It is difficult to imagine what a great gap divides the modern world and the society of ancient Greece. Though united by language and a feeling of superiority over all those who did not speak Greek—the “barbarians”—the ancient Greeks were not united amongst themselves. Each valley could and often did support its own independent political community; even an island often had more than one self-ruled city-state (Greek polis).With so much fragmentation, it is unsurprising that the Greek communities fought each other. This, and the greedy designs of neighboring kingdoms, made war a part of the culture of ancient Greece.
Yet within the polis, citizens met together and mutually decided how their community would deal with the problems it faced. The small size was beneficial insofar as it allowed the kind of direct contact necessary for its inhabitants to rule themselves. The existence of citizen rule among the Greeks contrasted strongly with the absolute monarchies other Mediterranean peoples endured, further solidifying the sense of Greek identity (Finley, 1964).
Some unity finally emerged among the eastern city-states in response to Persia’s attempt to invade mainland Greece after successfully bringing those in Asia Minor under its control. Athens was primarily responsible for defeating the Persians in 490 B.C., and the Athenians followed their victory in 480 at the head of a small coalition of city-states. Anticipating a third attack, Athens formed a confederation out of the frightened Greek states, which made contributions to Athens for mutual defense.
After the Persian fleet was eliminated, the members of the “Delian League” wished to resume their autonomy, but Athens forcibly chose to maintain and even expand the alliance, changing it from a confederation into an empire. Enriched by the continuing tribute, Athens came to be seen as a threat by Sparta, leader of the Peloponnesian League. This eventually led to the quarter-century series of battles known as the Peloponnesian War, which ended in 404 B.C. with Athens’ defeat and the dissolution of its empire. Although Athens was able to regain control over itself, it was weakened, and the anarchy that reigned in areas it had formerly controlled set the stage for Athens’ own final fall to the Macedonians in 322 B.C. (Finley, 1964).
While the members of the Delian League benefitted from the general peace imposed by Athens, it was Athens that benefitted most. This time became known as its Golden Age. Credit for much of Athens’ accomplishments during this period is often given to its leader, Pericles, who took the impressive sums stockpiled at the Acropolis, satisfied himself that the Athenian fleet was strong, and applied the money to improving his city (Kitto, 1957). Under his leadership rose the Parthenon, a public-works project on the grandest of scales. In addition to increasing spending on public festivals, Pericles also instituted a system of pay for attendance at the Assembly, which expanded democratic participation beyond the leisured classes to the common man.
Democratic practice in Athens is criticized today for its lack of inclusiveness. Out of a population of approximately 250,000, the polis of Athens harbored approximately 70,000 slaves, who provided much of the opportunity for leisure that direct democracy required to exist. In addition to the exclusion of the numerous aliens, women were completely excluded from political life. This left about 40,000 to 50,000 adult male citizens as potential participants in Athens’ rule.
Rather than criticize Athens for those it excluded, it is more instructive to look at how those who were eligible participated in its rule. Any (male) citizen could attend the Assembly and vote on the matters being debated there; any man who felt confident enough could speak in...
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