The argument between democrats and oligarchs worked itself through the events of the late fifth century bc. Those who during the twenty-seven years of the Peloponnesian war with Sparta (431-404) insisted that the operations of a full democracy caused the lack of Athenian success, not least in prosecuting war, were able briefly to engineer an oligarchic revolution in 411. But with the violent excesses committed by these oligarchs and, in particular, the violence committed by the so-called Thirty Tyrants who were imposed on Athens by the Spartan victors in 404/3 in order to abolish its democratic constitution, Athenians thereafter successfully resisted and rejected oligarchy as a practical alternative to democracy. The democratic resistance to the oligarchy, led from outside Athens by a band of exiles, many of whom were artisans and shopkeepers,37 had entered the polis under arms and defeated the combined forces of the Spartans and the Thirty in the port of Piraeus. Among those who died were Plato's relatives and associates.38 The democracy was restored in 403/2 in somewhat less radical form than previously. A call for national reconciliation and an amnesty for those who had sided with the Thirty (except for their closest associates) was accompanied by an intensification of anti-aristocratic feeling.59 But if good birth was now not seen as necessary to political ambition, a measure of wealth, inherited or acquired, appears to have been a prerequisite for most of those who aspired to leadership in order to sustain more than average political ambitions.
Ordinary Athenians appear to have believed that all Athenian citizens, and probably all Greeks, naturally had a measure of justice and good sense.60 The further skills necessary for participating in the polis could be taught and developed through just legal and political arrangements. But only in a very minimal sense did democrats insist on an equality of 'nature' among male citizens, and this belief in a minimal natural equality encouraged them to trust in selection by lot, indicating that they considered all citizens to be capable of learning to rule and be ruled in turn. In itself, this may appear to us to be an extraordinary attitude which displays a remarkable trust in the capacities of one's neighbours, whether or not any of them ever realizes his acknowledged potentials. Over and above this minimal equality of nature, however, the competition for civic honours was a major characteristic ofpoliteia (citizenship), a competition that was undoubtedly framed by differentials in wealth.61 But more fundamental than wealth were the rules
56 Xenophon's Hellenika gives information on the continuous inter-polis warfare throughout mainland and eastern Greece into the fourth century bc.
58 See Republic I.
59 Sinclair, Democracy and Participation, pp. 42—3.
60 Plato, Protagoras 319a-324d.
61 J. K. Davies, Democracy and Classical Greece, 2nd edn (London, 1993), p. 126.
and conventions, that is, the laws, which safeguarded the political activity of free agents within a community that practised a distinct form of political rule: rule by all. Therefore, fundamental to this democracy was the notion of freedom, in Greek eleutheria, a word whose resonances are only in part grasped by the modern English word 'liberty'.
Was this article helpful?