"It was in 440 BC that Greece set up a group of Greek city states called the Delian League, founded by Cimon, which would end up becoming the Athenian Empire led by Pericles.
There was one central conception that gained strength after the Greek’s victory in the Persian Wars and that was establishment of the democratic political system in which the numerical majority possessed all authority and all power of decision in the state. Under Pericles, this became “Imperial Democracy,” and the success of this system set in motion the seeds of its own destruction, just as it always does and has. Too put it simply, Athens was a city state that could not stay still. It was always meddling, always stirring up and attacking its allies and enemies alike. In the past, Persians had been the most deadly and constant enemies of Athens, as was Sparta and other Greek city states. Slowly, Pericles seized control of the allies’ wealth in order to fight the Persians, but in attempting to block a Persian move in Egypt, the fleet of Athens was almost totally destroyed. The Athenian Empire ended when the Spartans defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and Sparta itself would thereafter be defeated by the Thebans. On the heels of the Thebans came Macedonia. But during that time Athens’ greed for power, its mania for expansion prevented any chance of stability in the region and that greed produced its ruin.
The communal life of Athens was the climax of the Greek development of the state or the polis. The government of Athens was so constituted that it would be compelled by its very nature to strive for power over its neighbors. The classic city state was held in place by two competing forces, education and power, according to an outstanding Greek scholar, Werner Jaeger. (Jaeger and Jacob Burckhardt are the best interpreters of Greek culture that I know of.) The antagonism between education and power was inevitable. When the state asked the citizen to sacrifice himself to serve the purposes of the state, it was assumed that the individual’s purposes were more or less identical to the state’s. There was no room for personal judgments and no personal freedom in the modern sense. The individual’s aims had to agree with the aims of the whole community and its parts, and they agreed to serve those ends with all their energy and determination. There was a widespread belief among the Greeks that the welfare of the community and its parts can be measured by an objective standard. Earthly justice was based on the justice of heaven. The Greeks had long considered that their ethical standard rested on justice (dike). The happiness of the state was founded on that idea. The crisis of the state was therefore a crisis in education. Education always reacted very strong to any attack on established authority, because the city’s greatest pride was founded on being the defender of justice and the defender if the unjustly oppressed.
The career of Pericles was made possible only by the great new extensions in the power of the masses. Plutarch says that Pericles’s bought the people off, thanks to grants of land. But beneath the surface smoldered the inextinguishable spark of revolution among the politically dispossessed aristocrats, or what were called oligarchs, and the rest of the citizens. While the foreign policy of Pericles won success after success, the aristocrats were loyal or feigned loyalty and contorted them self into grotesque forms paying flattery to those in power in feats of gigantic hypocrisy.
Even after the introduction of democracy, the fight still raged over the power of the laws versus the constitution. The conflict was now carried on with new weapons that were remorseless, brutal, impious, and predatory, especially when compared with the simple honesty of earlier generations. These lofty principles of the reign of Pericles disguised a lot of the inner rot in the Greek’s social compact. For example, as democracy became more widespread, it exerted a great deal more influence on the individual Greek life. The power wielded formerly by tyrants, aristocrats and kings passed to the mob and the ordinary citizens, and they meddled incessantly in everything. The more democracy spread, the more intrusive it was in the individual’s daily life, The Greeks were a supreme gifted people, which can be seen in the painting, art, culture, and its vast literature; but alongside these gifts, the Greeks were prey to very evil passions, and one of these was a greed for pleasures of all sorts. As the lowest among them clamored for more participation, political power began to weigh more heavily on the lives of individuals. The public, and the worst factions of the public, had to be pleased.
It is a fact that the ordinary Greek was very envious of any individual who was deemed exceptional, hence they invented ostracism to humble the city’s great. They banished Miltiades, the victor of Marathon, Cimon, Themistocles and other heroes. The intent of this device was ostensibly to forestall tyranny, but in fact it was used to weaken or crush the prominence of a particular citizen. The Greeks were a self-comparing, envious people. If a citizen, usually someone of great excellence of character, got 6,000 votes against him, he was banished from five to ten years which was a life-threatening sentence. As Burckhardt says, “Here was manifest the ingrained hatred, not of the mob – the mob admires the unscrupulous ambitious unless it is incited against them – but by those who are impotently envious of excellent and unique abilities.”
Said a Greek historian, “The demos, haughty of spirit and made confident by its victory at Marathon, was envious of anyone of more than common fame and reputation.”
Another sign of inner degeneration emerged from the system Greek taxes. First, there was the military tax that was designed to protect the military, economic and political interests of Athens everywhere in the region, but the most demoralizing tax was levied for theoricon, theater money doled out to the poorer citizens for theater tickets for celebrating sacrifices, festivals and games and public meals. Later, wars were lost due to lack of money resulting from the inability to suspend that sacrosanct tradition. Pericles began state salaries for jurors, but the most fateful thing he did was give money for average cities to attend theaters. Instead of doing honest work, the Athenian people spent more and more time in public meetings. They were susceptible to the most vulgar, aggressive and entirely fabricated oratory. But once the state payouts started, no Greek leader dared stop these public salaries. At times the city would be bankrupt due do its basic financial needs not being met because of the necessities of paying Athens’s citizens for its greedy pleasures. It reminded me of the Roman mob who, after the invasion of the barbarians still clamored for gladiatorial contests after which they ate the bodies of the slain. (See, J.B. Bury)
The people were increasingly unsettled by endless popular assemblies and court sessions, which “lacked the calming effect of daily work” and the result was the rise of a “warped and prurient imagination,” in Burckhardt’s words. In his second oration of Pericles, the Greek leader said, “We are hated, as are who have taken it upon themselves to rule over others…the fact is that those who rule are envied. Our rule is indeed a tyranny.” Aristophanes replied, "What great fun it is to lord it over all and to be feared by the vociferating culprits and their families? Is it a great power which can disdain power and spread fear?”
Something else to note is the emergence of a whole class of spies within the demos, called sycophants, thanks to whom, slander was regarded as a genuine Athenian profession. (That is what Aristophanes was referring to.) The innocent and the blameless but prominent in Greece lived in constant terror of extortion and intimidation. The Greeks were people who had very, very great gifts, but they were also people of very evil passions.
But it was the Peloponnesian War which put Athens power to the genuine test, and it shook the authority of the government and the state itself and ended in Athen’s defeat. After the death of Pericles, the struggle for mastery of the state took place amid unheard of violence. The struggle for power a contest of opposing ideals which threatened to overthrow the principles on which the authority o which society and the state were based.
The Greeks devised a very insidious amalgam of worship of their ancestors that was combined with their latest ideals. The new mixture inspired an ideal in which the patriotic self- sacrifice was combined with cold calculations of ends and means in order to continue gaining power. The mix enhanced the power of the other. “The Athenian state had convinced each of its citizens that he could prosper only if his city was growing in power and wealth, and thereby had converted natural egotism into one of the strongest possible motives for communal action,” Jaeger said. The belief could only last as long as it gains were greater than its losses. When the war came that principle became a serious danger to the polis, when the material profits for the national effort became smaller and smaller.
On the other hand, the Greek’s inherited passion for outward respectability and morality was now contaminated because their actions were aimed security profit and pleasure. In other words, the country schemed, seized, plundered and overthrew their rivals wherever they found them. The breach between the motives, ideal and practical, which long had been artificially identified with each other, widened as Athens wars went on, and now the underhanded, the dishonest, the devious, the unprincipled appeared in every sphere of morality in that age, from the smallest commercial transaction to the endorsement of the unscrupulous power-policy with the state had been driven to adopt more each year. Yet in spite of the decay of the public spirit among individuals, the artists of the age were increasing in fullness of expression constructing great public works and political enterprises. It is ironic that Greek politics, with its growing smarminess, provided a kind of manure from which sprouted masterpieces of all kinds, including sculptures, noble buildings, paintings, and music. The Greeks were a people who were extraordinarily sensitive to beauty, proportion, color, and form, not to mention the excellence of their myths, plays, comedies, etc. They were masters of literary parodies.
The artists made incredible demands on the imagination of their audiences.
But, as Burckhardt notes,” There is something irrepressibly sad about the hypocrisy which was the necessary price for all that brilliance, and moral rootlessness of a world which would give anything and do anything for outward success.”
Fifty years of war terribly accelerated the destruction of the mental and moral principles on which the Greeks had built their life and thought.” The historian Thucydides saw the decline of Athenian power as the result of the decline of Athenian morale. The collapse of that morale became more widespread, obvious and dangerous from day to day as the war went on and the defeats and losses mounted up. Perhaps Thucydides’ most important point is that such collapse of Athens was not unique to Greece “but will recur as long as humanity remains the same.” In peace men can live in accord with their ideals but in war, men are the prisoners of necessity that compels them to mould their characters to their circumstances. They become prisoners of necessity. War presented the spectacle of faction wars, plots, schemes, clashes with allies and the shock and suffering of reprisals, and the memory of previous wars and their terrors increased the present violence that occurred with each new outbreak of rebellion and discontent.
Thucydides examined another key problem, the use and function of words. The Greeks were infatuated by words. They were captives of the most outrages harebrained exclamations, fatuous exaggerations and venomous attacks. Unfortunately, the adoption of new political and self-aggrandizing aims resulted in a complete change in the meaning and use of words. Words had long been used to characterize the country’s highest virtues, but when war came, words found an entirely new function – they were now used to describe contemptible way of thinking and acting, and a complete perversion of the meaning of words occurred. Words that were once used to express blame were transformed into words of praise. “Senseless audacity was made equal to loyal courage and far-sighted deliberation was now taken to be a species of cowardice. Prudence was a cloak for weakness, and thorough calculations were seen as recipes for inaction. Mad impulsiveness was the mark of the true man, and care in plotting was seen as shirking difficulty,” Jaeger said. Blind impulse replaced consideration and Trust between one man and another disappeared. “The louder a man protested the sound he was thought to be.” The man who did without intrigues was seen as lacking espirit de corps and vigor and it was a sign that he feared his rivals, The collapse of dignity on the political scene signified the collapse of individual character and ties of blood became weaker than party affiliations, (just like America.) Oaths that bound friends together were powerful, sacred bonds, but was morale decayed they were replaced – men were no longer friends but accomplices.
When individual character collapses, it doesn’t take long for a society to collapse. Greece’s famed individualism became showier as it grew more corrupt and distasteful. For centuries, Athens had developed in peace, and endless wars had destroyed it. But the ruin of Athens came when the state began to serve its mania for expansion, its unbridled greed for prominence, its unscrupulous desire to exploit both enemies and friends. It grew spent, exhausted, and dispirited and fell before more energetic rivals. Its day has long gone.
There are hundreds of books about Greece. Perhaps the most famous is the work of Thucydides which is a vast historic analysis of Athens’ downfall. Be warned that many of the stirring and magnificent scenes in the book come, not from history, but from the great brain of the author.
For interpretation of the culture of the Greek state, I would turn to Plutarch and his matchless portraits of prominent Greeks. I would also recommend Paideia -- The ideals of Greek Culture by Jaeger. Michael Grant, who is a Greek scholar who has a ledger of facts in his head, but Grant is, unfortunately, no stylist. The Greek Achievement by Charles Freeman is well written as is A.M.H Jones Athenian Democracy.
I am simply a curious amateur who likes to read, so to all who know more about this matter than I do, I ask you to be patient with my mistakes. Richard Sale
Richard wrote this at my suggestion. Parallels in the present situation of the US ar many. pl