Athens

Athens

Around 1200 BC the leading states in the Eastern Mediterranean collapsed, and the most advanced area of the world entered a ‘Dark Age’. The Minoans and the Myceneans came to an end, Egypt entered into an ‘intermediate’ period of chaos and uncertainty. It is difficult to know why – but such systemic collapses do happen – compare the collapse of the Maya empire around AD 900. When complex societies eventually re-emerge 500 years later, there was one society which soon became very different to all the others: Greece.

The difference can perhaps be demonstrated by giving two short extracts from the literature of the different societies. (Excursus to be inserted here). The first comes from the Bible – the book of Chronicles, with its list of kings and their conquests. Then compare this with the opening chapter of the history of Herodotus who summarises the origin of the Persian wars – but with his tongue in his cheek throughout – gently ridiculing the traditional Greek stories, and taking care always to give the alternative ‘Persian version’ – something that would have been unthinkable in any society that had gone before. What is this change, and how did it happen?

I believe the reason is the advent of money and the market economy, which took place in the 6th and 5th centuries – the highpoint of the Athenian civilisation. But the changeover – revolution is perhaps not too radical a word – took place in a society that was already highly successful.

The emergence of Greece from the ‘Dark Age’ was in full force in the 8th century onwards. The key figure of this early period is Homer, the great epic poet: his date, and indeed his identity is disputed, but it is probable that he was indeed a single figure who lived in the 8th century, but who formed the culmination of a long tradition of bards who had declaimed epic poetry throughout the Dark Ages. The two great poems – the Iliad and the Odyssey – both hark back to the Trojan war, which traditionally ended in 1184 BC. The wars were using weapons of bronze, and reflect the geography of the Mycenaean world, but the poems have a unity and a force and a cohesiveness that marks the advent of a new age.

From 8th century onwards Greece really gets going, and establishes itself as the leading economic centre of the eastern Mediterranean. Society changes; instead of living in the countryside, Greeks start to come together in cities. Greek pottery is exported all over the eastern Mediterranean. At first the pots come in a very distinctive geometric style with the occasional stiff figure. Then Corinth becomes the leading city and pots in the Corinthian style with animals – including exotic lions – are found everywhere. But then towards the end of the 6th century, Corinth loses its leading position, and Athens, suddenly emerges as the dominant pottery producer, with a new vigorous pottery style with black figures on a red background. There is also an explosion of new ideas in sculpture, the theatre and the arts generally. What has happened?

The solution, I believe, comes with the advent of a new economy, based on money, and bringing with it not only economic success, but also a new form of society – democracy.

To investigate this new phenomenon, we must first study the origins of coins. The first coins are found, not in mainland Greece itself, but in Asia Minor, that is modern day Turkey. The key site is Ephesus, where the great temple was destroyed by Persians in 550 BC. Coins had been buried in the foundations as offerings, and could thus be precisely dated. But the use thasos1of coins was soon taken up in mainland Greece: at first, they did not   know quite what to put on the coins, and there is a coin of Thasos showing a satyr carrying off a girl who appears to be making gestures which may or may not be of protest – the only example of rape depicted in coinage.

By 525 or soon after, coinage crossed the Aegean sea to Athens. From the start, Athenian coins feature an owl, which soon became the symbol of Athens, and the ‘owls’ became the most famous of all Greek coins. The owl coins are very old fashioned right from the beginning – Athena owlon the reverse has oval eyes of a type that even in the late 6th century were becoming old-fashioned. However once, established, the owls remained very standard – even the late gold staters issued in the emergency of 296 BC show the same archaic owl, by now rather bedraggled.

The changes took effect very rapidly. Athens was helped in that there were silver mines on Mount Laurion, producing very pure silver, so the Athenians had every incentive to promote the new-fangled ways of doing business. Previously Corinth had been the leading city but Athens soon went right ahead, and its pottery – for archaeologists the easiest way to determine economic progress – is soon found all over the Eastern Mediterranean.

But no sooner was the market economy was established in Athens than its concomitant – democracy – followed. At the end of the 6th century, Athens was ruled by tyrants, the sons of Peisistratus. However in 510 the tyrants were driven out, and Cleisthenes introduced democracy. The Athenians were organised into 10 tribes, and from each tribe, 50 were elected by lot to form the council of 500 which arranged and conducted all business.

Note the importance of the use of the lottery. Although everyone had a vote in the Assembly, many of the important decisions were taken by the council – and the council was chosen by lot. Indeed the use of the lot was considered to be more ‘democratic’ than the vulgar use of elections, for elections could all too often be swayed by a clever orator – that is the way tyrants arose. Only one official was elected, and that was the Polemarch, the general – and the position of general was too important to be chosen by lot.

There was also outburst of art. The theatre suddenly came into existence, with dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the comedian Aristophanes; philosophers arose like Socrates and Plato; there were historians – Herodotos of Halicarnassus, and Thucidides; orators like Demosthenes and Aeschinus; there were the great sculptors – to say nothing of the red-figure vase painting that surely gives us some idea of the lost paintings. Once the bounds of the old clan-based society were removed a whole new world lay open to the talents. And it was Athens, with its market economy, and its democracy that produced all the art, all the writers – and the commercial success.

True, in the military sphere, Athens was less predominant. The early part of the period is dominated by the Persian Wars, brilliantly described by Herodotos. From 600 BC onwards, the Persian empire was steadily expanding. By the 550s, many of the Greek cities in Asia Minor (Turkey) had fallen to Persian rule, and the islands in the Aegean mostly succumbed soon after, but in 490, their initial foray into Greece was repulsed by the Athenians at the battle of Marathon, Ten years later they returned in mass, forced the pass of Thermopylae despite valiant opposition by the Spartans, but were defeated by the Athenian navy at the battle of Salamis, and by then by the combined Greek Armies – led by the Spartans – at the battle of Plataea. In the following years, most of the Greek islands were freed, mostly under the leadership of Athens, which was soon to be accused of building up its own empire. Then from 432 to 404 Athens and Sparta fought a prolonged and draining war, minutely chronicled by the historian Thucydides, and eventually won by the Spartans. The Athenians were forced to demolish their long walls, and politically they were never again the undisputed leaders of Greece. But economically – and even more artistically – the Athenian success continued unabated. As always, politics – and success or failure in wars – is in the long run less important and less interesting than economics.

But the really interesting aspect of the market revolution at Athens is what happened to the other leading state that rejected money.

This was Sparta