Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Fifty-Six

Conquest and Tyranny

In Greece, between 687 and 622 BC, Sparta and Athens try to eliminate sin

BY THE YEAR OF ASHURBANIPAL’S DEATH, Greek colonists had gone out to found scores of cities along a widely scattered southwest-to-northeast axis. Greek settlers rebuilt a new city on the Asian coast, on top of Troy’s four-hundred-year-old ruins. The Greek cities of Chalcis and Eretria, which had already sent out colonists to found no fewer than nine cities on the Italian peninsula, dispatched more settlers up to the northern Aegean; Chalcis, in fact, sent so many that an entire area of the northern Aegean became known as Chalcidice.1 The Aegean shore was ringed with Greek cities; the Greeks had become, in Plato’s vivid simile, “like frogs around a marsh.”2

The settlers who ventured out to these new Greek cities were forced to give up their citizenship in their home city, the metropolis or “mother city” from which they came.3 Their entire identity as Greeks lay in their ability to establish a Greek enclosure in the new land. They took with them baskets of Greek grain to plant in foreign fields, and firepots with Greek brands to light the foreign hearthfires. Sustained by Greek food and warmed by Greek fire, they built Greek temples, told Greek tales, and sent their delegations to the Greek games, weaving a Greek net which stretched out from the peninsula itself to cover distant parts of the world.

The scarcity of land on the Greek peninsula had forced each metropolis to send out colonists well before the home city itself had reached maturity. Colonies, surrounded by other peoples, and mother cities grew together. From the very beginning, to be Greek was also to have elements of Asian, Italian, Phoenician, and African culture as well. Greek settlers populated Thrace, the land just north of the passage towards the Black Sea, where the Phrygians had long ago moved across the water into Asia Minor.142 Greek adventurers moved through the Bosphorus Strait to the Black Sea itself, where men and women from Miletus—an Ionian city, which had itself been settled by Mycenaean colonists more than a century before—planted as many as seventy colonies around the Black Sea and even up to its north. Colonists sent out from the city of Megara (just west of Athens, on the bridge of land that connected the Peloponnese with the more northern parts of the Greek peninsula), seized two prime sites on either side of the Bosphorus Strait, and built twinned Megaran colonies on the shores: Byzantium on the western shore, Chalcedon on the east.

On the island of Thera, where hardy residents had returned to rebuild around the volcanic crater, the land shortage was particularly drastic. Towards the end of the colonization period, probably around 630 BC, the Therans chose one out of every two sons and sent them off to “Libya”: the African coast to the south.

According to the Therans themselves, the expedition landed first on an island off the African coast, but then sent additional settlers (“one in two brothers…which one went was to be decided by lot”) to extend the Theran colony over to the mainland. The Greek settlement on the North African coast became known as Cyrene.143 But the Cyreneans themselves remembered an uglier history. They claimed that the original colonists had been so hungry and hard-pressed on their barren island that they tried to return to Thera. However,

the Therans refused to let them land…they shot at them every time their boats got close to shore and told them to sail back to Libya. Since they had no choice in the matter, they returned.4

In the fifty-six years that the first two kings of Cyrene ruled, Herodotus says that “the Cyrenean population remained at pretty much the level it had been when they first set out to colonize Libya.”5 In other words, the conditions on the Libyan coast were so difficult that the colony barely survived. But despite the hardships, things were worse on Thera. The hostility of the Therans towards the returning colonists, who would again overcrowd the island, shows that the sending out of Greek families to colonies was literally a matter of life and death.


56.1 The Spreading Greek World

THE CITY OF SPARTA, in the center of the Peloponnese, took a different approach to the problem of growth.

The inhabitants of Sparta were Dorians who had settled on Mycenaean ruins and built a city of their own. Sparta lay in a river valley, on the eastern bank of the Eurotas, which flowed down from the mountains in the north. The river was useful as a water supply, but it was shallow, rocky, and unnavigable; so the Spartans had no ships. While the Greek cities on the coast were sending out boatloads of colonists to the east and to the west, the Spartans armed themselves, crossed over the Taygetus mountain range on their western border, and attacked the city of Messene, which lay on the other side. The motivation was mostly practical; seventy or so years later, the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, writing of the war, calls the city “wide-spaced Messene…good for ploughing and good for planting.”6

It was not an easy conquest; Tyrtaeus says that the Spartans and Messenians fought for twenty years. But by 630, Messene had become a subject city of Sparta. Sparta was no longer simply a Greek city: it was a little kingdom. In this Spartan kingdom, the conquered Messenians became a whole class of slaves, who grew food for their captors on terms as harsh as anything found in medieval feudalism: “Just like asses, worn out by their mighty burdens,” Tyrtaeus says, “they bring to their masters through wretched necessity a half of all the fruit that the land brings forth.”7 The Spartans themselves became the aristocracy, a master race of warrior men and mothers of soldiers.

The Spartan state had a peculiarity not found anywhere else in the ancient world: it had two kings, descendants of legendary twin brothers who had ruled Sparta generations before, while spending “the whole of their adult lives quarrelling with each other.”8 The Spartan people preferred two kings at odds, rather than one directing affairs with unchallenged power.144

The two-king system, although it produced its own difficulties, did prevent the rise of a Mesopotamian-style monarchy. The Spartans did not, like the Assyrians, find it divinely ordained that the gods should select one man to rule over them. Ashurbanipal’s claim to be king “by order of the great gods,” appointed by them to “exercise sovereignty,” was not only foreign but repulsive.9 In Sparta, the Sumerian fear of inherited and limitless royal power, which had once found its expression in the ancient tales of that power ending by death, made a strong return.

Even with two kings playing tug-of-war with power, the Spartans kept on shoring themselves up against a concentration of power in the hands of the monarchy. Any ancient kingdom had three primary powers: the military power to declare war and lead the army; the judicial power to make laws and enforce them; and the priestly power to maintain good relationships with the gods. Israel was one of the earliest nations to fix this three-way power into law with any kind of formal division, with the official state roles of prophet, priest, and king. In Sparta, the kings held all three powers—but with significant limitations. They were priests of Zeus and received oracles from the gods, but four state officials also had the right to hear the prophecies; the kings could not ignore evil omens without the knowledge of the people. The kings had the unilateral right to declare war, but they were required to be first in the charge and last in the retreat, which undoubtedly kept them from sending the army out into needless battles. And by the time of Herodotus, the judicial power of the king had shrunk to two odd and particular roles. He was allowed to make the sole decision about “who should marry an heiress whose father has died without having betrothed her to anyone, and to adjudicate in cases concerning the public highways.” The rest of the lawmaking fell on a council of twenty-eight elders.10

But the real power in Sparta was neither king, nor priest, nor even the Council of Twenty-Eight. The Spartan state was ruled by a strict and unwritten code of laws that governed every aspect of Spartan existence.

Our knowledge of most of these laws comes from Plutarch, who lived centuries later. But even allowing for distortion, the laws of Sparta seem to have governed every aspect of life from the greatest to the tiniest. Children did not belong to their families but to the city of Sparta; the council of elders had the right to inspect each baby and give it permission to live, or else order it laid out to die on the Apothetai, the “place of exposure,” a wasteland in the Taygetus mountains. Boys were assigned at the age of seven to “boy herds” which ran in packs, learning to fight and forage for food. Any husband could choose to impregnate another woman, or to hand his wife over to another man, as long as the decision was made for the good of the master race: “Suppose an older man with a young wife liked and approved of a young man of nobility and virtue…. once the younger man had impregnated his wife with his nobleseed, he could adopt the child as his own. Or…[if] a man of high principles admired a woman who was married to someone else for her modesty and fine children…he could prevail upon her husband to let him sleep with her, so that he could sow his seed in rich and fertile soil, so to speak.”11

This minute regulation of public acts inevitably led to the legislation of private desires. The Spartans had most of their meals, by law, in common “messes,” in order to prevent greed: “This stopped them spending time at home reclining at table on expensive couches,” Plutarch explains, “fattening themselves up in the dark like insatiable animals…and ruining themselves morally as well as physically by indulging every whim and gorging themselves.” Girls, who were the future mothers of Spartan warriors, were required to dance naked in front of crowds of young men; this gave them additional motivation to stay slim (Plutarch adds that the stakes were levelled somewhat by another law which gave the girls an opportunity to “taunt the young men one by one and helpfully criticize their errors.”)12 The doors and roofs of houses could be shaped only by axe and saw; to use more refined tools was illegal. This was meant to prevent a longing for fine furniture and fabrics, since these would look ridiculous next to rough-hewn wood.145

These laws were unwritten. Another oral law explained that it was against the law to write laws down. Legislation only works if it is written on the character and hearts of the citizens, a “steady inclination which recreates the intention of the legislator in each and every person.” The Spartans themselves continually watched each other for violations of unwritten regulations: “It was not even possible for a rich man to eat at home first and then go to the common mess with a full stomach,” Plutarch remarks, “because everyone else was alert to the possibility, and they used to watch out for people who would not drink or eat with them, and taunt them for their lack of self-control.”13

Several generations later, the Spartan Demaratus tried to explain to Xerxes how this constant lawmaking had affected the Spartan character. “Although they’re free, they’re not entirely free,” he told the Persian king. “Their master is the law, and they’re far more afraid of this than your men are of you…. They do whatever the law commands, and its command never changes: it is that they should not turn tail in battle no matter how many men are ranged against them, but should maintain their positions and either win or die.”14

They are far more afraid of the law, than your men are of you. The Spartan state, designed to escape the absolutism of an eastern monarchy, had exceeded it.

TO THE NORTH, across the land bridge that connected the Peloponnese to the rest of the peninsula, Athens had also grown to be something larger than a city, and had gone one further than Sparta by getting rid of its king altogether.

In very ancient times, the Mycenaean city of Athens had been ruled by the mythological Theseus, whose palace stood on the high rock—the Acropolis, “high point of the city”—at the center of Athens. During the fading days of Mycenaean domination, many of the people of Athens had either wandered away, or died of famine or plague. But some remained to keep the city alive.

Over two or three centuries, Athens slowly recovered from whatever catastrophes had drained its population away. When colonization began, Athens sent its own citizens east, to become part of the Ionian settlements along the Asia Minor coast.15

The happenings in these years before 650 or so are preserved only very sketchily, in accounts written long after the time. Around AD 310, Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, put together a chronological table of ancient times which describes a seven-hundred-year succession of Athenian kings, beginning around 1500 BC:

We will now list the kings of the Athenians, starting with Cecrops…. The total duration of the reigns of all [his descendants]…was 450 years.16

This list has about as much historical truth to it as the deeds of the Greek god Dionysius, who was supposedly born (out of Zeus’s thigh) during the reign of the fifth Athenian king.146 But it does tell us that Athens once had kings. Gradually, though, the power of the monarch was dispersed. After four and a half centuries, the role of king was renamed: the rule of Athens was still passed from father to son and lasted a lifetime, but the ruler was now called an archon: a chief justice. Another official, the polemarch, was given control of the military, while a third carried out priestly functions.

Thirteen archons later, the Athenians voted to give the archons ten-year terms; seventy years later, the office was transformed again, to become a one-year appointment. “The first annual archon,” Eusebius writes, “was Creon, in the year of the 24th Olympiad”—in other words, 684 BC.

This is all we get from Eusebius, who then wanders off into an interminable list of Olympic champions in various events over 249 consecutive Olympic Games. But other fragmentary accounts, pieced together, show a slow and crooked path away from monarchy towards an oligarchy: a sort of aristocratic democracy. By 683, a board of nine landowners carried out the job of archon. They were elected by other landowners, but an assembly of all Athenians—the ekklesia—had to confirm the elections. Ex-archons became members of the Council of Areiopagos, which met down below the western side of the Acropolis, on the top of a low rise called the “Hill of Ares.”17

This was more complex and less efficient than the Spartan system. But then the Athenians were not continually repressing an unhappy subject population, and they did not need to fight to expand. By 640, Athens too had enfolded its neighbors within its borders, but the incorporation seems to have happened more or less peacefully, with the outlying villages seeing the advantage of falling beneath Athenian protection. The little jut of land south of the city, a district known as Attica, was almost entirely under Athenian control. Athens, ringed by low mountains on the east, west, and north, did not try to fling its control much farther away.

In 632, though, the seams of the semi-democratic practice gaped wide open. An Olympic champion named Cylon (he shows up in Eusebius’s lists as the winner of the diaulos, or “double race,” the 400-metre foot race, in the Olympic Games eight years previously)18 made a bid to turn the archonship into something else.

“Cylon,” Thucydides writes, “was inquiring at Delphi when he was told by the god to seize the Acropolis of Athens on the grand festival of Zeus.” The Delphic oracle was a priestess who sat on a three-legged stool next to a sizable crack on top of the Sibylline Rock, a good-sized boulder on an outcropping of Mount Parnassas. Worshippers climbed to the rock and put a question to the priestess, who then asked the earth-goddess Gaia for an answer and received it by way of the crack. She then delivered the answer in a trance to a set of attendant priests, who cast it into hexameter verse and delivered it back to the questioner. The crack, the trance, and the hexameters combined to produce generally puzzling answers, open to interpretation (which also made it very difficult to prove the oracle wrong).

Cylon, mulling his answer over, decided that the “grand festival of Zeus” must refer to the upcoming Olympic Games. What more appropriate time for an Olympic victor to seize power? And so he borrowed a band of armed men from his father-in-law, rounded up his friends, and occupied the Acropolis, announcing “the intention of making himself tyrant.”19

“Tyrant” was a technical term in Greek politics; it referred to a politician who leapfrogged the normal routes of power (election and then confirmation) and took control of a city’s government by force. Tyrants were not necessarily cruel, although they tended to be autocratic in order to keep hold of their power; and various Greek cities scattered throughout the peninsula were governed by tyrants at different points (as a matter of fact, Cylon’s father-in-law was the tyrant of the city of Megara, not far from Athens on the east, which explains why he had personal bands of armed soldiers to lend).

But Cylon had chosen the wrong “grand festival of Zeus.” The oracle had apparently been talking about a later festival which took place well outside the city; Cylon had picked a bad time for his takeover.

This suggests that he was not an experienced conspirator; anyone who had been involved in political intrigue would have realized that a takeover would be most effective when all the men of the city had left it for a festival outside. Rather than rolling over, the Athenians grew indignant:

As soon as the Athenians perceived [the takeover], they…sat down, and laid siege to the citadel. But as time went on…the responsibility of keeping guard [was] left to the nine archons, with plenary powers to arrange everything according to their good judgement.…Mean while Cylon and his besieged companions were distressed for want of food and water. Accordingly Cylon and his brother made their escape; but the rest being hard pressed, and some even dying of famine, seated themselves as suppliants at the altar in the Acropolis.20

The conspirators begged for mercy in the name of Athena, at whose altar they sat. The archons agreed to spare their lives, but when the men began to stagger out, the archons ordered them killed. Several flung themselves against the altars of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, but were murdered anyway—a dreadful breach of protocol, since anyone who begged for the protection of a god at his altar was supposed to be spared.

For this crime, the other Athenians exiled the archons who had ordered the massacre. When they tried to return, they were driven away again, this time with more force; and the bodies of their colleagues were dug up and flung after them.21 Cylon himself remained, prudently, vanished and did not reappear in Athenian history.

But the fighting and general unrest that followed showed that Athens was not at peace under its archons. Archons did, in most cases, as they pleased. In his history of the Athenian constitution, written several centuries later, Aristotle points out that Athenian “democracy” was in fact run by a few privileged and powerful men. Like the Spartans, who thought they were free but were enslaved by their law, the Athenians were free in name only: “In fact the poor themselves, and also their wives and children were actually in slavery to the rich,” Aristotle writes. “[T]hey were called Sixth-Part-Tenants, for that was the rent they paid for the rich men’s land which they farmed, and the whole of the country was in few hands. And if they ever failed to pay their rents, they themselves and their children were liable to arrest…. Thus the most grievous and bitter thing in the state of public affairs for the masses was their slavery; not but what they were discontent also about everything else, for they found themselves virtually without a share in anything.”22

In response to the unrest, the Athenians did exactly what the Spartans had refused to do: they decided that it was time for the laws of Athens, which had always been oral, to be set down in writing. The good judgment of aristocrats was no longer sufficient to run the city; Athens needed a code.

The man who took on the job of taking down the most important of the massive oral traditions, systematizing them, and turning them into a written code was a councilor named Draco. Draco’s version of the Athenian laws was remarkable not for what it outlawed (murder, theft, adultery) but for the penalty of death which was attached to so many crimes. Like the code of Hammurabi, the laws of Draco knew nothing of lesser and greater offenses: “The death penalty had been fixed for almost all crimes,” Plutarch says, “which meant that even people convicted of not working were to be put to death, and the theft of vegetables or fruit carried the same penalty as temple-robbery and homicide.”23

Draco himself, asked why so drastic a set of punishments, is reported to have said, “Even petty crimes deserve death, and I cannot find a more serious penalty for the greater crimes.” It is a severity which gives us our English words draconian and drastic; and in its relentless expectation that men can be made perfect, it is oddly reminiscent of the Spartan view of crime.147

Plutarch writes that a Spartan, asked by another Greek how adultery was punished in Sparta, remarked, “He would have to pay a fine—a bull from his herd, large enough to reach over Mount Taygetus and drink from the Eurotas.” “How could there be a bull that big?” the visitor protested, to which the Spartan replied, “How could there be an adulterer in Sparta?”24 The laws were intended to eliminate all wrongdoing because they were engraved only on Spartan hearts. In Athens, that otherwise very different Greek city, the leaders also believed that in a just society, where the citizens are properly trained and warned, there will be no crime. Both cities had gotten rid of the power of their kings; both found the need for some other law-keeper to stand in the monarch’s place.

And in both, the desire to give every citizen the ability to reach perfection led to a city in which citizens policed each other’s lives. A stele uncovered in the ruins of Athens makes it clear that Draco’s death penalty could be exercised by the Athenian citizens themselves: any man could kill a kidnapper, adulterer, or burglar caught in the act.25 The laws which were intended to bring equality had made each citizen an enforcer.

Around 600 BC, an Athenian named Solon stepped forwards to make a second stab at establishing a fair law code. He was a young man from a good family, but his father had spent most of the family wealth in ill-judged generosity, forcing the son into the merchant trade. He was a lover of luxury, of good food and drink, and notorious for his love affairs: “Solon was not immune to good-looking young men,” Plutarch remarks, primly.26

His business prospered, and like many later business luminaries, Solon got involved in local politics. Plutarch, from whom we have most of the details of Solon’s life, writes that when it became clear that Athens was headed towards civil war, “the most sensible Athenians began to look to Solon” because he was respectably middle-class: “He had no part in the wrongdoing of the rich, and was not caught up in the afflictions of the poor either…. The rich found him acceptable because of his wealth, and the poor because of his integrity.”27

Solon, elected archon, revoked the laws of Draco (except the penalty for homicide) and set about relegislating. He wrote new regulations that covered everything from the qualifications for holding public office to acceptable boundaries for mourning the dead (grief was fine, but sacrificing a cow, lacerating oneself, or visiting the tombs of people who weren’t actually family members was over the top).

But the touchiest issues had to do with righting the inequalities of wealth in the city, which was a predictably thankless task. “Both sides had high hopes,” Plutarch points out, which meant Solon was bound to disappoint someone. Which he did, almost at once, by cancelling the overwhelming debts of the poor, and by redistributing land so that the farmers who had cultivated it for generations now owned it.28

This didn’t please the Athenian aristocracy. Nor did it please the debtors, who had hoped for a good deal more than debt cancellation; they had wanted land redistributed equally to all, but the poorest still had no holdings of their own. “We have his own words on the fact that he offended most of the people of Athens by failing to fulfill their expectations,” Plutarch writes, and quotes a poem attributed to Solon: “Once their minds were filled with vain hopes, but now / In anger all look askance at me, as if I were their foe.”

This state of affairs had actually been predicted by an acquaintance of Solon’s, a stranger to Athens, who had visited the city earlier and found Solon busily writing out laws. The visitor laughed: “These decrees of yours are not different from spiders’ webs,” he said, according to Plutarch. “They’ll restrain anyone weak and insignificant who gets caught in them, but they’ll be torn to shreds by people of power and wealth.”29

Solon disagreed. No one would break the laws, he insisted, if they were properly fitted to the needs of each citizen. It was an idealistic view of human nature, and Solon himself put it to the test by departing from Athens for ten years, as soon as the laws were enacted, in order to let them do their work free from any appeals to his person. “He claimed to be travelling to see the world,” Herodotus writes, “but it was really to avoid the possibility of having to repeal any of the laws he had made.”30 (And also, possibly, from sheer annoyance: “Once his laws were in force,” Plutarch writes, “not a day passed without several people coming up to him to express approval or disapproval, or to recommend the insertion of some point or other into the statutes, or the removal of something from them…. They would question him about it and ask him to explain in detail the meaning and purpose of every single point.”)31


And how did this work?

With Solon gone, Athenian politics soon fell back into its old divisive squabbles. “The result of the laws,” Plutarch says, regretfully, “justified the visitor’s conjecture, rather than Solon’s expectations.” The Athenian experiment had again failed to bring justice, let alone peace; and a small group of Athenians began to plan for the inevitable tyranny.

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