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Chapter 11 Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II: The Golden Age of Greek Democracy (c. 375–​350) and Its Critics

Chapter 11 Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II: The Golden Age of Greek Democracy (c. 375–​350) and Its Critics

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Figure. 11.1

Model of Athenian Acropolis c. 400

The ‘High City’ of Athens had been the political and religious centre of the region since time immemorial,

but in the fifth century, following the Persian sack (480 and 479 bce), it was rebuilt, reconfigured, and

embellished to an extraordinary degree. Through the monumental entrance way (Propylaea) the visitor

was confronted by a plethora of statuary and minor shrines, above which towered the great Parthenon

and Erechtheum temples, both dedicated to the city’s patron Athena. With permission of the Royal

Ontario Museum © ROM.

within the period to be covered here there was born and grew to maturity one

of the great innovating intellectual geniuses of the ancient—​or indeed any—​

world, a ‘giant thinker’, as one of his most devoted followers (Karl Marx) aptly

called him: Aristotle, son of Nicomachus of Stageira (or Stagirus) in northern

Greece (384–​322). In about 335 Aristotle founded at Athens his philosophical school known to us as the Lyceum, and it was exclusively for students of

this school that the work that we call the Politics was produced. Later scholars

divided the work as a whole into eight books, but it is a mark of its rawness and

the occasional inconsistency due to its origin in lecture notes that the ordering

of the books is disputed. Mine follows the majority view.

Book 1: what is the (nature of the) polis, and who are its necessary constituents. Book 2: ideal poleis, whether actual (e.g., Sparta) or imagined

(e.g., Plato’s Republic), that had been proposed as models but which Aristotle

finds variously flawed. Book 3: what is a citizen? Aristotle’s own definition of


Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II

the polites, the adult, free male polis member or citizen, as he who actively

shares and participates in judgment, including legal judgment, and ruling,

was by his own admission better suited to defining the citizen of a democracy

than of an oligarchy. Book 4: still very theoretical, setting out typologies of

regimes. Democracy was not itself one single thing; rather, it could be further

analysed into sub-​species, of which the Athenian democracy of his day was

taken to be one of the few to represent the last or most extreme version. Books

5 and 6: the mainly empirical books, either somehow based on or related to the

158 Politeiai compiled by him and his students, of which only the Athenaion

Politeia (Ath. Pol.) survives as such. Book 5 focuses on how staseis (political

revolutions or other major disturbances) arise and how they may be avoided;

Book 6 looks at the varieties of democracy and oligarchy, again with an eye to

how they may best be conserved and preserved. Books 7 and 8: an incomplete

sketch of Aristotle’s own ideal utopia, to which we shall return at the end of

this chapter.

Most golden-age Greek democracies were less extreme, more moderate,

than the Athenian. Sparta, on the other hand, was not a democracy at all, in

the accepted political-​constitutional sense; but what exactly it was posed a real

problem of classification. Aristotle’s account in Book 2 well reflects the difficulty that ancient analysts had in assigning Sparta to any one defined constitutional form. The explanation for that lies in Sparta’s achievement of a stable

constitutional form very early on, perhaps earlier indeed than any other Greek

city, and thus well before democracy had been invented either as an institutional practice or as an analytical category. Since the Spartan polity seemed to

possess monarchical (or at least kingly), oligarchical-​aristocratic and democratic features, one vaguely respectable escape route touted by Aristotle among

others was to dub its politeia ‘mixed’. Most commentators, however, saw it as

some form of aristocracy or oligarchy. Xenophon was alone in speaking of it

as a ‘kingship’. Those who were prepared to bite the bullet and call it a democracy significantly did not do so on grounds of the city’s strictly political, decision-​making institutions, but because of two cardinal social institutions: the

common, compulsory, and centrally imposed upbringing, successful passage

through which was a requirement for attaining citizenship; and the common dining-​messes, membership of which was a requirement for gaining and

retaining citizenship status.



Taken politically, however, Sparta’s politeia failed the democratic tests

across the board:  all offices, including therefore the most powerful, were

either elective (none was allotted) or hereditary (the kingship). The chief

executive office of the Ephorate (a board of five) was open to all Spartans

and annual, whereas the Gerousia (the Senate, twenty-​eight members plus

the two kings ex officio) was probably restricted to members of a few elite

families and election was for life. Neither elections nor (normally) other

modes of public collective decision-​making, however, were conducted on

the basis of absolute political equality of all citizens—​that is, through application of the one citizen, one vote principle. The usual method of voting

was by shouting, and shouts were collectively guesstimated rather than individually counted; obviously, individuals had naturally differing strengths of

voice. The one attested use of voting by division, as opposed to by shouting,

in the Assembly was resorted to in 432 only as a last-​minute expedient by a

unilateral decision of the elected Ephor presiding over the meeting, in order

to secure the largest possible majority for a decision to go to war with Athens

despite the opposing advice of the senior king. The Gerousia enjoyed the

right of initiative and preliminary deliberation, in effect a prior veto over

the formal decision-​making by the Assembly; moreover, if the Assembly’s

mood seemed to them to be taking an unwelcome turn, they were entitled to

dismiss it or even override its decision. There were no written laws, and no

popular judiciary; the Ephors, who were not accountable by means of regular popular audit, and not therefore responsible to the People (damos), interpreted and applied the laws as they saw fit. Conjointly with the Gerousia

they served as a supreme court, having the power even to try and convict

kings, who therefore were accountable—​but not directly to the People (see

further below). In short, kratos for the Spartan damos as apparently specified

in a probably authentic text known as the Great Rhetra (seventh century?)

did not equate to and could not possibly have equated to fifth-​and fourth-​

century style demokratia.

The Spartans themselves seem to have referred to their mode of self-​

governance as eunomia, an archaic term meaning something like ‘lawful government’ or ‘submission to the right kind of laws’. However exactly one would

wish to characterise it, though, abroad the Spartans consistently and consciously championed more or less reactionary oligarchy—​even if they had to


Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II

impose it by force or threat of force, and even when imposing it meant, as we

shall see, that they had to break their own religious oath. Given the Spartans’

extreme and normally inflexible religiosity, their willingness to make an exception in this type of case is really very revealing indeed. In what follows we shall

first examine Sparta’s relations with a series of mainland Greek cities, most

allies or former allies, in which the issue of democracy versus oligarchy played

a—​or the—​major role.

Having crushed the Athenians and dismantled their empire in 404, if only

thanks to very extensive financial aid from Persia, the Spartans enthusiastically

set about placing their broad feet into the Athenians’ imperial shoes. Their new

Aegean empire, however, was to be one of subordinate oligarchies and indeed,

to begin with, ‘dynasties’—​extreme and narrowly based oligarchic juntas, such

as that of the Thirty at Athens. However, assuming Athens’ liberationist imperial rhetoric and acquisitive imperial ambitions quickly landed Sparta on the

horns of a dilemma. Included among the many subjects of Persia in 404 were

Greeks, the Greeks of ‘Asia’—​the very Greeks whose freedom from Persia the

Athenian empire had ostensibly been set up and maintained to deliver, and

whose liberty the Spartans had themselves already once sacrificed in 412/​1

in return for vital and abundant Persian cash. By the early 390s Sparta had

reversed its friendship with Persia and was fighting on land in Asia on behalf of

Greek freedom, and it had abandoned the dynasties idea in favour of supporting more conventional oligarchies.

But even that policy reversal was no longer sufficient by the mid-​390s to maintain the loyalty of two oligarchies actually within Sparta’s own Peloponnesian

League alliance: Corinth and the Boeotians, that is, the Boeotian federal state

dominated by Thebes. Both had been disaffected during the Peloponnesian

War, and Corinth had indeed temporarily abandoned Sparta in 420 for an

alliance with Sparta’s perennial enemy Argos, whereas the Boeotians had

remained loyal to Sparta precisely because they considered Sparta would be

more favourable to their oligarchy than would the Argive democracy. But in

395 the Boeotians and Corinthians jointly revolted from Sparta, having entered

into a quadruple alliance with Athens and Argos, and thereby initiated the so-​

called Corinthian War—​actually, a war that was fought between 395 and 386

on the sea as well as the land and not only around the Isthmus of Corinth, but

throughout the Aegean.



As in the Peloponnesian War, so in the Corinthian War Sparta eventually

won, but only by again going cap in hand to Persia, and in this case the collateral damage caused by the war was considerably more devastating for Sparta.

For a start, the alliance of Corinth with Argos in 395 represented a geopolitical catastrophe: not only was Sparta now deprived of its major naval ally but

its freedom of movement by land into and out of the Peloponnese was virtually terminated. Worse was to come in the shape of the so-​called Union of

Corinth and Argos in 393/​2, one of the more remarkable political experiments

of the entire polis era of ancient Greek history. An extreme outbreak of stasis

in Corinth brought the bloody massacre of the pro-​Spartan oligarchs running

the city (as their predecessors had done ever since it had first allied with Sparta,

by 525 at the latest). Corinth, now democratically governed, entered into a pact

with long-​since-​democratic Argos. The boundary stones marking the common

frontier between the territories of the two poleis were symbolically removed,

and thenceforth formerly Corinthian citizens could exercise the rights of

Argive citizenship within the polis territory of Argos, and Argive citizens vice

versa within the territory of Corinth. The Spartans, in kneejerk response, led

on ferociously by the stubbornly anti-​democratic King Agesilaus II, did all they

possibly could to break the Union by main force; in 390, however, they suffered an unprecedented disaster on land near Lechaeum, one of Corinth’s two

main ports. It was not until the Spartans had performed yet another diplomatic

somersault in 388/​7, securing the renewed Persian funding that enabled them

to enhance their efforts at sea under the admiralty of Antalcidas among others,

that the tide of war turned decisively in their favour.

Under Agesilaus’ co-​king Agesipolis, the Spartans had invaded the territory

of Argos in 388, but been forced to withdraw without inflicting major damage.

In 387/​6, however, the mere threat of renewed Spartan force with the backing of the Spartans’ renewed diplomatic agreement with Persia was sufficient

to compel the break-​up of the Union of Corinth and Argos and to foster the


establishment in the former of a pro-​

Spartan oligarchy, while Argos

remained more genuinely autonomous and democratic. A threat of force was

likewise enough to influence the Boeotians, still under a moderately oligarchic regime, to break off their alliance with the Athenians and return to the

Peloponnesian League fold alongside Corinth. There was then concluded, at

Sparta’s instigation, a diplomatic instrument known alternatively as the King’s


Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II

Peace or the Peace of Antalcidas in 386—​the king in question being Persian

Great King Artaxerxes II, and Antalcidas being the Spartan who acted as

the chief negotiator on the Greeks’ side. When the Spartans were accused of

(again) betraying Greek freedom—​specifically that of the Asiatic Greeks—​and

so being guilty of ‘medism’, Agesilaus is said to have replied with a typically

laconic ‘apophthegm’ to the effect that it was not the case that the Spartans

had medized but rather that the Medes (Persians) had ‘lakonized’ (turned pro-​

Spartan)—​so clearly were the Spartans the chief beneficiaries of this first ‘common’ peace. It was common in the sense that all relevantly situated cities were

deemed to be subject to its terms whether or not they’d positively signed up

to them. But yet even that restoration of the status quo obtaining vis-​à-​vis the

Boeotians down to 395 did not satisfy by any means all in the upper reaches of

Spartan policymaking, as we shall see.

First, however, we must return to consider the post-​Peloponnesian War fate

of the two Peloponnesian League allies that had become democracies (relatively

moderate, we assume) as long ago as the first half of the fifth century: Elis and

Mantinea (see Chapter 9). Elis was not only a notionally autonomous member

of the Peloponnesian League but also the city that managed the Panhellenic—​

all, and only-​Greek—​Olympic Games every four years and permanently oversaw the religious structures and observances on the site of Olympia, including

an oracular shrine of Zeus. In 420, the first Olympic year after the temporary

cessation of hostilities in the Peloponnesian War (the Peace of Nicias, concluded

in spring 421), Elis had exercised its supervisory authority to ban all Spartans

from competing in the Games. There were various reasons for Elis’ disaffection

from Sparta, which went as far as the Eleans seceding from the Peloponnesian

League, but it was their Olympic ban on Spartans that struck the deepest psychological blow, not least because the Games were in essence a religious festival. The Spartans’ revenge on Elis was necessarily long postponed until after the

Peloponnesian War had been won, but all the more severe when it did eventually fall in 401/​0. In two successive summer campaign seasons, Agesilaus’

older half-​brother Agis II led major punitive expeditions against Elis that not

only inflicted huge economic damage but also terminated the democracy and

replaced it with a narrow oligarchy headed by men personally connected to the

king. Agis then died and was succeeded, controversially, by Agesilaus, thanks

to crucial support from Lysander (the victor of Aegospotami).



The case of Mantinea was rather different, and rather more difficult for Sparta.

It was a city of Arcadia, but traditionally it was at odds with the other major city

of that region, Tegea in the far south (which typically had maintained cordial

relations with Sparta since the mid-​sixth century); uncomfortably for Sparta,

it was located much nearer to Argos. During and after the Peloponnesian War,

Mantinea had been a less than enthusiastic ally of Sparta, despite—​or because

of—​a separate thirty-​year treaty concluded in 417. Presumably the Spartans had

sought to tie down the Mantineans by treaty in the wake of their victory over

the Athenians at the battle of Mantinea the previous year, so as to pre-​empt

the kind of insolence and insubordination they had suffered from Elis in 420.

A further complicating factor was the residence in Mantinea since 395 of the

exiled Spartan king Pausanias.

Sparta’s legal system was in many ways rather unpolished; as mentioned,

there was no popular judiciary, and the chief judicial magistrates were also the

state’s chief executive officers, the Ephors, who exercised legal judgment without the constraint either of written laws or of formal legal precedent. When

sitting in judgment upon a king, they sat together with the other twenty-​nine

members of the Gerousia, forming a supreme constitutional court of sorts. In

403 that supreme court had acquitted Pausanias of the charge, levelled by his

fellow king Agis, of un-​Spartan activities: for being in effect soft not just on

the Athenian democrats in the Peiraeus but even on democracy as such, since

he had overseen the democratic restoration at Athens in the teeth of Spartan

opposition from above all the fanatically pro-​oligarchic Lysander. In 395 supporters of the late Agis and of Lysander, including pre-​eminently Agesilaus

(whose vote would have had to be delivered by a proxy, since he was away

campaigning in Asia at the time), saw their chance to wreak their revenge at

last upon Pausanias, and he was put on trial again, on exactly the same charge

as in 403—​Sparta’s legal system countenanced double jeopardy in such cases of

alleged high crimes and misdemeanours. This time he was found guilty and,

rather than have him executed (which would have raised delicate religious

issues, since Spartan kings were to a degree sacrosanct), the Spartans banished

him sine die (as indeed they had banished his father, Pleistoanax, half a century

before in 445). Pausanias’ decision to spend his exile at Mantinea was not without political calculation, although whether it was influenced by any ideological

sympathy for democracy—​as opposed to principled respect for the genuine


Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II

autonomy of Sparta’s allies as laid down by sworn treaty agreement—​cannot

be determined.

At all events, Pausanias was very visibly present in 385 when, under cover of

the King’s Peace, the Spartans led by his son and successor Agesipolis I set out

to punish Mantinea for its disloyalty—​and democracy—​in the most strongly

political way imaginable. That is to say, they effected a break-​up of the polis of

Mantinea as such, which was decomposed into its original five villages. That

was not the first such break-​up of another city carried out by Sparta: between

403 and 401 they had hived off the deme of Eleusis from the rest of the polis of

Athens and separately recognised it as an oligarchic statelet within the borders

of Attica. But this was far more drastic and comprehensive. In place of the

overall democracy of the unified state, each of the Mantinean villages was now

ruled by an aristocratic oligarchy, and the walls built around the political centre were symbolically dismantled. Xenophon with superb hypocrisy says that

the major Mantinean property owners were delighted with the new arrangement, since it enabled them to live closer to the estates from which they drew

their wealth. In practice, this situation was to last for only fifteen years, well

under a generation: following Sparta’s defeat at Leuctra in 371 there was a general rebellion against Sparta in the Peloponnese, and in 370 both democracy

and central city walls were restored to the once more autonomous polis of the


Sparta’s unhappy experience with democratic Mantinea was partially replicated with nearby Phleious, a city important not so much for itself as for its location: its wide plain served as a convenient muster-​ground for Peloponnesian

League armies. It was probably in the later 390s that, like Corinth, Phleious

had first turned democratic. In 381, following their interventions in Mantinea

and Thebes, the Spartans at the instigation of Agesilaus responded positively to

a plea from a small group of oligarchic Phleiasian exiles. Phleious was placed

under siege for some twenty months between 381 and 379, until it was finally

starved into surrender. The oligarchs were restored not just to their city and

estates but to political power, with fervent Spartan ideological support orchestrated by Agesilaus in person. But even Xenophon felt obliged in retrospect to

include in his Hellenica narrative a remarkable exchange of opinions taking

place within the Spartan siege army: ‘We are making ourselves hated’, so some

Spartans were allegedly moved to observe, ‘by a city of 5,000 men’.



The size of the democratic citizen body of Phleious was a doubly relevant

argument. Sparta’s own citizen body was by this time reduced to only about

2,500 to 3,000. But for Agesilaus it was not the size of Phleious’ citizen body

that most motivated him but the fact that it was a disloyal democracy. He

therefore gave every support and comfort to the handful of exiled oligarchs,

encouraging them to behave as much as possible like Spartans in order to win

the besieging Spartans’ respect—​a tactic that proved by no means wholly successful. In another work of Xenophon, his posthumous encomium of the king

known simply as the Agesilaus, this irredentist, politically retrograde attitude

of Agesilaus is given a wholly positive, moralistic spin: regardless of its political

dubiety, it was for his eulogist a classic example of Agesilaus’ virtue of love for

his close political comrades. That paid practical political dividends in the form

of the passionate loyalty shown thereafter to Sparta by oligarchic Phleious. In

particular, the city was especially energetic in the 370s in supporting Sparta

against democratic Thebes, and remained unswervingly loyal even after the

disaster of Leuctra in 371 and the dissolution of the Peloponnesian League in

the mid-​360s. For that conspicuous loyalty, it earned Xenophon’s highest praise.

So we come to focus on Thebes, the major player in mainland Greek politics

after 404 along with (and often locked in a fateful triangle with) Sparta and

Athens. Thebes had been allied to Sparta since the late sixth century, and, as the

leading city of the oligarchic Boeotian federal state (formed in 447 following

the liberation of Boeotia from Athenian control), it remained loyal—​just—​to

Sparta throughout the Peloponnesian War. But in 404 Thebes claimed to be

exceptionally annoyed that Sparta had not physically annihilated Athens, and

in 403, though still oligarchic, it had supported the restoration of democracy at

Athens, precisely so that Sparta could no longer use a tamed oligarchic Athens

as a catspaw against itself. In 395, when still oligarchic, Thebes and the Boeotians

finally did revolt from Sparta to join a quadruple alliance with Athens, Argos,

and Corinth. In 386, therefore, it was a principal target of Sparta’s vengeful

resentment, and a principal motive for Sparta’s conclusion of and swearing to

the terms of the King’s Peace was to keep Thebes in what Agesilaus—​allegedly

a Thebes-​hater—​in what he considered its proper, subordinate place.

The peace’s autonomy clause ostensibly guaranteed to all cities freedom from

external interference or control, but it was more than once breached by Sparta,

and most blatantly of all in the case of Thebes in 382. Sparta then imposed


Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II

on moderately oligarchic Thebes—​as it had on formerly democratic Athens in

404—​a junta of extreme pro-​Spartan oligarchs backed up by a Spartan garrison

(located on the city’s commanding acropolis, the Cadmea). Not only was this

intervention grossly illegal, however, but it constituted also a sacrilegious violation of the oaths underpinning the King’s Peace. The normally pro-​Spartan but

also exceptionally pious Xenophon was so horrified that, in retrospect, he saw

this particular violation of the peace as the beginning of the end of the domination or empire that Sparta had exercised over the Aegean Greek world for

most of the period from 404. For it was through Thebes that the hand of divine

retribution, as he saw it, was to be wielded against Sparta eleven years later, at

and after the Battle of Leuctra in 371.

However—​and it is a very big however—​the politeia under which Thebes

was ruled in 371 was not the politeia of 382 and the immediately following years,

or even the far more moderately oligarchic one of 447–​382: for early in 378, for

the first time ever, and with significant Athenian encouragement, inspiration,

and physical assistance, Thebes had become a demokratia, following its liberation from Spartan control by a small band of politically motivated exiles led

by Pelopidas. Not only Thebes but also the Boeotians (Xen. Hell. 5.4.46), that

is the federal state as a whole, went democratic: central, federal finances and

the increasingly efficient federal army (as commanded by Gorgidas and the

great Epaminondas as well as Pelopidas) were now to be managed democratically, ultimately under the jurisdiction of the democratic federal Assembly. Full

active and participatory citizenship was extended below the level of the cavalry and hoplites to the broader demos, whereas under the former oligarchic

regimes the exercise of a craft or the practice of commercial exchange in the

marketplace had been sufficient to disqualify a Theban and most Boeotians

from active citizen privileges.

So the Boeotians and Thebans continued, constitutionally speaking, despite

a major diplomatic falling-​out with Athens (which actually allied with Sparta

against a rampant Thebes between 371 and 362), until the democratic city made

the irretrievable and ultimately fatal mistake of antagonising the rising monarchical power of Macedon. In the 360s, at the time of its shortlived hegemony,

Thebes could get away with holding a younger brother of the Macedonian king

as a hostage in Thebes for three years (probably 368–​365). But when that brother

became Philip II, king of Macedon, in 359 and rolled over all southern Greece,



including Thebes and its renewed ally Athens, on the battlefield of Chaeronea

in Boeotia in 338, Philip took a leaf out of Sparta’s book: he terminated the

Thebans’ democracy, replaced it with an oligarchy, and installed a garrison to

guarantee the new order. When nevertheless Thebes rose up in revolt against

Philip’s son and successor Alexander III, that was considered a step too far, and

in 335 Alexander ordered to be done to Thebes what Thebans had wanted done

to Athens in 404: physical annihilation.

Little or nothing of that unhappy demarche could have been predicted in

the newly democratised Thebes of 378. Indeed, in that year Thebes was so

gung-​ho and on such good terms with Athens that it consented to join, as

one of six founder members, a new and fundamentally anti-​Spartan alliance headed up by Athens, the Second Athenian League, even though it was

a basically maritime organisation. Alongside those two stood the island-​city

of Rhodes (founded only at the end of the fifth century), Byzantium (later

Constantinople), Methymna (one of the five cities of Lesbos, already democratic and uniquely loyal to Athens back in 427), and Chios, another east

Aegean island-​city. Boeotia does have a coastline (including Aulis of Homeric

fame), but inland Thebes was hardly less landlubbing than inland Sparta. The

other five founder allies were significantly naval, and all were democracies.

Rhodes, largely because of its strategic location, was the site of fierce ideological internal battles and political reversals both at the end of the Peloponnesian

War and in the early fourth century. Of Byzantium’s internal politics little is

known, but its strategic situation at the mouth of the Bosporus made it a vital

asset to Athens and a key prize in the struggle for Mediterranean supremacy

between Athens and Sparta. Methymna had been a democracy already in the

later fifth century, when as noted it alone had stood aloof from the revolt of 427

against Athens of the other four Lesbian cities led by then oligarchic Mytilene.

But Chios, like Thebes, had never been a democracy until the early fourth century; indeed, Thucydides had singled it out for praise as a city that conducted

its oligarchy with exemplary sober moderation (8.5–​6, 9, 14, esp. 24), and it

was as a ship-​contributing oligarchy that it had revolted from Athens’ alliance

in 411, thereby contributing significantly to Athens’ naval embarrassment in

the eastern Aegean. Yet when it first made alliance again with Athens, in 384—​

the year after the break-​up of Mantinea, at a time when Sparta was blatantly

exploiting its position within the framework of the King’s Peace to drive its


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