Did the ancient Athenians invent humanity?
I highly recommend at least the first episode of Greeks: The Crucible of Civilization. I’ll summarize what I got from it, secure in the knowledge that one of my readers is a professional Classicist and can correct my mistakes.
Here’s what happened. In ancient Athens, as in all early civilizations, there were basically two classes: the wealthy and powerful, and everyone else. Everyone else worked from dawn to dusk, taxed a-plenty to support the aristocrats, who in turn bought equipment and trained in the various arts, including war. For almost everyone, you shut up, took orders, and kept your head down.
Pisistratus, one of the Athenian aristocrats, wanted to run the whole show—and he did, for a while, but was ousted. But then he found a tall and beautiful woman in an outlying village. He dressed her in robes, put a helmet on her head, and rode into Athens with her in the chariot, proclaiming that Athena herself was installing him as the absolute ruler of Athens (in the vernacular, a tyrant, but at the time without a pejorative connotation).
Naturally, he anticipated that the aristocrats would sooner or later tumble to the dodge, so he needed backers—and he had a plan. He cut taxes fairly substantially for the common people, and also offered free loans so they could improve their lot. Needless to say, they very much liked Pisistratus—and there were a lot more of them than aristocrats.
Moreover, the free loans and improved productivity greatly improved the olive crop, and Athenian olives were at the time touted as the best. So Athens began to enjoy a brisk trade with other nations, using their navy, their olive oil, and what they gained in trade with Egypt, the Persian Empire, and the Romans and Etruscans, along with trade with other city states.
Things were going well. Eventually Pisistratus was again ousted as tyrant, but again returned. He promoted the arts, saw to it that the Iliad and Odyssey were copied out in their entirety, and in general did a good job.
After he died, his two sons Hippias and Hipparchus took over. Hipparchus was murdered in a political plot, which resulted in Hippias becoming quite paranoid and oppressive (the modern version of a tyrant). Eventually, he was deposed, after exiling and killing quite a few of the Aristocrats. Isigoras, another tyrant, equally oppressive, took over with the help of 40 Spartans and pretty much cleaned house, getting rid of anyone who might be a threat.
In the meantime, some things had changed. First of all, the common people rather liked having a piece of the action and not being worked to death to pay taxes. Moreover, the Greek ideal of heroic deeds was being channeled into the Olympic games. Originally, only aristocrats could participate, but as the games took hold, the natural desire arose to see really the best performances—even if not by an aristocrat. (Cf. the gradual racial integration of sports in America.) You can imagine the conversations: “I won the foot race!” – “Yeah, great. But I bet you couldn’t have beat <commoner>. He’s damn fast.” – “Really?” – “Yeah. I’d love to see him in a race.”
So ultimately the games became a true aristocracy: the best athletes, regardless of social rank, participated, so that a king might end up racing a potter, or an aristocrat throwing against a cobbler. And, of course, sometimes the winner would be from the lower classes, but still honored, recognized, and remembered. This emergence of an egalitarian spirit certainly played a role in what happened.
What happened around 507 BCE was an innovation: the common people spontaneously rose in revolt against Isigoras and his Spartan guards. The latter retreated to the Acropolis, where they were able to hold out for two days. On the third day, Athenians—again, the common people, leaderless—scaled the cliff and vanquished the former ruler and his guard.
Although the movie clearly stated that something like this had never been done before, I was at first doubtful, thinking of many other uprisings and rebellions that preceded. But those, I reflected, were not the same as a spontaneous uprising of the common people. Always before, it was some ambitious leader who stirred up the people, fomented a rebellion, and installed himself in power—no real change in government, just in people.
This was different: the Athenians had done this on their own, without leaders, and they were not particularly eager to install another leader, having just rid themselves of Isigoras. And, as luck (and Isigoras) had it, there were no leaders waiting in the wings to attempt to seize the moment.
So they called Cleisthenes back from exile, and they asked him to figure out where they should go from here—but no rulers, please.
I think surely the nascent egalitarianism of the Olympic games, together with the citizens getting a piece of the action under Pisistratus, made them want to have control over their own lives, not answer to someone else.
Cleisthenes was the perfect guy, as it turned. First, he had them construct a place where the (male) citizens could assemble: big blocks of stone in an open area, laid in giant steps. Then he thought up a way to settle disputes without having a judge or a ruler or a fight: voting. He installed a giant urn, and each citizen could drop in one stone: black for “no” or “oppose”, or white for “yes” or “support”.
So the citizens would gather every 9 days, talk about what was going on and what things required action, and argue about what action to take. And then they would vote.
It worked because everyone felt that they got a chance to make their views heard, and they had a chance to vote for what they wanted. And no one was telling them what to do. (At about this time, the Athenians began to describe people who lived under a ruler as “slaves” rather than “free”, in sharp contrast to the Athenians themselves.)
So this was a great innovation: all citizens participated, and all were involved, and no one was telling them what to do. I believe that this truly initiated the Golden Age of Athens because under this new scheme, every citizen felt free to contribute and innovate, rather than 95% of the citizens working themselves to death and a small minority free to innovate. (Cf. countries in which women are still oppressed—not allowed access to education, not allowed to work other than at domestic chores: those countries in effect discard 50% of the possible advances and contributions that they could have had if women were free. In the case of Athens, it was not just twice as much potential for innovation and creativity, it was twenty times as much: all the citizens instead of just the aristocrats.
But immediately this new idea had to fight for its life: Darius, king of Persia, sent a force of 40,000 to take Athens. Athens responded by calling for every single man in Athens to join in battle on the plains of Marathon—and the response was with spirit. No way were they going back to living under a ruler, as a “slave.” Those who were trained to fight and had shields, armor, and swords, were the core, but every man joined in: with spears, with knives, with sticks, and, I imagine, with a big rock if they didn’t have anything else.
Though they were outnumbered, the Persian Army consisted (in the Athenian view) of slaves—and in fact of soldiers who really didn’t have a dog in this fight. They were there because they were ordered there, and they fought or else. But their hearts were not in it—certainly not like the Athenians, who were determined to die rather than lose their new way of life.
The Athenians slaughtered some 6000 of the Persians, and the rest fled.
Athens—and the new idea—was saved. The story continues, and I’ll leave it to you to view, but I want to point out one more thing. Themistocles fought in the battle of Marathon and then “went into politics”, as it were. He was popular with the Athenians, related well to the citizens, and had good ideas—but he was NOT an aristocrat. He didn’t have their education (and could not, for example, play a musical instrument or write poetry). Indeed, the only way he could have possibly become a leader was because now the Athenians chose their own leaders. He’s among the first generation that grew up in a democracy, which is why “running for office” seemed a natural idea to him. So now, leaders could emerge who previously could only have assumed leadership through some sort of rebellion or civil war.
And, as it turns out, Themistocles was exactly the leader Athens needed.
It strikes me that this little period is when people began to explore the greater possibilities of being human—and to realize the creativity that could be unleashed if every citizen was free to participate in what was going on.
The Wife pointed out that this is a Western view, but I then pointed out the benefits we got from this approach. The first was that great spurt of creativity in Athens, which included the only time that any civilization discovered the idea of proof. And the town meetings in Athens were the source of the Roman Senate, the parliaments of nations today, and the US Congress. And ultimately, along that direction, came the idea of scientific method, possibly the great contribution of Western civilization. And we owe all that to the ancient Athens.
I highly recommend the whole series. I didn’t even touch on the amazing beauty of Athenian pottery—when potters were the lowest of the low, and their pottery was simply a way to hold and transport things. But then—unasked—the potters began decorating the pots, not using repeated geometric patterns, as all other civilizations did, but with naturalistic paintings. Indeed, not only did no one ask for that, no one seems to have been terribly interested at the time. It was a potter’s thing, and the potters did it to one-up each other—and so they got better and better.
I think this visible blooming of a strong sense of individuality and individual authorship probably is a reflection of the new social structure, another way it was changing things: potters could now make more of their own decisions, they could decorate their pots if they wanted, and they were individually creative and aware of their gifts.
UPDATE: The emergence of democracy in Athens seems a lot like a cultural mutation, which came about because previous tyrants had removed all likely leaders, creating a sort of cultural petri dish that would favor such a mutation: when citizens, leaderless, revolted and seized control of the city, for the first time there was the option of continuing without a leader—no one elbowed his way to the front and said, “I’ll take over now,” or if someone did, he was ignored.
The new mutation met an immediate threat, which tested whether it had staying power. And then, as the democracy became established, the new social/cultural environment supported new types of leaders (like Themistocles) and lots and lots of individual creativity, signed works. And think what it must have been like, in every possible field of art and thought, not having to deal with the old guard. From that period on, playwrights have to take into account what has been written before, but at that time: nothing had been written before, and they were doing totally new things—as did Herodotus, who wrote about much of this.
The great bursting forth of creativity in Athens’s Golden Age showed what the new structure could produce, and the fame of Athens ensured that the mutation was documented and could be replicated elsewhere.
UPDATE: I guess the equivalent of what I’m saying: By happenstance, a combination of pre-existing memes and actual events created a very powerful meme in Athens, derived from strong individuality (based in part on memes of heroes) and a sense of egalitarianism: democracy. The result of the meme in that socio-economic milieu was the rapid development and evolution of many more memes, spontaneously erupting as the interaction of the democracy meme with other memes and events.
UPDATE 2: See this post on why the above is naïve and superficial.