in this city than any other, with many of the works produced there becoming canonical for Graeco-Roman antiquity.
Ever since Johann Winckelmann this cultural revolution has been interpreted primarily as the product of Athenian democracy. Certainly the new requirement for elite poets, politicians and litigants to compete for the favour of mass audiences drove rapid innovations in oratory and drama.
For example, the celebrated plays of Athens were performed in front of thousands of citizens at festival-based contests. While the eponymous archon selected and paid the poets, the training and costuming of the performers were the responsibility of chorus sponsors. These elite citizens had a great deal riding on the performance of their choruses. Victory translated into political influence and support, while the generous financing of choruses could be canvassed during trials to help win over lower-class jurors. For the sake of their careers poets too wanted to be victorious. Although the judging of choral contests was formally in the hands of magistrates, they were guided by the vocal and physically active responses of the largely lower-class theatre goers.
Since the regular attendance of ordinary citizens at dramatic and choral agēnes or contests continually enhanced their appreciation of the different forms of performance, sponsors and poets found a competitive advantage by pushing the boundaries of the genre, whether it be tragedy, comedy, satyric drama or dithyramb.
Athens is rightly revered for such achievements; by contrast, its contemporaneous military revolution is never praised and is not widely known. During the fifth century Athens widened, amplified and intensified the waging of war, regularly attacked other democracies, and was a constant source of death and destruction among the Greeks. More than any other polis this city invented or perfected new forms of combat, strategy and military organisation and was directly responsible for raising the scale and destructiveness of Greek warfare to a different order of magnitude.
In so doing the Athenian dēmos overcame popular prejudices which elsewhere tended to stifle military innovations. By the time its dēmokratia was consolidated, Athens was the dominant military power in the eastern Mediterranean. War now dominated the politics of the city and the lives of thousands of upper- and lower-class citizens. Foreign policy was the mainstay of political debate. Fifth century Athenians waged war more frequently than ever before: they launched one or more campaigns in two out of three years on average and never enjoyed peace for more than a decade. They also directed more public money to war than to all other polis-activities combined, considered military service the duty of every Athenian and accepted extraordinarily high losses of fellow citizens on military campaigns.
A striking feature of the history of fifth-century Athens is the timing of this so military revolution. The intensification and transformation of war by the Athenians directly follow the popular uprising of 508 and coincide with the flowering of Athenian culture, which was in large part brought about by democracy.
Dr David Pritchard will be speaking at the Sydney Democracy Forum on May 14, 2010 at 1pm on The Dark Side of Democracy: Democratic War-Making in Classical Athens and its Implications for the Modern World. For more information contact email@example.com.
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