Letter: Happy times under a Greek tyranny

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The Independent Online
Sir: Boris Rankov's excellent article 'The good ship democracy' (14 June) begins: 'This week sees the Hellenic community in Britain celebrating 2,500 years of Greek democracy.' This is to date Greek democracy from the year 507 BC, the most important year in the career of Cleisthenes, who is often described as 'the father of Athenian democracy'. But democracy was getting off the ground even towards the beginning of the sixth century BC. 594 BC was the year of the sole archonship of Solon, and it is he who is regarded by some as 'the father of Athenian democracy'; if he was not, he surely deserves the title of 'the grandfather of Athenian democracy'.

Solon divided the citizens into four classes and assigned to the lowest class, the Thetes, both membership of the Ecclesia (Assembly) and the obligation to serve either as light infantry or sailors. The Athenians' success against Xerxes' Persians at Salamis in 480 BC owes much to the legislation of Solon over a century before. His third class, too, the Zeugitai, who served as hoplites (foot soldiers), were essential to the success of ships' boarding tactics, which briefly replaced the ramming tactics so successful at Salamis. Furthermore, it was the Zeugitai who, in repelling the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, a decade before Salamis, were indispensable in making Darius I's punitive expedition a disaster.

One should not be ecstatic and starry-eyed about Athenian democracy. By the last quarter of the fifth century BC, democracy (rule of the people) had degenerated into something approaching ochlocracy (rule of the rabble).

The Ecclesia sanctioned many atrocities: in 421 BC there occurred the execution of all males of military age, and the enslavement of all women and children, to punish the people of Scione (in southern Pallene) for attempting to secede from the Delian League; the year 416 BC saw the massacre of the men of Melos (in the eastern Sporades) and the enslavement of their womenfolk and children for refusing to join the league. Ten years later, after the Battle of the Arginusae Islands, six admirals were illegally executed for failing to rescue drowning Athenian sailors.

Surprisingly, the happiest phase of Greek history, ancient or modern, has probably been during the 'tyranny' of the eccentric Peisistratos, who ruled in the middle of the sixth century BC, in the post-Solonian, pre-Cleisthenic years, when democracy was in cold storage.

Yours faithfully,

JOHN CARPENTER

Head of the Classics Department

Beaminster School

Dorset

(Photograph omitted)

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