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  • Adam Cook

the Greek epic, part III: all power to the ecclesia!

As we wet our feet in the ponds of Grecian history, it's useful at this point to construct a rough timeline. I feel timelines to be the most depictive images in the study of history - they act as maps to help us sort out the faces and dates that dot the path of civilization. We'll start with a rough timeline and will detail it further as we proceed through our conversations.

Generally, when it comes to the study of Ancient Greece there are four distinct periods: Mycenaean (1600-1100 BC), Archaic (800-508 BC), Classical (508-323 BC), and Hellenistic (323-146 BC). Separating the Mycenaean era from the Archaic is an approximately 300 year "dark age", noted in civilizations all across the Mediterranean. The second Persian war is often used to separate the Archaic and Classical periods (although I prefer to use the year 508 BC, and we will see why in today's post), and the death of Alexander the Great brings forth the Hellenistic era. In 146 BC, the lands of Greece were conquered by the Romans.


The Mycenaean era is that of Homeric lore - the time of great palaces, Achilles' heels, Trojan horses and... monsters. These are the 500 years we associate with Greek mythology and legend - while the advent of archeology at the turn of the 20th century has led to proof of these civilizations, I am still waiting for the fossil evidence of a real-life Cyclops or minotaur. The Archaic period can roughly be thought of as the time between Homer and the institution of democracy in Athens - these are the years that we have been talking about so far. It's in these 300ish years that the Mediterranean basin awakens from the dark age to transform into the land we think of when we close our eyes and envision ancient Greece. These years set the stage for the Classical period of Greek history, and this is where we meet characters such as Pericles, Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes. This is the golden era of Greece, and I can't wait to tell you all about it. With the death of Alexander the Great we enter the Hellenistic period, which is simultaneously an epilogue for our Greek epic and a prelude to that of the Romans.


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Last time, we left off speaking about Solon, the wise sage-like figure who set the foundations for democracy. While influential, history observes Solon as more of a law-maker than a "natural leader". We already spoke on the drastic reforms he made upon being elected Archon over the city state of Athens, but we neglected to speak about how he embarked on a 10-year odyssey across the Mediterranean soon after - a questionable decision for the leader of an ever-growing polis. Even more questionable upon the realization that there was no instant messenger, no email, no telephones and almost no means of communication with Athens while he was gone.


Solon travelled through Egypt, Cyprus and Lydia (present day Western Turkey) before returning to Athens. Upon his return he was shocked to find that another great leader had attracted the eyes and souls of the Athenian people. This leader was Peisistratus (608-527 BC) and he was elected leader of Athens in 561 BC.

Peisistratus was as great of a soldier as he was a leader – the glory of his victories in battle are rivalled in magnitude only by his respect for the poorest and most downtrodden of Athenian citizens (called the Hyperakrioi). Under Peisistratus, the definition of "Athenian citizen" in itself was changed and the economy flourished for all citizens, marking perhaps the starkest practical change from the “power by birth” into “power by merit” in human history to that point. He also greatly expanded Athenian infrastructure, building wells, walls and great temples - it was under Peisistratus that Athens really became a "modernized" city. While regarded as a tyrant, he was quite popular among Athenians for the majority of his life.

After 34 at the helm of Athenian society, Peisistratus died at the age of 81 and left charge of the city state of Athens to his two sons, Hipparchus and Hippeus. Unfortunately, no one had predicted the difficulty associated with governing an ever-growing, ever expanding Athens and in 514 BC Hipparchus was murdered. Over the next four years, Hippeus - left alone to govern an Athens that was getting increasingly out of hand - had went mad, leading to his being removed from the "Athenian throne" in 510 BC.


The deposition of Hippeus is actually quite interesting to think about under the guise of “what could have happened”. You see, King Cleomenes of Sparta (the contemporary rival of Athens) was actually responsible for removing Hippeus from the Athenian throne - recall that Athens and Sparta would become rival city states in the forthcoming centuries. However, we are still in the are still the early days of Grecian history and that there was not yet any 'bad blood' between the city states of Sparta and Athens. After removing Hippeus, King Cleomenes returned to Sparta while claiming no land and leaving Athens under the charge of Athenian statesman Isagoreas. Hippeus fled to Asia Minor and will make another appearance later in the film.


I wonder: how would history look had King Cleomenes have chosen to place Athens under Spartan rule? Almost surely Athenian thought would have been wiped out before ever having a chance to blossom. Obviously, one may argue that these same ideas would have emerged elsewhere at some point, but would they have had near the same influence had they emerged at any other point – geographically or chronologically – in human history?


Naturally, lots of Athenians disputed the decision of King Cleomenes to leave Isagoreas (who was a bit of a shithead when it came to kissing up to Sparta) in power. Remember the efforts that Solon and Peisistratus put into in terms of developing the idea of the “Athenian citizen” - remember the rights and freedoms Peisistratus gave to the Hyperakrioi? Well, this was about to pay off.

Gaining the support of the Athenian public – many of which whom were just realizing their rights as humans – Cleisthenes (570-492 BC) challenged Isagoreas’ claim as lead Archon over Athens. Sparing the details, Cleisthenes – with the will of the people supporting him – emerged as leader in 508 BC. Athenian citizens backed Cleisthenes purely under a promise of good-faith – Cleisthenes proclaimed that he would take dramatic action to improve the livelihoods and rights of all Athenians upon gaining leadership of Athens. And this is just what he did – upon his victory over Isagoreas in 508 BC Cleisthenes gifted Athenian society with a gift that changed the face of the world forever. In this year, Cleisthenes established democracy in Athens.


“All power to the ecclesia!”, or, “the will of the population should decide the governance of the land” was proclaimed in the streets of Athens as democracy was born.

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Once more we note that this incredible development in human history was born out of conflict. That’s a trend in Greek history, if ever there was one. That's a trend in life, I believe.