Lecture 16 - Radical Democracy in the Age of Pericles

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Useful reading: Russel Meiggs, The Athenian Empire; Victor Ehrenberg, From Solon to Socrates.

The last phase in the political development of Athens and its democracy occurred during the political ascendancy of the democratic leader Pericles. Pericles emerged in the public arena at the end of the 460s BC and died during the plague that struck Athens in 429, at the very outset of the Peloponnesian War. At that time we are told that he had held the office of strategos (general) 17 consecutive years, frequently going recognized as "strategos autokrator," or commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A gifted statesman, orator, and politician, Pericles simultaneously guided both Athens' foreign policy through the creation of empire, and its domestic policy through the rise of "radical democracy."

Radical democracy meant "pay for service," that is, Athenian citizens were paid by the state to participate in public affairs. Various component features to this policy enabled thousands of landless, poor Athenian males, the thetes, to participate in the democracy, particularly in the Ekklesia ad the Popular Courts. This marked an important transition from the Cleisthenic democracy that preceded it. During Cleisthenic democracy only those who could afford to participate in political affairs did so, namely, the aristocracy and the hoplites. In essence, radical democracy marked the outcome of a logical progression in Athenian political thought. In some respects Pericles established an urban political machine in which poorer voters voted in massive numbers to support his political agendas because they stood to benefit directly from the results. This development marked a dramatic transformation in the character of Athenian society, its population, and its social structure.

Themistocles had already created the fleet of 200 triremes in 483, providing both a military role and pay for military service to the Athenian landless poor of the city and the metics. Again, a traditional perception of Greco-Roman culture held that only those who participated in the military defense of their societies could claim the right to participate in political life. The role of the thetes in the Athenian fleet and in the construction of the Athenian empire gave them newfound legitimacy in politics. The problem remained that most could not afford to attend the 4 monthly meetings (and emergency sessions) of the assembly or to participate in the Councils or other offices. The solution, following the logic of payment for service with the fleet, was to make all political activity remunerative, in essence, paying Athenian citizens to participate in political life.

Pericles used the benefits of empire to create additional state-funded laboring opportunities to keep citizens employed throughout the year. As Plutarch notes (n),

"Pericles created allowances for public festivals, fees for jury service and other grants and gratuities. He succeeded in bribing the masses wholesale and enlisting their support against the Areopagus."

Generally, one finds payment (2 obols) for the following:

1. Rowing the fleet and hoplite campaigning
2. Service as jurors in the popular courts (6000 annually)
3. Legal business of the empire (generally 700 officials at large throughout the empire)
4. Pay for service on various state boards of magistrates (generals, archons, etc.) and the Council of 500.

Estimates suggest that some 8000 citizens would be supported by the state. In addition, as declared during the Congress of 449/8, Pericles embarked on the most ambitious building program in Greek history. In fact, Pericles ranks with Ramses II and the Roman Emperor Augustus as one of the 3 greatest builders of antiquity. Several simple Doric-style temples and monuments found their inception during the Age of Pericles, including the Temple of Athena Parthenos, the Propylaea (monumental entrance gates), and the Erechtheion (Temple sacred at the same time to Athena, Poseidon, and the Bronze Age royal dynasty of Athens) on the Acropolis, the Temple of Hephaistos in the Agora, and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. Laborers working on these projects received a day's wage for every day they worked. Obviously, the construction of such monuments required significant contributions by skilled labor -- architects, draftsmen, stone cutters, and sculptors, such as Pericles' friends Iktinos the architect who designed the Parthenon and Pheidias, the sculptor who designed the 40-foot-tall chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena that stood inside. But the work also called for the manual labor of thousands of Athenians and unquestionably helped to keep the rowers employed during the winter non-sailing season. The opportunity to find employment in these grand construction enterprises carred with it the obligation to participate in the assembly and to vote in favor of Pericles' other agendas. Recently, the degree to which the costs of these enterprises and that of the fleet were borne by the contributions of phoros of the allies has been called into question. Conceivably, Athens may have drawn sufficient revenues from its silver mines and various taxes to pay for all this activity. Many of the costs, moreover, were defrayed by public-spirited citizens of the wealthiest census class, who voluntarily took on the burden of "liturgies", or the performance of state duties at private expense. These included activities as altruistic as the funding of dramatic performances during the public festivals (the costs of creating and performing Greek tragedies and comedies) and as essential to the empire as the maintenance of a trireme (paying for equipment and crew for an entire campaign season). During the heyday of the empire, civic minded citizens actively competed with one another to recruit the fastest crews and the gaudiest sails and ornaments for their warships.

However, it becomes difficult to see how Athens could have managed so many expenses and maintained the enormous costs of empire without the constant flow of phoros to the treasury of the Parthenon; the debate seem to amount to questions of book-keeping.

The opportunities created by Pericles for Athenian citizens placed a premium on citizenship itself. Citizenship opened the way for potential service at the expense of the state, and Athenians became zealous at protecting this privilege. The assembly passed laws restricting citizenship to those who could show that both father and mother were full-blooded Athenians. This proved embarrassing to Pericles himself when he tried to get his two sons by his mistress and second wife, the notorious Aspasia, a courtesan from Miletus, recognized as Athenians, and had to get a special exemption passed by the assembly. Regardless, there is no doubt that non-Athenian metics benefited from Pericles' enterprises as well, particularly trained rowers and skilled laborers, and that thousands migrated to Athens and especially to its port, the Piraeus, at this time. Several emerging figures in Athenian political life owed their fortunes to non-agricultural activities -- the demagogue Cleon's father was alleged to have run a successful tannery; the father of the orator, Isocrates, was a flute-maker; the family of the orator, Demosthenes, ran two "sweatshops" employing hundreds of slaves, one manufacturing swords, the other, furniture. The father of the orator, Lysias, was a shield maker (with shops similar to Demosthenes) and personal friend of Pericles who was encouraged to emigrate to Athens from Syracuse. The politician Nicias contracted out hundreds of slaves to do the mining at the state mines at Laurion. Slavery, particularly as a consequence of war (reportedly some 20,000 captured during the Battle of Eurymedon alone), furnished a highly cosmopolitan character to Athens and most particularly to the Piraeus, where most of the foreigners resided. Slaves originated from throughout the eastern Mediterranean (including significant evidence for the presence of African blacks), but most particularly from the hinterland zones of Asia Minor, Phyrgia, Lydia, Mysia, and Cappadocia. Archaeological exploration in the Piraeus has revealed the presence of numerous cult centers for the worship of foreign gods such as Isis and Atthis, including inscribed lists of directors with foreign names and frequently of female gender. Artists, intellectuals, teachers, entertainers, weapons-makers, and warriors all migrated to the chief city of the Mediterranean in search of fortunes and fresh starts that were no longer possible in their home cities.

Estimates of the population of Athens show the following

45,000 adult male citizens
30,000 metics (resident aliens)
100,000 slaves = 175,000 total

However, this only takes into account active adult males. Most scholars would argue that the figure needs to be doubled to 350,000 to account for women and children. Some would argue that the Greek city Syracuse was possibly as large. Nevertheless, given the fact that the next largest city in Greece, Corinth, probably enjoyed a population less than 100,000, one comes to perceive the juggernaut that Athens became. The assembly passed the grain decree in part to secure storage of sufficient food supplies for the burgeoning population (this was housed at the Piraeus). To withstand the risk of sieges, Cimon began the construction of parallel Long Walls, some few score meters apart, to furnish a fortified corridor that connected the defensive walls of Athens to those of the Piraeus (some 7 miles apart). With this, Athens became a virtual island on land. Pericles recognized that to survive any potential conflict, the Athenians no longer depended on its own agricultural hinterland. Repeatedly during the Peloponnesian War, the agricultural population was drawn inside the Long Walls for defense while Athens continued to maintain its control of the seas. So long as its navy could control the flow of grain and tribute to the city, its population could survive without reliance on its own agricultural resources, returning to restore their farms and crops once the emergency had passed.

Such was the foundation Pericles created for Athens. It became the hub of the entire Mediterranean world, a great commercial city, a military power of enormous reach, and the world's leading cultural center. Not only did the presence of so many talented people generate a burst of intellectual achievement unsurpassed by other ancient cultures -- the high quality of red figure painted pottery, remarkable breakthroughs in painting, architecture and sculpture, the development of Greek tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Europides) and comedy (Aristophanes), breakthroughs in philosophy (Socrates), mathematics, and political science - but, Athens being such a relatively small place in size, most of the most famous figures of the era actually knew one another and saw their lives overlap.

Pericles himself remained a relatively reclusive figure who surrounded himself with luminaries of non political backgrounds. Having received the greatest possible education from the celebrated pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras from Miletus, Pericles studiously avoided appearing in public except when necessary, perhaps because he knew that familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. His oratory was reputedly so effective that his speeches always carried the day in the assembly. Physically, he was reported to have had a cranial deformity that he liked to hide by wearing a helmet tilted back on his head. Although a political mastermind, he appears to have found politicians boring, or perhaps longed to give expression to his various other talents. In any event, he surrounded himself with intellectuals who are known to historians today as the "Periclean Circle." These include such prominent figures as Sophocles the tragedian, with whom Pericles is reported to have dined, Herodotus, the historian from Halicarnassus, for whom Pericles engineered the means to acquire Athenian citizenship, Pheidias, the sculptor of the statue of Athena (later driven out of Athens on the charge of embezzling the remnant fragments of gold and ivory; he relocated to Olympia and sculpted a similar statue of Zeus), and Aspasia, the courtesan from Miletus, for whom he abandoned his Athenian wife in order to marry. Like Herodotus, Aspasia had reportedly fled her home city because of factional disputes and pursued fame by opening a brothel in Athens. Her aristocratic upbringing was demonstrated by her training and undisputed skill at rhetoric. Socrates allegedly used to bring his "students" to Aspasia's establishment simply in order to engage her in dialectic argument, and it was rumored throughout antiquity that she ghost-wrote Pericles' most famous speech, the funeral oration of 431 BC, recorded by Thucydides.

If Pericles had a vision for Athens it was to convert it into a beacon for all of Greece, a reflection of what Greek culture could accomplish when all its resources were fully harnessed and efficiently directed. His dealings with Anaxagoras, Herodotus, the Syracusan father of Lysias, and Aspasia demonstrate his own cosmopolitan interests and willingness to embrace outsiders. The emergence of the Piraeus as the most cosmopolitan community in the Mediterranean, a polyglot city of foreign merchants, artisans, and cults, was perhaps the inevitable result of imperial development in Athens. Remarkably, for all its hostility toward non-citizens, the Athenian assembly and people remained open and highly tolerant of dissent, displaying a refreshing willingness to entertain unorthodox political points of view and even to laugh at its own failings (as the popularity of Aristophanes' comedies makes clear).

However, the fact that this city, its culture, and its empire was built on the labor of allied Greek states and enslaved inhabitants who had no say in Pericles' vision must always be borne in mind. The surviving monuments on the Athenian Acropolis serve as a careful reminder that the benefits obtained by any civilization were constructed on the backs of many. The achievements of any great civilization loom like the tip of an iceberg disguising the efforts of countless otherwise invisible, laborers submerged below.

Moreover, one of several potential flaws to Pericles' vision was apparently his own obsessive need to control the wheels of the democracy. Pericles' sudden death by plague at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (429 BC) exposed this failing to his political strategy -- he had failed to train other politicians adequately to assume the reins in his place. After more than 17 years of direction by one man, the Athenian democracy became at a loss to know how to pursue the war or to maintain the empire that Pericles had created. For a decade the democracy would lurch from one crisis to another under the direction of weaker, lesser men. Eventually, Athens' efforts to maintain the empire would fail, creating doubt where formerly a positivist ethos had prevailed. The great tragedian Sophocles seemingly had the person of Pericles in mind when he portrayed Oedipus, the Bronze Age king of Thebes, as a supremely self-confident, even arrogantly rational being. As Sophocles makes clear, much like Oedipus, Athenian confidence in its reasoning power and empire-building would lead to its own demise.