Government in Ancient Greece

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Politically Greece was never unified like the Roman empire. What bound the Greeks together was culture, architecture, sculpture, drama and music. Rugged mountain ranges and numerous bodies of water divided the civilization into individual city-states that existed in valleys and on islands and peninsulas. Roads and waterways made the sharing of culture possible, but the natural barriers made each city-state autonomous politically and agriculturally. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,"]

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote for BBC: “Without the ancient Greeks we wouldn't even have the words to talk about many of the things we care most about. Take politics for example: apart from the word itself (from polis, meaning city-state or community) many of the other basic political terms in our everyday vocabulary are borrowed from the ancient Greeks: monarchy, aristocracy, tyranny, oligarchy and - of course - democracy...“One of the indispensable words we owe ultimately to the Greeks is criticism (derived from the Greek for judging, as in a court case or at a theatrical performance). Another is theory (from the Greek word meaning contemplation, itself based on the root for seeing). [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Ancient Greece, in particular Athens, is rightfully credited as the birthplace of democracy. Democracy is “rule by the people” and rule by the majority is implied. Up to this time, in most societies, rule was by kings, pharaohs, emperors, chiefs, warlords- powerful men (usually) who had become accepted as leaders because of their superior skills or force of personality. Usually their position then became a hereditary one, passed down to the eldest (or strongest) son. Kinship played an important role with powerful families and clans supporting the right of the king to rule. In some societies, the king was also the High Priest and had the additional power of religion to back his claim. The idea that common people had the ability to govern was a new and radical one. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ancient Greek City States

Ancient Greek southern regions
Ancient Greece was divided in polises , or city-states, which were neither cities or states. They were self sufficient communities with their own army, customs and laws. Each polis contained one town, which was also the center of the government. The first true city states have been traced to Dorian settlements (850-750 B.C.) on Crete, where constitutions were drawn up that granted certain rights to the Dorian conquerors but denied them to everybody else. Between 750 and 500 B.C. chiefdoms and villages coalesced into city-states on the Greek mainland, Aegean islands and Asia. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,"]

Many city-states were centered around citadels built on mounds or hills (an acropolis) hills for protection. Within the settlement were houses, an agora , or marketplace, and temples for worshiping. Their authority often spread no further that the surrounding plains or valley. The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, they were "just large enough and just small enough, neither wholly urban nor wholly rural, for it needed both countryside and city...The polis strictly speaking consisted not of the territory but of the citizens...there were several hundred such Greek polis so varied that general history of them is not possible."

The polis had a “religion-like importance." Different city-states had different forms of government. Many began as oligarchies ruled by land-owning aristocrats. Most had councils made up of male citizens that made laws. Some suggest that temples with large central room may have been used for political as well as religious assemblies. As the demos , or people, gained more say, democracies arose, most famously in Athens.

Early Government of Athens

Iron Age burials, in the Kerameikos and other locations, are often richly provided for and demonstrate that from 900 B.C. onwards Athens was one of the leading centers of trade and prosperity in the region. This position may well have resulted from its central location in the Greek world, its secure stronghold on the Acropolis and its access to the sea, which gave it a natural advantage over inland rivals such as Thebes and Sparta.

Hill of Ares in Athens

According to the tradition, Athens was founded, when the king of Theseus united several settlements of Attica into a state and was ruled by kings until the 9th century B.C. Based on later accounts, it is believed that these kings stood at the head of a land-owning aristocracy known as the Eupatridae (the 'well-born'), whose instrument of government was a Council which met on the Hill of Ares, called the Areopagus and appointed the chief city officials, the archons and the polemarch (commander-in-chief).

Before the concept of the political state arose, four tribes based upon family relationships dominated the area. The members had certain rights, privileges, and obligations including common religious rights, a common burial place and mutual rights of succession to property of deceased members. During this period, Athens succeeded in bringing the other towns of Attica under its rule. This process of synoikismos — the bringing together into one home — created the largest and wealthiest state on the Greek mainland, but it also created a larger class of people excluded from political life by the nobility. By the 7th century BC social unrest had become widespread, and the Areopagus appointed Draco to draft a strict new code of law (hence the word 'draconian'). When this failed, they appointed Solon, with a mandate to create a new constitution (in 594 BC). [Source: Wikipedia]

Rhetoric and Politics in Ancient Greece

Governments was not run by paper-wielding bureaucrats as is the case today but rather by active people who use their voice rather than pens to make decisions. Citizens held debates on laws in the assembly. Persuasion became an important avenue to power and rhetoric became an art.

Rhetoric, which essentially means the power of persuasion, was an important skill to the Greeks. Socrates said in 374 B.C. that persuasion was what separated mankind from the animals and brutes. The great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote that oratory skill “became like the press today, the instrument of very little good and three-quarters of everything bad." It “colored and enfeebled both poetry and history; even the philosophers were partly, in real life, really rhetoricians."

Demagogue come from the Greek word demagogos , which means spokesman of the people and more pejoratively, a leader of a mob. Modern usage implies rhetorical gifts and the ability to arouse an audience, usually with the promise of radical measures. It is the base impulses of the public that a demagogue usually appeals — and hence the tendency to identify and denounce enemies of the people. The most famous Greek demagogue was Alcibiades, a sweet-talking Athenian known for selling his fellow Athenians on the ill-conceived idea of attacking Sicily, a move which spelled the end to Golden Age classical Greece. [Source: Washington Post]

Ancient Greek Citizens

Asclepius, Hippocrates and a citizen

Beginning in the 7th century B.C., ordinary people were freed from the bonds of slavery, debt and serfdom to wealthy aristocrats. "I took away the mortgage stones stuck in earth's breast," wrote Solon. “And she, who was a slave before, is now free."

Most Greek citizens were landowners although the criteria for citizenship varied from city-state to city-state. In Sparta citizens had to be at least thirty and unanimously approved by the existing citizenry. Some states were democracies where citizens voted for city-state magistrates and passed laws. Other were oligarchies or constitutional governments.

Citizens had the right to vote, express their opinions, and participate in policy decisions in the assembly on matters like taxation and war. In wartime citizens were expected to serve as soldiers. In peacetime they were obliged to show up and serve as members of the assembly and as judges. Any citizen who was over 30 could run for office. Women and slaves were not allowed to be citizens. Citizenship was inherited by offspring of two Athenian citizens. Private citizens not part of the ruling class were called idiots .

True representative government was something that never occurred to the ancient Greeks. Serfdom was also passed down from generation to generation. Their labor freed the land owners to make war among themselves and establish philosophy and the arts.

Ostracism in Ancient Greece

Politicians who fell out of favor could be ostracized — exiled for 10 years — by a vote of the assembled citizens, who cast their ballots by scratching the name of the ostracized person on a shard of pottery, or ostrakon (source of the word ostracize) used as ballots. The measure was set up not to punishment in any harsh or cruel way; the idea was simply to remove them from the political arena and public life. Many prominent Athenian politicians were ostracized.

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “One distinctively Athenian democratic practice that aroused the special ire of the system's critics was the practice of ostracism - from the Greek word for potsherd. In this reverse election to decide which leading politician should be exiled for ten years, voters scratched or painted the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of broken pottery. At least 6,000 citizens had to 'vote' for an ostracism to be valid, and all the biggest political fish risked being fried in this ceremonious way. For almost 100 years ostracism fulfilled its function of aborting serious civil unrest or even civil war. At the end of the fifth century it was replaced by a legal procedure administered by the jurors of the people's courts. Power to the people, all the people, especially the poor majority, remained the guiding principle of Athenian democracy. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Ostracism against Boutalion, 490 BC
Ostracism was introduced by Cleisthenes in 508 B.C. after exiling the tyrant Hippias, reportedly with the aim of preventing the emergence of a dictator who might seize powerful unlawfully by whipping up public discontent. It was used from 487 to 417 B.C., which some historians have pointed out was when Athens was at its peak, According to the procedure, citizens of ancient Athens were instructed to gather once a year and asked if they knew of anyone aiming to be a tyrant. If a simple majority voted yes the members were dispersed and told to come back in two months time and used an ostrakon to scratch the name of the citizen whom they deemed most likely to become a tyrant. The person who received the most votes in excess of a set number was expelled from the city-state for 10 years. This simple act is regarded by some historians as the foundation of democracy in ancient Athens.

Pottery shards that were used for secret votes have been found by archaeologists. Among the names that have been found on ostrakons are Pericles, Aristides and Thucydides. Pericles was nearly ostracized over opposition to his plan to build the Parthenon. A pile of 190 shards with the name Themosticles written on them by 12 individuals found in a well and is believed to be one of the first examples of vote rigging.

There were abuses of the system, notably when strong politicians wanted to oust rivals. Pericles used the system to get rid of his main challenger, Thucydides. Ostracism itself was dropped when the powerful politicians Alcibiades and Nikias ganged up on Hyperbolos, a rival to both of them, and had him exiled.

Descriptions of Ostracism

Philochorus (died 261 B.C.) wrote in his Book III: "Ostracism is as follows: The Demos takes a vote before the 8th Prytany, as to whether it seemed best to hold an ostracism. When the response is positive, the Agora is fenced off with barricades; ten entrances were left open, through which they entered according to Phyle and deposited their potsherds, keeping face-down what they had written. The Nine Archons and the Boule presided. After they added up the results, whoever received the largest number, and it had to be not less than 6,000, was required to pay the penalty: he had to settle his private affairs within ten days and to depart from the City for ten years (though it later was made five years); he still received the income from his property, but he could not come nearer than Geraistos, the promontory of Euboea. Hyperbolus was the sole undistinguished person to suffer ostracism, on account of the degeneracy of his habits, not because he was suspected of aiming at tyranny. After him the practice was abandoned, which had begun when Kleisthenes was legislating, when he expelled the tyrants, so that he might toss out their friends as well. [Source: Philochorus Fragment 30 (from his Atthis), Fragmente der Griechischen Historike: 328 F30, CSUN]

Scholia to Aristophanes, Hippeis 855: [The information in Philochorus is repeated as far as "..he had to depart from the city within ten days. Then follows:] but if six thousand are not cast, he did not go into exile. The Athenians are not the only ones to conduct the ostracism; the Argives do so as well, and the Milesians and Megareans. Practically all the most favored men were ostracized: Aristeides, Kimon, Themistokles, Thucydides, Alcibiades. Ostracism was used until Hyperbolus, but it ended with him, and they did not employ the law later on, because of the weakness which came about in Athenian public affairs. 20120222-Ostracism_against_Kallixenos_(483_BC).jpg
Ostracism against Kallixenos
Diodorus the Sicilian (90-30 B.C.) wrote in History Book XI, chapter 55: "But afterwards, those who feared the eminence that [Themistocles] enjoyed, and others who were envious of his glory, forgot his services to the State, and began to exert themselves to diminish his power and to lower his presumption. First of all, they removed him from Athens, using against him what is called 'ostracism', an institution which was adopted in Athens after the overthrow of the tyranny of Peisistratos and his sons [510 B.C.]. And the law is as follows: Each citizen wrote the name of the man who in his opinion had the greatest power to destroy the democracy; and the man who got the largest number of ostraka was obliged to go into exile from his native land for a period of ten years. “The Athenians, it appears, passed such a law, not for the purpose of punishing wrongdoing, but in order to lower through exile the presumption of men who had risen too high. Now Themistocles, having been ostracized in the manner we have described, fled as an exile from his native city to Argos..."

Julius Pollux (died A.D. 238) wrote in the Ten Attic Orators VIII. 19: “However, the whole populace casts its vote on ostraka in common, and the process is called ostrakophoria, the result ostrakismos; the verb is exostrakisai and exostrakisthenai. Now, when a certain part of the Agora was roped off, it was necessary for an Athenian who wanted [to vote] to bring to the roped-off area a potsherd inscribed with the name of the man he wanted to be ostracised; if six thousand ostraka turned up for a particular man, he had to go into exile, not because he had been convicted of crime, but because he was something of a burden to upon the politeia, reproached for his arete rather than censured for an evil deed.

1) Androtion of Athens, Fragment 6 (from his Atthis): “...{Harpokration, s.v. 'Hipparchos':]There is another Hipparchus, concerning whom Lycurgus speaks in the Against Lycophron: "Hipparchus, the son of Peisistratus". Hipparchus, the son of Charmos is a different man, whom Lycurgus mentions in Against Leocrates. Androtion, in Book II, says about this Hippocrates that he was a syngenes of Peisistratus the Tyrant and was the first man to be ostracized, the nomos concerning ostracism being employed then for the first time on account of suspicion of those in the circle of Peisistratus, because he was a demagogue and as a general set up the tyranny. [Fragmente der Griechischen Historike (FGrH r) 324 F6]

Aristotle, Plutarch and Thucydides on Ostracism

“Aristotle'' wrote in “Athenaion Politeia” 22.3: “ the Archonship of Phainippos [490/89] the Athenians won the Battle of Marathon. This made the democracy so confident that after a further two years had passed they first used the law of ostracism. It had been passed from a suspicion of those in power, because Piesistratos had started as leader of the people and strategos, and became tyrant. The first to be ostracised was one of his relations, Hipparchos the son of Charmos, of Kollytos; it was the desire to expel him which was the primary motive of Kleisthenes in proposing the law. With the customary forbearance of the democracy, the People had allowed the friends of the tyrants to continue to live in Athens with the exception of those who had committed crimes in the civil disorders; their leader and champion was Hipparchos. In the year immediately following, the archonship of Telesinos [487/6] .... Megakles the son of Hippokrates from Alopeke was ostracised. For three years they ostracised the friends of the tyrants, the original purpose of ostracism, but in the fourth year [485/4] they also removed anyone else who seemed to be too powerful. The first man to be ostracised who was not connected with the tyranny was Xanthippos the son of Ariphron.... two years later... at this time [483/2] Aristeides the son of Lysimachos was ostracised. Three years later, in the Archonship of Hypsichides [481/0] , they recalled all those who had been ostracised; for the future they decreed that those who had been ostracised should not live nearer to Athens than Geraistos or Scyllaion under penalty of losing their citizenship permanently. [Source: CSUN]


Thucydides wrote in “History of the Peloponnesian War” Book I, chapter 135: “But when Pausanias [Regent of Sparta, for Pleistarchos, the son of Leonidas, who died at Thermopylae in 490] was convicted of treasonable dealings with Persia, the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) sent envoys to Athens and accused Themistocles as well of complicity in the plot, in accordance with discoveries they had made in connection with their investigation into Pausanias. And they demanded that he be punished in the same way. The Athenians agreed, but since he happened to have been ostracized, and (though residing in Argos, frequently visited other parts of the Peloponnesus as well) they sent some men, accompanied by the Lacedaemonians (who were quite ready to join in the pursuit) with instructions to arrest him wherever they happened to find him. But Themistocles was forewarned and fled from the Peloponnesus to Corcyra, since he was a benefactor [euergetes] of the Corcyreans..."

Plutarch wrote in “Life of Aristeides,” Chapter 7: “Aristeides, therefore, had at first the fortune to be veloved for this surname ['The Just'], but at length was envied, especially when Themistocles spread a rumor among the people that, by determining and judging all matters in private, he had destroyed the courts of justice, and was secretly making way for a monarchy in his own person, without the assistance of guards. Moreover the spirit of the people, now grown great and confident with their recent victory, naturally entertained feelings of dislike toward all of more than common fame and reputation. Coming together, therefore, from all parts into the City, they banished Aristeides by Ostracism, giving their jealousy of his reputation the name of fear of tyranny. For ostracism was not the punishment of any criminal act, but was speciously said to be the mere depression and numiliation of excessive greatness and power, and was in fact a gentle relief and mitigation of envious feelings, which were thus allowed to vent themselves in inflicting no intolerable injury, only a ten years' banishment. But after it came to be exercised upon base and villainous fellows, they desisted from it. Hyperbolus was the last whom they banished by ostracism.

“The cause of Hyperbolus' banishment is said to have been this: Alcibiades and Nicias, men who had the greatest influence in the City, were of different factions. As the People, therefore, were about to vote for ostracism, and obviously to decree it against one of them, consulting together they contrived the banishment of Hyperbolus. The people being offended at this, as if some contempt or affront was put upon the thing, they left off and quite abolished it. It was performed, to be short, in this manner. Every one taking an ostrakon, a sherd, that is, or piece of earthenware, wrote upon it the citizen's name he wished banished, and carried it to a certain part of the Agora surrounded with wooden rails. First, the Magistrates counted all the sherds in gross (for if there were less than six thousand, the ostracism was invalid); then, laying every name by itself, they pronounced him whose name was written by the larger number banished for ten years, with the enjoyment of his estate...."

Plutarch wrote in Life of Kimon Chapter 17: Once more the Lacedaemonians summoned the Athenians to come to their aid against the Messenians and Helots in Ithome, and the Athenians went, but their dashing boldness awakened fear, and they were singled out from all the allies and sent off as dangerous conspirators. They came back home in a rage, and at once took open measures of hostility against the Laconizers, and above all against Kimon. Laying hold of a trifling pretext, they ostracised him for ten years. That was the period decreed in all cases of ostracism [Date: ca. 461]. .... the Athenians did not long abide by their displeasure against Kimon, partly because, as was natural, they remembered his benefits, and partly because the turn of events favored his cause. For they were defeated at Tanagra in a great battle [457?], and expected that in the following springtime an armed force of Peloponnesians would come against them, and so they recalled Kimon from his exile. The decree which provided for his return was formally proposed by Pericles.”

Invention of Political Theory, in Ancient Greece

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “ An early example of the Greek genius for applied critical theory was their invention of political theory, probably some time during the first half of the fifth century B.C. The first concrete evidence for this crucial invention comes in the Histories of Herodotus, a brilliant work composed over several years, delivered orally to a variety of audiences all round the enormously extended Greek world, and published in some sense as a whole perhaps in the 420s B.C. . The evidence comes in the form of what is known as the Persian Debate in Book 3. |::|

Greek political system

“According to the writer's dramatic scenario, we are in what we would now call the year 522 B.C. . The mighty Persian empire (founded in Asia a generation earlier by Cyrus the Great and expanded by his son Cambyses to take in Egypt) is in crisis, since a usurper has occupied the throne. Seven noble Persians conspire to overthrow the usurper and restore legitimate government. But what form of government, what constitution, should the restored Persian empire enjoy for the future? That at any rate is the assumed situation. In hard practical fact there was no alternative, and no alternative to hereditary autocracy, the system laid down by Cyrus, could seriously have been contemplated. So what we have in Herodotus is a Greek debate in Persian dress. |::|

“Three of the seven noble conspirators are given set speeches to deliver, the first in favour of democracy (though he does not actually call it that), the second in favour of aristocracy (a nice form of oligarchy), the third - delivered by Darius, who in historical fact will succeed to the throne - in favour, naturally, of constitutional monarchy, which in practice meant autocracy. The main interest for us centres on the arguments of the first speaker, in favour of what he calls isonomy, or equality under the laws. |::|

3,500-Year-Old Tablet and Early Greek Bureaucratic Practices

In the summer of 2011, a tablet with some of the oldest known examples of writing in mainland Europe, was found in the middle of an olive grove in southwest Greece, near the modern village of Iklaina. John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “The tablet seems to be a “page” from a bookkeeper's note pad. Not meant to be saved as a permanent record, it was not baked in a kiln , but ended up in a refuse dump, where a fire hardened the clay for posterity... Had it not been for some inadvertence, the tablet would almost certainly have disintegrated in the rain in a year or two and scattered with the wind as so much illiterate dust." [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, April 4, 2011]

The discoverers and other specialists in Greek history said the tablet should cast light on the political structure and bureaucratic practices near the beginning of the renowned Mycenaean period, 1600 to 1100 B.C. At its height, the culture supported the splendor of palaces at Mycenae and Pylos and inspired the heroic legend of the Trojan War, immortalized in Homer's Iliad.

On one side, the tablet has one readable word, a verb meaning to prepare to manufacture. Along the broken edges are other characters, but not enough for scholars to make out the word or words. On the reverse side, the tablet gives a list of men's names alongside numbers. Cynthia Shelmerdine at the University of Texas, Austin, was the first to read the writing and assess its importance.

“The fact that we have a tablet like this means that this government had scribes, and scribes are a product of bureaucracy," Dr. Cosmopoulos said. “And this suggests some degree of political complexity and a growing need to keep track of commodities, property and taxes, all earlier than we once thought."

Linear B tablet from Pylos

Donald C. Haggis, an archaeologist and classics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the tablet discovery was “really exciting and important because we don't know much of the dynamics of these palace sites and the early phases of state formation in Greece." Dr. Haggis, who was familiar with the research but not a member of the team, said that nearly all that had been known of the dynamics of these government centers came from excavations in the final stages of the Mycenaean period. Now the tablet, he said, “tells us this place had an administrative function at an early stage” and the architecture of the palace “reflects authority” and “looks like a place for ritual, communal dining and production of crafts."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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