There is a reason Western Europe and America built their armies on the martial spirit of Sparta, but their democracies on the political spirit of Athens. Sparta relied completely on slaves to perform the mundane tasks necessary to feeding, clothing and housing a society, making it possible for its army to concentrate strictly on war. The Spartan juggernaut offers numerous templates upon which to build an armed force.

Athens, however, was something entirely different.

Emerging from the Greek Dark Ages, the Athenian political system developed as many other ancient societies did, beginning with an oligarchical system based on rule of the aristocracy. In Athens, the form this oligarchy took was in an assembly of free aristocrats called the Aeropagus, from whom a leader named an ‘archon’ would be elected for one year, a system that bears at least superficial resemblance to the later Roman Senate and its leaders, named consuls, except that the Romans elected two men to lead them for a one year term. In Athens this was a closed system designed to keep power concentrated in the hands of a select few, as only aristocrats could belong to the Aeropagus or serve as Archon. As Brand puts it, “this system reinforced class loyalties and oligarchic rule which despised one man rule, autocracy, and popular rule, democracy” (Brand, ‘Our Town: The Importance of the Greek Polis, Ancient History Online Lecture, p. 9). But like most oligarchies, pressure for participation in the political process by commoners and the lower classes began to stress the system. Wealth could only buy power to a certain point, since the upper classes were far outnumbered by the lower classes, with the ratios only growing more favorable for the lower classes as time went on. And while Athens initially gave the wealthy almost unlimited power, having a great mass of landless poor and even debt slaves, such a situation could not last forever, the numbers were simply not in favor of the wealthy. Without resorting to a draconian system such as that of Sparta, an all-out effort to keep the masses in check through force, something had to be done to prevent a complete overthrow of the Athenian system. Even the better-off among the lower classes, those who were allowed to serve in the hoplite infantry, began to demand representation.

I’m running out of superlatives here…  – Anonymous reviewer

In what seems like a pre-emptive measure to forestall any sort of civic trouble, the aristocrats recognized their peril and decided that somehow the poorer Athenians had to be brought into the political process, lest they revolt and overthrow the system altogether. In 594 they appointed a fellow aristocrat named Solon to look into the problem and gave him plenipotentiary powers to solve it however he saw fit, with the objective being a reform that benefitted all Athenians. It is interesting to note, in passing, how similar this looks to the Roman maneuver of naming a dictator with full powers to solve a given problem without fear of retribution. At any rate, Solon did, indeed, enact sweeping reforms. “Solon eliminated debt slavery and made it illegal for anyone to obtain loans with landed property or their own freedom as collateral. He also cancelled all existing debts owed by the lower classes. All debt slaves were freed and Solon even bought the freedom of many Athenians who had been sold into slavery elsewhere” (Brand, ‘Our Town, the Importance of the Greek Polis’, Ancient History Online Lecture, p. 10).  On the surface these reforms seemed radical, since much of the leverage of the wealthy was taken away, but even more important was the reform that eliminated basing political power on land, the basis for the aristocracy, and relying on wealth as the gateway to involvement in the political process. Wealth could be earned in any number of ways. Previously only men who owned land could participate, but with wealth being the basis such classes as merchants became eligible for high office.

As Brand makes clear, the unit of measure was not coinage or money, per se, but bushels of grain. 500 bushels allowed you to hold high political office. 300 bushels qualified a man to equip himself for the cavalry, once again mirroring the later Roman social class of the equestrian, while men whose wroth totaled at least 200 bushels could serve in the hoplite infantry. The cavalry and hoplites could also hold lesser political office. Those with worth less than 200 bushels could neither serve in the military nor participate in politics (Brand, ‘Our Town, the Importance of the Greek Polis’, Ancient History Online Lecture, p. 11). And beyond these political reforms, Solon seems to have had more than just a political mandate because he also enacted a number of economic measures designed to stimulate the economy, although there was a definite political component to the economic reforms.

One of the chief concerns of any oligarchy, or for that matter virtually any form of government, is feeding the lower classes and the poor, who almost inevitably outnumber their more prosperous counterparts in the upper classes. Large numbers of hungry poor are a breeding ground for revolution, which was as true in Ancient Athens as it is today. Feeding the Athenian lower classes required an ever-greater quantity of grain, something the Athenians needed more and more land to do, and which the rocky soil of Greece is not particularly well suited to grow. Solon recognized this dilemma and the production of olive oil was encouraged as a means to pay for enough imported grain to feed the Athenian population. Likewise, he aided the manufacture of superb Athenian pottery for the same purpose, to buy commodities Athens could not produce for herself.

For some, Solons various reforms went too far. For others, they did not go nearly far enough. In their wake, three distinct political factions arose within Athens. Brand describes them as, “…the Men of the Plain were wealthy land-owners, and mostly aristocrats. The Men of the Coast were fishermen and craftsmen, both poor and well off. The Men of the Hill were poor” (Brand, ‘Our Town, the Importance of the Greek Polis’, Ancient History Online Lecture, p. 12), either farmers will lesser plots or urban poor. Such coalescing around mutual interests was an important political evolution, although not necessarily what Solon had envisioned. Instead of promoting further political evolution, it shut it down entirely as the three groups vied for power. Brand says, “…the diverging interests of these three groups stymied cooperation across a broad section of the Athenian population. The result was political and social gridlock…” (Brand, ‘Athens & Sparta: Democracy vs. Dictatorship’, Ancient History Online Lecture, p. 18) Soon thereafter a man named Peisistratus seized power, thus becoming what the Greeks termed a ‘tyrant’.

Peisistratus hated, and was in turn hated by, the aristocracy, which almost by default gained him support among the lower classes for his attempts at further reforms. He first took power in 555 BCE, was ousted several times but always regained power, until he finally died in 527 BCE and was succeeded by his son, who was expelled once and for all in 510 BCE. The effects of this long period of dispute and political turbulence was to bring another aristocrat forward to oversee further reforms in an effort to prevent an even more drastic change in Athenian politics. This time the reformer was named Cleisthenes and he was given a mandate to change whatever needed changing in Athenian political and social structures to avoid further disruptions to the state.

The biggest obstacle to reform were the three aforementioned political factions, which Cleisthenes dealt with swiftly and deftly by creating ten artificial ‘tribes’, each one composed of elements from the three factions. Thus, a tribe would have plains men, coast men and hill men; or, put another way, aristocrats, middle class and poor men. By this ingenious method he nullified old alliances and gave each tribe a broad outlook about what was good for Athens. Next, he completely reorganized how Athenian government worked by changing the Boule, the body that determined what would be considered for debate by an assembly of all the free men of Athens. Every year 500 councilors would be chosen, with 50 coming from each tribe, making it difficult for coalitions to pass laws without broad support. Unlike measures taken before 507 BCE, “the principle of one man one vote meant that a true majority decided all questions…he (Cleisthenese) called his system isonomia” (Brand, ‘Athens & Sparta: Democracy vs. Dictatorship, Ancient History Online Lecture, p.19). This was not yet a true democracy as there remained many Athenians who were left out of the process, but it was certainly a huge step forward in that direction.

It would take war to bring the Athenian form of democracy to full fruition, however, war with the mighty Persian Empire. When Persia first invaded Greece in 483 BCE an Athenian force defeated them at the Battle of Marathon, a masterpiece of tactical innovation combined with good timing and, some would say, dumb luck. Certainly the influential Athenian statesman Themistocles would have said so, and he knew that Athens could not count on luck when the Persians invaded Greece for a second time, as he knew they would. So, when Athens had yet another stroke of luck in finding a rich vein of silver in Attica, Themistocles convinced his countrymen to build a fleet of some 200 triremes, the standard Greek warship of the times. He knew that when the Persians came back Athens would be faced with an invasion by sea, and if she did not build a navy large enough to defeat the Persians, all was lost. And while it might seem that the poorer members of the Athenian assembly would have voted to spend the money on something else, such as their own personal welfare, in fact they knew that a lot of men were going to be employed rowing all of those triremes and that they would have those jobs (Brand, ‘Athens & Sparta: Democracy vs. Dictatorship, Ancient History Online Lecture, p. 21-22).

The effect of all of these new men in an expanded military was to increase the numbers of those who felt they should be allowed to vote. Formerly, only men of some wealth were allowed to fight for Athens, but the new navy and its new crews required a much larger percentage of the male population to row those ships, giving those men the feeling that since they, too, fought for Athens, then they should also be allowed to participate in the political process. The result was that, “By 480 Athens was a powerful democracy” (Brand, ‘Athens & Sparta: Democracy vs. Dictatorship’, Ancient History Online Lecture, p. 25). In the Second Persian War, the triumph of the Greeks left Athens as a superpower among the polies. Themistocles’ foresight in building a powerful navy allowed the crucial naval victory at Salamis in 480 BCE, followed by the crushing Greek victory on land at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE. Had Athens not voted to build its fleet, a measure opposed by many among the aristocrats, it is unlikely that the Greeks would have triumphed. This invested the fledgling democracy with a sense of self-importance, since it was the people themselves who had made the vital decision to build the navy, and Athens took up a powerful position among the polies, which soon led to her leading the coalition named the Delian League to carry the war to Persia.

As was stated before, the nature of Athenian democracy was based on wealth, with a larger number of men able to participate in government than had ever happened before, but not so large a number as to be confused with a majority of Athenians. The level of wealth dictated how much and what kind of service a free citizen could give the state, from the 500 bushel men who qualified for such high offices as one of the 10 generals elected every year, to the horse men who owned 300 bushels and finally to the thetes, those people whose wealth fell below 199 bushels. The construction of an Athenian navy allowed these men to find jobs as rowers and to participate in defending their country, even though they did not qualify to fight in the hoplite infantry. This was a major step forward for free men who had previously been excluded from public service to become involved in guiding their polis, bringing them into the process and giving them a reason to feel proud of themselves and their country (Brand, ‘Athens & Sparta: Democracy vs. Dictatorship’, Ancient History Online Lecture, p. 29). The form Athenian democracy took was a direct democracy, that is, each person’s vote counted toward a decision, as opposed to the American form of democracy which is a representative republic. Since only free men aged 20 or older were eligible, and women and slaves were excluded, it was possible for this to work because the numbers were reasonable. This also required a huge number of slaves available to do the work the free men would have had to do instead of spending time voting in assemblies, or serving on a jury, or doing some other form of public service, leading to the ironic truth that Athenian democracy was only possible because of its reliance on slavery.

The final judgment of the effectiveness of Athenian democracy has to take into account what new disciplines grew in its midst. Because Athenian democracy could be swayed by men such as Pericles, or by demagogues who might convince them to do something counter-productive and destructive, the disciplines of rhetoric and philosophy became ever more important. Around those grew offshoot disciplines, making classical Athens a place of unparalleled mental and spiritual growth. Democratic Athens survived and thrived as long as it did because each free man was invested in his country and its political decisions, even if the distribution of power was not equal. But the Athenian experiment with democracy also made clear that just because men voted in large numbers that did not prevent them from making poor decisions. It only meant those poor decisions were made collectively.