Democracy and the Effects of the Peloponnesian War: Crisis and Reconstruction

31. Popular criticism of democracy: The Sicilian debate

The Athenian expedition to Sicily of 415–413 was the greatest single military operation ever carried out by a Greek city (see Thuc. 7.87). Two years after landing in Sicily in the highest hopes, the Athenians were routed by the combined forces of the Syracusean and their Spartan allies. In spite of the total destruction of their once mighty fleet, the Athenians resolved to carry on the fight against the Spartans and their allies. The disaster however had important consequences on the morale of the Athenians and their trust in the democratic constitution. A council of ten probouloi (‘revisors of the laws’) was appointed to draft constitutional reforms.

Thuc. 8.1: The Athenians’ reactions to the Sicilian disaster

When the news of the disaster came to Athens, the citizens remained for a long while in a state of disbelief. For, although the soldiers who had escaped from the action were giving reliable accounts of the events, such an utter destruction was simply deemed impossible. But when at last they realized what had happened, first they grew angry with those politicians who had joined zealously in promoting the expedition, as though they had not voted for it themselves; then they were angry with the oracle-mongers, the soothsayers and all the others who, through the practice of divination, had made them hope that they could really conquer Sicily. Everything around them was pain, and, after what happened, they were overwhelmed by a sense of fear and enormous consternation. The Athenians, both as a city and as a community, were seized by grief: so many hoplites had been lost, and cavalrymen and troops in the prime of their age that nobody could replace. Also, they were seeing that there were no sufficient ships in the docks, or money in the common treasury, or crews for the fleet, and so they began to despair for salvation. In fact, they were convinced that their enemies in Sicily, now that they had won such a resonant victory, would soon be sailing against the Piraeus, while their enemies at home would be doubling their preparations to attack them by land and sea simultaneously, and that their allies would revolt and join them. In spite of all this, the Athenians came to the conclusion that they should not surrender. They were determined to equip a new fleet with such means as they had, procuring timber and money from anywhere they could, and to secure the loyalty of their allies, particularly those of Euboaea. Also, they resolved to reform the city’s constitution so as to make it more efficient and to appoint a board of elders who would advise upon the affairs of the city as a convenient opportunity should arise. And so, as is customary with democracies, in the panic of the moment they committed themselves to observe discipline in all their affairs.

32. Conservative criticism of Athenian democracy: The ‘Old Oligarch’

The anonymous treaty on the Constitution of the Athenians traditionally attributed to an ‘Old Oligarch’ or ‘Pseudo-Xenophon’ is a trenchant analysis of the Athenian constitution written in the later decades of the fifth century, probably around the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Democracy is described as a wicked yet diabolically efficient system, deliberately devised to give the highest degree of power and licence to the worst citizens, whose service in the fleet had been instrumental to the imperial rise of Athens, while the political and financial burden of the administration of the city is left on the shoulders of the wealthy and respectable. The weakness of the Athenian infantry reflects this [ac]. The development of democracy caused a proliferation of offices and magistracies which are the main source of revenue for many citizens. As a consequence of this, the political calendar of the city is incredibly packed, to the detriment of the quality of the government’s daily operation [d].

Democracy also spoiled the athletic competitions and religious festivals of the city, which have become occasions for feasting at the expense of the good citizens [e, f].

[a] [Ps. Xen.] Ath. Const. 1.1–9: Democracy favours the worst citizens

As for the fact that the Athenians have opted for the kind of constitution that they have, I do not commend their choice, because, by adopting democracy, they have deliberately chosen to make the worst citizens better off than the best. This is why I do not praise what they have done. But since this is what they have resolved, I will show how well they defend their constitution and accomplish all the other things for which the other Greeks criticize them.

First let me say that it is right that in Athens the populace and the poor have more than the noble and the wealthy, because it is the people who man the ships and make the city strong. The steersmen, the boatswains, the sub-boatswains, the look-out officers: all these contribute to the strength of the city much more than the hoplites, the noble and the respectable men. For this reason, it is right that everyone has a share in the magistracies, both those allotted and those elective, and that anybody who wants to do so is entitled to speak his mind.

The populace however claim no share in those magistracies which bring safety to the whole city when they are well managed, or danger when they are not (for instance, they do not think that they should have an allotted share in the board of generals or the command of the cavalry). For the populace is aware that they have more to gain from not holding those offices and leaving them to the most powerful men. But those magistracies which are salaried and lucrative, the people want to hold them.

Now, some might find it extraordinary that the Athenians always assign more to the scoundrels, the poor and the demagogues than the better citizens: this clearly goes in the direction of preserving democracy, because if the poor, the extremists and all the men of the baser sort are well off and numerous, they will increase democracy. But if the wealthy and notable men are doing well, the popular leaders will create a strong opposition against themselves.

Everywhere in the world the most honourable citizens are against democracy. For in the best citizens there is a minimum of wantonness and injustice, and the greatest attention for what is good. On the other hand, among the populace there is a maximum of ignorance, disorder and wickedness. For poverty drives them to commit disgraceful acts. Also, poverty causes some to be uncultured and ignorant.

Some might say that they should not let everyone speak at the assembly on equal terms, or serve in the council, but only the best and most righteous men. But even in their letting the worst men address the assembly they are in fact acting very sensibly: for if the best men were to address the assembly and offer their advice, this would be good for the likes of them, but not so good for the men of the people. But now any scoundrel who wants to do so can stand up and obtain what is good for him and the people like him.

Some might also say: ‘what good advice could such a man give for himself and for the people?’ But they know that the ignorance, the wickedness and benevolence of this kind of men are more profitable than the virtue, wisdom and reproaches of the good men. Now, a city will never be the best on the basis of these principles, but this is how democracy can be best preserved. For the people do not want to be slaves in a well-governed city, but to be free and to rule. They are not interested if the city is badly governed: in fact, what you consider bad government is the source of the strength and the liberty of the people. If good government is good government, you should look for a city where the best men establish laws in their own interest. Then you will see the best men punish the worst, and legislate in the interests of the city. They will not let the worst men speak in public and take part in the assembly. But all these good measures will swiftly make the people fall into slavery.

[b] [Ps. Xen.] Ath. Const. 2.1: Weakness of the Athenian infantry

The Athenian infantry is rightly considered to be very weak, and has been deliberately left weak. For the Athenians consider themselves weaker and fewer in numbers than their enemies, but they are in fact stronger, even on land, than their allies who pay the tribute, and they consider it sufficient to have a stronger infantry than their allies.

[c] [Ps. Xen.] Ath. Const. 2.19–20: Good and bad citizens in democratic Athens

Now, I want to say that the people of Athens know who are the good citizens and who are the bad, still they show their support to those who are friendly and useful to themselves, even if they are bad, and as a norm they tend to hate the good people. For they think that the respectable people are naturally virtuous not for their benefit, but for their hurt. On the other hand, there are men who genuinely care for the people, even though they are not democrats by nature.

But I pardon the people for their democracy, as one should always pardon someone for looking after his interests. Having said that, whoever does not belong to the people and still chooses to live under a democracy rather than an oligarchy, well, this person is preparing himself to do wrong and has realized that a scoundrel is more likely to escape notice in a democracy than in an oligarchy.

[d] [Ps. Xen.] Ath. Const. 3.1: The busy political calendar of democratic Athens

As for the Athenian constitution, I do not praise its form, but since the Athenians have decided to have a democracy, I must say that they have defended it well by behaving in the manner which I have described. And I see that the Athenians are criticized because sometimes it is impossible for a man holding an office for one year to be heard by the council or the assembly. This happens in Athens because, owing to the amount of business on the agenda, they are not able to deal with all the officers before sending them away. In fact, how could they do that? For they have to celebrate more festivals than any other Greek city, and when these are being celebrated, it is even less possible for them to deal with the city’s business. Then they have to preside over public and private trials, and the public examinations of the magistrates, to a degree beyond that of any other city; then the council has to deliberate on a number of matters concerning war, finances, legislation, and other issues concerning the city as the circumstances demand, and then the many matters concerning the allies, the collection of the tribute, the maintenance of the dockyards and the temples. It therefore comes as no surprise that, owing to the quantity of business, they are unable to deal with all the magistrates before sending them away.

[e] [Ps. Xen.] Ath. Const. 1.13: The people of Athens have spoiled the sport and musical competitions

The people have ruined every athletic and musical endeavour, because they judged them inappropriate (in fact, because they knew that they could not do them). When it comes to organizing dramatic choruses and athletic contests, and fitting out triremes, the people know that it is the wealthy who lead the choruses, while the people are led, and it is the rich who preside over the athletic contests and command the trireme, while the people are presided over and commanded. At any rate, the people think they deserve money for their singing, running, dancing, and sailing in the ships, so that they may become wealthy and the wealthy poorer.

And even in the courts they care less about justice than their own interests.

[f] [Ps. Xen.] Ath. Const. 2.9-10: The people of Athens have spoiled the religious rites of the city

The people know that each of the poor cannot afford to offer sacrifices and feasts, to set up shrines and to dwell in a beautiful and great city. Still they have found out how to get sacrifices, shrines, banquets and temples. They sacrifice at public expense many victims, but it is the people who enjoy the revels, and to whom the sacrificed victims are allotted.

There are wealthy citizens who own private gymnasia, baths and dressing-rooms, but the people have built for their own use many wrestling-quarters, dressing-rooms and public baths, and the lower orders have more enjoyment of these things than the few and the well-to-do.

33. The Four Hundred, the oligarchic experiment and the myth of the patrios politeia

The political crisis engendered by the Sicilian disaster culminated with the oligarchic coup of the spring–summer of 411. The oligarchic movement set off among the crews of the Athenian fleet at Samos, mainly through the machinations of Alcibiades. His promise to the crews was to persuade the Great King to lend support to the Athenians, but this could happen only if they would adopt an oligarchic constitution. In Athens, the constitutional change was supported by the members of the elite clubs known as etairiai. In the spring of 411, the assembly approved the decree of Pythodorus, providing for the appointment of a college of twenty syngrapheis, including the ten probouloi appointed after the Sicilian disaster, to prepare a draft of the new constitution. This was meant to be inspired by the so-called ‘constitution of the fathers’ (patrios politeia), the moderate regime in place at the time of Solon. The boule was to be replaced by a council of four hundred members, political rights were to be limited to the five thousand wealthiest citizens, i.e. those able to provide themselves with arms. Pay for any magistracy was abolished [a].

The oligarchic coup is the main theme of Book VIII (unfinished) of Thucydides’ Histories, where great attention is paid to the interaction between the oligarchic conspirators and the crews at Samos [bc], and their reaction to the coup. The crews, mostly (but not completely) composed of Athenian citizens, came to serve as a sort of ekklesia in exile. An assembly was held and the generals suspected of oligarchic sympathies were duly deposed. Other officials were appointed in their place [ef]. Athens was a split city: the oligarchs in Athens, and the democratic government proclaimed by the crews at Samos. The events of Samos undermined the stability of the regime at home. Following an unsuccessful naval clash against the Spartans and the loss of Euboea, a meeting of the ekklesia declared the Four Hundred deposed. All the powers were to be handed over to the Five Hundred, who had not yet been nominated. A college of nomothetai (‘legislators’) was appointed to carry out a revision of the legislative body of the city.

The Five Hundred governed for a brief period between the deposition of the Four Hundred and the full restoration of democracy. Very little is known about this regime, but both Thucydides and the Aristotelian Constitution praise it for its moderation [gh].

[a] [Arist.] Ath. Const. 29–30: Political developments after the Sicilian disaster; the decree of Pythodorus

As long as the vicissitudes of the war continued to be in balance, the Athenians maintained their democracy. But following the disaster in Sicily, the Spartan side became much stronger owing to their alliance with the king, and so the Athenians were compelled to abolish the democratic constitution, and established in its stead the regime of the Four Hundred. Melobius delivered the speech in support of this resolution prior to the vote; the motion had been drafted by Pythodorus, of the deme of Anaphlystus. And the people gave their approval to it in the belief that, if they changed the constitution to an oligarchy, the king would support them more in the war. This was the content of the motion of Pythodorus:

‘The assembly shall appoint twenty citizens over forty years of age in addition to the ten preliminary advisors already in charge. These shall swear under solemn oath to draft whatever proposals they consider best for the city, and to prepare motions for the safety of the city. Any other citizen who intended to do so will be entitled to make proposals, so that the people might choose the best from them all.’ Cleitophon proposed an amendment to the motion of Pythodorus: that the appointed advisors should also investigate the laws set by Cleisthenes when he established the democracy in order that having these before their eyes they might take the best decisions having also these laws in mind, on the assumption that the constitution of Cleisthenes was not altogether democratic, but more similar to that of Solon.

Once the advisors were appointed, their first proposal was that it should be compulsory for the prytanes to put to the vote any motion that was presented in the interest of public safety. Then they repealed the procedure of indictment for illegal proposal, and all the impeachments and public prosecutions, so that any Athenian who wished might offer his advice on the current circumstances. Also, they established that if anybody would try to punish them, or fine or bring to court for so doing, he would be liable to information and immediate arrest before the generals, and these should hand him to the eleven to be put to death.

After this, they arranged the constitution in the following manner.

The city’s revenues were not to be spent for any other purpose except the war. All the magistrates were not to receive any pay until the end of the war with the exception of the serving prytanes and nine archons. These should receive three obols a day each. All the other public offices were to be put in the hands of the citizens most capable of serving the city in person or with their property for the duration of the war. The number of these should be not less than five thousand. These would have power to sign treaties with whomever they wished. And they should appoint a board of ten men over forty years of age from each tribe, who should draw the list of the Five Thousand after taking oath over unblemished victims.

These were the measures drafted by the appointed committee. Once they had been ratified, the Five Thousand elected one hundred of their members to draw up the constitution, and this is what they delivered:

‘The council shall consist of men over 30 years of age and will hold office for one year, serving without pay. The following offices shall be appointed from the council: the generals, the nine archons, the amphictyonic registrar, the taxiarchs, the hipparchs, the phylarch, the garrison commanders, the ten Treasurers of Athena and the other gods, the Treasurers of the Greeks, the twenty Treasurers of the other non-sacred moneys, the ten officers of the sacrifices and the ten superintendents of the mysteries. The council shall appoint these offices from a larger preliminary list of candidates chosen from its current members. All the other offices were to be assigned by lot and not from the council. The Treasures of the Greeks who manage the funds shall not sit with the council. Four councils of men of the approved age shall be established for the future. And a section of these shall be appointed by lot to take office immediately, and the others shall serve in turn, in an order decided by lot.

The hundred commissioners shall divide themselves and all the others into four parts as equal as possible, and cast lots among them, and those selected by the lot will serve in the council for one year. The members of the council shall pass resolutions as seemed best to them to secure a safe custody of the funds and their expenditure for the necessary purposes, and on all the other matters to the best of their ability. And if they desire to consider other matters in added numbers, each member of the council shall have the authority to summon as a co-opted councilman another man of the same age as himself, whomever he may wish.

The council shall meet once every five days, unless further meetings are required. The council shall cast the lot to appoint the nine archons. The five tellers shall be appointed by lot from the councilmen, and one of these shall be selected by lot every day to serve as president. And the appointed five tellers shall cast lots among those who desired to confer with the council, first for religious matters, then for heralds, third for embassies, fourth about other any other business. But whenever they have to discuss matters relating to the war, the tellers shall introduce the generals without casting lots. Any councilman who fails to arrive at the council-house at the prescribed time shall receive a fine of one drachma for each day, unless he is away on leave of absence from the council.’

[b] Thuc. 8.47–8: Alcibiades and the Four Hundred

This is the advice that Alcibiades gave to Tissaphernes and the king at the time when he was their guest, in part because he thought that this was the best course to follow, but also because he was preparing his way to return home. For he knew that, if he did not spoil it, he could one day have the opportunity to persuade his fellow-citizens to recall him, and he thought that the best way to persuade them was by letting them see that he enjoyed the friendship of Tissaphernes. And this is exactly what happened. When the Athenian troops at Samos sensed that Alcibiades had great influence with the satrap, mainly by their own initiative, but also because Alcibiades was sending words to the most influential people among them to tell the best men of the army that if there was an oligarchy instead of that wicked democracy which had exiled him, he would be happy to return home and to make Tissaphernes a friend of the Athenians, most of the leaders of the navy and the Athenian trierarchs at Samos set in motion to overthrow the democracy.

The plot set out in the camp, and from there it reached the city. Some men crossed from Samos to confer with Alcibiades, and since he told them that he could make first Tissaphernes and then the king their friends, if only they were ready to give up democracy, for in this way the king would have more trust in them, the most prominent citizens, who had been severely affected by the war, began to entertain great hopes that they would gain control of the situation and prevail over their opponents. When the envoys returned to Samos, they organized their supporters into a club, and so they took to tell the crews that, if Alcibiades returned and democracy were abolished, the king would become their friend, and give them money. At first the mass of crewmen were annoyed by all this plotting and scheming, but then the lucrative prospective of getting their pay from the king served to keep them quiet. As for the oligarchic conspirators, after they exposed their designs to the people, they once again considered the plan proposed by Alcibiades among themselves and with many of their acolytes, and while most of them found it ingenious and reliable, Phrynicus, who was still general, did not approve it at all. Alcibiades, as he rightly thought, had no real preference for oligarchy over democracy. His only objective was to be recalled home by his friends, in one way or another, by changing the present constitution, while their only concern should be to avoid civic strife. Also, an alliance with the Athenians would not be in the interest of the king, for the Spartans had now become a naval power to match the Athenians, and had added some important cities to their empire: why would the king take sides with the Athenians, whom he did not trust, when he could be friends with the Spartans, who had never injured them?

As for the allied cities which were to be offered oligarchy, because Athens itself would not be a democracy any longer, Alcibiades, he said, knew well that those who had seceded from the league would not come back any sooner, nor would those who have remained loyal become steadier in their allegiance. For they would never prefer living in servitude under an oligarchy or a democracy over enjoying freedom under their own constitution, whichever that happened to be. Also, the allies thought that the rule of the so-called good and proper citizens would be no less oppressive than the rule of the populace, for they had been the originators, proposers and main beneficiaries of those actions of the commons which had damaged the confederates. In fact, if it depended on these men, the allies would be put to violent death without trial, while the commons would be their protectors and the chastisers of these men. All this the allies had learned by experience, and he knew for certain that this was their opinion. This is why he could never approve of Alcibiades’ plans of and all the current intrigues.

[c] Thuc. 8.54: Popular reactions to Pisander’s proposal

The people were at first outraged when they heard oligarchy being mentioned, but when Pisander explained to them in the clearest terms that there was no other way of safety, they got scared and finally gave in, hoping that one day they could change the constitution again. So the assembly resolved that Pisander should sail with ten other men and make the agreements which they considered the most convenient with Tissaphernes and Alcibiades. At the same time, when Pisander brought false accusations against Phrynicus, the people dismissed him and his colleague Scironides from their command, and sent Diomedon and Leon to replace them as commanders of the fleet. Pisander said that Phrynicus had betrayed Iasus and Amorges, because he thought that he was not well disposed towards the plans of Alcibiades. Pisander also went around the clubs operating in the city to seek their support in the lawsuits and the elections, urging them to make a common front and unite their efforts to dismantle the democracy. Having made all the preparations required by the circumstances, so as to avoid any delay, he set off with the other ten colleagues on his travel to Tissaphernes.

[d] Thuc. 8.67–8: The assembly of Colonus

At this juncture Pisander and his colleagues arrived in Athens, and immediately set out to finish what remained to be done. Firstly they summoned the assembly and proposed electing a board of ten men with full powers to draft a new constitution. After completion of their work, the ten men should on a stipulated day appear before the assembly to lay out their thoughts as to how the city would be best governed. When the day came, they convened the assembly at Colonus, a shrine of Poseidon, located about ten stadia outside the city. Then the ten commissioners brought forward nothing else but this single proposal: that any Athenian was entitled to advance whatever proposal he wished without fear of punishment, and harsh penalties were imposed upon any who would indict the proposer for illegality or damage him in any other manner. Then it was clearly said that all the magistracies and paid services existing under the current system were no longer in place, but five men were to be appointed as presidents, and these were to elect one hundred men, and each of the one hundred three each, and this body of four hundred would enter the council with full powers and govern the city as they deemed best, and they were to convene the Five Thousand whenever they pleased.

Pisander was both the proposer of this motion and the man who, to all appearance, gave the most enthusiastic contribution to the dismantling of democracy.

But the man who orchestrated the whole operation and paved the way to the disaster, and devoted himself to this plan for the longest time, was Antiphon, a man second to none for virtue in the Athens of his time. Antiphon had a remarkable skill for devising schemes and knew how to recommend them, but was always reluctant to come forward at the assembly or any other public meeting, for the populace looked at him with suspicion, owing to his reputation for cleverness. Yet, when asked for advice, he was the single most talented man when it came to lending advice to any man embroiled in a dispute at the law-courts or the assembly. Later on, following the restoration of democracy, when the Four Hundred, having been overthrown, were being severely dealt with by the people, Antiphon, who was under charge of having taken part in this coup, gave the best plea in his defence ever delivered by anybody up to this time.

Phryniscus also went beyond everybody in his enthusiasm for the oligarchy. For he was afraid of Alcibiades and knew that he was informed of his intrigues with Astyochus at Samos. Indeed, Phrynicus thought that, once oligarchy was established, Alcibiades would never be recalled by the new regime. And so, once the plot was set in motion, and dangers were to be faced, he proved to be one of the most dependable men.

Theramenes, son of Hagnon, a man of considerable intellectual and rhetorical ability, was also one of the foremost conspirators in the destruction of democracy. In fact, it was no surprise than an enterprise led by so many sagacious men, in spite of its magnitude, went forward. For it was a difficult task indeed to deprive the Athenian people of its freedom, and almost a hundred years had passed since the deposition of the tyrants, during which period the Athenians had never been ruled by anyone, and for more than half of it had accustomed themselves to rule their own subjects.

[e] Thuc. 8.73: Democratic reaction at Samos, I

At Samos the vicissitudes of the oligarchic regime took a completely different turn. The following events took place at the same time as the four hundred were carrying out their plot in Athens.

Those of the Samians who had earlier risen against the upper class, and were the democratic faction, had changed sides again, and having been persuaded by the words of Pisander, when he visited Samos, and of those of the Athenians present in the island who were involved in the plot, bound themselves by oaths to the three hundred and were preparing to attack the rest of their fellow-citizens, whom they now called ‘the democrats’. Meanwhile, they put to death an Athenian citizen, name of Hyperbolus, a depraved man who had been ostracized, not because they were afraid of his power or influence, but because he was a scoundrel and a shame for their city. This they did with the support of Charminus, one of the generals, and by some Athenians who were with them, to whom they had sworn friendship. With these men they had already perpetrated other such acts and were now eager to overthrow the popular government. When these men got news of what was about to happen, they informed Leon and Diomedon, two of the generals, who were ill-disposed to the oligarchy owing to the credit which they enjoyed among the commons, and also Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus, a trierarch and a hoplite, and some other individuals who had always been among the most outspoken enemies of the conspirators. They implored them not to look on and see them ruined, and Samos, the only remainder of their empire, alienated to the Athenians. Having heard this, they approached each one of the Athenian soldiers and urged them to resist, particularly the crews of the Paralus, who were all Athenians and freedmen and had from time immemorial been hostile to oligarchy, even when such a thing did not exist. Leon and Diomedon left some ships behind in their defence. Then, when the three hundred attacked the populace, they all came to the rescue, particularly those of the Paralus, and the Samian people came out victorious. Some of the three hundred were put to death, three of the ringleaders were banished, while the rest were granted an amnesty, and lived together under a democracy for the time to come.

[f] Thuc. 8.75.2–3: Democratic reaction at Samos, II

After this Thrasybulus, son of Lycus, and Thrasyllus, who were the chief leaders of the upheaval, and had been very public in their support of a change of government of Samos to a democracy, made all the soldiers, and particularly those of the oligarchic faction, take the most solemn of oaths to accept a democratic government, to live in harmony, to carry on zealously the war against the Peloponnesians and to be hostile to the Four Hundred and not to communicate with them. The same oath was also taken by the Samians of full age and the soldiers who were associated with the Samians in their affairs and in their common dangers, for they thought that there was no other way of safety for themselves or for them, and if the Four Hundred or the enemy at Miletus were to prevail, they would be ruined.

[g] Thuc. 8.97: The deposition of the Four Hundred and the regime of the Five Thousand

When they heard the news, the Athenians manned 20 ships and called immediately a first assembly, which was summoned at the Pnyx where they used to meet before the coup. The people deposed the Four Hundred and voted to hand over the government to the Five Thousand, that is all who could supply themselves with a full armour. They also decreed that no one should receive pay for serving in any office, or if he did he should be held accursed. Many other assemblies were held afterwards, in which supervisors of the laws were appointed and all other measures pertaining to the constitution were taken. It was in this phase that the Athenians appear to have enjoyed the best government that they ever had, at least in my time. For it consisted in a wise mixture of democracy and oligarchy, which for the first time enabled the Athenians to raise their heads after their many sorrows. They also voted for the recall of Alcibiades and the other exiles, and sent to him and to the camp at Samos, and urged them to apply themselves to the war.

[h] [Arist.] Ath. Const. 33.2: The well-governed Athens of the Five Thousand

In this critical phase, Athens seems to have been well governed, although the war was still raging, and political rights were limited to those able to bear arms.

34. The Arginusae scandal and the excesses of democracy

In the spring of 406, the Spartans blockaded Conon, the commander-in-chief of the Athenian fleet, in the port of Mytilene. Once the news reached Athens, the assembly voted exceptional emergency measures to prepare a rescue mission: new ships were built, and the gold objects offered to the Goddess were melted to issue new coins and finance the operation; slaves were enrolled as rowers, even the citizens of hoplite rank were exceptionally enrolled for service in the fleet. Extraordinary powers were granted to the eight available generals to prepare and conduct the campaign.

The new fleet engaged in battle with the Spartan admiral Callicratidas at the Arginusae, a group of three small islands between Lesbos and the shores of Asia Minor. The Athenians came out victorious and Conon was liberated. After the battle however a violent storm broke out and the Athenian officials failed to recover the bodies of the dead and shipwrecked. This was cause of great outrage in Athens: the generals in charge of operations were deposed and the six who returned to Athens had to stand trial before the assembly and were sentenced to death. The trial of the Arginusae generals is one of the most controversial episodes in the history of the Athenian democracy. Xenophon insinuates that the trial was triggered by the machinations of Theramenes, one of the leading politicians of the time, who sensed the opportunity to get rid of his political enemies. Ancient sources and modern scholars alike agree that the execution of the generals was a tragic mistake that deprived the polis of its most experienced officials and ultimately caused Athens’ defeat in the war against Sparta. To the critics of democracy, the Arginusae trial was exemplary of the violent and volatile temper of the Athenian demos.

Xen. Hell. 1.7.1–35: The trial of the Arginusae generals

Those at home deposed the above-mentioned generals, except Conon, and appointed as his colleagues two men, Adeimantus and Philocles. Two of the generals who had taken part in the naval battle, Protomachus and Aristogenes, did not return to Athens. But when the other six returned, Pericles, Diomedon, Lysias, Aristocrates, Thrasyllus and Erasinides, Archedemus, who was then the leader of the popular faction in Athens and was in charge of the two-obol fund, brought an accusation against Erasinides and asked for a fine to be imposed on him, claiming that he had taken money from the Hellespont which belonged to the people. Furthermore, he accused him of misconduct during his term as general. The court eventually decided that Erasinides should be arrested. After this, the generals made a statement in front of the boule concerning the battle and the violent storm, and Timocrates put forward a motion that the others should also be arrested and turned over to the assembly to stand trial, and so the boule had them arrested. Then a meeting of the assembly was held, at which Thermanenes and others spoke against the generals, saying that they ought to give an explanation as to why they did not rescue the shipwrecked. As a proof that none but the generals were responsible for what happened, Theramenes showed a letter sent to the boule and the ekklesia, in which they put all the blame on the storm. After this, the generals briefly spoke each in their defence, for they had not been granted a hearing as prescribed by the law, and gave a full account of their actions, claiming that after the battle they had set off to sail against the enemy, and that they had assigned the duty of recovering the shipwrecked to some of the triearchs, who were experienced and had already been generals in the past: people like Theramenes and Thrasybulus. These men, and no one else, were to blame for the failed recovery, for this duty had been assigned to them. The generals said that they would not put the blame on those who had falsely accused them: it was the violence of the storm that had prevented the recovery. Also, they presented as witnesses the pilots and many others of those who were sailing with them. The people were persuaded by these arguments, and many of the citizens rose and offered to give bail for them. The assembly, however, decided to defer the matter to another meeting, for it was already late in the day and they could not distinguish the hands in the vote. Also it was resolved that the boule should draft and bring in a proposal concerning the mode of trial for the men under arrest. Then the Athenians celebrated the Apaturia, where the fathers and kinsmen of the deceased sailors could meet together. Accordingly, Theramenes and his supporters organized a large group of men, clad in mourning veils, their hair skin-shaven. These were to attend a meeting of the assembly, claiming to be relatives of those who had perished in the battle. They also bribed Callixeinus to accuse the generals before the council. Henceforth they convened the assembly, and Callixeinus presented the proposal drafted by the council: ‘It has been resolved: since the Athenians have heard at the previous assembly both the accusers who had brought charge against the generals and the generals themselves speaking in their own defence, they shall now all cast their vote by tribes. Two urns shall be set at the voting-place of each tribe, and in each tribe a herald will announce that whoever considers the generals guilty for not recovering the men who had triumphed in the naval battle shall cast his vote in the first urn, and whoever considers them innocent, in the second. And if they are found guilty, they shall be punished with death and handed over to the eleven, and their property be confiscated and the tenth part shall be given to the goddess. At this point a man came before the assembly: he claimed that he had been saved by a floating metal-tub, and those who were dying asked him, if he found safety, to tell the people that the generals did not recover the men who had fought so valiantly in defence of the fatherland. Euryptolemus, son of Peisianax, and some others called for an indictment against Callixeinus, alleging that he had made an unconstitutional proposal. Some of the assemblymen commended this action, but most of them cried out that it was terrible if the people were prevented from doing whatever they wished. At this point, Lyciscus proposed that these men should be judged by the same vote as the generals, unless they withdrew their summons. The mob then broke out again, and so they were forced to withdraw the summons. Now, since some of the prytanes refused to put the question to the vote because it was against the law, Callixeinus rose again to the podium and urged the same charges against them, and the mob cried out again that the prytanes who had refused to put the question to the vote should be brought to court. At this point the prytanes, shaken with fear, agreed to put the question to the vote, all of them except Socrates, son of Sophroniscus. He said that he would never perpetrate any act contrary to the laws. After this, Euryptolemus rose to the platform and gave the following speech in defence of the generals:

‘Athenians, I have come here to accuse Pericles, although he is my kinsman, and Diomedon, an intimate of mine, but also to advise what policies I consider best for the city as a whole. I accuse them because they persuaded their colleagues to change their purpose when they wanted to send a letter to the council and the assembly, in which they stated that the duty of recovering the shipwrecked had been assigned to Theramenes and Thrasybulus, with forty-seven triremes, but they failed to rescue them. Now, should the generals share the blame with Theramenes and Thrasybulus, who in fact are the only culprits? And should they pay for the humanity which they showed then, and put their lives at risk, through the intrigues of these men and some others? Certainly not, if you follow my advice and act in accordance with the human and divine law. For if you follow my advice, you will best learn the truth, so you will not repent your decision later, when you’ll find out that you have committed the gravest sins towards the gods and yourselves. If you follow my advice you will not be deceived by me or anyone else, but, having learnt who are the real culprits, you will punish them with whatever penalty you wish, either all of them together, or each one individually, and firstly you’ll grant them one day, if not more, to speak in their own defence, and then you’ll put your trust in yourselves more than anybody else.

‘Athenians, you are all aware that the decree of Cannonus is excessively severe: it provides that if anyone does wrong to the Athenian people, he shall plead his case in chains before the assembly, and if he is found guilty, he shall be put to death by being thrown into the pit, his property be confiscated and the tenth part of it given to the goddess. Now, I urge you to try the generals under this decree, and, by Zeus, you should try my kinsman Pericles first, if it so pleases you, for it would be shameful of me to be more concerned about him than the whole city. And if you don’t want to follow this course, try them under the following law, which applies to temple-robbers and traitors: “If anyone betrays the state or steals the sacred property, he shall be tried before a tribunal and if found guilty, he shall not be buried in Attica and his property will become public.”

‘Let these men be tried, Athenians, under whichever law you choose, each of them separately. The day be divided into three parts, one for you to hold assembly and vote whether they are guilty or not; another for the prosecutors to present their case and the third for the defendants to plead their case. Athenians, if this course is followed, the guilty will incur the harshest punishment, and the innocent will be released by you, and will not unjustly be put to death. You will grant them a fair trial, standing true to the laws, religion and your oaths, and you will not be fighting alongside the Spartans, by putting to death without a trial and in violation of the laws the very men who captured seventy of their ships and defeated them in the naval battle. So, why are you acting so hastily? What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of losing the right to put to death or release anyone you wish if you try these men in accordance to the law, by following the procedure which Callixeinus convinced the council to bring in to the assembly, that is by a single vote? But perhaps you might be putting to death someone who is not guilty, and you will repent later. Remember how painfully unavailing repentance is, particularly when mistakes result in the death of a man. In the past you gave Aristarchus, the very man who destroyed democracy and then betrayed Oenoe to the Thebans, your enemies, a whole day to defend himself as he wished, and all the other rights prescribed by the law, and certainly it would be a terrible thing if you were to deny the same rights to the generals who did everything in accordance with your opinion and defeated the enemy. No, men of Athens, don’t follow this course. Defend your laws, the laws that have made you above everything else, and do not try to do anything outside their jurisdiction.

‘But let us now return to the actual circumstances under which the generals supposedly committed their mistakes. When they sailed to the shore after winning the battle, Diomedon ordered that they should all put out to sea in line and recover the wreckage and the shipwrecked seamen, while Erasinides urged that they should all sail as speedily as possible against the enemy at Mytilene. Thrasyllus however said that they could do both these things by leaving some ships there and sailing against the enemy with the rest. If they approved of this plan, he said that each of the eight generals should leave three of his ships behind, and in addition to these the ten ships of the taxiarchs, the ten of the Samians and the three of the nauarchs. The total number of these ships was forty-seven, four for each of the twelve which had been lost. Among the officers who were left behind were Thrasybulus and Theramenes: these were the same men who accused the generals in the course of the previous assembly. The generals sailed against the enemies with the remaining ships. Now, is there anything that they did not perform in a satisfactory and adequate manner? It is therefore fair that those who were assigned to sail against the enemy should give account for their lack of success, while those who were assigned to the recovery of the shipwrecked should be tried for failing to recover them, if they did not comply with the orders of the generals.

‘This is what I have to say in defence of both parties: the storm prevented them from doing anything of what the generals prescribed them to do. And those who were fortunate enough to find safety are here as your witnesses. Among them there is one of our generals, who found safety upon a disabled ship, and they now are urging you to judge him by the same vote, even though at the time he had to recover himself, by which you judge those who did not perform the tasks, which had been assigned to them by order of the generals. Citizens of Athens, in the day of victory and good fortune you should not behave like men who are beaten and unfortunate. Nor should you give the impression of acting unfairly, by giving a verdict of treachery instead of helplessness, for the storm prevented them from complying with the assigned task. It would be much more just for you to honour these men with garlands, than yield to wicked men and punish them with death.’

Thus spoke Euryptolemus. Then he presented a motion that the men should be tried under the decree of Cannonus, each one separately, while the proposal of the council was to try them all by a single vote. The Athenians then cast their vote between these two motions, and they first decided in favour of the one proposed by Euryptolemus. At this point however Menceles interposed an objection under oath and a second vote was taken, and this time they approved the motion of the council. After this they condemned the eight generals who had taken part in the battle, and the six who were in Athens were put to death. After a short time, the Athenians repented, and decreed that all the men who had deceived the people should furnish bondsmen until they were put to trial, and Callixeinus should be one of them. Complaints were also lodged against four men who were put into confinement by their bondsmen. Then the city entered a phase of factional strife, during which Cleophon was put to death, and these men escaped before they were put to trial. Later on Callixeinus returned, when the faction of the Piraeus had already returned to the city, but he was hated by everybody, and died of starvation.

35. The moral crisis of the Athenian democracy: Aristophanes’ Frogs

In 405, as the Peloponnesian War was drawing to a close and the defeat of Athens looked more and more inevitable, Aristophanes won the first prize at the comedy competition at the Great Dionysia with his comedy Frogs.

The recent deaths of Euripides and Sophocles provide the background of the comedy. Grieved by the decline of Athenian tragedy, the god Dionysus decided to travel to the Underworld to bring back Euripides to Athens, but the poet is engaged in an argument with Aeschylus to decide who should be awarded the seat of the ‘best poet’. Dionysus is called to judge the contest, and decides to award the palm to the poet who would give the best piece of advice to the people of Athens, and Aeschylus comes out victorious. Before leaving for Athens, Aeschylus decides to give the throne of best poet to Sophocles, not Euripides.

The decline of Athenian theatre that followed the almost contemporary death of Sophocles and Euripides is a reflection of the wider military, political and moral crisis of the city. The enfeebled voice of the Athenian stage is no longer able to provide moral guidance to the city. Athens seems to have lost direction.

Upon entering the stage, the chorus of the frogs of the Acheron delivers a heartfelt invective against the traitors of the city, the men who have ruined democracy and brought back stasis by using public offices for their private interests [a]. The piece of advice that wins Aeschines the contest with Euripides is very simple: to save Athens, the citizens should stop following the bad people and start trusting the good ones, and refrain from the excesses of imperialism [b].

[a] Ar. Frogs 354–71: An invective against the enemies of Athens

CHORUS: Let him be mute and stand apart from our choruses who is ignorant of this language and of impure mind, or has never seen the sacred rites of the noble Muses and never danced in them, or has never been initiated to the Bacchic mysteries of Cratinus the beef-eater, or rejoices in coarse language when it is not time to do so, or whoever does not dissolve odious strife, and is not well-disposed towards the citizens, but, thirsty with greed, stirs and fans civic disorder, or who takes bribes while they should guide the city through the storm, or betrays the garrisons or the galleys, or trade contraband goods from Aegina, as Thorcyon did, the heinous tax-collector, who sent leather pads, sails and pitch to Epidauros; or persuades people to send money to the ships of our enemies, or pollutes the shrine of Hecate by singing circular choruses, or any orator who nibbles the wages of the poets for having been lampooned in the ancestral festivals of Dionysus. To all these people, I give the same advice again and again: stand aside from our mystical choruses. As for you, rouse the song and start the dances of this night-festival of ours.

[b] Ar. Frogs, 1457–90: How Athens can be saved

AESCHINES: How could anyone save a city like this, that doesn’t like the goatskin blanket or the cloak?

DIONYSUS: Find out something, by Zeus, if you want to come up again.

A.: I will talk when I get there; I don’t want to say anything right now.

D.: Don’t say that, but try to bring up some pieces of good advice from here.

A.: When they think that the land of the enemy is their own, and our land the enemy’s, their ships are a revenue, and the revenue is a loss.

D.: Well said. Problem is, the judges will swallow it themselves.

PLUTO: It’s time you made your decision.

D.: This will be my decision for them: I will choose whomever my soul wants.

E.: Now, don’t forget the gods by whom you swore to bring me home, and choose your friends.

D.: It was my tongue that swore; my choice is Aeschines.

E.: What, you most disgraceful of men?

D.: Me? I have decided that Aeschines is the winner. What’s wrong with that?

E.: You have perpetrated the most shameful of deeds and still dare to look at me in the face?

D.: Why shameful, if the audience is pleased with it?

E.: You, abominable man, are you neglecting me now that I’m dead?

D.: Who knows if living is not dying? Breathing is dining and sleep is a rug?

P.: Go inside, then, Dionysus.

D.: For why?

P. So I can give a little entertainment to both of you before you sail off.

D.: Well said. I am not grieved by that.

CHORUS: Blessed is the man of perfect intelligence, who can learn in many ways. This man is known for his wisdom, and will return home again for the good of the citizens, of his relatives and his friends because of his wisdom.

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