Ancient History: The Birth of Democracy in Athens and Sparta

Ancient Greece: Not a Single Civilization - Brewminate

Episode 18: Greece in Its Gold Age

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

During the Greek Dark Ages {1100-800 BC) the Greek peninsula was organized into fortified cities known as Polis. These were run by militarized aristocracies that treated commoners as virtual slaves. Owing to major mountain ranges that separated them, they established overseas colonies ranging from Spain to the Black Sea (450 by 750 BC) to source scarce commodities.

A steady increase in trade would lead to a rising middle class to challenge the power of the nobility. The result was continual unrest during the period 750-550 BC. In 650 BC, an insurrection in Athens led a series of middle class tyrants* to seize power from the nobility and implement more equitable distribution of agricultural land.

Around 594 BC, Solon, an aristocrat who distinguished himself as both a merchant and military leader, was appointed chief magistrate of Athens. Solon’s reforms included the cancellation of commoners’ debts, the abolition of debt slavery and the appointment of rich merchants to the ruling council, as well as men of noble birth.

In 508 BC, the tyrant Cleisthenes seized power. The so-called “father of Athenian democracy” granted the popular assembly (elected by 20% of the population*) the right to pass laws, as well as creating a council of 500 chosen by lottery.

The city-state Sparta also established a form of democracy. Ruled by a king and his chosen council of elders, Sparta also had a popular assembly with the power to veto their proposals.

In Sparta all males were expected to begin military training at age 7. At 20, they were conscripted into the military until their retirement at age 60. At 30, they were allowed to marry but could only visit their wives at night.

In 480 BC, Athens and Sparta allied to defeat Persian invaders at Thermopylae although Persia continued to occupy many overseas Greek colonies.

In 431 BC the Spartan League (Sparta and the city-states allied with them) declared war on the Delian League (consisting of Athens and its allied city-states). Known as the Peloponnesian Wars, the 23-year war that ensued would end the Golden Age of Greece. Both democracy and the flourishing of art, literature and science it promoted ended when Athens surrendered in 408 BC

*In ancient Greece, a “tyrant” was a commoner who took power by force and thus ruled illegitimately.

**Slaves, foreigners and women were excluded from voting.

The film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy

The Origin of Democracy

The Origin of Democracy

Press TV (2015)

Film Review

In this Press TV documentary about “democracy” in early Athens and Rome, what intrigued me most is that it glosses over burning questions that are glossed over in high school social studies. It has always mystified me why the Athenians put Socrates to death  and why the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official Roman religion in 313 AD – when only 20% of Romans were Christian and the emperor himself was non-Christian (he converted shortly before his death).

According to the Iranian scholars interviewed in this film, the supposed Athenian democracy was actually ruled by a hereditary nobility. Socrates ran afoul of them because he taught the Athenian form of government was actually a type of demagoguery. He was also highly critical of their lack of concern about morality, justice or the massive social inequality present in Athens at the time.

At the time of Socrates, only about 1/8 of the Athenian population (the landowners comprising the nobility) were allowed any input into government. Women and slaves (who comprised 3/4 of the population) and foreign non-slaves (about 10% of the population) were automatically excluded.

In addition to examining the contrasting political systems in the city-states of Athens and Sparta, the film looks at the Roman Republic (509-37 BC), which combined elements of both. It attributes attributes Constantine’s 313 AD Edict of Milan (which made Christianity the official religion) to a desire to unify the population during a period of growing class warfare and growing conflict with the Persian (Iranian) Empire. The latter, which stretched from the Indus to the Nile Rivers, was an enemy of Rome.

The film also explores two distinct differences between Western and Eastern systems of governance. Slavery was far more prominent under Western “democracy” and leaders were much hard to depose when they became corrupt. In contrast, Persian emperors were deposed when they became corrupt and lost the support of the people they ruled.

*A demogogue is someone who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.