Democracy's Bloody Beginnings

ancient greeks fighting

The ancient Greeks could teach modern politicians a thing or two about factional fighting, writes John Keane

The details are tricky, but put at their simplest, they run something like this. During the middle years of the sixth century BCE, after several bungled attempts, a local Athenian aristocrat named Pisistratus seized power in Athens. Whether his tyranny was unjust remained disputed. There was the usual lavish consumption, cruelty against opponents and dishing out of sinecures.

Yet Pisistratus seems to have won local admiration for his efforts to improve communications by placing milestones between villages, and for his sponsorship of public building projects, including construction of the Acropolis, the Lyceum and temples in honour of Zeus and Apollo.

When Pisistratus fell ill and died of natural causes in 528/527 BCE, the regime controlled by his family faced a succession crisis. Like a delirious wild animal, it scratched and clawed itself to shreds. Ugly rivalries erupted between the sons who had inherited his power. Hipparchus and Hippias were their names, but their youngest stepbrother, Thessalus, was equally up to his ears in political mud.

Contemporaries disagreed about the respective merits of these three inexperienced young aristocrats, who dressed in fine robes and wore their long hair fastened with cicada-shaped golden pins. Exactly who was causing trouble and who wanted what, when and how, remained unclear.

The confusion confirmed the local belief that the foulest thing about tyranny was its vulnerability to murderous infighting. The people of Athens trembled, fearing the worst. But then, in the year 514 BCE, the revenge of the unexpected struck, with stupendous effect.

The tipping point had more than a touch of the absurd about it; at first, many contemporaries simply could not believe what had happened. During the Panathenaic festival, the spectacular carnival held once every four years in honour of the city's goddess, Athena, one of the tyrants, Hipparchus, fell foul of a murder plot organised by disaffected young aristocrats.

Fusing speed and secrecy, his assassins pounced. Wielding daggers concealed beneath their robes, they lunged at his heart, killing him instantly, in broad daylight, right in the main square of Athens. Their daring left bystanders voiceless and so, too, did its fickle effects. For although the killers had been well acquainted with the tyrannical brothers, they bungled their murderous deed.

They had evidently been after Hippias, in revenge (so they had thought) for his spiteful refusal to allow the sister of one of the assassins a place in the procession. But it transpired that the real culprit in the shadows was the young stepbrother, Thessalus. His secret homoerotic crush on one of the assassins had recently met with rejection. That was why he had tried to exact revenge by ordering the girl's disqualification (and consequent public shaming) from the city's most important public festival.

Jilted homosexual desire was thus a conspirator in the plot, which backfired in yet another way, this time with historic consequences. While the assassins waited to pounce on the hated Hippias, they panicked after spotting him from a distance chatting with an accomplice. Fearing that their plot had been exposed, they lunged nervously with their daggers at Hipparchus, who was standing nearby. Better one dead tyrant than none at all, so they thought.

Several contemporaries judged the botched assassination to be a personal vendetta for a multiple lovers' quarrel — the murdered tyrant was himself said to be in love with one of the assassins, who themselves were lovers — but whether or not the killing was part of a homosexual love quadrangle was soon of no consequence.

The surviving Hippias, fearing that he would meet the cruel fate of his brother, dispensed rough justice on the spot. He ordered his guards to draw their swords against the assassins whose names, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, soon became household names in Athens and beyond. Harmodius was hacked to pieces by the tyrant's soldiers; Aristogeiton was arrested, tortured and then condemned to a grisly death, along with several supporters.

The tyranny founded by Hippias and Thessalus enjoyed little legitimacy. It was so foul that a rival noble family, the Alcmaeonids, successfully plotted their overthrow around 510 BCE. This was after military intervention by the Spartans under Cleomenes had backfired by inciting yet more political violence, as well as a popular uprising that lasted for three full days and nights.

The combination of power grabbing from above and a popular uprising from below proved contagious. For through the cracks within the elite of local wealthy families headed by the Alcmaeonids appeared the figure of Cleisthenes, a man who understood that tyranny founded on fear could never make for durable government.

Like a sapling in search of sunlight, he introduced, in the years 508/507 BCE, a new constitution. The previously dispersed population of Athens and its surrounding countryside was integrated into 10 'tribes' and three new regional administrative units. A city–based army, rooted in these new structures and comprising non–elite, heavily armed foot soldiers called hoplites, was established for the first time. A governing body, the Council of Five Hundred, was set up, and official encouragement was given to an independent assembly based in Athens; in 506 BCE, it passed its first decree.

These changes were designed to cut the city's old family ties and to put an end to the violence and conspiracy of faction. But these reforms had another, more earth–shaking significance: they acknowledged the power of the powerless. Cleisthenes was the first Athenian ruler of the period to spot that large numbers of people could act in concert, that a demos could exercise initiative, take things into its own hands, without guidance or leadership by aristocrats.

He drew from this a remarkable conclusion: that if the Athenian polity was to survive, it had to be based on the entirely new principle that the demos was entitled to govern itself.

John Keane will take up his position as Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney from July 2010. This is an edited extract from his latest book, The Life and Death of Democracy, Simon & Schuster, London, 2009.