Friday, March 14, 2008

The History of Civilization

Chapter Ten: Athens

North of Sparta, past the isthmus of Corinth, are the plains and hills of Attica. Cicero observed that this area seems to get over three hundred sunny days per year. The soil is very poor and rocky: only olives and grapes can be cultivated. Only adventurous trade with surrounding cultures made civilization possible.
There are dozens of small towns in this peninsula, at every harbor along the coast and in every valley among the hills. These towns gradually united under the leadership of Athens, and gave rise to one of the greatest empires of all time.

For centuries, Athens existed under an oppressive system of feudalism. A few proprietors owned all the land, and the peasant classes sank heavily into debt and ruin. Their assets were often seized, and their wives and children were liable to be sold as slaves.

Additionally, foreign trade and the replacement of bartering with coinage, hurt the peasant further. The competition of imported food kept the prices of his products low. The prices of manufactured articles that he had to buy were determined by forces beyond his control, and rose steadily every year. 
Meanwhile, the middle classes were reducing the free laborers to poverty , and gradually replacing them with slaves. As the seventh century BC came to a close, the concentration of wealth had forced the hopeless poor to the edge of revolution.

It seems incredible that one man was able to avert this crisis, devising a compromise which was acceptable to rich and poor alike. Solon (638 - 558 BC) was a successful and respected merchant, elected and given dictatorial powers to soothe the social war, establish a new constitution, and restore stability to the state. 
His measures were simple but drastic economic reforms. His famous Seisachtheia, or Removal of Burdens, canceled all existing debts and freed all people enslaved for indebtedness. He also invented a graduated system for collecting income taxes, so that the rich would pay a higher percentage than the poor.

Despite thousands of revisions, the Solonian constitution remained in effect for five hundred years after his death.

After the death of Solon, the Greeks of Attica created a legislative Assembly, in which free men from all but the poorest classes were entitled to vote. This created a new respect for the law, since it was passed with the consent of the governed themselves. This would be the first, and last, democracy in the world until 1776. Never before had the world seen so liberal a franchise, and it led Greece into a golden age of great literature, art, science, and philosophy.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on civilization, click here.

1 comment:

nickwallacesmith said...

great blog my friend - love the mix of guys and stuff to simulate the organ between my ears! will be back soon!