Sunday, July 20, 2008

The History of Civilization

Chapter Fourteen: The Democratic Experiment

Athens rose to prominence after her leadership in the defense of Greece during the war with Persia; and because, when the war was over, Ionia was impoverished and Sparta disordered by demobilization, earthquakes, and slave insurrections. This growing influence created a kind of Athenian Empire, which witnessed the only democracy in human civilization until 1776.Themistocles persuaded the Greeks that the path to prosperity was not in war, but in trade. He negotiated a cease-fire with Persia, although fighting would continue intermittently for centuries to come.

When Themistocles died in 449 BC, leadership of the Greeks passed to Pericles, one of the outstanding political figures of ancient times.

Pericles realized that the rich aristocracy was out of step with the times, and so attached himself to the demos, or common people. His generation elected and re-elected him for almost thirty years between 467 and 428 BC. The reforms of Pericles substantially extended the authority of the people, creating work for the unemployed and spending the treasury on the beautification of Athens.
Every freeborn citizen was given the right to vote, and to serve in the General Assembly and on juries in the criminal courts. Legislation was no longer strictly under the control of the wealthy ruling class. Under his leadership, academies were founded to offer higher education to women.

The conservatives were shocked, denouncing Pericles for squandering public funds and leading Greeks into war against Sparta. Comics and playwrights, freed by his own legislation, mocked him publicly as a traitor to his class and an anarchist.

Since transportation is difficult in this region, only a small fraction of the eligible members ever voted in a single meeting. Additionally, all slaves, women, the deformed and disabled, and resident aliens were all excluded from the franchise. Citizens also had to be the son of two Athenian parents, so that only 43,000 citizens in a city of 315,000 were eligible to serve. It is estimated that only one person in seven qualified for citizenship, and most of these didn't participate in the democracy because they lived too far away to vote.

Legal cases were heard by an appointed arbitrator, and then tried by jury if the arbitrator was unable to resolve the conflict. Perjury was so frequent that many cases were decided despite explicit sworn evidence to the contrary. Testimony of women and children could only be used in murder trials, and that of slaves only when it was extracted from them by torture (it is taken for granted that without torture they would lie).

These are shortcomings of a system of law envied throughout Greece for its mildness and integrity, and dependable enough to give the orderly protection necessary to stimulate economic activity and moral growth.

The best judgement of Athenian law is the reverence that nearly every citizen felt for it, and the readiness with which other Greek cities adopted it. In spite of its shortcomings, the first democracy built the Parthenon, financed Greek dramas, presided over the great Golden Age philosophers, and made itself responsible for the welfare and development of common people.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on the History of Civilization, click here.

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