Democracy as contained conflict

Saul Frampton writes: The fall of Mycenaean power, the intervening Dark Ages, and the dawn of a new civilisation during the ‘Greek miracle’ of the Archaic period is one of the most fascinating stories in ancient history. After the collapse of the Mycenaean palace system around 1100 BCE, Greece experienced centuries of social and economic devastation. Pylos, Mycenae and Thebes were abandoned and burned to the ground. A dwindling population was attacked by invaders from the north and from the sea. What remained of Bronze Age culture was according to one historian ‘very little’, and ‘that little then dwindled away to almost nothing’. Writing at the end of the period, the 8th-century poet Hesiod described the degeneration of the human race, from glittering Bronze Age heroes, down to his own violent ‘Age of Iron’. He looked into the near future and saw children born grey, families at war with themselves, and society self-destructing. He concluded miserably: ‘I wish that I … had either died sooner or been born later.’

But it was at this moment that a new vision of society began to emerge. As the classical scholar Gilbert Murray put it in 1907 : ‘There is a far-off island of knowledge, or apparent knowledge; then darkness; then the beginnings of continuous history.’ The archaic period (800-480 BCE) represents the start of this history, when ‘darkness gives way to dawn’, according to the archaeologist J N Coldstream. And at its heart is the birthplace of the Western intellectual and political tradition: the polis or Greek city-state.

A polis was a self-governing city or town and its surrounding territory. In terms of size, it wasn’t necessarily big: Aristotle said that all the citizens of a polis (i.e, men) should be able to be assembled by the voice of a single herald. Plato gave an ideal citizenry of 5,040. Some poleis were smaller, but few were much larger. A typical city-state such as Plataea in Boeotia had a total population of fewer than 10,000. But from its modest beginnings, the idea of the polis soon spread. At the highpoint of Greek civilisation (c400 BCE), around 1,000 had migrated across the shores of the Mediterranean – as Plato put it: ‘like frogs around a pond’.

Given these geographic variations, many chose to define the polis anthropologically. ‘Not well-built walls, nor canals and dockyards make the polis: but men do,’ said Alcaeus of Lesbos. In Thucydides, the Athenian general Nikias states that: ‘It is men that make the polis, not walls or ships.’ Aristotle defined man as politikon zoon, a political animal: he ‘whose nature is to live in a polis’. At its heart was a conception of government for the people, by the people: of normative rules and collective decision-making. For the writers and philosophers of 5th-century Athens, this culminated in an ability to step back, not only from politics but from life itself, and subject it to something like objective scrutiny.

But the reasons for the success of the Greek city-state still remain unclear. Did it result from an expanding population or the group-think of the armoured hoplite phalanx? Were improvements in trade crucial, or was it the rise of sophisticated urban elites? Was it maintained by abstract ideals of democracy (demokratia), freedom (eleutheria) and free speech (parrhesia)? Or was the rise of the polis somehow the astonishing aftereffect of the simple act of drawing a line? [Continue reading…]

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