Friday, March 24, 2017

Athenian Politics: Not So Nice

Thucydides made a career, around 400 B.C., of documenting how contemptible and despicable the Athenians were. Despite his careful documentation of their bribery, extortion, and dishonesty, some modern readers still assume that the Athenians were noble and honorable.

Although Thucydides provided ample data to show that the Athenians were largely scoundrels and miscreants, later generations were led astray by the self-serving propaganda of Pericles, whose famous ‘funeral oration’ presents the Athenians as virtuous and moral.

Archeologists have unearthed evidence which strengthens the case which Thucydides made more than two thousand years ago. As historian Jarrett Lobell writes,

The end of the seventh century B.C. was a tumultuous period in Athenian history. Though once ruled by a king, the increasingly powerful region of Attica, home to Athens, had come to be presided over by aristocrats who maintained their hold on power through land ownership and lifetime appointments. But as the century drew to a close, the political climate was primed for a new type of government — that of a single ruler, or tyrant. An evocative gravesite on the outskirts of Athens is a testament to this contentious moment in history.

Athens seems to have oscillated between oligarchs and dictators. In such power struggles, both sides were unprincipled and unscrupulous.

Although Athens is associated with democracy, the word is misleading. Athenian democracy was based on exclusion and inequality.

As Thucydides made clear, the Athenians were more than willing to use intimidation and brute force in their political dealings.

Excavators at the Phaleron Delta necropolis have uncovered the remains of 80 men, shackled together at their wrists, lying in a mass grave. The most recent osteological studies have determined that the majority of the men were between 20 and 30 years old, although four were much younger, and that all 80 had been killed in the same manner — with a fatal blow to the head.

The excavation in question here deals with events a few years prior to the Peloponnesian War which Thucydides describes. But the evidence dug up is also after Home and after beginnings of Greek colonization.

The data from this archeological site, then, are of a piece with ‘Classical’ or ‘Golden Age’ Athens. These data are late enough to be part of a transition out of ‘archaic’ Greek history.

They do not belong in the core ‘archaic’ history, and are therefore relevant to Thucydides. Jarrett Lobell discusses the date of the site:

The discovery of two small vases buried with them has allowed archaeologists to date the grave to the mid-to-late seventh century B.C., suggesting to project director Stella Chrysoulaki that the men were executed in the course of one of these attempts to gain political primacy. “For the first time,” Chrysoulaki says, “we can illustrate historical events that took place during the struggle between aristocrats in the seventh century and led, through a long process, to the establishment of a democratic regime in the city of Athens.”

The brutality of Athenian political murder is enough to cure the reader of the illusion that the Athenians were high-minded and respectable practitioners of political fairness. In face, Greek philosophers often analyzed virtue precisely because they found so little of it in their society.

The murders detailed in this evidence were not a rare occurrence, and constituted rather the usual procedure and methodology of politics in ‘classical’ Greece.