Pericles & the Athenian Ideal, Part 1
There is already much discussion in our circles about the example of Sparta, not least as a result of the recent Hollywood blockbuster 300 which was rather loosely based on the exploits of King Leonidas, but in this article I intend to examine Sparta’s chief rival Athens.
The Athenian statesman, Pericles (495 – 429 BCE) once claimed that his city was an educational role model for the whole of Greece, but how far was this really true?
Pericles’ boast is part of his funeral oration recorded by Thucydides (460 – 395 BCE) in his The Peloponnesian War. The aim of Pericles’ oration is to establish that Athens was a society worth dying for. Thus the speech is designed to exploit in his listeners deep-seated feelings of local pride and identity, inviting them to recall the glory of Athenian growth and prosperity. His verbal tapestry begins by lauding Athenian ancestry, emphasizing the fact that the people’s “courage and virtues have handed on to us, a free country.”
He mentions “the constitution and the way of life that has made us great” and points to certain social improvements such as power being democratically channeled into the hands “of the whole people,” the fairness and “equality before the law” and the fact that, in terms of social classification, status is not determined by “membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.” Pericles was also careful to mention the prevailing moral ethos which underpinned fifth-century Athenian society, that of sovereign, “unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.”
Then Pericles lists what he considered to be the noblest attributes of his native city, with particular reference to the cultural activities that provided “recreation for our spirits.” This tactic was designed to pave the way for a contrasting description of the traditional enemy, Sparta.
Pericles then polemically denounced Spartan militarism and the rigorous training to which it “submitted” its youth, lauding the Athenian educational system by contrast. He also praised Athens for apparently maintaining a confident superiority above and beyond all other Greek states, emphasizing the importance of thought before action.
When Pericles finally describes Athens as “an education to Greece,” he explains precisely why he considers this to be the case. Athens stands for the freedom of the citizen, who is “rightful lord and owner of his own person.” Because of its constitution, Athens has waxed powerful: “Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her . . . future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.” But with greatness comes peril: “it is clear that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who lack our advantages.”
Pericles then offers an inspiring account of the necessity of personal sacrifice. The slain warriors, in whose honor the funeral had been held, were depicted as heroes who had lain down their very lives for the continuation of Athenian culture, heritage and tradition, itself “a risk most glorious.” Pericles then challenges the living to emulate the honored dead, making “up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous . . . for men to end their lives with honor, as these have done, and for you honorably to lament them: their life was set to a measure where death and happiness went hand in hand.”
But can Athens really can be considered to have been a role model for the whole of Greece, or was Pericles merely deluding himself and his contemporaries? Let us examine the historical record.
Pericles is renowned for the prominent role he played in the democratization of the Athenian political system, which itself had “been fixed by Cleisthenes (570 – 507 BCE) and further reformed after the battle of Marathon” (J. B. Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great [Macmillan, 1951], 346).
After overthrowing Thucydides and assuming the leadership of the people, Pericles and Ethialtes (d. 461 BCE) set about reducing the power of the judiciary in the Areopagus. At this time, the archons or chief magistrates were appointed by lot, but only from a select number of pre-elected candidates. Pericles abolished this system with the result that the archons themselves became “appointed by lot from all the eligible citizens [who now] had an equal chance of holding political office, and taking part in the conduct of political affairs” (Bury, 349). This system was also extended to the Boule, or Council of the Five Hundred.
In addition, Pericles effectively dismantled the hereditary powers of the traditionally oligarchic Areopagus completely, restricting its activities in order to redefine its role as little more than a “supreme court for charges of murder” (A. R. Burn, Pericles and Athens [English Universities Press, 1964], 46). In 462 BCE, Pericles also initiated a scheme whereby jurors and those holding offices of state received payment for their services to the city, “a feature which naturally won him popularity with the masses” (Bury, 349).
This very popularity, in fact, had been deliberately engineered by Pericles himself in order to counteract the large support that Cimon (510 – 450 BCE), an accomplished naval hero, was able to command from the Athenian nobility. Although Pericles was himself an aristocrat, he “decided to attach himself to the people’s party and to take up the cause of the poor and the many instead of that of the rich and the few, in spite of the fact that this was quite contrary to his own temperament”(Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives [Penguin, 1960], 171).
Indeed, Thucydides attacked Periclean reforms and labeled them “democracy in name, but in practice government by the first citizen” (Plutarch, 173). So what began as Greek democracy under Cleisthenes around 500 BCE had become a dictatorship under Pericles by 430 BCE.
Despite all the speculation surrounding Pericles motives for initiating democratic reforms, in terms of her constitution and statecraft Athens undoubtedly stood far ahead of her rivals.
One measure of the seriousness of Athenian democratization was the introduction of new political technologies, such as allotment-machines, water-clocks, juror’s ballots, and juror’s tickets.
Another sign of Athenian political acumen is the transfer of the headquarters and treasure of the Delian league from Delos to Athens in 454 BCE. The Delian League was a crucial alliance of 150 Greek city-states established prior to the Peloponnesian wars to defend Hellas from the Persians. The transfer of its headquarters to Athens gave the Athenians enormous political and economic influence over the member states.
Sparta had an entirely different political structure. In Bury’s words, Sparta was imbued with a “conservative spirit.” The Spartan constitution, unlike its continually revised and reformed counterpart in Athens, had remained virtually the same since its inception.
Sparta had a mixed constitution with monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. Sparta was ruled nominally by kings, an order going back to the times of Homer. The aristocratic element was the Council of Elders, or Gerusia, which consisted of thirty men who were elected for life and chosen by acclamation in the general assembly of citizens. Membership was described as a prize for virtue. However, the Spartan Assembly of the People, or Apella, contained only males over thirty years of age who decided matters of state purely on the basis of a particular speaker receiving the loudest cheers from those in attendance. Theoretically, the Spartan constitution was democratic, but if the elders and magistrates did not approve of the decision of the majority, they could annul the proceedings by refusing to proclaim the decision.
The Athenians were always very keen to stress the political differences between themselves and their Peloponnesian rivals. Many island states — often artificially created by colonial means — usually followed the example of Athens rather than Sparta. Athenian democracy, unlike the American variety, was not spread around the world at gunpoint. Instead, the states that adopted the Athenian system seemed genuinely inspired by her example.
Sparta, on the other hand, had few imitators, and the states that did resemble Sparta did not appear to imitate her. So as far as Athenian politics was concerned, at least, Pericles was right to claim that Athens was the educator of Greece.
To be continued . . .