FC19: The Rise of Greek Democracy (c.750-500 BCE)


FC19 in the Hyperflow of History.
Covered in multimedia lecture #3520.

The Age of Colonization (c.750-550 B.C.E)

Greece was not a rich land capable of supporting a large population. Yet the revival of stable conditions and the rise of a new class of independent farmers practicing a mixed agriculture of grains, vines, and orchards after 800 B.C.E brought population growth.  This, in turn, brought problems, since family lands had to be split up among the surviving sons.  These sons also had families to support, but on less land than their fathers had.  Greece's poor soil and occasional droughts would lead to famines, forcing the victims of those crop failures to seek loans from the rich nobles.  Of course, there was interest on the loan, generally equal to one-sixth of the peasants' crops.  Failure to pay back the loan and interest in time led to the loss of the family lands or the personal freedom of the farmer and his family.  Unfortunately, bad harvests often run in cycles of several years at a time.  As a result, the Greek poleis in the eighth century B.C.E had a few rich nobles and a multitude of desperately poor people, creating an unstable situation for the polis and the nobles who controlled it.  Therefore, many city-states started looking for new lands on which to settle their surplus populations.  The Age of Colonization was born.

The Greeks looked for several qualities in a site for a colony: good soil, plentiful natural resources, defensible land, and a good location for trade. They especially found such sites along the coasts of the North Aegean and Black Seas to the northeast, and Sicily and Southern Italy to the west.  However, Greek colonies dotted the map of the Mediterranean from Egypt and Cyrene in North Africa to Spain and Southern France in the West.

Founding a colony was no easy task.  A leader and enough settlers had to be found, which often involved two city-states combining their efforts to found the colony.  Finding a site for the colony was also a problem.  Generally, colonists would ask the Oracle of Delphi for advice, usually getting a vague double-edged answer that could be interpreted in several ways, thus making the Oracle always right.  For example, the colonists who founded Byzantium by the Black Sea were told to found their city across from the blind men.  They figured the blind men were the settlers of nearby Chalcedon who had missed the much superior site of nearby Byzantium, since it controlled the trade routes between the Black and Aegean Seas and between Europe and Asia.

Although a colony was an independent city-state in its own right, it generally kept close relations with its mother city ( metropolis), symbolized by taking part of the metropolis' sacred fire, representing its life, to light the fire of the new colony. Eventually, many Greek colonies, especially ones to the west such as Syracuse, Tarentum, and Neapolis (Naples), would surpass their mother cities in wealth and power.  As a result, Southern Italy and Sicily came to be known as Magna Graecia, (Greater Greece).

Colonies triggered a feedback cycle that would help maintain the colonial movement and lead to dramatic economic, social, and political changes in the Greek homeland.  First of all, colonies relieved population pressures at home and provided resources to their mother cities.  This helped support the emergence of craftsmen who made such things as pottery and armor for export.  It also made life easier for the free farmers who had more land now that there was less crowding.  These two rising groups, craftsmen and free farmers, constituted a new group, the middle class, which could afford arms and armor and help defend their poleis.

That, in turn, allowed the Greeks to deploy into a phalanx, a much larger mass formation of heavily armored soldiers who together formed a sort of human tank.  Thanks to this deadly new formation, the Greeks were better able to found and defend colonies in territories with large hostile populations.  This would feed back into the beginning of the process whereby colonies would produce more wealth and resources that would add further to the rising middle class that could afford arms and armor, leading to more heavily armed Greeks who could found and defend more colonies, and so on.

Another development that helped this process was a new invention: coinage.  Although for centuries, people had used gold and silver as common mediums of exchange to expedite trade, there were always problems of determining the accurate weight and purity of such metals to avoid being cheated.  Then, around 600 B.C.E., the Lydians, neighbors of the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor, issued the first coins, lumps of gold marked with a government stamp guaranteeing the weight and purity of those lumps.  Greek poleis soon picked up on this practice and issued their own coins. Coinage created a more portable form of wealth that everyone agreed was valuable.  Trade became much easier to carry on, thus increasing its volume and the fortunes of the merchants involved in it.  Overall, this signaled a growing shift from the land-based economy dominated by the nobles to the more dynamic money economy controlled by the middle class.

The Western way of war

The cycle of colonization spread a new type of warfare across the Greek world.  Previously, Greek warfare had been the domain of the nobles, since they were the only ones who could afford the arms and armor necessary for fighting in the front lines.  While this put the brunt of the fighting on their shoulders, it also gave them prestige and power, since they had the weapons to enforce their will.

However, by the mid seventh century B.C.E, the wealth brought in by colonies led to a new type of warfare, the hoplite phalanx, a compact formation of heavily armored soldiers (hoplites, from the Greek word for shield) with overlapping shields and armed with spears.  The idea was to use the weight of the phalanx to plow through the enemy.  It wasn’t elegant, but it was effective and brought into play two new revolutionary factors.  First, since the phalanx’s success relied on numbers, anyone able to afford heavy armor and shield had to be used. This meant including the rising middle class of independent farmers, craftsmen, and merchants, which would have a dramatic impact on the polis’ political structure in the future.

Secondly, the hoplite phalanx created a new concept of warfare.  Previously, when warfare had been primarily a matter of honor and power for a narrow group of kings and nobles who had nothing better to do, battles had mainly been a matter of hit-and-run tactics with some face-to-face combat.  However, with middle class farmers now making up the bulk of the phalanx, warfare became a matter of defending their very livelihood.  Therefore, the practice developed of meeting invaders in short, but brutal, head-on clashes to protect the defending farmers’ lands and homes from ruin. Also, the fact that most of those fighting the battles had regular occupations to get back to reinforced this urge for a quick resolution of a war in one decisive battle.

This concept of resolving wars in decisive head-on clashes long outlived the Greek poleis that started it. The Romans would subscribe to this principle with systematic efficiency and pass it on to Western Civilization where it is still seen as the way to fight wars.  Until the mid 1900s this strategy served Western powers well, but in recent decades it has not always proven effective, as the Vietnam War, Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and American occupation in Iraq have shown.

Pheidon, the ruler of Argos, was the first to use the new hoplite phalanx against Sparta, defeating it in the process. Soon Sparta had adapted to these new tactics, and other Greek poleis quickly proceeded to arm their middle classes and form phalanxes of their own in order to survive.  Soon the "Hoplite Revolution" had spread throughout Greece and its colonies.

By 550 B.C.E, the cycle of Greek colonization was running out as few good sites for new colonies remained. However, colonization had spread of Greek civilization to other peoples, notably the Macedonians to the north and the Romans to the west.  Rome in particular would adapt Greek culture to its own needs and pass it on to Western Civilization.

The rise of Greek democracy

Increased prosperity oftentimes leads to trouble, for it creates expectations of power and status to go with it.  People who have virtually nothing expect nothing more.  People who have had a taste of something generally expect more and will even fight to get it. Such is the fuel of revolutions, and ancient Greece was no exception.  The problem was that, while the middle class artisans and farmers had little or no social status or political power to go with the expectation to fight in the phalanx.  Their  frustration in more commercial poleis played itself out somewhat differently than in the more agricultural poleis, but ultimately with the same basic result.

In many, usually the more commercial poleis such as Corinth, Megara, and Athens, some disgruntled and ambitious nobles used the frustrated middle class to seize power from the ruling aristocracy.  The government they set up was called a tyranny, from the Greek word tyrannos, meaning one-man rule.  Such an arrangement was usually illegal, but not necessarily evil.  That association with the word tyrant would come later.

In order to maintain his popularity, the tyrant typically did three things.  First, he protected peoples' rights with a written law code, literally carved in stone, so that the laws could not be changed or interpreted upon the whim of the rich and powerful.  Second, he confiscated the lands of the nobles he had driven from power and redistributed them among the poor. Finally, he provided jobs through building projects: harbors, fortifications, and stone temples with graceful fluted columns, a new Greek innovation. In addition, tyrants had the means to patronize the arts.  Thus the sixth century B.C.E. saw a flourishing of Greek culture in such areas as architecture, sculpture, and poetry.

However, the increased prosperity brought on by the tyrants only gave the people a taste for more of the same.  By the second or third generation, tyrants could not or would not meet those growing demands, and people grew resentful.  In reaction to this resentment, tyrants would often resort to repressive measures, which just caused more resentment, more repression, and so on.  Eventually, this feedback of resentment and repression would lead to a revolution to replace the tyrants with a limited democracy especially favoring the hoplite class of small landholding farmers, though excluding the poor, women, and slaves.

In the more agricultural poleis, the farmer-hoplites seem to have taken control more peacefully.  Their dual status as farmers and hoplites supported each other in maintaining control.  As farmers, they were the ones who could afford arms and armor and serve in the phalanx.  And as hoplites in the phalanx, they were the ones with the power to run the state.  Much like the states that experienced tyrannies, these agrarian poleis also established limited democracies favoring the small land-holding farmers.  While these democracies may have excluded a majority of their populations, they did exhibit several characteristics that made them a unique experiment in history and a giant step toward democracy.

  1. A high value was placed on equality, at least among the citizens ruling the polis.  This ethos of equality discouraged the accumulation of large fortunes and encouraged the rich to donate their services and wealth to the polis.  This created a fine balance between individual rights and working for the welfare of the society as a whole that helped create fairly stable poleis.

  2. The polis was largely dominated by a middle class of small landholders, merchants, and craftsmen. In addition to women and slaves, Greek democracies typically excluded freemen without any property from the full advantages of citizenship.  However, despite its shortcomings, the moderate style of democracy born in Greece by 500 B.C.E was the basis for the later, much more broadly based democracy in Athens and our own idea of individuals controlling their own destinies.

  3. Hoplite warfare limited the scope and damage of warfare among the Greek poleis.  Since it was the farmers who both declared war and fought it for the polis, they made sure that it was short and decisive so it would not disrupt their agricultural work or damage their crops.  A typical war might take only three days: one day to march into enemy territory, one day to fight, and one day to get back home to the crops.  They also made sure it was cheap.  Since hoplite warfare was simple and everyone supplied his own equipment and rations, there was no need for taxes to support generals and buy supplies.  This limited, almost ritualistic, style of warfare maintained a stability among the Greek poleis despite the frequency of their wars.