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What’s Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship

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Democracy and Demagogues

Election, Voting, and Qualifications for Citizenship

But I consider it right as a citizen to set the welfare of the state above the popularity of an orator. Indeed, I am given to understand—and so perhaps are you—that the orators of past generations, always praised but not always imitated by those who address you, adopted this very standard and principle of statesmanship. I refer to the famous Aristides, to Nicias, to my own namesake, and to Pericles. But ever since this breed of orators appeared who ply you with such questions as "What would you like? What shall I propose? How can I oblige you?" the interests of the state have been frittered away for a momentary popularity. The natural consequences follow, and the orators profit by your disgrace. Demosthenes 3.21-22, trans. J.H. Vince


We must realize that it is very hard to save a civilization when its hour has come to fall beneath the power of demagogues. For the demagogue has been the great strangler of civilization. Both Greek and Roman civilizations fell at the hands of this loathsome creature who brought from Macaulay the remark that "in every century the vilest examples of human nature have been among the demagogues." But a man is not a demagogue simply because he stands up and shouts at the crowd. There are times when this can be a hallowed office. The real demagogy of the demagogue is in his mind and is rooted in his irresponsibility towards the ideas that he handles—ideas not of his own creation, but which he has only taken over from their true creators. Demagogy is a form of intellectual degeneration.

José Ortega y Gasset, History as a System,
trans. Helene Weyl


"The will of the nation" is one of the phrases most generally abused by intriguers and despots of every age.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America,
trans. George Lawrence



In this chapter, I seek to test the modern democratic faith in election, voting, and low qualifications for citizenship.1 Analysis of the Athenians' practices in these areas will demonstrate the negative impact of their reduction of property qualifications for full citizenship and of their use of the vote to determine policy, while outlining the positive effects of continued noneconomic qualifications for citizenship. An examination of Pericles' career will illustrate the benefits and dangers of charismatic leadership in an environment of popular rule. I hope to suggest that the vote—especially in an environment with few social restraints or civic responsibilities—represents a threat to, as much as an instrument of, justice.2

The vote has not always served as the defining feature of democracy. As strange as it may seem to moderns, Aristotle considered election to be an oligarchic or aristocratic element in government.3 As Aristotle noticed, even in regimes with no property qualifications for citizenship or office, wealthier citizens tend to dominate elected positions. The philosopher thus identified democracy not with the act of voting but rather with popular control of the courts, the absence of a property qualification for citizenship, the use of the lottery to fill public offices, and the rule of the poor in their own interests.4 Nor was Aristotle's view completely idiosyncratic. Since even nondemocratic classical Greek poleis used votes by the citizen body to select at least some important officials or to determine policy, the Greeks understandably did not see voting itself as a defining quality of demokratia.

Nevertheless, most moderns consider the casting of ballots in free elections the defining element of democratic government, and the Athenians did make policy and choose fellow citizens for particular state offices through votes in an assembly open to all citizens. Analysis of their electoral practices thus offers us a potential analogue for modern regimes.

Perhaps most important, the Athenians elected ten men annually to hold the office of strategos. These strategoi were Athens's highest military officials, acting as generals on land and admirals at sea and wielding significant political power in the city during the fifth century. Of course, successful military leaders have always had the opportunity to exert political influence, regardless of the type of government they have served. But in Athens, the close connection between Athens's empire and its democracy's funding, as well as the people's direct role in managing the empire, offered great scope for the elected strategoi. The political aspect of the generalship was emphasized and developed by statesmen like Pericles, who held the office for fifteen consecutive years.5

By Athenian reckoning, Pericles held not only the official position of strategos, but also the informal place of rhetor (political orator), making proposals in the council and assembly and thus acting as what the Athenians would later call a demagogos (plural, demagogoi), literally a "leader of the demos." The Athenians initially seem to have used the term demagogos without pejorative intent, and it has been well said that the so-called demagogues served a necessary function in the Athenian regime.6 Such men served not merely as the voices of various political interests but also as remarkably free critics of the very populace they sought to influence. That is, the best demagogoi attempted to change popular opinion and thus, as Thucydides puts it in his praise of Pericles, to lead the people "rather than to be led by them" (2.65). Indeed, since the term demagogos explicitly denotes someone who leads or shepherds the demos, the eventual use of this word as the primary epithet for a political panderer represents a virtual reversal of its original meaning.7 The word demagogos in fact implies that the people need someone to lead them and that political power, at least in part, is exercised appropriately through this leadership.

As early as Pericles' day, some Athenians apparently expressed or implied reservations about allowing a citizen body including even those without property to choose Athens's leaders and make policy via votes in the assembly.8 Although justifiable as a way of permitting all citizens to participate in their government, such a practice obviously enabled the poorer citizens to empower leaders who had improperly ingratiated themselves with them, placing the interests of a faction above those of the polis as a whole.9 The latent dangers in allowing greater participation to those without property began to emerge after Pericles proposed that Athens begin to pay citizens for jury duty.10 These payments led to others: if jurors deserved daily payment, why not members of the Council of 500 or those holding other magistracies?11

After the mid fifth century, payment for public service served as a fundamental and defining characteristic of Athenian democracy.12 In the years following Pericles' innovation, it undoubtedly became increasingly difficult for a leader opposed to this use of public money to win out over Pericles and his supporters. Although many Athenians were willing to consider ending payment for public service beyond the military (at least temporarily) as late as 411,13 after the Peloponnesian War and the discredited oligarchic regimes of 411 and 404 (which had curtailed state pay), only proposals to increase public payments seem to have had political viability in Athens.

That these conditions encouraged the rise of what we call "demagogues" is entirely comprehensible. In an environment where a public figure can help secure his own election to office or the success of his legislation by proposing the distribution of more public money to a large enough portion of the electorate, and where there is no strong feeling among the populace that such a distribution is shameful or morally wrong, leaders proposing increased payments possess a tremendous advantage over their opponents.14 Nevertheless, Athenian government did not collapse immediately after the institution of public payments, nor did the Athenians immediately vote themselves into public bankruptcy. Indeed, not until the 420s do we begin to see evidence of the potentially harmful effects of these practices.

Several factors in Athenian society and government apparently slowed the debilitation of the people's morale through political pandering. Since we know of no laws restricting the Athenians' actions in this area, informal social constraints (deriving from the Athenians' ideas about the propriety of distributing public money) apparently limited both the extent to which the people would support leaders seeking to ingratiate themselves by distributing public funds and the number of leaders attempting such ingratiation. In addition, the fact that the office of strategos was a burdensome and life-threatening position probably helped diminish the rate at which mainly self-interested individuals became powerful political voices in Athens: strategoi gained political power or glory while literally risking life and status, both of which could be lost at the hands of the enemy (in battle) or the Athenian demos (in court or through ostracism). Finally, the system of selection by lottery for members of the Council of 500 and other officials (like the treasurers of the sacred funds), provided a potentially significant check on the dangers of demagoguery. That is, many important Athenian offices simply were not filled by election, but instead relied on individuals chosen by lot serving their fellow citizens for short periods of time.15 Despite these checks, our sources indicate that "leaders of the demos" after Pericles increasingly pandered to the electorate and (unlike Pericles and some others) often told the people only what they wanted to hear.16

The election of leaders represents only one of the important votes cast by members of the Athenian assembly. As we have noted, the citizen assembly also acted as a court, policy-making body, and sovereign legislature, limited in authority (until the late fifth century) only by itself and deciding the most important issues of the state, including issues of war and peace. Under this system, to vote was to rule one's neighbor in a very direct and public fashion. By raising his hand in the assembly, a citizen openly demonstrated his own desire to make war or peace, to tax other men's property, to impose rules on his fellow citizens, or to elect a corrupt person to office. But again, most Greek city-states had citizen assemblies or councils in which members of the citizen body voted on at least some important matters. What made Athens's system odd was its payments for public service and its low property requirements for full citizenship, both of which encouraged greater participation by the common people in political decision-making and administration.

Qualifications for Citizenship

Most Greek poleis in the classical period seem to have had property qualifications for full citizenship. These qualifications apparently tended to coincide roughly with the amount of property necessary to enable someone to provide his own weapons and thus serve in the citizen militia of hoplites. Similar property qualifications were also common in the United States, even after the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution.17 Thus economic limitations on full participation in the political life of a regime are not inconsistent either with the ancient Greek ideals of eleutheria and isonomia ("liberty" and "equality of the law") or with the principles embodied in the American Constitution.

Nevertheless, by the 450s the Athenians had removed all but the most nominal economic restrictions on free Athenian males for full (or almost full) participation in political life. Athenians of the lowest property class, the thetes, could vote in the assembly and (probably) serve on the Council of 500. And although the property qualification for the office of archon remained at the approximate level of the hoplite-farmers (the zeugitai) after 457, Aristotle suggests that in the fourth century this restriction was not enforced.18 Thus by the mid fifth century even the poorest free Athenian males could vote, and by the end of the century they could hold most of the major public offices in the polis.19

The Athenians' removal of property qualifications for citizenship might encourage us to analogize citizenship in democratic Athens and citizenship in modern democratic regimes, in which property qualifications long ago passed out of use. But this analogy is very misleading, first, because moderns tend to associate citizenship primarily with the rights and privileges this status guarantees rather than with the qualifications it requires or the duties it implies. Moreover, many of these protections for citizens (e.g., the right to own property and the protection of one's person or free speech) are thought to be virtually universal "human rights" that do not—or, rather, should not—depend on a particular form of regime or on a distinction between citizens and resident aliens. (Neither, of course, do they sanction a class of slaves living alongside citizens, as in ancient Athens.) Thus many Americans value their citizenship because it ostensibly ensures rights they believe are due to everyone, and not because the duties they perform as citizens entitle them to privileges that distinguish them from other persons. The analogy between ancient and modern democratic citizenship also fails because, despite the lack of a property qualification in classical Athens, Athenian citizenship—unlike its modern American counterpart—did entail very real obligations and requirements.20

First, after Pericles' citizenship law of 451/0, all Athenian citizens were required to be sons of free Athenian parents; neither parent could be a foreigner or a slave.21 Young men were presented to their fellow deme members for enrollment on the citizen list at the age of eighteen. The demesmen voted under oath, confirming both that the prospective citizen had reached the legal age and that he had been born "in accordance with the laws," apparently a reference to the parents' citizenship.22 The Athenians obviously took these hereditary requirements for citizenship very seriously, since the attempt to pass off an ineligible individual as a citizen seems to have resulted in the city selling the impostor into slavery.23

Having been enrolled as a citizen on his deme's register, the eighteen-year-old Athenian entered a two-year period of state service known as the ephebeia. The young "ephebes" received military training and acted as a kind of home guard for the polis. During this period they received a stipend from the city and were immune from prosecution, "so that there might be no reason to leave their duties."24 Scholars are uncertain when the formal system of ephebeia began in Athens, although very young and very old citizens had acted as a home guard since at least the mid fifth century (see, e.g., Thuc. 2.13).25 In any case, the formal system existed by the mid fourth century, and it followed a long-standing tradition of mandatory military service by young citizens. However, we should note that scholars disagree about whether the members of the lowest property class in Athens (the thetes) were required or allowed to participate in the ephebeia, which consisted largely of training for the (traditionally middle-class) hoplite infantry.26

All the ephebes swore an oath, which has come down to us in various ancient sources:

I shall not disgrace the sacred weapons (that I bear) nor shall I desert the comrade at my side, wherever I stand in the line. And I shall fight in defense of things sacred and non-sacred and I shall not hand down (to my descendants) a lessened fatherland, but one that is increased in size and strength both as far as [it] lies within me [to do this] and with the assistance of all, and I shall be obedient to those who on any occasion are governing prudently and to the laws that are established and any that in the future may be established prudently. If anyone tries to destroy (them), I shall resist both as far as [it] lies within me [to do this] and with the assistance of all, and I shall honor the sacred rites that are ancestral. The witnesses (are) the gods, Aglauros, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalios, Ares and Athena Areia, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Herakles, (and) the boundaries of my fatherland, the wheat, the barley, the vines, the olives, the figs.27

Along with the citizen's sworn duty to protect the laws, the military and religious aspects of the oath are striking, in particular the promise to pass on to one's descendants a fatherland "increased in size and strength." The oath also nicely demonstrates the way social, military, and religious issues came together in the lives of Athenian citizens, who were expected to perform duties in each of these areas throughout their lives.28

The Athenian citizen's liability for military service did not end after his two-year stint as an ephebe. All citizens could be called up for service until about the age of sixty.29 The citizens' continuing duties in this area (and others) are emphasized in the questions asked of prospective candidates for the Athenian office of archon, a position filled by lot after 487:

When [the members of the Council of 500] are checking qualifications [for archonship], they ask first: "Who is your father, and what is your deme? Who was your father's father, and who was your mother, and her father and his deme?" Then they ask whether the candidate is enrolled in a cult of Apollo Patroos and Zeus Herkeios, and where the shrines are; whether he has family tombs and where they are; whether he treats his parents well, pays his taxes, and has gone on military campaign when required. When these questions have been asked, the candidate is required to call witnesses to his answers.30

All prospective Athenian officials, whether chosen by election or by lot, faced the same or similar questions before either the Council of 500 or a regular Athenian court. This vetting process (dokimasia) served to test the candidate's formal qualifications and personal conduct, not his supposed technical competence for a particular office.31 Any citizen could make accusations against a candidate during the dokimasia, and such accusations could result in the candidate's rejection (by vote) before the examining body. Rejections may have been rare; we know of only a few cases from the classical period.32 But even if candidates rarely failed to pass their examinations, the questions put to hundreds of Athenians each year by their fellow citizens made a strong public statement about the values of the demos and the duties expected of each Athenian.

Every Athenian citizen faced obligations that included military service, participation in the religious life of the polis, and taking care of his parents. But beyond these positive duties, citizens also risked the imposition of fines, loss of citizen privileges (a penalty called atimia), banishment, and even death if they violated certain formal or informal standards of conduct set by the polis. In the political arena, fifth-century Athenian political leaders who fell afoul of the demos for any reason could be ostracized, and many of the best-known Athenian statesmen endured this punishment.33 In the fourth century, fines, atimia, and the death penalty seemingly increased in frequency and replaced ostracism as the punishment for failed or unpopular political or military leaders.34

Citizens were also expected to meet certain standards of private conduct. In particular, "an Athenian who prostituted himself or caused another to prostitute himself was punished with death or atimia."35 The seduction of a free woman could result in severe penalties including the seducer's summary execution by the woman's relative (if the man was caught in the act), physical torture, or a fine. Seduced women themselves had to be divorced by their husbands and were excluded from civic religious functions.36 Failure to care for aged parents, to give them appropriate funerals, or to maintain the cult at their graves after death also incurred the penalty of atimia. A citizen who squandered his inheritance was liable for the same penalty.37 Any citizen, moreover, that committed an act of overweening arrogance (hybris) against another individual—a provision that included but was not limited to dishonoring him in some way—became liable for prosecution.38

By these means, citizen status at Athens was tied directly and closely to very real hereditary requirements, as well as to a set of public and private obligations imposed by other citizens. In return for fulfilling these obligations, the Athenian citizens enjoyed the opportunity not only to vote in the assembly, but also to serve in office as magistrates, other officials, or members of the Council of 500, and to earn pay as public officials or as jurors on the large Athenian courts. In the fourth century, they could also receive pay for attending the assembly and (eventually) even a subsidy for the cost of their theater admission. By that time, disabled citizens were also eligible to receive a small pension, while the orphaned sons of those who died in battle had been brought up at public expense since the fifth century. Citizens obviously could own property in Attica, although foreigners could not (unless they received special dispensation from the polis). Certain crimes received harsher punishments if committed against citizens than if they were committed against metics or slaves. Citizens could not be beaten or tortured, although slaves could be flogged and both metics and slaves were subject to torture. In fact, a slave's testimony had to be obtained under torture before it became admissible in an Athenian court.39

In contrast to citizen rights in modern America, the privileges of citizenship in ancient Athens carried with them serious responsibilities and duties. Before the mid fourth century, these duties meant that most Athenian men at least occasionally risked their lives in military service. Athenians also expected their fellow citizens to maintain standards of personal conduct in order to retain their privileged status, and they could withhold privileges (such as office-holding) or impose punishments for failure to meet these expectations. Obviously, therefore, Athens's removal of property qualifications for citizenship does not indicate that the Athenians set no standards for participation in the sociopolitical life of the polis. The citizens of Athens continued to perform public and private duties and meet standards of personal conduct in exchange for their citizenship throughout classical Athenian history.

Did the Demos Rule Well?

Although the Athenians continued to insist on personal qualifications for citizenship, they did remove most economic restrictions on participation in the polis's government. Those without property could participate in the Athenian assembly and sit on Athenian juries.

Many Athenians apparently had confidence in the poorer citizens' ability to rule wisely through voting. Pericles claimed that the common members of Athens's electorate—the whole demos—were "not insufficiently knowledgeable" in public affairs and that all Athenians were "either able to originate or, at least, to judge policies astutely" (Thuc. 2.40).40 Indeed, the principle that all men received justice (dike) in equal shares from the gods and thus could act as "capable judges" in public matters (including trials) seems to have been one of the ideas used to justify democratic government.41 But does an evaluation of classical Athenian history bear out this proposition? Did the Athenian citizens in assembly tend to make just or wise decisions about ruling themselves and others? Surely any honest critique of democracy must confront this basic question: do the people rule well?

The major events of Athenian history are rarely examined as expressions of the Athenians' electoral justice, wisdom, or skill. Perhaps this stems from the fact that, if one treats Athens's actions as the results of ballots cast by a free people in assembly, Athenian history makes a poor argument for popular rule. Athens's history under demokratia shows the Athenian people voting repeatedly to make war on their former friends and allies (as well as enemies), to conclude alliances with their recent enemies or with Greeks that had collaborated with Persia, to execute or exile their own leaders, to extort monetary payments from allied states that wished to be free of Athenian hegemony, to use this extorted money to fund Athenian projects (including the extortion of more money), to impose their own form of government on formerly autonomous states by force, to execute and enslave thousands of non-Athenian Greeks, to invade foreign states with massive force in order to expand Athenian power, to usurp or undercut taxes formerly paid by foreign citizens to their own states, to require religious oaths of loyalty from their allies, to refuse requests for assistance from allied states or to send only token or mercenary forces to these allies, to continue and even increase state payments to themselves in the face of pressing need elsewhere, to refuse to help other Greek states resist Macedonian hegemony, and to grant honors to the very dynasts who imperiled their form of government. All this, again, resulted from majority votes in the Athenian assembly.

Of course, we may attempt to balance these expressions of the popular will by juxtaposing them with the Athenian votes to send aid to the Ionian Greeks during their revolt from Persia (499), to stand against the Persians at Marathon and Salamis (490, 480), to crush the Persian forces in southern Asia Minor at the Eurymedon (ca. 466), to assist their Spartan allies during a helot revolt (462/1), to reestablish demokratia (in 410), to stand (at last) against Philip of Macedon (in 339/8), and to honor citizens, foreigners, or other states that had done good services for Athens. But it would certainly be difficult to construct a list of praiseworthy or wise Athenian votes in the classical period that could rival in number those ballots that to many moderns (and at least some ancient Greeks) have seemed unjust, belligerent, or simply foolish. Moreover, most of the Athenian assembly's more admirable decisions appear very early in the period of demokratia, before the radicalization of the regime in the late 460s. After that time, very few votes of the demos reflect anything but a rather narrow view of Athens's (or rather, individual Athenians') self-interest.42 In fact, after the vote in 462/1 to assist Sparta during the helot revolt, we rarely see the Athenians voting to support policies that could not be painted as profitable for the citizens or the city.

Let us remind ourselves once again of certain specific decisions taken by the Athenians in assembly in the early years of demokratia. Shortly after Cleisthenes' reforms, the Athenians rejected an alliance with Persia.43 Athens remained independent of Persian control thereafter, the citizens voting to send aid to Ionian Greeks revolting from Persia in 499 and then electing to resist Persian invasions of mainland Greece in 490 and 480-479.44

With the creation of the Delian League in 478/7, the Athenians entered a new period, in which their assembly was called upon repeatedly to make decisions about their empire and the fate of non-Athenian Greeks and others encountering Athens's power. Scholars differ on the extent to which the Athenian assembly governed the alliance in its early years. Thucydides reports that the league had its own congresses (1.96), and thus the allies presumably had some say in league affairs in the years just after 478/7.

However, by the mid 460s, the Athenians were voting to use force to prevent their former allies from withdrawing from the league. This continued even after their victory over the Persians at the Eurymedon in Asia Minor ca. 466, when the Persians ceased to be a real threat in the Aegean. As a tangible sign of this, in the year 462/1, the Athenians "released their alliance [with Sparta] against the Persians" and elected to make treaties with the friends of Persia and enemies of Sparta (Argos and Thessaly).45

This year 462/1 was epochal in several ways, for it also marked one of the last times the Athenians voted to send a major force to assist an ally without any real expectations of increased Athenian power or profit. The Spartans had endured a damaging earthquake several years before this and had been attempting to put down a helot revolt ever since. The Athenian general Cimon persuaded the assembly to send a large hoplite force to assist the Spartans. But (apparently) after Cimon and his infantrymen had left the city, his political enemy Ephialtes passed revolutionary measures in the assembly that, among other things, restricted the powers of the conservative Areopagus Council. Learning of this revolution and (probably) of Athenian negotiations with the Argives, the Spartans dismissed their friend Cimon.46 The general returned to Athens, where the Athenians now voted to ostracize him. Whatever Ephialtes had done (combined with Cimon's abortive mission to Sparta) had created sufficient support for the new regime to produce the exile of Athens's greatest leader after the Persian Wars.47

With Athens now exerting force to retain its current allies and rejecting its previous alliance with Sparta in favor of the medizing Argives and Thessalians, the members of the Delian League by the late 460s undoubtedly recognized that this "alliance" had become a tool of Athenian power rather than a weapon against the Persians. As if to underscore this fact, in 454/3, the Athenians voted to transfer the league treasury from the island of Delos to Athens, and they subsequently voted to use this money for Athenian projects like the building program on the acropolis.48 At least one prominent Athenian, Cimon's relative Thucydides son of Melesias, seems to have opposed Pericles' program of spending the allies' money in this way. But the Athenian demos voted to ostracize him too (ca. 444/3) and continued to support expenditures for buildings for Athens and payments for themselves as jurors.49

Around the same time that the Athenians instituted jury payments—probably in the late 450s50—Pericles also persuaded them (in 451/0) to vote to limit Athenian citizenship to those whose mothers and fathers were both Athenian.51 The increasing benefits of citizenship were thereby restricted to "native" Athenians, and aristocrats were forced to seek marriages inside the city rather than making inter-polis alliances of the kind that were common among their class.52

Once we come to the 440s, we reach the period of Pericles' clear dominance of the Athenian political scene.53 Although we know of only a few particular decrees proposed by the statesman after the citizenship law of 451/0, his name or influence are associated with many of Athens's most famous or infamous acts in this period.54 We also know the names of some of the other Athenian leaders who made significant proposals before the people in this period, because they are included as part of the prescript of the Athenian inscriptions that record the assembly's decrees. Virtually all these documents begin with the same basic formula.

Resolved by the Council [of 500] and the demos [in assembly]: X was the tribe in prytany, X was the secretary [of the Council of 500], X presided [over the assembly], and X made the motion [here recorded].55

Although the dates of many of these inscriptions remain controversial, there is general agreement that at least some of them go back to the 440s (and earlier), and that they thus reflect the period of Periclean leadership in Athens.56 Given the popular association of Pericles and Athens with the ideals of humanism and democracy, these documents would seem particularly troubling. For in them we have recorded on stone not the dictates of an emperor or tyrant to his subjects but rather the decrees of a free people in assembly, an assembly including (if not dominated by) the poorest members of Athenian society.

It is rarely emphasized that each inscription records an actual vote of the Athenian people: that is, each directly reflects the Athenian popular will (or rather the will of the majority present at a given meeting of the assembly). Each of these documents thus presents a snapshot of the Athenian electorate, and the image preserved is often less than flattering. From one of the earliest examples of Athenian rule (and several that follow), we see that the Athenians voted to impose their own form of government on other Greek states, to install garrisons in other cities, and to require particular religious sacrifices of their subjects.57 The Athenian demos also voted to create colonies on foreign soil and to send out Athenian settlers to occupy lands formerly owned by others.58 In their assembly, the Athenians voted to reduce their revolted allies and to force them to swear oaths of loyalty to the Athenian demos, and sometimes even to swear "to love the demos of the Athenians."59 A majority of the Athenians decided that certain legal disputes involving Athenians and their subjects should be heard in Athens by Athenian jurors, rather than locally, where non-Athenians would make decisions.60 The demos threatened and imposed fines and other punishments on foreign allies and on Athenian officials who failed to fulfill their duties.61 Indeed, it would seem that the Athenian demos voted to threaten and punish their fellow citizens (with fines, exile, execution) as frequently as their foreign subjects.

Athenian hegemony and imperialism—whatever we think of them—flourished in the environment created by democratic government. At the same time that the Athenians were voting to impose their form of government on and exact tribute payments from formerly autonomous regimes, they were voting to pay themselves from public funds and erect fabulous new buildings.62 Of course, the people who cast their votes are only one side of this equation. The options that they have are partially restricted by the leaders they support, and thus an examination of the most famous and admired of Athens's democratic leaders would seem in order.

Leaders versus Demagogues: The Case of Pericles

Pericles casts a long shadow. Undoubtedly the most important figure in the history of Athenian democracy, he nonetheless suffers from mythologization similar to that which has colored modern Americans' opinions about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The legends surrounding these men arguably shroud adequate popular appreciation of them as real human beings and political figures. The disaster of George Washington's reputation is demonstrated almost every year when I ask my students, "What did George Washington do?" The answer is immediate and disturbing: "He chopped down a cherry tree." Even the moral of the children's story ("I cannot tell a lie. . . . ") has been obscured by the humorous image of young George wielding his trusty hatchet, presumably making an early start on the construction of his wooden teeth.

In reality, Washington was a complex and fascinating figure. Although he was perhaps the single man most responsible for America's victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington nevertheless rejected the pseudo-royal titles and perquisites offered by some of his contemporaries. Since he set the precedent for future presidents, Washington arguably acted as the founder of actual American government (as opposed to political theory). He presided over the Constitution's creation without intervening until the last day of the Congress, when his one suggestion was accepted without further debate by the previously contentious delegates. A superb horseman and charming dancer with an impressive physique, even in middle age he could throw an iron bar further than younger challengers without so much as removing his coat. Washington's real talents and achievements explode the hollow myth surviving in the popular mind and on our one-dollar bills.63

Like Washington, Pericles has become both larger (and smaller) than life. To moderns, he often seems a kind of disembodied or dehumanized spokesman for democratic values, transmitted to us through less than careful readings, summaries, or decontextualized quotations from Thucydides' account of Pericles' Funeral Oration. Many people know that Pericles in that address called Athens the "school of Hellas," and that he praised Athenian government and society in contrast to the Spartans' regime. Yet few authorities have emphasized the primary thrust of the speech, which is thoroughly militaristic, collectivist, and unstintingly nationalistic.64 Behind Pericles' image in the popular mind, and at times clouding the very picture of him, are the famous buildings on the acropolis of Athens, built as part of the "Periclean" program of construction. In fact, the Parthenon and (a very small part of) Pericles' speech stand together as the most concrete modern images of ancient democracy and classical Athens.65

This is a strange situation. For, like Pericles' career, the Parthenon is not a testament to Athenian democracy, humanism, or liberalism, although some scholars still hold versions of this view.66 A temple to Athens's patron deity, Athena, the building was financed in part by money the Athenians had exacted from other Greek states.67 Its frieze depicted the Athenian festival known as the Panathenaea (i.e., sacred rites that were "All Athena" or "All Athenian").68 Inside the impressive structure, a colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena held the image of "Victory" (Nike) in her hand, while her sandals rested on images of the myth of Pandora, who had released troubles innumerable to man.69 The Parthenon is first and foremost a monument to Athenian power, glory, and victory over both barbarians (like the Persians) and, by implication if not direct representation, other Greeks. The building was a dedication to and housed a representation of the goddess that presided over and ensured Athenian superiority. The temple proclaims "Athena and Athens!" without so much as a hint of Panhellenism or "democratic" values. As one eminent scholar recently concluded, "To say that the Athenians built the Parthenon to worship themselves would be an exaggeration, but not a great one."70

Many fifth-century Greeks would have expected nothing else. After all, what would have been more bizarre than if the Athenians had actually chosen to build a temple showing Athens as merely one part (or even the leading part) of a larger Greek confederation, or making Athena merely one god within the Hellenic pantheon? Instead, Pericles and the Athenians sang their own praises and those of their goddess.71 Some other Greeks undoubtedly did not approve of the Athenians' dominant position in the Aegean, but all understood it, and many of those who visited Athens must have admired the beauty and magnificence of Athenian art and architecture, no matter how they had been funded.

A close examination of Pericles' Funeral Oration in Thucydides reveals a monument perhaps an even more "nationalistic"—as opposed to "democratic"—than the Parthenon. After briefly dilating on Athens's open society and implicitly contrasting this with the control of individual lives putatively found in Sparta, Pericles passes quickly to the issue of Athens's power and the need for Athenian citizens, literally, to become "lovers" of the city or its power.72 Even Pericles' famous proclamation that Athens was a school, or "education" for Greece, rests on a military foundation.

In short, I say that as a city we are an education for Hellas, and I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, because we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and because far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their determination not to part with her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause. (2.41; trans. Crawley, adapted, with emphasis added)

Such ideas are echoed later in the last speech of Pericles presented in Thucydides' work.

Remember, too, that if your country has the greatest name in all the world, it is because she never bent before disaster, and because she has expended more life and effort in war than any other city, and has won for herself a power greater than any hitherto known, the memory of which will descend to the latest posterity; even if now, in obedience to the general law of decay, we should ever be forced to yield, still it will be remembered that we held rule over more Greeks than any other Greek state, that we sustained the greatest wars against their united or separate powers, and inhabited a city unrivaled by any other in resources and magnitude. These glories may incur the censure of the slow and unambitious; but in the breast of energy they will awake emulation, and in those who must remain without them an envious regret. Hatred and unpopularity at the moment have fallen to the lot of all who have aspired to rule others; but where odium must be incurred, true wisdom incurs it for the highest objects. Hatred also is short-lived; but that which makes the splendor of the present and glory of the future remains forever unforgotten. Decide, therefore, for glory then and honor now, and attain both objects by instant and zealous effort: send no heralds to Lacedaemon, and do not betray any sign of being oppressed by your present sufferings, since they whose minds are least sensitive to calamity, and whose hands are most quick to meet it, are the greatest men and the greatest communities. (2.64; trans. Crawley, adapted, with emphasis added)

Modern sensibilities recoil (or rather should recoil) from the naked nationalism of Pericles' orations, a nationalism that one cannot dismiss as merely empty or patriotic rhetoric. The Parthenon's symbolism and Athens's consistent drive to Aegean hegemony after the 470s confirm this aggressive sense of national superiority as a guiding principle of Athenian interaction with other states and a fundament of the Athenians' self-image.73 In contrast, one might speculate that in introducing "democratic values" into the Funeral Oration, Pericles was making a significant innovation, asking the Athenians to conceptualize themselves in a new or unusual way.74 But even Pericles does not allow his image of Athens as a unique or superior state to rest primarily on its democratic form of government. For Pericles, Athens's superiority to other states stemmed from its power and from its citizens' character—a character that had facilitated the acquisition of that power.75

Pericles' speeches and career thus provide important evidence of the Athenians' martial self-image and of their early efforts to conceptualize their polis—but only in part—as a state with an unusual and superior government/society (politeia). Nevertheless, and despite his crucial role in the radicalization of Athenian democracy, Pericles himself has attracted relatively little scholarly attention in the past few decades. One suspects that this stems in part from his semi-mythologized character, which makes a "book about Pericles" appear to be a less than completely scholarly enterprise.76 In fact, grappling with the problems of Pericles' biography, his political career, and his long-term influence must be central to any study of Athenian history in the second half of the fifth century.

From the work that has been attempted, Pericles has emerged as both a man of his time and a kind of aberration. Pericles' family background certainly made him unusual. His mother came from one of the most famous (and infamous) aristocratic families in Athens. This clan (the Alcmeonids) had produced the founder of Athenian demokratia (Cleisthenes). But it also suffered from the stigma of an apparently state-sanctioned curse incurred sometime in the late seventh century b.c., when an Alcmeonid official executed would-be revolutionaries after they had sought protection of the gods as suppliants at a sacred altar. These actions resulted in the family's expulsion from Athens and the subsequent purification of the city by a Cretan soothsayer.77

After this event the Athenian populace and the Alcmeonid family had a tumultuous relationship. Having secured their return from exile by the early sixth century, the family sought power by aligning themselves through marriage with the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus in the mid 500s. At the time, this must have been seen as a "popular" and anti-aristocratic move, since the Peisistratid tyrants apparently sought power as champions of the people against some of the aristocrats that dominated Athens. This tactic clearly worked, because the tyrants' subsequent fall in 511/10 resulted from hostilities between the Peisistratids and certain aristocratic families and from the Spartan policy of overthrowing tyrannies, and not from any hostility toward the tyrants within the Athenian demos at large. A few years later, it was the Alcmeonid Cleisthenes—Peisistratus's former brother-in-law and the grandson of another tyrant—who managed to pass the reforms in Athens that ultimately resulted in demokratia (ca. 507). Obviously a connection with tyrannical government or families in no way disqualified a leader from popular support in late sixth-century Athens.78

But Pericles' great-uncle Cleisthenes seems to have fallen from power shortly after the reform that created demokratia, perhaps because his government sought Persian protection in the face of possible Spartan interference in Athenian internal affairs. (The Spartans, having removed the Peisistratid tyrants, had returned to Athens and attempted to overthrow the regime instituted by the Peisistratids' relation Cleisthenes. The Athenian people successfully resisted their attempt, but then rejected an alliance with Persia apparently supported by Cleisthenes.)79 Later, Pericles' Alcmeonid relatives found themselves under suspicion of pro-Persian sympathies. After the battle of Marathon they were accused of collaboration with the Persian invaders, and Alcmeonids and those close to them were ostracized by vote of the Athenian demos.80 Included in this banished group were Pericles' father, Xanthippus (who was married to an Alcmeonid), and his Alcmeonid uncle Megacles. Pericles thus spent important adolescent or early adult years during the mid to late 480s as the son of an exile, probably returning to Athens with his father only after those ostracized had been recalled in 481/0.

It has been reasonably suggested that all this left an indelible mark on Pericles' later political persona. Tainted by the religious curse on his mother's family, Pericles seemingly sought out the company of the growing number of rationalist philosophers present in Athens—men who were unlikely to treat such a stigma with anything but disdain.81 The Spartans' role in the attack on Cleisthenes and Pericles' own dubious relations with philo-Spartan political forces in Athens (represented by Cimon and his allies) must have contributed to Pericles' virulently anti-Spartan foreign policy. His family's apparent inability to consolidate its power (or, rather, achieve supremacy) through typical aristocratic means (especially through land and cults) and their subsequent need to seek popular support—first through connections with the tyrants and then through demokratia—laid the groundwork for Pericles' own radicalization of the democratic regime and the demos's subsequent empowerment.82

About Pericles' early political career we know very few specifics. It appears likely that he entered politics somewhat late in life, perhaps fearing ostracism, given his father's experience, the curse on his mother's family, and their connections with the Peisistratids.83 He certainly served in Athens's military in the 470s, and we know he acted as the producer (choregos) of Aeschylus's Persians in 473/2. After his restrained prosecution of Cimon in 463,84 Pericles most probably attached himself to the faction supporting Cimon's political enemy Ephialtes. When Ephialtes seized the opportunity presented by Cimon's expedition to the Peloponnese to put through his reforms (462/1), Pericles almost certainly supported him. After Ephialtes' subsequent murder, Pericles apparently emerged as the leader of the progressive faction.85

Unfortunately, we confront a virtual vacuum in the sources for Pericles' career between 463 and 451/0. Aeschylus's Eumenides may suggest that Pericles was seen as a major force among the reformers by 459/8, the year of the play's production,86 but there is no direct evidence of his political activities in this period. We may infer from his later policies that Pericles favored the rejection of the Athenian alliance with Sparta against Persia (Thuc. 1.102) and supported the subsequent First Peloponnesian War, which pitted Athens against Sparta and its allies (especially Corinth) ca. 460-446. It is difficult to say the same about Athens's ultimately disastrous expedition to Egypt (459-454), apparently launched to assist Egypt's attempt to break free of Persian control and (surely) also in the hope of establishing Athenian influence in the rich lands of northeastern Africa.87 Pericles' later actions and Plutarch's testimony suggest that the statesman probably would have preferred to focus Athens's attentions on projects closer to home, foregoing the war against Persia in favor of extending Athens's Hellenic empire in the Aegean and on the Greek mainland.88

Pericles' desire to expand Athens's Greek holdings may also help explain the events surrounding the so-called Peace of Callias, an apparent agreement (formal or informal) between Athens and the Persian Great King Artaxerxes ca. 449 that ended Atheno-Persian hostilities in the Aegean. Pericles undoubtedly supported this agreement, which had been brought about by a renewal of active war with Persia after Cimon returned to Athens from ostracism ca. 451. In Cyprus, Cimon's forces won a major victory, which apparently brought Artaxerxes to the bargaining table, while Cimon's death allowed his political rivals like Pericles to take advantage of the situation.89

The Cyprus campaign suggests that Cimon briefly dominated Athenian foreign policy after his return in the late 450s; Pericles at that time apparently focused on domestic questions.90 In 454/3, the treasury of the Delian League had been transferred to Athens, and increased expenditures on Athenian projects followed in short order.91 As we have seen, Pericles' proposal to begin the payment of jurors from public funds probably occurred during this period, and the statesman's legislation to restrict Athenian citizenship to those with two Athenian parents in 451/0 suggests a reasonable historical context for the measure. When the benefits of Athenian citizenship were on the rise, it might seem both economically and politically expedient (from Pericles' standpoint) to limit this citizenship to those of strictly Athenian descent.92 Since the law also effectively ended the Athenian aristocrats' practice of marrying into aristocratic non-Athenian families, it would tend to diminish any inter-polis aristocratic ties and/or feelings of "Panhellenism." We may assume that Pericles intended and welcomed both results.93

The peace with Persia ca. 449 allowed Pericles and the Athenians to turn their attentions fully to Greece itself. Unfortunately for Athens, the peace also confirmed the allies' fears that tribute payment to Athens and Athenian domination of the Aegean were ultimately unrelated to any continuing war against Persia. Apparently, some states demonstrated resistance or revolted, and the Athenians resorted to force to keep the "alliance" together.94 Meanwhile, Athenian gains in central Greece were challenged by renewed hostilities with Sparta and a Boeotian coalition led by Thebes (448/7-447/6). When cities on the great island of Euboea also revolted, Pericles led a force there to reduce the poleis, only to learn that Megara had now revolted and murdered its Athenian garrison, opening the isthmus to a Peloponnesian invasion of Attica.95 According to one tradition, Pericles solved the Spartan problem by bribing the advisers of the Spartan king Pleistoanax, who then failed to attack Athens and was himself forced to leave Sparta.96 Nevertheless, the Athenians' loss to the Boeotians at Coronea in 447/6 signaled the end of Athens's land empire in central Greece, and, combined with the troubles in Euboea and elsewhere in the empire, led to a peace treaty with Sparta in 446/5 that was intended to last for thirty years.97

Despite the limited success of his presumed foreign policy initiatives in the early to mid 440s, Pericles enjoyed increasing influence in Athenian domestic affairs. Work on the Parthenon began in 447/6, and the Periclean building program as a whole poured large sums of money into Athenian pockets and Athens's economy.98 Pericles' opponents apparently raised objections to the use of the funds paid by the members of the Delian League for such expenditures, but the program was obviously lucrative for the Athenian portion of the builders, artists, and workers involved, and thus popular. After the demos finally ostracized Pericles' chief political rival and opponent of the program, Thucydides son of Melesias,99 Pericles began his impressive run of fifteen consecutive years (444/3-429/8) as one of Athens's elected strategoi.100

Pericles supported, participated in, and probably proposed Athens's intervention in the conflict between its allies Samos and Miletus in 441.101 Having taken the Milesians' side, the Athenians ultimately voted to impose a democracy and a garrison on Samos and took Samian hostages. When the Samians' balked, and some of their anti-Athenian exiles sought the assistance of a Persian satrap, the Athenians besieged the city for nine months before reducing it and then executing many Samian opponents of Athens's actions (440-439).102

A faction in Athens clearly resented the brutal Athenian treatment of an ancient and powerful ally like Samos, and Pericles seems to have endured some criticism over his policy.103 However, the statesman's enemies only succeeded in slandering Pericles' consort Aspasia and possibly indicting, exiling, or ostracizing one or more of his associates.104 Meanwhile, contemporary jibes at Pericles and his associates may have been responsible for the decree the Athenians apparently passed in 440/39 prohibiting the comic abuse of individuals.105 This measure, repealed in 437/6, and numerous fragments of lost comedies suggest that Pericles and his associates served as frequent butts of the comedians' jokes. (A favorite topic was the size and shape of Pericles' head, which was said to resemble a sea-onion, and which one poet claimed was large enough to hold "eleven couches.")106 If comic poets' attacks on Pericles precipitated the measure, the decree nonetheless shows that Pericles could still muster real support in the assembly.107 And the fact that the Samian War did not do any lasting harm to Pericles' overall popularity with the demos may be suggested by the fact that he was chosen to deliver a funeral oration for the Athenians who died in the war.108

Pericles' arguably greatest political success occurred in the late 430s, when he persuaded the Athenian populace to refuse all concessions to the Peloponnesians (thus bringing on the Peloponnesian War in 431) and then persuaded the hoplite-farmers of Attica to move inside the city walls and allow their lands to be ravaged by Spartan invaders.109 Even after the war continued into its second year and the Athenians were suffering from a devastating plague, Pericles continued to support the conflict and the Athenian dominance that he seemingly believed it would ensure, albeit in the face of great popular opposition. Although the demos fined Pericles and apparently removed him from office in this year (430/29), the Athenians subsequently reelected him. Pericles once more was serving as strategos when he died (probably from the plague) in 429/8.110

Pericles' political convictions and even the particular program he pursued as a result of those convictions—including peace (or at least détente) with Persia, imperial expansion into mainland Greece and tightened controls on the allies (all actions that risked hostilities with Sparta and its allies), and payments made to poorer Athenians in return for their participation in public service—seem comprehensible, if not predictable, given his family background and personal history. But it is less easy to explain the kind of abstraction that appears in Pericles' thoughts about Athens in the speeches Thucydides attributes to him. That Thucydides has colored these addresses with his own language and thought cannot be doubted, but the historian—who expresses his admiration of Pericles' political character in glowing terms—is unlikely to have invented the basic thoughts contained in these orations.111

While many have studied or cited limited sections of these speeches as examples of "democratic" values, the orations as a whole have rarely been examined carefully as documents of Pericles' thought (in part because of the question of Thucydides' involvement in their composition). But at worst they represent what Thucydides thought people would believe Pericles had said or might have said, and they are therefore, even on the minimalist view, the reflection of an acute contemporary observer's opinions about Pericles' ideas.

What these orations show, beyond a rhetorical brilliance that surely stems from Pericles at least as much as Thucydides,112 is a fervent nationalism based on an intense belief in Athenian superiority—or rather, the belief that Athens could be superior given the right actions. The Athenians, in Pericles' view, needed to accept his belief in both the superiority of the state to the individual and in the related moral value of public service and its ability literally to act "as a cloak to cover a man's other imperfections."113 Such ideas stood in stark contrast both to the older aristocratic ideal of individual arete—manly excellence exhibited to assert individual superiority and to gain the honor and rewards (time) such superiority produced—and to the newer Socratic conception of excellence, which emphasized individual ethics.114

Of course, the ideal of civic responsibility and public service was hardly unknown to fifth-century Athenians. Indeed, I have suggested that it permeated every aspect of Athenian society. But Pericles seemingly had taken this concept—ultimately based on utility, community of religious and other sentiments, and natural patriotism—and developed it into a fervent nationalism designed to underpin Athenian power and superiority and ensure Athens's place in history. That is, Pericles' abstract ideal looks toward Athens's future reputation even more than to its present situation or its inherited past. It is, therefore, explicitly not a utilitarian or moral view of duty and service. As Pericles states in Thucydides, "even if now, in obedience to the general law of decay, we should ever be forced to yield, still it will be remembered that we held rule over more Greeks than any other Greek state" (2.64). These views, perhaps less than remarkable in modern societies, which are focused on the future and thus obsessed with "progress" and creating a better world "for our children," made Pericles a very unusual thinker for fifth-century Greece.115

In short, Pericles apparently believed that individual Athenians' contemplation of their state's future reputation (as opposed to their own personal safety or honor) actually should comfort citizens suffering from the loss of their children and bolster their morale in the face of a war now aggravated by the outbreak of a deadly plague. Yet the statesman perhaps somewhat overestimated the Athenians' willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of history, since the people eventually fined him. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, Pericles' career demonstrates his ability to sell his conception of Athens to the demos. As Thucydides put it, Pericles was able to lead the people, and thus to persuade them to take unpopular actions.

Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude—in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction. Whenever he saw them unseasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them