Monday, December 18, 2006

How democratic was Athens?

Since I've known what Ancient Greece was, I've known that Athenian democracy is touted as the great predecessor of our own American democracy and of all democracies, to some extent, throughout the world. This is a fact often taken for granted in studying the ancient world. It is very easy to make comparisons between the U.S. and Athens.

However, as I am learning more about the form of democracy developed and employed at the height of Athenian power, I am become more and more suspicious that this system may not be all it is cracked up to be. There are the obvious undemocratic aspects of Athens, such as slavery and the political and social repression of women. I am willing to leave these out of the equation, given that America, too, was guilty of these same crimes for the better part of her existence.

Apart from this, however, I am finding things that make me wonder how democratic this place really was. Several instances in the Peloponnesian War are particularly questionable. Take the case of Alcibiades, for example. The night before the great (but doomed) Athenian expedition to Sicily was to launch all but one of the Hermea in the city were mutilated. The Hermea, podiums with the head of Hermes and a phallus, were located all throughout the city calling on the god for protection from evil. Such a sacrilege, particularly the night before such a crucial expedition, was seen as a very bad omen for the mission and a grave crime that had to be punished. Although it still remains uncertain who was responsible for the acts, Alcibiades was accused. (His actual guilt or innocence is irrelevant to the point I am making with this story.) According to Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades denied the charges but requested to stand trial before leaving for Sicily. He begged the citizens not to listen to his enemies in his absence but rather try and, if necessary, put him to death right there while he could still defend himself. He even acknowledged “how unwise it would be to send him out in command of such a large army with such serious accusations still hanging over his head” (VI: 29). This seems like a very level-headed and fair thing for a man in such a position to say. However, the Athenians, so worked up about their attack on Sicily, were willing to overlook this offense for the sack of the mission. The Athenians decided, then, it would be best not to hold up the army. Alcibiades would sail with them and return in a set number of days to stand trial.

Does this sound very democratic to you? Because of his position of military and social prominence, Alcibiades was allowed to avoid trial. Eventually, after fighting for some time with Sicily, Alcibiades, rather than returning to Athens for his trial at the appointed time, deserted. He ended up becoming a key advisor and strategist for none other than the Spartans. Even if he wasn’t the one who mutilated the Hermea, he’s still probably not the kind of guy you want leading your army into an expedition of such a size and importance of that of the one headed for Sicily. (He then deserted Sparta and returned to, yes, you guessed it, Athens. And (get this!) he was reinstated as a general! How’s that for democracy?) The fact that the popularity of Alcibiades, as well as the influence of his enemies who wanted more time to gather incriminating evidence, was capable of overruling law, a fairly serious, religious law at that, says to me that this “democracy” still had a long way to go.

In my next post, I will look into another incident from the expedition to Sicily that brings into question the democratic nature of Athens: Nicias’ fear of the Athenian public, therefore courts, and his subsequent unwillingness to surrender.


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

You are exploring an interesting issue here. Could you be clearer about how you believe Alkiabiades overturned or circumvented Athenian legal process? Was Alkiabiades in fact indicted for sacrilege? Didn't he appear before the ekklesia and request an immediate indictment and trial if he was the prime suspect? The ekklesia then decided by popular vote to postpone an inquiry until Alkibiades returned from Sicily. Was anything illegal about the ekklesia choosing this course? Wasn't the decision of the ekklesia sovereign in any such matter?
Does Mogen Hanson in any of his books on the Athenian democracy comment on this incident?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that you confuse two things with no inherent connection: democracy (many people can participate in decisionmaking) and the rule of law (everyone must obey well-defined laws, even the lawmakers). Also, letting the masses make bad decisions is perfectly democratic, which is why modern liberal democracies are set up to put most decisionmaking in the hands of professionals, whose work is reviewed by a democratic process and the courts.

Also, don't many scholars argue that later phases in Athenian history were more democratic in practical terms than the -V? Certainly, Thucidydes saw the Athenian government of his day as fickle and vulnerable to demagogues.

Viagra Online said...

It is so curious to realize that past societies are not so different that current ones.
In fact, I think all this craziness we live is like a maze, where the only person who will be always there to support you, is your own self.