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Politics Comes From Polis, The Greek For City State

Ancient Greece wasn't a single country but a series of self-governing city states. In fact our modern word -.politics' comes from -.polis', the Greek for -.city state'. Flourishing in the Archaic Age (c.800BC -. 300BC), the city states were founded on the principal of citizenship, with different rights and privileges for male citizens, female citizens, their children, foreign residents and slaves. All male citizens, no matter how poor, had political rights.

Three of the most powerful city states were Athens, Sparta and Corinth. Foremost of these was Athens, the birthplace of culture and democracy and famed throughout the ancient world for its beauty. Sparta, in the Peloponnese area of southern Greece, was Athens' arch rival. Sparta was a feared military power with the best infantry in the Greek world. No wonder, since all Spartan boys were taken from their mothers at only seven years old, for 13 years of tough military training. The Spartans rejected culture and beauty for a -.Spartan' existence of simplicity and endurance.

Corinth built its wealth on manufacturing and sea-borne trade. It was known throughout the ancient world as a centre of luxury and a playground for the rich, who flocked to visit the sacred prostitutes at the Temple of Aphrodite. Before the birth of democracy, most city states were run as aristocracies, which in Greek meant -.rule by the best'. The power was shared among a small circle of men from noble families.

By about 600BC, however, a middle class had emerged. Trade had brought them wealth, and military improvements had brought them might -. they wanted power to go with it. In some cities, including Corinth, they revolted and ousted the aristocracy in favour of dictators who became known as the tyrants. Elsewhere, more peaceful changes took place, as the aristocracies admitted the middle classes into the ruling council. These became known as oligarchies, or -.rule by the few'. The most fervent of these oligarchies was Sparta.

The people of Athens had a different idea, however, and in the late 500sBC the first democracy -. or -.rule by the people' -. was created. The ripples of this revolution were felt throughout the ancient world, and still live on today. With no single ruler, a public assembly of male citizens met 40 times a year to vote on state decisions. The agenda was set and decrees carried out by a 500-strong council, chosen by lot to serve one year each.

To the ancient Greeks, the term -.tyrant' didn't necessarily imply cruelty or the abuse of position. It simply meant a usurper with supreme power. The tyrants were a group of individuals who took over many of the Greek city states during uprisings of the middle classes in the 6th and 7th centuries BC, ousting the ruling aristocracies. In many cases they aimed to make life better for ordinary people, undertaking ambitious programmes of public building works to provide employment and amenities for poorer citizens.

Some of the best known tyrants were Cypselus (and later his son, Periander) of Corinth, Cleisthenes of Sicyon, Pheidon of Argos, Polycrates of Samos and Pisistratus and his son Hippias of Athens. However, the rule of the tyrants was uncertain and they were constantly under threat from the aristocracy who were desperate to regain control -. often with the help of their allies, the mighty Spartans. In 510BC Spartan forces ejected Hippias, one of the last remaining tyrants. Ironically, instead of returning the aristocrats to power, this only paved the way for the first democracy.

All city-states firmly acknowledged that all citizens were free (barring miscreants who had lost all or part of their freedom for one reason or another). That tells us something, but not enough. It is a commonplace that the actual content of 'freedom' varies greatly from time to time and from place to place. Most, if not all, city-states formally accepted that principle in the private sphere, that is to say, in all personal relations between individuals that could be actionable at law, and even in such relations between an individual and the state as were subject to judicial decision in case of dispute.

That such formal equality has never been achieved in practice wherever there is inequality in wealth, social connections, political authority is another commonplace. The correlation between the extent of equality before the law and the extent of popular participation in government and politics (especially, though not only, in membership on juries and other; judicial organs). 'There is no true security for juristic liberty', wrote the English Hegelian, Bernard Bosanquet, 'apart from political liberty; and it has constantly been the infraction of juristic liberty that has been the origin of the demand for a share in highly positive political duties and functions.'

In antiquity it was of course the Athenians who best exemplified that proposition. For them (and presumably for smaller democracies on the Athenian model), isonomia, the word we translate as `equality before the law' came also to mean equaility through the law; that is, equality among all the citizens in their political rights, an equality that was created by constitutional developments, by law. That equality meant not only the right to vote, to hold office, and so on, but above all, the right to participate in policy-making in the Council and the Assembly. Debates in the Assembly were opened by the herald with these words, 'What man has good advice to give the polis and wishes to make it known?' Protagoras explained the rationale: 'when the subject of their deliberation involves political wisdom . . . they listen to every man, for they think that everyone must share in this virtue; otherwise there could be no polis'. An appropriate Greek word was even coined in the early fifth century B.C., isegoria, meaning freedom of speech not so much with our conventional negative tone of freedom from censorship as in the more significant sense of right to speak out where it mattered most, in the assembly of all the citizens.

There was no equivalent word in Latin because the only Roman parallel was the (at least formal) equality and freedom among the nobiles. In Rome, Momigliano has commented, one senses that freedom of speech belongs to the sphere of auctoritas (Auctoritas is a Latin word and is the origin of English "authority". In ancient Rome, Auctoritas referred to the general level of prestige a person had in Roman society. And, as a consequence, their clout, influence, and ability to rally support around one's will.) just as much as to the sphere of libertas' (Latin: Liberty).

The Protagorean doctrine did not extend to the claim that everyone shared the 'virtue' of political wisdom in equal measure. The evidence strongly suggests that even in Athens few exercised their right of isegoria, and demonstrates beyond any doubt that political leadership was monopolized by a relatively small stratum though not a self-perpetuating one as in Rome. The limit of universal political virtue was the universal right to share in the final decision on an equal, one-man-one-vote basis. Beyond that, the principle of inequality, of hierarchy, operated.

Ironically, the consequence was that over two or more centuries, Athens had proportionately fewer incompetent generals and political spokesmen than Rome with its self-perpetuating elite and its annual turnover at the highest level, the consuls and praetors. Within the Senate the incompetents no doubt carried little influence, but they were plenipotentiary in the field and nearly so in their actions at home, armed as they were with imperium (in a broad sense translates as power).

The fact that the Athenian demos (populace) displayed so much good discrimination in their selection of leaders, by vote in the case of the strategoi (literally meaning "army leaders") or by their support for individual policy-makers in the Assembly, cannot be explained by apathy, the favourite concept of our modern elitist school of political scientists. Apathy cannot be attributed to the many thousands who attended Assembly meetings with some frequency, who served on the Council once or twice, and who made up the jury-courts, again in the thousands. The only alternative is to think of widespread civic responsibility, a moral attribute that historians seem to shy away from, understandably in part (but only in part) because of its evident subjectivity as a category and the difficulty in demonstrating its presence. It is so much easier to seize on a few instances of seemingly irresponsible behaviour, such as the execution on instruction of the Assembly of the generals who had commanded the victorious Athenian fleet at Arginusae in 406 B.C., as ground for condemnation of the system as a whole.

On such a test, no society, past, present or future, can be anything but irresponsible. That is hardly worth saying explicitly, but it is worth pointing out that underneath such a procedure there is a confusion of moral categories, between political responsibility in the sense of a systematic pursuit of accepted public goals within the contemporaneous moral framework and modern notions of decency or humaneness. It is not inconsistent for an historian to judge a past action or behaviour to have been politically responsible and at the same time to condemn its moral underpinning.

Political (or civic) responsibility was not to be found in antiquity only in the democracies. Oligarchies and even despotisms could also act responsibly; but then, as in Rome, the assessment must be restricted to those who shared in the decision-making; of the others, the demos, the plebs, only obedience was expected, which the ruling class called responsible behaviour. And the Roman demos was remarkably obedient most of the time. More specifically, why, once they had gained a measure of what Bosanquet called 'juristic liberty', did they not make a determined, sustained effort to obtain 'political liberty', or at least a greater share of it?

The same question can, of course, be asked of many societies, but of few in which the obedient populace made up the armed forces not through hire or impressment but as a citizen's obligation. Rome's unique military history itself provides some of the answer, as we have seen, but for the decisive element we must look to the ideology, the whole complex of beliefs and attitudes The ideology of a ruling class is of little use unless it is accepted by those who are being ruled, and so it was to an extraordinary degree in Rome. Then, when the ideology began to disintegrate within the elite itself, the consequence was not to broaden the political liberty among the citizenry but, on the contrary, to destroy it for everyone.

M. I. Finley. . Cambridge University Press. 1983.


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