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IN MY GOOD old days, kids learned that ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy. Indeed, even the word comes from the Greek: δῆμος, dêmos, people; and κράτος, krátos, rule. In “Governing by Word” here at SimanaitisSays, I noted that “the people” in fifth-century B.C. Greece differed from today’s perception of the term.

The London Review of Books, April 20, 2017, has a compelling piece, “Class War” by Peter Green, reviewing Democracy’s Slaves: A Political History of Ancient Greece, by Paulin Ismard. The following tidbits are gleaned from this book review.

Democracy’s Slaves: A Political History of Ancient Greece, by Paulin Ismard, translated by Jane Marie Todd, Harvard University Press, 2017.

LRB reviewer Green’s opening line: “At first sight—and indeed after careful investigation—ancient Athens looks anything but an ideal spot for the incubation and development of democracy, whether direct, representative, or the uneasy compromise that eventually emerged.” Point by point, he shares Ismard’s extensive research to justify this.

Solon, c. 638 B.C.–c. 558 B.C., Athenian statesman and poet.

Early in my Social Studies classes (do they teach this any more?), Solon would have been called the Giver of Law. His background was aristocratic, though Solon shook things up around 594 B.C. He extended the right to vote by arranging Athenian citizen landowners into four classes, depending mainly on the productivity of their land.

Green observes that this managed to tick off everyone: “Small farmers thought the classes inadequate; the nobility objected to their very existence.” And non-landowners, the plethos, loosely translated, the crowd, were disregarded.

Not that the plethos were merely dirt-poor do-nothings. Even before Solon’s time, Greek city states had developed strong commercial classes, including skilled technicians, carpenters, shipwrights, smiths, physicians, scribes, minstrels. However, as Green observes, their skills “had little or no relation to social status: contempt for the banausic [as in earning a living, a pejorative] remained endemic.”

Such was the ancient Grecian norm that Thebes had a rule requiring any political aspirant first to give up trade for ten years.

Notes Green: “Before we pride ourselves on our progress, we would do well to remember that not so long ago, English doctors making a house call were shown in by the tradesmen’s entrance.”

Cleisthenes, 565 B.C.– 492 B.C., Athenian nobleman and statesman.

Athenian noble Cleisthenes is credited as the father of Athenian democracy when, in 508–507 B.C., he extended the vote to the plethos, that landless crowd who actually knew how to do lots of things.

Notes Green, however, Cleisthenes and other members of his ruling family had shown a lot of political ambition and “no particular moral preference as to how that ambition should be achieved.”

Cleisthenes made a positive effect, though, in giving the plethos a piece of the action: For example, Green writes, “… the naval war against Persia was largely won by the efforts of rowers and other newly enfranchised men who fought to keep their rights.”

Green also notes the advancement of “aggressive merchants and businessmen like Cleon [Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War, 431 B.C.–404 B.C.], hungry for cash and power, who had no traditional principles to overcome in the first place.”

The Acropolis, Athens.

Both Green and author Ismard describe the dēmosioi, the nearest equivalent to modern civil servants. These clerks and scribes were charged with running the new democracy; maintaining archives; supervising elections, weights and measures; and controlling the currency.

Yet, writes Green, the dēmosioi “also happened to be slaves, a fact not often emphasised in discussions of the Cleisthenes regime.… It also hints at the anachronistic habit (Ismard is not wholly immune) of crediting civic leaders of the time, Cleisthenes above all, with sophisticated abstract thinking, and motivation, of which they were almost certainly innocent…”

Here too, however, was a benefit of nascent democracy: Writes Ismard, “A dēmosios, in that he was outside the Athenian social arena, appeared less likely to succumb to corruption than the average citizen.”

“Unlike citizens,” Green notes, “slaves could be flogged…. They had little to gain by dishonesty and, literally, everything to lose. Their reputation for uprightness is hardly surprising.”

Did a dynasty of civil servant dēmosioi evolve from father to son?

Nope; this was banned. When needed, new dēmosioi were bought at the slave market and given on-the-job training.

Yes, ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy. But there was still a good deal of maturation to come. I suspect there’s still room for more, and to quote Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

One comment on “GREEK DEMOCRACY 1.0

  1. Bill Urban
    August 24, 2017

    Does capitalism rate a mention? Yes, says Winston:
    “Some of them regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Only a handful see it for what it really is – the strong and willing horse that pulls the whole cart along.”

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