The Athenian democracy fell after the Peloponnesian War with Sparta (404 BCE – 403 BCE). For a number of reasons, the story has a particular value now. See if you can find any parallels to the situation we are in. I conclude by listing a few.
The word Democracy comes from the Greek word Demokratia which means “rule of the commoners.” This concept of democracy was originally conceived in classical Greece. It was used to refer to the form of government used in the 5th century BC in Greek city-states, particularly Athens. It was used as an antonym to aristocracy, coming from the Greek term aristokratia meaning “rule of the elite.”
Athens during this period used a direct democracy where citizens, men with property, voted on individual issues. The system practiced in the United States presently is a representative democracy, where citizens elect representatives to vote on individual issues.
Sparta and Athens
The Athenian democracy fell primarily because of the influence of Sparta. The Spartans won a naval victory at Aegospotami that effectively ended the Peloponnesian war. The Athenians entered into extended negotiations with the Spartans. The Spartans did not destroy Athens, but they did demand substantive changes: among them, the reduction of defenses and the restructuring of laws to favor oligarchy, like the laws in Sparta. The Athenians accepted these conditions by April 404 BCE.
The Athenians then went to vote on the issue. The Athenian assembly quickly divided into three camps: those who favored the ancestral constitution, those who wanted to keep the democracy, and those who wanted oligarchy. Debate continued through September 404 BCE and no decision was made.
Eventually Sparta intervened and instructed Athenians to choose 30 men to manage all the affairs of the polis. This group came to be known as The Thirty Tyrants. The Thirty avoided developing a constitution initially and focused on establishing an interim government, eliminating opponents, and reforming the laws they wanted to change.
The Reign of The Thirty
The Thirty Tyrants hired 300 whip-bearing attendants to act as a kind of police. They presided over trials against the previous brigadiers and others who had opposed the peace with Sparta. They condemned many of these men to death. They executed sycophants, thieves, bribers and other “undesirables.” They revoked various grants of citizenship to foreigners and several ambassadorships. They also limited the size of public gatherings.
Disagreements eventually began to emerge within The Thirty as to how the Athenian government should be run. A small group within The Thirty, led by Theramenes, sought to expand the franchise of the “included” to 5,000, but the oligarchic faction led by Critias and Charicles prevailed and chose to include only 3,000 whom The Thirty believed supported the government.
By February 403 BCE, only 3,000 could live inside Athens. The excluded had to relocate elsewhere. The Thirty confiscated their property. Athenians began to flee into neighboring areas.
In February of 403 BCE, the Athenian exile Thrasybulus led a group of approximately 70 men and they seized the defensible hill Phyle north of Athens. This small group presented no real threat to Athens initially, but it fractured the fragile unity of The Thirty between those who wanted a narrow oligarchy and those who wanted to expand the Athenian franchise by increasing the list of the “included.” Once again, the forces of oligarchy prevailed, led by Critias and Charicles. The Athenian assembly gave The Thirty the power to decide life or death over the “excluded.” Critias removed Theramenes’ name from the list of the “included” and had him executed.
The Fall of The Thirty
The Thirty began to revise the list of the “included” as they saw fit. Many Athenians began to believe the Thirty began to execute men for political reasons. The numbers began to grow.
By May 403 BCE, 700 men had gathered with Thrasybulus at Phyle. The Thirty attempted to reconcile with Thrasybulus by offering him property but he refused. The Thirty then sent a small force to Phyle. Thrasybulus counterattacked, routed the force and proceeded to Piraeus and eventually besieged Athens. Because of internal divisions, the Spartans responded tepidly to these events. When the Spartans declined any further support, the reign of The Thirty came to an end.
As a result of the harsh reign of The Thirty, Athenians did not even entertain the idea of “oligarchic rule” for the next forty years.
|Athens 404-403 BCE||United States 2016|
|Sparta was an oligarchy||Russia is an oligarchy|
|Sparta defeated Athens in a naval battle.||Russia defeated the U.S. in a cyber battle.|
|Sparta used this victory to make Athens less democratic.||Russia used this victory to undermine the U.S. democracy.|
|Athenians came to be divided between: constitutionalists, democrats and oligarchs.||The U.S. is divided between: democrats, conservatives, and Trump supporters.|
|The Thirty revoked citizenship to foreigners.||The Trump administration wants to revoke citizenship to Muslims and build a wall on the southern border.|
|The Thirty presided over trials against the previous brigadiers and others who had opposed the peace with Sparta.||Trump threatened to investigate and lock up his opponent Hillary Clinton. The FBI was an unprecedented presence throughout the election.|
|The Thirty hired 300 whip-bearing attendants to act as a kind of police.||There were regular acts of violence at Trump rallies that were cheered by Trump himself. Trump actually used these acts of violence as leverage in arguing for why he should be the republican nominee.|
|The Thirty came to disagree about whether to expand the franchise (Theramenes’) or to continue to move toward a more narrow oligarchy (Critias and Charicles).||Republicans have disagreed about whether to expand the party to include the growing number of minorities in the country. Marco Rubio would represent the wing of the party that is seeking to include these groups; Trump would lead the wing that is antagonistic to them.|
|The Athenian exile Thrasybulus led a group of approximately 70 men and they seized the defensible hill Phyle north of Athens. This group grew by a factor of ten within four months.||Lyndsey Graham and John McCain have made it clear they support a thorough investigation of the Russian effort to influence the election. They also plan to meet with NATO allies throughout Europe before Trump is inaugurated to assure them the U.S. will defend their democracies against Russian aggression.|
|The Spartan naval victory at Aegospotami gave The Thirty broad powers to change Athenian laws.||The Russian cyberwarfare victory that enabled Trump to be elected with a majority in both houses, has given the Trump administration broad powers to change U.S. laws.|
|As a result of the harsh reign of The Thirty, Athenians did not even entertain the idea of “oligarchic rule” for the next forty years.|
The Trump Cabinet