>I’ve been reading about ancient history to put philosophical ideas, about liberty and democracy, of the time into context. I’ve read some 19th century work which itself has become part of the history of thought about liberty (Jakob Burckhardt and Numa-Denis Fustel de Coulanges); and now I’m onto some recent scholarship. Recently I’ve read through the edited volume Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, by Kurt A. Raaflaub, Josiah Ober and Robert W. Wallace with contributions from Paul Cartledge and Cynthia Farrar (University of California Press).
I don’t have a very systematic view of the book, I read it more to get views informed by recent scholarship influencing my thinking at a basic level. Anyway, it was very interesting reading and here are some of the points I picked up as relevant to my interests.
1. Role of the military in the development of democracy. Something I was aware of already, but the volume deepened my understanding of debates about how hoplites and sailors influenced Athenian democracy. The rise of the hoplites, heavy infantry armed with spears in a large rigid and deep formation, as central to Greek war, has often been linked with a political move from the aristocracy who were cavalry to the lower classes. However, as hoplites were heavy infantry with armour, they were not the poorest at all. Sailors, and oarsmen, on naval boats represented a lower class. This would explain why Athens became the famous example of democracy, it was the trading city with the most important navy in the Greek world.
2. Comparisons of Athens and Rome in the evolution of democracy, including the military history. This reinforces the Athens versus Rome element of republican political theory in the present century, and in the last. Hannah Arendt’s republicanism was ‘Athenian’ and Philip Pettit’s is Roman.
3. The uncertainty of the stages in which Athens reached its most democratic stage. Athenians read democracy back into the legendary law maker Solon, and even the legendary Theseus, when democrac may have largely arisen recently from Cleisthenes.
4. The democracy of Cleisthenes presumed the erosion of the power of the Aeropagus, the law court linked withe the aristocracy. The aeopagus survived for centuries more, but it was deprived of a large part of its power in the democratic period, in comparison with bodies selected by lottery or by rotation. That might be one reason Athenian democracy seemed demagogic and irresponsible to some of the best minds of the time (e.g. Plato and Xenophon).
5. Aeschylus tragedy the Eumenides ( Kindly Ones), the last part of the Oresteia, which gives a mythical origin to the Aeropagus, should be seen in the context of the transformation mentioned in point 4 above.
6. Differing points of view about the relation between social struggles and emergence of democracy. How far can we see the emergence of democracy as coming from the struggles of the poorer classes for power and economic benefits?
7. How far can we see Sparta as a democracy for that small part of the population who were full citizens? Probably less of a democracy than the laws in themselves suggest.
8. When does oligarchy or a mixed constitution become a democracy? The ambiguity comes from the defining the point at which it can be said that enough of the people have political rights, for there to be a democracy.
9. How far can see democracy as present, in some way, in the voice sometimes given the soldier-peasants in Homer? If we can, then in some way democracy was always present in the Ancient Greek world, or at least as far as we have written culture. This links with issues of how far democratic institutions later on emerge from already existing equality of political rights and liberties.