Essay Sample on Ancient Athenian Politics and Its Effects on Ancient Greek Civilization

Posted on February 4, 2008

Current essay deals with important and at the same time very problematic issue of ancient Athenian politics and its effect on the stability of Ancient Greek Civilization. There is no denying the importance of the fact that Ancient society produced the dominant patterns of modern politics and democratic rule in the first place. Athenian democracy was one of the main factors that created the patterns of polity, politics, law and society in Ancient World and strongly influenced political traditions of Ancient Greece. Athenian democracy was a historical formation which developed in close link with other existing forms of governance such as tyranny, oligopoly etc. prevailing in Sparta and other Greek city-states (Hasebroek).

Besides this as this essay will try to show Athenian democracy and political mechanism existed in difficult conditions of permanent assault of tyranny waves as in the case of ’30’ tyranny’ and Pissistratus’ rule. Furthermore, one should remember that external threats to Athenian society and its intrinsically aristocratic nature were those factors which significantly hindered the development of genuine democracy and made it unstable and non-inclusive.

Athens was a leading city-state which formed larger Ancient Greek civilization and engaged in external political relations with other states such as Persia, Sparta, Egypt etc. Hence, deep difference between Athenian internal and external politics were in place and it makes necessary to examine these controversies in detail. Athenian politics are to be analyzed historically by integrating culture, traditions, and main events in the wider fabric of analysis. As a result we hope to produce genuine research addressing the role of Athenian politics and Athenian democracy in shaping the contours of Ancient Greek Civilization and affecting political stability in this particular region.

Ancient Greece and the formation of Athenian politics

The formation of Athenian political system and the mechanism of internal and external politics were deeply affected by two opposite trends which were characteristic of Ancient Greece civilization: the opposition between democracy and tyranny (Stanton). The social structure of Athenian society was very complex and differentiated which created significant instability affecting Athenian and other city-states’ politics. Therefore the problems of stability/instability should be discussed through the prism of Athens state formation, its political ties with other city-states and civilizations. But before analyzing these issues it is necessary to outline the basic developments in Athenian political and social realms which resulted in the creation of classic Athenian society.

There is no denying the importance of the fact that dominant position of Athenian state in Greek politics affected relatively independent development of Athenian civilization which was characterized by permanent struggle between tyranny and democracy. Opposition between aristocratic clans represented by rich strategists, rich people and statesmen and demos was particularly bitter contributing to the instability not only in Athenian society but also in other Greek city-states (Kaloudis 239). As Plato’s dialogue Euthydem suggests Athenian aristocracy was among the most aggressive elements in Athenian society whose lust for power and wealth pushed them to wage wars and conquer other states and peoples (Plato 123-156). These aristocratic wars were one of the main factors of instability in Ancient Greece but notwithstanding this fact they should be regarded as a crucial element of Ancient Greece stabilization under the reign of Athenian state. Here, as Wood claims we have a dialectical unity of stability and instability in Ancient Greece which are not to be analyzed separately (Wood 145).

The formation of Athenian democracy was not a linear process but it followed several important stages connected with the policies of Solon, Cleisthenes and Ephialtes who one of the greatest Athenian politicians (Hignett). During Solon times before his reforms Athenian state was controlled by tyrannoi (tyrants), the representatives of noble people who fought for power against each other and neglected the interests of ordinary people. Theagenes in Megara for instance usurped power on behalf of Ionian minority and Cleisthenes the Athenian noblemen tried to seize the power in 632BC but failed (Stanton 67).

Before Solon the political relations in Athenian society were controlled by aristocratic organ Areopagus which was formed on the basis of nobility, social status and wealth. It chose nine archons who ruled the country on its behalf. There was no way for archons to be hold accountable for their actions, hence using Aristotle classification this model of governance can be described as oligopoly (Barnes).

Solon thus tried to redress situation and pursued constitutional reforms seeking to install stable system of aristocratic democracy (Hignett). Solon created the Council of Four Hundred which significantly enhanced the political representation of lower class people in Athenian society. He divided society in four distinct groups depending on the level of their social status and ascribed different political and social rights to them. Solon released all Athenians citizens who were enslaved and provided them with some civil and political rights.

Besides this Solon placed the order on political practices and procedures and introduced economic legislation which provided premises for transformation of Athens into one of the leading city-states and becoming Ancient Greece hegemony along with Sparta and Corinth. It goes without saying that Solon’s reforms were directed by large on combating sectarian rivalries among aristocracy which hindered the effective development of Athenian state. Hence it may be claimed that stabilization though temporal was important in terms of Athens enhancing their political positions vis-à-vis other Ancient Greece states (Ober and Hendrick 45).

The democratic consolidation continued with Ephialtes weakening of Areopagus powers by putting its influential leaders to trial. His political reforms created preconditions for considerable limitation of Aristocratic power in Athens. For instance, Areopagus before Ephialtes had authorities to process crime trials without jury but new reforms allowed citizens to be represented in jury and influence its decisions through the mechanism of voting and discussion (Stanton).

These democratic achievements considerably affected political and social relations within Athenian society and spread far beyond the territory of Athenian states. These reforms became the triggers of mass upheavals and clashes between aristocracy and demos in other city-states such as Sparta (where helots fought against repressive tyranny) and Corinth (Pomeroy, Burstein, Donlan, and Tolbert).

All these once again prove the fact that the political situation in Athenian society affected other political units of Ancient Greece and this was even without any significant channels of communication that we have nowadays (Hasebroek). Though these reforms were cancelled by thirty tyrants they resulted in a significant political progress and formation of Athenian political and Ancient Greece political culture.

Pericles’ rule is very important since he introduced some important political innovations which significantly affected the stability of Athenian democracy. Under his rule the aristocratic privileges were sufficiently reduced through the reform of citizen status. He prohibited aristocracy from making marriages outside Athens if they wanted to stay Athenian citizens. This move was designed to equalize the political status of all Athenian citizens. Besides this one of his most important innovations was paying members of jury for the time spent performing civil responsibilities. This also helped encourage more people to engage in the judicial system of Athens. Pericles was a proponent of populist policy by defending political and social rights of poor classes. Pericles started his political career with allowing poor people to watch theatrical performances (Hignett 145-167).

Later he abolished discriminative laws prohibiting low-income citizens from taking public office positions and considerably widened the scope of humble people privileges. There is no denying the importance of the fact that these decisions were politically motivated by Athenian external politics. As Samons notes, Pericles connected widening democratic rights of demos with Athenian political dominance in Ancient Greece since he regarded demos as a crucial element of Athens military strength (for instance Athenian fleet was formed from low-class people) (156).

Hence, these democratic reforms shouldn’t be regarded as a one-folded phenomenon. In contrast political developments in Athenian society were deeply connected with Athens’ political ambitions of controlling all Ancient Greece and even projecting its dominance to other nations. The motivation of low-class people was one of the main factors contributing to forming well-equipped army which took part in Greece-Persia and Peloponnesian wars.

To sum it up, political development of Athens influenced much the development of Ancient Greece and its stabilization under Athens’ rule. Through political and economic instruments such as trade and commerce Athens projected their political and cultural patterns to other city-states and formed different alliances that served their political interests. Later as the current essay will show the deterioration of Athenian democracy and losing its military strength will result in entire Ancient Greece destabilization and its successive demise as a constellation of independent states. Political system of Athens perished with the invasion of Macedonians in 322 BC.

Problems of Athenian democracy as the source of political instability

Political developments within Athens were often affected by situation in Ancient Greece. The failures of Athenian democracy such as the rule of 30 tyrants should be regarded as a consequence of Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens which increased political weight of Athenian aristocracy using difficult political conditions to neglect democratic rights of ordinary people. The aristocratic group named 400 hundred usurped power in 411 BC and considerably reduced the size of electorate and introduced property census on the franchise (Hasebroek). These representatives of aristocracy claimed that democracy is ruining for Athenian political preeminence in Athenian world since only aristocracy has sufficient knowledge and skills to take necessary and reasonable decisions. The absence of meritocracy was regarded as the main cause of the Athens power decline but in fact this aristocratic discourse was nothing else than the desire to reassert the power of nobility (Ober). Further deterioration of Athenian democracy continued even after it was reinstalled.

Furthermore, there is no denying the importance of the fact that Athenian democracy was aristocratic in essence though some major democratic reforms were made by Solon and Pericles (Pomeroy, Burstein, Donlan, and Tolbert 67). It is connected with Athenian imperial status in Ancient Greece which prohibited low-class citizens from participating in ‘big politics’. Elites controlled political agenda being dominant in decision-making on economy, strategic matters and distribution of imperial wealth. Besides this they dominated numerically in legislative organs and judicial system. Athenian democracy was considerably flawed in terms of people’s representation. Only adult Athenian men were eligible in participating in political matters and had a right to vote (Pomeroy, Burstein, Donlan, and Tolbert 57). Thereby the majority of Athenian population was excluded from the political process. Those excluded were children, metics (resident foreigners), slaves, and those who didn’t possess enough money to pay debts to the Athenian state.
To sum it up it should be said that Athenian democracy was considerably flawed from the start and its further deterioration was connected with reducing regional stability as a result of wars between Greek cities and other states.

Athens political positions in Ancient Greece and its implications for stability
The dominance of Athens and other influential city states such as Sparta, Thebes and Corinth were important consolidation and stabilization factor in the development of Ancient Greece civilization and was destabilizing at the same time.

Athens united many small tribes, cities and villages under its rule making them more safe vis-à-vis Persian and other invaders. This dominance resulted in a creation of strong, centralized state which projected military strength to defend the borders of other allied Ancient Greek city-states which in its turn rose the influence of Athens among them and alien cultures.

Besides this the political dominance of Athens was one of the main reasons for the flourishing economy and trade in Ancient Greece since Athens required various goods for the development which in its turn stimulated the economic development of other Greek city-states (Powell 56-78).

Among the basic sources of instability in Ancient Greece connected with Athens were their permanent rivalry with Sparta which was a dual militaristic monarchy controlled by landed aristocracy. It dominated other cities of Peloponnesus. In 510 Spartan troops took active part in overthrowing Athenian king and installing their own oligarchs which became one of the triggers of further Ancient Greece instability resulting in Peloponnesian wars between Sparta and Greece (Powell).

Political influence of Athens was exerted through the Delian League which in fact constituted Athenian empire (a number of satellite states serving Athenians interests).
The growth of domination in this League after the end of Greco-Persian war resulted in worsening political relations with Sparta and entire Peloponnesian League which finally led to Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). This war resulted in greater instability and the growth of authoritarian trends in Athenian society. Its naval supremacy was challenged by Sparta and it faced up with the threat of bankruptcy as its trade relations with the outside world were halted. As a result of Sparta’s ultimatum Athens have lost all their overseas territories and fleet.

The decline of Athenian power led to the invasion of Macedonians which installed there rule in Balkans. The dispossessions of Athens resulted in recession of its economy, agriculture and state infrastructure. Moreover, Athens lost all their overseas possessions which was particularly destructive if we remember that Athens were an imperial state. Finally, with the decline of Athens came the end of Ancient Greece political status as it was invaded by Romans in 145BC.

Current essay showed that Athens political system was an important factor in its longstanding preeminence in Ancient Greece. It transformed this region into the centre of military, cultural and economic development. But the relations among city-states were very difficult which caused permanent wars and instability used by alien states as a precondition for conquering Ancient Greece. Hence, it may be said that historical logic of this period shows that Athens were an important factor in Greek politics and their decline resulted in the demise of Ancient Greece civilization.

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