Saturday, December 23, 2006

How Democratic Was Athens? (con’t)

This, of course, is a topic that could, and has been, expanded upon to a much greater extent than I can here. However, in this post, I will explore another incident in the Peloponnesian War which brings into question the fairness of Athenian democracy. I acknowledge there is a great deal more to say on this topic, and I intend to return to it in the future.

In war, it was not abnormal for Athenian generals to be tried and punished for crimes and shortcomings in war - they were always to provide a proper burial for the dead; they were never permitted to hit a soldier. These all seem like reasonable expectations for military leaders. However, you’d expect there to be a limit. You, being the Athenian people, can’t punish someone for doing something in you best interests but that you don’t like… right?

Apparently not. As the inevitable failure of the Sicilian Expedition became increasingly apparent, Nicias, one of the greatest generals Athens ever produced and the man responsible for the earlier Peace of Nicias, refused to retreat from Sicily out of fear of the Athenian people. His fellow general, Demosthenes, openly declared that it would be best for the Athenians to retreat. Even the soldiers were “crying out so loudly about their desperate position” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War VII:48). It seems as though this would be an acceptable move. But Nicias disagreed.

The troublesome part of this story is that Nicias did not demand that the Athenians stay in Sicily because he believed it to be the best move militarily. Nor because he thought they had a better chance to win the battle. Indeed, according to Thucydides, Nicias agreed that “ their affairs were in a bad way.” He was, nevertheless, unwilling to leave. Nicias knew the Athenian people well – they would not approve of the withdrawal. He also knew what fate awaited him upon his return. “Hostile critics” would deliver speeches and reports to the Athenians “whose judgments would be swayed by any clever speech designed to create prejudice.” Even his own soldiers could not be counted on; regardless of how dire they agreed the situation was while in Sicily, they “would, as soon as they got to Athens, entirely change their tune and would say the generals had been bribed to betray them and return” (VII:48). Plutarch agrees, explaining that Nicias refused to retreat, “not because he underrated the Syracuseasn, but because he was still more afraid of the Athenian people and of the accusations and trials which would follow at home” (The Rise and Fall of Athens VII:22).

I find this to be not only disturbing but ineffective. This seems problematic to the idea of the great Athenian democracy. How fair is a government when one of its best generals is too afraid of the prejudiced condemnation of his fellow citizens to make the militaristic decisions which he believes to be best? How well run is an army when decisions are being made for any reason other than what will give the group the best chance of victory and/or survival? Nicias made a conscious decision that death at the hands of his enemy in a failed battle would be preferable to being “put to death on a disgraceful charge and by an unjust verdict of the Athenians” (VII:48). Nicias is described as “knowing the Athenian character.” If even he did not fully trust the constructs of the judicial system, I think it is safe to say that system was corrupt.

So, how fair is a system in which innocent leaders are liable to be put to death for making a unpopular but responsible decision? Not very, I would have to say.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your stimulating comments in this and the previous post on Athenian democracy. They are very interesting but ultimately are not convincing that Athens was undemocratic. In the examples you give, the people (demos) are exercising power. You might disagree in hindsight with the way they exercised power, but the fact they could exercise power in the disciplining of generals, however misguided, is more democratic than the system in the U.S. where Rumsfeld (not a general, technically) cannot be called before a public gathering and sentenced to a condign punishment. What I think your examples get at is that Athenian democracy had its flaws, and a more republican form of government might have helped avoid these excesses, not that Athens was less democratic than the U.S. is currently (to the contrary).

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