Among Ancient Greece’s many important contributions to human knowledge, perhaps none is more apparent than their long and varied experience in the development of political thought. Though these experiences have come down to us as a single tradition, there are in fact at least two sides to this coin. We speak, of course, of Athens and Sparta; the former an older, more cultured and dynamic community, and the latter, of more recent stock, but with an even more traditional form. Though the development of each community is worthy of separate consideration as well, here we will focus on the continuities of Greek political thought and the challenges created by each community’s unique political context.
As we’ve seen before, the Greek concept of the polis was one that emphasized the personal relationships between members of the community in a way that is often foreign to the modern student. “The polis . . . was not simply a set of buildings. It was a community of citizens who shared a range of experiences, in the army, in kinship groups, in age-classes, and marriage alliances” (Freeman 167). The goal of the community was simple: to achieve eunomia or “good order,” which was made possible through the thoughtful legislation and faithful execution of “good laws” (Freeman 170). Though this purpose was inherent to both the Spartan and Athenian forms of government, the cities pursued this order in strikingly different ways.
Athens’ roots are deeper than most other prominent Greek communities. The various Ionian villages of Attica began a process of synoecism (Greek for ‘union of households’) some time in the ninth or eighth centuries before Christ, due to advances in agricultural technology and the resulting increase in population (Martin 71, 82). As Ionians, the Athenians benefitted greatly from their ancestors’ centuries of cultural exchange between the Greeks of modern-day Turkey and the many peoples of the ancient Near East. Because of the shared hardship of the recent Dark Ages and this common cultural identity, Athens developed an early sense of egalitarianism that served as a major force for unity and equality in the community. Though the evidence from this period is admittedly “scarce and obscure,” it “can be interpreted to mean that by the late seventh century B.C., Athens’ male citizens—rich, hoplite-level, and poor alike—had established the first limited form of democratic government” (Martin 83).
The first threat against the good order of the community at Athens came in the form of an attempted coup against their democracy. The perpetrator was Cylon, an Athenian nobleman, former Olympian, and the son-in-law of the reigning tyrant of Megara. The word ‘tyrant’ is thought to be of Lydian origin and may have originally “meant no more than a ruler, but as Greek democracy developed and all forms of one-man rule became abhorrent the Greeks themselves gave the word the connotations that still surround it today” (Freeman 165). The Athenians therefore “rallied ‘from the fields in a body’ (Thucydides 1.126.7) to foil” Cylon’s schemes (Martin 83). After all, in their mind, “It is no polis that is ruled by one man only” (Kitto 71). Later, the threat row tyranny revived when another prominent Athenian named Peisistratus reigned briefly over the city, and was succeeded by his son and grandson before the latter was assassinated (Martin 87).
There were also economic threats to Athens’ eunomia, particularly the consolidation of wealth and property in the hands of increasingly fewer and fewer citizens. As the rich became richer (and fewer) and the poor became poorer (and more numerous), many cried out for greater justice (Greek dike, pronounced dee-kay) in the operations of the community. Justice then, to the Athenian, always maintained an economic connotation. It was this sense of justice that Solon sought to restore with his reforms in the early sixth century B.C. He abolished debt ownership, sought out Athenians who had been sold abroad into slavery and ceased collecting produce taxes. He then opened up government offices fully to those whose land produced “500 or more measures of grain, oil, or wine” and granted partial participation to those who produced at least 200 measures (Freeman 175-176).
Though these property qualifications still excluded many Athenians from holding public office, all citizens were granted membership in the Assembly (Greek ekklesia), while aristocratic influence was codified in the Council (Greek boule), which met atop the Areopagus (Greek ‘Hill of Ares;’ Martin 83, 85-86; see Acts 17:16-34). And later, after the fall of the Peisistratid regime, Cleisthenes used these same reforms as the template for his own program, devising “a system of government based on direct participation by as many adult male citizens as possible” (Martin 88).
Sparta’s origins are similar in sequence to those of Athens but the cities also differed in significant ways. Sparta, too, underwent a process of synoecism but with a strange twist; two communities as opposed to one, gained the ascendency, producing a unique dual monarchy for which Sparta became famous (Martin 71, 73). The Spartans also did not owe their cultural heritage to the Ionians, but the more recently-arrived Dorian Greeks, as is evidenced by both their dialect and their chronic xenophobia (Greek for ‘fear of strangers’; Martin 73).
Because of their later arrival to the Greek world, the Spartans knew they were different. And for this reason, they saw their cultural distinctiveness as both the ends and means of good order. The result was an increasingly militaristic approach in its relations to its immediate Peloponnesian neighbors as well as the Greek world at-large (Freeman 168-169). Later reforms sought to inculcate these martial values into their youth through the state-sponsored education of young boys and girls, pedophilia among the young men, military-style messes for the men, and even officially sanctioned violence against the enslaved Messenians (Freeman 170-172).
Like Athens, however, the Spartans also directed their efforts against the main political threat to eunomia: tyranny. One-man rule seems to have never occurred to the Spartan community. Since its beginnings, two kings had ruled the community and with time the Spartans further limited even these meager powers with the introduction of the Council of Elders (Greek gerousia) and the Assembly of the People (Greek demos), as well as the office of the Overseers (Greek ephoroi; Martin 74). And it was this fear of tyranny that motivated much of Sparta’s policy toward others: assisting Cleisthenes’ overthrow of the Peisistratids in Athens, leading their neighbors in the Greco-Persian wars, and seeking to end Athens’ hegemony by means of the so-called Peloponnesian War (Martin 87, 105, 147-152).
Athens and Sparta therefore shared eunomia as their common goal for their communities and recognized the threat posed by tyranny to this ‘good order.’ Other threats, however, were identified based on the unique experiences of each community in their political thought and practice. Most Athenian reforms sought greater economic justice due to its deeply rooted egalitarianism, while Sparta’s development sought greater military strength in order to preserve their identity in a new cultural context. If we moderns are to learn from the successes (and failures) of these Greek political traditions, we will have to learn what the Greeks themselves struggled with: uniting the twin goals of economic justice and cultural vitality.
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The Greeks left a strong foundation of cultural, social, and political values that has been drawn on by almost every Western people since. That being said, the increasingly nationalizing tendencies of our own republican government, and the increasingly international form government is taking in modern Europe, have caused many to wonder why Greece never achieved this same kind of political union. Why remain several small poleis instead of becoming a single great, civilized nation, especially since military threats later absorbed these communities, first into the Macedonian kingdom and later into the Roman Empire?
To answer this question, one must first understand that the Greeks held some drastically different views on the concept of politics than most of us do today. The Greek word polis has no direct English equivalent. Because of this, we have attempted to render it in a number of ways, most commonly as ‘city-state.’ But this not only falls short of the full potential of its meaning, it also introduces some false connotations that were not meant by the Greeks themselves.
Kitto identifies this rendering of the word, “a bad translation, because the normal polis was not much like a city, and was very much more than a state” (64). He goes on to catalogue the various uses of the word in order to demonstrate its many shades of meaning: citadel, town, the market town, people, state, and cultural life (Kitto 68-75). For this reason, Kitto states that polis, “may mean as much as ‘the whole communal life of the people, political, cultural, moral’ – even ‘economic’,” while also retaining certain religious connotations (75). In short then, the polis is the Greek ‘community’ and often serves as a metonymy for the various aspects of the community’s wellbeing.
This more holistic view of ‘the city’ had natural implications for their view of citizenship, which meant much more than mere residence. Many a Greek lived within a city while never enjoying the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. In most Greek communities, citizenship was a birthright bestowed on male children born to a father who was a citizen and a mother who was a free woman. Other members of the community (at least at Athens) included metics (or ‘resident aliens’), women and slaves (owned by individuals in Athens and by the community in Sparta) who each enjoyed limited freedoms but were denied any political participation (Freeman 226-228). As Freeman continues, “Citizenship was thus a privilege and a closely guarded one,” but it also had its duties (228). In Athens a citizen was expected to participate in religious festivals, attend the Assembly, and fight the community’s battles as a hoplite (Freeman 226; Martin 82-83). In Sparta, a citizen was expected to not only fulfill these responsibilities, but also to provide enough food to support his military-style common mess (Greek sussition), and failure to do so meant a loss of membership in both the mess and the citizen body (Martin 77-78).
Taken together, a uniquely Greek concept of political unity begins to take shape. Greeks did not form ‘states;’ they formed ‘communities.’ Citizens were not residents; they were participants in the life and affairs of their community. Note the intimacy implied by the word itself: community. Such a sense is difficult to imagine in today’s modern world (though the same connection can still be seen in our words ‘city’ and ‘citizen’). The United States has over 300 million citizens. Cities have populations numbering in the several hundreds of thousands and even millions.
To the Greeks, however, political unity meant the opportunity to participate in a shared cultural, religious and economic environment. Such is the reason why Plato, when he set forth his vision for the ideal community, set the optimal size of the body politic at 5,000 and why Aristotle believed that “each citizen should be able to know all the others by sight” (though the total population, including women, children, metics, and slaves could approach as many as 50,000; Kitto 65-66). True community, then, is directly proportional to familiarity; the greater the familiarity, the greater the sense of community; and when this familiarity is lost, so is one’s sense of community.
This concept of political unity is further demonstrated by other social relationships enjoyed between citizens. In Athens, the community was not divided into wards, quarters, or boroughs but into demes, a word that simply means ‘peoples’ and implies a sense of common identification among its members (Martin 87-88). Unanimity was further maintained through voluntary associations, “some purely religious,” others related to “particular trades” or aristocratic families, and even through a sundry of rancorous drinking clubs (Freeman 226). As Freeman continues, “The Athenian citizen was thus given identity through a range of shared activities which went well beyond his involvement in the Assembly” (Freeman 226).
And though the Spartans chose activities that appear quite different on the surface (a rigorous martial upbringing, and the above-mentioned common messes) the intent was much the same. However, Spartan unanimity also came at a high moral cost, being reinforced from within through the perversion called pederasty, and from without by the systematic enslavement of their outlying neighbors. It was because of this misplaced emphasis on male unity that the Greeks “created outsiders such as barbarians, both free and slave, and, within the city, women and non-citizens in order to strengthen the identity of the citizen group” (Freeman 226).
Though later in our series we’ll have another opportunity to address Sparta’s neighbors, pederasty deserves special comment before we move on. Pederasty was a form of ritualized pedophilia that typically included a young man as the active partner and a younger boy as the passive one. Though each community had its own twists on this practice, in general the boys “were chosen to be the special favorites of males older than themselves to build bonds of affection, including physical love, for others” (Martin 78, 79). Thankfully, the Apostle Paul condemns the practice, along with other forms of homosexuality, in two ‘vice lists’ in the New Testament (1Co 6:9-11; Rom 1:24-27). So while Greek views on civics are generally ‘higher’ than our own, this was not so in every place on every issue.
To the Greeks, politics meant much more than participating in the political processes of the state; it emphasized the individual civic responsibilities owed to others as a trust and privilege held in common with one’s family and neighbors. It is in this vein of thought that Aristotle states so memorably that, “Man is a political animal,” by which he means that, “‘Man is a creature who lives in a polis’; and what he goes on to demonstrate, in his Politics, is that the polis is the only framework within which man can fully realize his spiritual, moral and intellectual capacities” (Kitto 78). The polis, then, is, in the words of Cartledge, a ‘citizen-state’ (56).
We can hopefully see now why the problem of Greek unity may not be in the Greeks themselves but in the way we have formed our questions concerning the goals of their culture and its effects on their political organization. The Greeks did not ‘succeed’ in the modern conception of ‘political unity’ precisely because it is a modern conception that the Greeks neither imagined nor desired. And though certain Greek views on identity and sexuality fail to measure up to the standard of the biblical witness, we have also failed to live up to their cultural legacy concerning their views on cities and citizenship.
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