Category: Historical subjects

Political life in Classical Athens

In Classical Athens almost all areas of public and private life were connected with politics. Democratic institutions interfered in economic and family affairs. Religion and the arts also carried strong political implications. In the Agora and other public spaces, the Athenians constantly discussed civic affairs and their archons.

Institutions

Around 1200 Athenian citizens were selected each year to serve as archons, receiving lesser and more important offices – this was essential to the functioning of the city’s democratic institutions. Their duties ranged from controlling the city’s treasury and commanding the army to lesser assignments, like making sure the streets remained clean and lighted during the night. Given that one could not be re-elected to the same office for a second yearly term (although re-election to a different office was permitted) a large percentage of Athenians would have been directly involved in affairs we would describe as political at least once in their lifetime. Furthermore, all citizens were entitled, if they so chose, to participate in the popular assembly, the ecclesia, where the most important political decisions were made.

The selection of archons was carried out by ballot (for the 100 most important offices), or by draw. The draw procedure was complicated and involved all 139 local demes, as well as the ten Athenian tribes, to which citizens belonged. Those elected by draw to the Boule (the Council of the Five Hundred) were fully preoccupied with political affairs for the entire year.

Each Athenian was free to become involved in politics in whatever way he chose, and change his mind, even during the course of the same day. No one would call upon him to explain himself or hold him in account – unless, that is, he was holding a public office. Most Athenians, however, for large parts of their lives followed -with some degree of steadiness- the recommendations and proposals of eminent political leaders. Thus, in their everyday lives Athenians defined themselves as supporters of a specific political faction.

The politicians

For the better part of the fifth century, all Athenian statesmen originated from aristocratic clans. Following the death of Pericles, however, even citizens not born to illustrious families were also being elected to the important office of the strategos – although most of them were probably wealthy.

Following the expulsion of the tyrants, Athenian statesmen Cleisthenes and Isagoras became embroiled in a fierce clash. Their confrontation had intensely personal (and familial) motives. It was directly connected with different choices on matters of foreign and domestic politics. Cleisthenes’ victory was made possible because of the mass support he received from the Athenian people. This, in turn, secured the people’s increased involvement in the administration of the city, as well as resistance to pressures from Sparta, who wished to enlist Athens in its alliance. In the political contests of the following decades the prostatai (=champions or leaders) of the people (demos) persistently campaigned for greater Athenian autonomy vis-à-vis Persia, Sparta, and later Macedon. Furthermore they asserted a dominant, sometimes even despotic, role for the city in the context of the Delian League, an alliance created to defend against the Persians and later the Spartans. Their opponents adopted a completely contrary policy, promoting broader cooperation with the other major forces, and sometimes maintained personal connections with persons in their regimes.

Aristotle categorized almost all of Athens’s great statesmen into two groups: the prostatai of the demos or the ‘many’, and the prostatai of the epiphaneis (=the notables), the gnorimoi (=also the notables, or the wealthy class) or the oligoi (the few), who he also considered affluent. Thus, beginning his account in the sixth century, he already classifies Solon, Peisistratus, Cleisthenes, Xanthippus, Themistocles, Ephialtes, Pericles, Cleon and Cleophon among the champions of the people. Being an enemy of Athenian democracy, Aristotle claims that:

From Cleon onward the leadership of the People was handed on in an unbroken line by the men most willing to play a bold part and to gratify the many with an eye to immediate popularity. (Athenian Constitution 28.4, trans. H. Rackham).

Among the champions of the few he includes Isagoras, Miltiades, Aristides, Cimon, Thucydides (son of Melesias), Nicias and Theramenes.

The Peloponnesian War complicated matters. The defeat of the Athenians in Sicily led to the dissolution of democracy. The oligarchs failed, however, to bring about a rapprochement with Sparta and were overturned in almost a year. The final defeat of Athens brought another overturning of democracy, as victorious Sparta placed in power 30 extreme oligarchs, who wielded their authority as tyrants. But the democrats staged their return within a year. After this painful affair, the supporters of oligarchy became less visible in the 4th century.

The dynamic appearance of the Macedonians caused great difficulties for Athens. Demosthenes, an upholder and champion of democratic traditions, forcefully resisted Phillip II and Alexander. On the contrary, the conservative statesman Phocion sought ways to cooperate and bring about rapprochement with them.

Religion and the arts

In Athens, all important developments in religion and the arts were connected with politics and war. The monuments on the Acropolis were destroyed by the Persians and the site was rebuilt using funds from the Delian League’s treasury. Following each victory, a portion of the spoils was dedicated to goddess Athena. In fact, the public treasury was kept on the Acropolis.

At the start of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles explained to the Athenians the state of civic finances:

…The state had on an average six hundred talents of tribute coming in annually from their allies, to say nothing of their other revenue; and there were still remaining in the Acropolis six thousand talents of coined silver…Moreover there was uncoined gold and silver in the form of private and public offerings, sacred vessels used in processions and games, the Persian spoil and other things… If they were reduced to the last extremity they could even take off the plates of gold with which the image of the goddess was overlaid… (Thucydides 2.13, trans. Benjamin Jowett).

All the city’s temples and their treasures were also at their disposal. The priests responsible for these temples were appointed each year from among the Athenian citizenry, in exactly same manner the other archons were selected – by draw.

The Panathenaea, the Dionysia and other important civic festivals and celebrations were also politically significant. The themes of the theatrical plays that accompanied these festivals also served to provide political education. Although their subject matter was not purely warlike or historical, these plays re-contextualized ancient myths, linking them to current political affairs.

The city was adorned with votive offerings, inscriptions and statues honoring eminent statesmen and military commanders. In the Stoa Poikile, which was frequented by Athenians and foreigners alike, paintings depicted scenes from Athenian military victories and personages of public life.

Everyday life

The Athenians of the Classical era discussed political developments and public affairs on a daily basis. Many had held a public office at least once in their life. Almost all had participated in a military campaign or engagement. In the Agora they received daily news and exchanged views. In the Agora they could be informed not only about the political choices of their leaders, but also details of their personal lives. As Pericles explains in his funeral oration, for Athenians those who showed no interest in political affairs were not simply indifferent, but altogether worthless (Thucydides 2.40).

Author: Dimitris Kirtatas
  • Ostwald, M. From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law. Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1986.
  • Ober, J. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People. Princeton, 1989.
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