Saturday, March 28, 2009

The History of Civilization

Chapter Eighteen: The Last Gasp of Democracy

After the end of the Peloponnessian War, Athens made a final attempt to unify Greece. It gradually rebuilt its walls and fleet and, through the dependability of its currency and long established talent for finance and trade, won back commercial mastery of the Aegean.

Industry and trade were the basis of the new economic recovery. Most of the farmers from pre-war days were dead, and the few who survived were too discouraged to return to their ruined holdings, and sold them at low prices to absentee owners who could afford long-term investments. In this way, ownership of Greek farms passed into the hands of a few families, who worked many of the large estates with slaves.

The silver mines were reopened, and fresh victims were sent into the pits. Silver was mined so quickly that the supply outran the production of goods, causing prices to rise faster than wages. The poor bore the burden of Greece's recovery. A plan was devised to purchase 10,000 slaves to work the silver mines at Laurium, and thereby replenish the exhausted Greek treasury.

The growth of commerce and accumulation of wealth multiplied the number of bankers in Athens. They received cash for safekeeping, but apparently paid no interest on deposits. They quickly discovered that not all deposits were reclaimed at once, and began to loan funds at substantial rates of interest. As the fourth century BC progressed, a real credit system developed: wealth could now pass from one client to another merely by an entry in the banker's books.

Bank failures were common, and there were several "recessions", in which bank after bank closed its doors due to excessive speculation and sub-prime loans. Charges of malfeasance were brought against even the most prominent banks, and people looked upon bankers with the same mix of envy and suspicion with which the poor view the rich today.

This change to movable wealth produced a feverish struggle for money. In the midst of all this wealth, poverty actually increased: the freedom of exchange that allowed the clever to make money made the simple lose it faster than ever before. Unemployment was high, and the wages of free labor were kept low by competition from slaves.

Class warfare erupted, leaving Greece internally divided. In Argos in 370 BC, the poor revolted against their creditors, killing over 1200 of them.

Moral disorder followed the growth of luxury. Exotic deities like Ammon, Cybele, and Mithra began to displace the traditional gods. Individuals freed themselves from the old moral restraints: children from honoring their parents, husbands from their wives, and citizens from duty to the state. Marriage declined as young men began to live unwed with courtesans and flute girls. Contraception became common, by abortion or infanticide. We are told that women prevented conception by anointing their wombs with oil of cedar, ointment of lead, or even animal dung.

This new era of decadence cost Athens both her empire and her freedom, as the far more disciplined Macedonians undermined their authority.

In this way, democracy disappeared for over 2000 years. Weakened by decades of endemic war and internal struggle, Greece was easily defeated by the warlike Spartans, Persians, and finally, by Macedonia (in our next chapter). Its failures would serve as a cautionary example for centuries of how democracy wouldn't work, because the fickle mob changed the nation's direction at every bump in the road, and loved luxury more than security.

In spite of these failures, the Athenian democracy produced the Golden Age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, in addition to medical and scientific progress which would be unparalleled until the Renaissance. For this, we should judge them with a bit of compassion.

To be continued...

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

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