Monday, February 21, 2011

Greece and the Advent of the Iron Age

The Bronze Age in Europe began in 3000 B.C. and gave way to the Iron Age circa 1100 B.C. While the overlap of these ages occurred at different times in different places, Greece was true to the 1100 B.C. date as it began the transition to iron manufacturing and the replacement of bronze.

We begin our study by examining the technical details of iron making because they shed light on how iron processing developed and paved the way for the practical use of the metal. Although the first iron used by man came from meteorites, wrought iron was the first class of iron manufactured, perhaps as early as the second millennium B.C. Wrought iron proved inadequate for general use because slag embedded in the metal prevented it from being sufficiently hardened. To produce high quality iron, the blacksmiths of antiquity had to learn carburization (getting carbon into the iron), quenching, and tempering (strengthening through hammering). Their experience with bronze was no help because bronze production is very different and only requires hammering. The ancient smiths could produce fires that were hot enough, but it was not until they started using charcoal that they noticed carbon being taken into the metal. Quenching and tempering is a more complicated process because you have to know when the metal is ready to hammer and when to apply heat a second time.

Once the Greeks discovered carburization, they were able to produce thin carburized products (swords). For thicker uses (axes), they had to layer together a series of thin pieces of iron to overcome the problem of getting carbon into thick pieces of the metal.

Quenching is mentioned in the Odyssey, so much of the iron manufacturing technique had evolved by the time of Homer, but the timeline of the development of the full process remains obscure. Using iron artifacts for dating is difficult because the climate of the Greek Peninsula corrodes most examples beyond identification.

There is evidence of Minoan and Mycenaean iron working, but only at the tail end of the Mycenaean efforts do we see a link to what the Greeks would accomplish later. Examples of these early efforts are knives that have their handles attached with bronze rivets. Unfortunately, the sub-Mycenaean period yields little in the way of iron objects.

It’s is not until the beginning of the Proto-geometric Period that we begin to see significant iron in Attica. These objects date from the middle of the eleventh century.

During the early, middle, and late Geometric periods (ending in 700 B.C.) we see a combination or iron and bronze metalwork in graves. Iron dominates as the metal of weaponry. The reason for this is that iron is 12% lighter than bronze and able to hold its sharpness longer, making it the metal of choice for swords and spears.

Measuring the hardness of ancient objects tells us about the quality of the technique and the relative value of the materials. Copper has a Brinell (hardness) value of 35. Mix it with 10% tin produces a bronze alloy with a hardness of 88. Wrought iron is about 100 and modern steel is 100-150 before forging and 246 after. If you hammer the bronze alloy you can drive the hardness to 228, proving that bronze was adequate in hardness when compared to iron. Two Egyptian iron knives have been discovered, air dried and not quenched, with a hardness of 302 – a stunning example of craftsmanship.

In the end, there were two main difficulties with transitioning completely from bronze to iron in Greece. In the first place the process of making iron products continued to be very technical and the number of smiths with mastery over it were relatively small. Secondly, many items made of bronze were cast in molds – a process that could not be performed in iron until centuries later. The iron making skill varied by geography and some locations were decades behind others in developing the craft, probably due to the lack of skilled smiths.

Counteracting these problems was the availability of iron which was significant relative to the copper and tin supplies needed to manufacture bronze. Greece had to import both copper and tin from Cyprus and the Levant, while iron was available in the islands, Southern Peloponnese, Central Greece, and Macedonia. Manufacturing iron removed the dependence on materials from overseas and gave the Greeks the freedom to control their own supply of weapons and other metal objects.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Plato’s Protagoras, the Abilities of Man, and Virtue

The Greeks of antiquity were remarkable not only for being the first great thinkers, but also for the depth of their thinking. In the cruel world of antiquity where living itself was a struggle, they contemplated the unity of man and his relationship with others of his species. This manner of deep thinking is vividly demonstrated in Platos’ dialogs, specifically in The Protagoras.

Plato, in the Protagoras, uses the famous sophist of that name to explain how man was given the skills he needed to survive in the world. One of them, virtue, must be taught because it does not come easily to human beings.

Socrates asserts that virtue cannot be taught and Protagoras, disagreeing, responds in the following way:

“Once upon a time there were gods only, and no mortal creatures. But when the time came that these also should be created, the gods fashioned them out of earth and fire and various mixtures of both elements in the interior of the earth; and when they were about to bring them into the light of day, they ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them, and to distribute to them severally their proper qualities. Epimetheus said to Prometheus: "Let me distribute, and you inspect." This was agreed, and Epimetheus made the distribution. There were some to whom he gave strength without swiftness, while he equipped the weaker with swiftness; some he armed, and others he left unarmed; and devised for the latter some other means of preservation, making some large, and having their size as a protection, and others small, whose nature was to fly in the air or burrow in the ground; this was to be their way of escape…

Thus did Epimetheus, who, not being very wise, forgot that he had distributed among the brute animals all the qualities which he had to give-and when he came to man, who was still unprovided, he was terribly perplexed. Now while he was in this perplexity, Prometheus came to inspect the distribution, and he found that the other animals were suitably furnished, but that man alone was naked and shoeless, and had neither bed nor arms of defense.

The appointed hour was approaching when man in his turn was to go forth into the light of day; and Prometheus, not knowing how he could devise his salvation, stole the mechanical arts of Hephaestus and Athena, and fire with them and gave them to man. Thus man had the wisdom necessary to the support of life, but political wisdom he had not…

Now man, having a share of the divine attributes, was at first the only one of the animals who had any gods, because he alone was of their kindred; and he would raise altars and images of them. He was not long in inventing articulate speech and names; and he also constructed houses and clothes and shoes and beds, and drew sustenance from the earth. Thus provided, mankind at first lived dispersed, and there were no cities. But the consequence was that they were destroyed by the wild beasts, for they were utterly weak in comparison of them, and their art was only sufficient to provide them with the means of life, and did not enable them to carry on war against the animals: food they had, but not as yet the art of government, of which the art of war is a part. After a while the desire of self-preservation gathered them into cities; but when they were gathered together, having no art of government, they evil entreated one another, and were again in process of dispersion and destruction. Zeus feared that the entire race would be exterminated, and so he sent Hermes to them, bearing reverence and justice to be the ordering principles of cities and the bonds of friendship and conciliation. Hermes asked Zeus how he should impart justice and reverence among men: Should he distribute them as the arts are distributed; that is to say, to a favored few only, one skilled individual having enough of medicine or of any other art for many unskilled ones? "Shall this be the manner in which I am to distribute justice and reverence among men, or shall I give them to all?" "To all," said Zeus; "I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts…

And this is the reason, Socrates, why the Athenians and mankind in general, when the question relates to carpentering or any other mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations; and when anyone else interferes, then, as you say, they object, if he be not of the favored few; which, as I reply, is very natural. But when they meet to deliberate about political virtue, which proceeds only by way of justice and wisdom, they are patient enough of any man who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states could not exist if this were otherwise…

And that you may not suppose yourself to be deceived in thinking that all men regard every man as having a share of justice or honesty and of every other political virtue, let me give you a further proof, which is this. In other cases, as you are aware, if a man says that he is a good flute-player, or skilful in any other art in which he has no skill, people either laugh at him or are angry with him, and his relations think that he is mad and go and admonish him; but when honesty is in question, or some other political virtue, even if they know that he is dishonest, yet, if the man comes publicly forward and tells the truth about his dishonesty, then, what in the other case was held by them to be good sense, they now deem to be madness. They say that all men ought to profess honesty whether they are honest or not, and that a man is out of his mind who says anything else. Their notion is, that a man must have some degree of honesty; and that if he has none at all he ought not to be in the world.”

A man should be removed from society if he admits he is not virtuous, because virtue is a requirement for men to live together.

Protagoras is saying that society contains some men who have no potentiality for virtue and, therefore, have no place in society. The great majority, however, have the ability to learn justice and respect for others if they are willing to be taught. We do not ridicule men who are deformed because they cannot help their condition, but men with vices are admonished when they operate contrary to civic virtue. Men are punished not because of the crime they committed but to prevent the next crime --punishment teaches virtue.

The overarching political theme of the Sophists is the unity of man through the talents given him by the gods.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Marathon of Goats

Prior to the Battle of Marathon the Athenians prayed to the gods to bring them victory in battle. They promised to sacrifice one goat for each Persian soldier slain in battle if they were victorious.

After the battle was won, the Athenians were very meticulous about counting the dead because they wanted to make sure to honor their promise. When the count was complete, the tally was 6,500 dead Persians against 192 Athenians killed. Shocked by the shear scale of their victory, the Athenians realized that they did not have 6,500 goats available so they decided to sacrifice 500 goats per year for thirteen years in order to meet their commitment to the gods.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How Cleisthenes Saved the Athenian Polis

The Athenian Polis traveled a crooked road in the hundred years before true democracy was achieved under Cleisthenes. The story and the dynamics at work in Athens during the sixth century B.C. are the subject of this article.

Prior to the reforms of Solon, the Athenian political system was controlled by a group of aristocratic families – the Eupatridai or “well born ones”. Notice that “patri” (father) serves as the root of this word like it does in the Roman word patrician. In both cases we see a government managed by a group of families claiming legitimacy through longevity – a kind of original authority.

The senior magistrates of Athens, the Archons, as members of the Eupatridai, controlled the machinery of government. After a year in office each Archon joined a group of elders called the Areopagos, which, among its several powers, controlled Athenian citizenship by determining who qualified to be members of the Phratries or kinship groups. Another source of power, held by the Eupatridai, was control over property. They managed most of the land in Attica by claiming authority over public land. The commons were hired as tenants to work this land and forced to pay one sixth of their crop value as rent.

These issues of governmental power and land control were causing great dissatisfaction among the Athenian people at the beginning of the sixth century. The universal authority of the Eupatridai was opposed by a rising middle class (similar to the Equites of Rome) who had acquired wealth through their own hard work, but had no access to power. At the same time, tenants working the fields began to agitate for a re-distribution of land, so they could own property and take control of their lives.

Enter Solon, the lawgiver, elected Archon in 594 B.C, who decided to remedy all injustices against the common people. Solon implemented a sweeping set of new laws designed to address the concerns of the disadvantaged, but not go so far as to upset the aristocratic class. He was truly walking a tightrope.

With respect to the government, Solon organized citizens into four classes by wealth. The second class, Hippeis, included those of “new money” who were now allowed to run for Archon. He provided for all citizens to participate in the Ecclesia (assembly) and the lower classes to have their own court system (Heliaia). The Heliaia had to power to elect officials and indict them for crimes against the people. Solon is also said to have created the Council of 400 as a consultative body to the Ecclesia.

Solon’s efforts in land reforms included what was labeled Seisachtheia, or shaking off of burdens. Contracts dictated by the Horoi (boundary stones) were annulled and use of a debtor’s physical body as collateral was prohibited. All citizens who had been enslaved were freed.

In the economic arena, Solon encouraged fathers to find professions for their sons. Foreign tradesmen were given incentives to settle in Athens in order to stimulate trade. Cultivation of olives was encouraged, but export of other foodstuffs prohibited. Weights and standards were improved to make Athenian goods more competitive.

These reforms pleased no one and everyone causing Solon to characterize himself as “a wolf turning around among many dogs”. His work done, he resigned the Archonship and left Athens for ten years. Unfortunately his reforms were too moderate to create permanent stability and the rivalry continued among the aristocratic families.

In 561 B.C, there were three factions competing for control of the Athenian Polis: Hyperakrioi of the city under Pisistratus, the Paraloi of the coastal region under Magacles, and the Pediakoi under Lycurgus from the plains region. That year Pisistratus faked an assassination attempt on himself and seized the Acropolis. The democracy then fell when he took control as a tyrant by out maneuvering his opponents.

Pisistratus was banished twice but came back each time and ruled until his death in 527 B.C. He did not change the laws of Solon, but he maintained a private army and had his friends placed in important positions in the government. His income from the silver mines at Mount Laurium were used to benefit the Athenian people by securing the Athenian grain supply, distributing land to the sons of Hektemoroi, and employing the urban poor in building projects. His reign carried on the reforms of Solon and the people became comfortable with a tyrant who brought them stability.

Following the death of Pisistratus, his sons Hipparchus and Hippias reigned until Hipparchus was murdered in 514 by a rival faction. Hippias became a paranoid and ruled cruelly until 510 when the Spartans were enlisted to come to Athens and depose him.

By 508 B.C, the rivals Isagoras and Cleisthenes were competing for control of the Athenian Polis. Isagoras played the Spartan card one time too many and when the Spartans came to his aid they were repulsed by the angry Athenians. This left the door open for Cleisthenes to push for another set of reforms designed to carry forward the goals of Solon.

Cleisthenes innovations were brilliant. He re-organized the Athenian tribes by placing demes from each geographical area (Athens, coast, and plains) in the same tribe breaking up the regional factions that had traditionally been rivals. The chart below shows this tribal organization.

Trittys are groups of three Demes so each tribe consisted of nine Demes.

He also took Solon’s council of 400 and made it a council of 500 containing fifty representatives from each of the ten tribes. Members were chosen by lot making it the most democratic body possible.

These two great innovations created the political stability that would propel Athens forward for two hundred and fifty years. The new organization was a “democracy” because it gave direct power to the people through the assembly, and that power was greater than that held by the aristocratic families.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

More Dialog on Egypt

As I said yesterday, in Egypt we see a revolution in real time. What will happen, we cannot guess, but if there is an overthrow of the political system, it will echo across the Middle East.

Let us tamp down our idealism for a moment and look at the way people view government. As Americans, we think we have the best political system and that other countries should emulate what we have. That can’t happen for many reasons and we have to accept the fact that our political system may not be suited to other cultures.

I’ve come to believe that the overarching theme between people and their government has to do with freedom and the ability to control one’s life no matter what the political system.

Let’s examine Russia for a moment. Russia routinely polls their people and asks, “What Russian leader do you have the most respect for and what person you would like to lead the country?” The winner is almost always Stalin – the man who murdered 40 million of his own countrymen and runs neck and neck with Hitler for the title of worst human being of the twentieth century.

So what’s the lesson here? The Russian people have suffered under an autocratic regime for most of the county’s existence so that’s what they’re used to They feel uncomfortable with something different even if it is more democratic. People would rather ignore their government as long as it doesn’t interfere with their lives. If they perceive that the government is unfair and limits their opportunity to obtain what others have, they become dissatisfied.

Democracy can be an illusion if it is not successful. After all, people do not know how to govern themselves. They need leaders to take care of that for them. Those leaders, in turn, must govern in a way that produces stability and opportunity, regardless of the model.

Back to Athens we go quoting from Zimmern in The Greek Commonwealth, “It takes generations of teaching, not by argument but by suffering, before a people, however politically gifted, can be induced to take the trouble to govern itself. The Athenians took to politics as easily, and were as politically gifted, as any community in history. Yet their acceptance of self-government was tentative and hesitating. It came late, and almost as an afterthought, in the development of their polity.”

Aristocracy, early Polis, Draco, Solon’s reforms and their rejection, tyrants, and then the good work of Clisthenes before the Athenians had a stable system. It’s always a stew of timing -- the wealthy, and the commons getting to a mutually acceptable place at the same time.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Turmoil in Egypt and Its Link to Antiquity

The current turmoil in Egypt reminds me of the fall of the Soviet system in 1989: a wave of political emotion which erupted when countries with a common cause chose a path for change. The Soviet house of cards fell without a whimper.

Now we have the same thing happening in the land of Arab dictators.

The majority of Arab states are currently controlled by dictators, including Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. The recent unrest in Tunisia has sparked a new wave, which has already spread to Egypt and Jordan, and may go further depending on the momentum created.

Looking at these events from a theoretical standpoint is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we are seeing people come together to demand freedom and move to overcome a repressive regime. Although we don’t know the outcome, we hope for a change for the better in these countries. Second, we are witnessing history real time: the history we read about in the ancient world and wish we had experienced.

From a practical standpoint, we hope that bloodshed is minimized. This is certainly a wild card which depends on the path the regime wants to take.

I am reminded of the Age of the Tyrants in ancient Greece (650-510 B.C), which was referenced in an article I posted on November 3rd 2009. The Greek tyrants were an intermediate step between aristocratic political systems and the advent of the Polis. Tyrants rose to power because the aristocratic forms were oppressive and the people chose to support anyone who could replace the old rulers. Oddly, the tyrants were benevolent rulers in most cases and avoided the oppression we associate with the classical definition of a tyrant. Ultimately, they were deposed when their rule proved uneven and their attempts to establish hereditary control failed. The result was the Polis; a kind of evolved balance of power between the wealthy and the commoners.

Does any of the history relate to what we see in Egypt today? Revolutions often start with mobs, because mobs have uncontrollable power. But they are only the catalysts, not the engine of change, because mobs cannot run a government and they do not have the power to take control. The engine of the revolution is the power class and usually the military. Egypt’s last three leaders have been military men who have been closely aligned with and supported by their troops, so in this case the military is critically important. Whatever transition is derived from the current unrest must be formulated by a combination of those who will allow power to flow in a new direction and those who will take that power to lead.

How different are today’s events from those of the time of the Greek tyrants? One factor in the modern case is the students, who were not an organized block in ancient Greece. The Egyptian students are educated but have no prospects for jobs because of the economic situation in their country. They have heard how life can be better by communicating with their peers in other countries. So we have the second factor of technology at work. We can see how the internet and cell phones have destroyed a government’s ability to control the flow of information and prevent their people from finding out the truth.

The rest of the story is the same across the centuries.

Egypt was a British protectorate until given independence in 1922. The British stayed until 1956 when Nasser took over and created a form of socialist government, later undone by Sadat and Mubarak. Their goal was to increase the private sector economy, but change has been slow and a centralized government continues to rule without legitimate opposition. We have power and wealth on one side against those who are deprived of freedom and opportunity.

In the case of Athens under the tyrants, the same forces were opposed. Clisthenes gets the credit for breaking the mold and building a democracy after the tyrant Hippias was deposed. Clisthenes broke the back of the powerful by dividing four tribes into 139 demes, diluting their power. He then created the assembly of 500 elected by lot to prevent any aggregation of power. His solution worked for two and a half centuries.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Greece – Decline of the Polis in the 4th Century B.C.

The Peloponnesian War was a defining event in the history of Greek politics, economics, and culture. Athens was devastated and the victor, Sparta, ill-equipped culturally to perform the task of ruler, took over. Less than a year later, the Spartan thirty were thrown out, and the Athenian Polis returned.

Returned to what?

The wheels which would unravel Athens had already started turning and nothing could stop them.

The first act in this tragedy was the rise of the Sophists. I’ve written previously about how Sophism took hold in Athens during the middle of the Golden Age, circa 450 B.C, and what it meant to Athenian philosophy. What began as a method to educate the sons of the wealthy grew beyond what anyone could have imagined. The Sophist’s vision was man-centric and not Polis centric – focused on the failures of the old system as proof that a change was needed. Under their influence, the educated Greek became self-confident, cosmopolitan, and a universal man, sharing nature with all other men. The laws of nature (physics) became a dominant philosophy, replacing the laws of gods and men. As Protagoras said, “man is the measure of all things.”

This is relativism grown out of man’s respect for himself, similar to the Enlightenment two thousand years later. Now secularism followed relativism as the old gods seemed to grow tired and ineffective. The credibility of sophist’s view was accelerated by the failure of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. “If Athenian politics were so wonderful, why were the people now starving?” was the question on everyone’s mind.

Conservatives like Socrates, and his pupil Plato, reacted adversely to the ideas put forth by the Sophists, who they saw as too radical. Plato, late in his career, wrote Laws to describe how a state must keep control over its citizens, and in doing so exposed his fear of the changes being advocated by the Sophists.

Economically, Greece was devastated by the Peloponnesian War. She was too weak to maintain a navy – required to protect her merchant fleet and her Poleis were restless about their autonomy. They wanted to exert power to go with the pride they felt, but they also harbored distrust for alliances that might lead to war. This was the time when Greece could have held on to her power by uniting as a nation, but she was not able to do so.

Sparta felt it had to control Greece to protect itself but did not have the skill. She was engaged in a series of adventures during the thirty year period after the Peloponnesian War until Leuctra, when her military might was destroyed for good.

Thebes stepped in and tried for nine years (371-62) to control northern Greece, but following the Battle of Mantinea, her hegemony came to an end. By 355 B.C. all Greece was exhausted and in disarray.

Now was time for Philip of Macedonia to appear; a man so strong of will that a divided Greece could not stop him. The Athenians, led by Demosthenes, tried their best to maintain Greek autonomy, but the end for Athens came at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. As victor, Philip convened the League of Corinth, including in it all the Greek powers except Sparta who refused to participate.

Loss of military and economic control was the larger symptom of the decay that lay beneath the surface when the cleavage between rich and poor began to have a destabilizing effect on Greek politics. The willingness of the poor to subscribe to the idealism of the Polis was now worn away and their desire for equal rights was out in the open. The people wanted a re-distribution of land and a cancellation of debts or else. The rich, for their own part, formed oligarchic clubs as a way to maintain control. Aristotle quoted one of the club’s oaths: “I will be an enemy to the people, and devise all the harm against them which I can.”

Culturally, the fourth century was very different from its predecessor as rhetoric and prose became important tools for communication. Rhetoric had a particularly powerful impact because of its detachment of form from content. There was no longer a “correct” point of view to be supported by argument, because rhetoric could be used effectively on either side. The argument’s winner was determined by style and not truth.

In the area of plastic arts, decorated pottery declined as an art form after a millennium of prominence. The wealthy began to buy iron vessels which were manufactured without decoration. Without a market for their skills, pottery artists turned their talents to wall paintings and other forms of decoration. Artistic styles transitioned from Classic to Mannerist.

I have summarized in this article a process that will take many future posts to analyze; the reasons and experience behind the withering of the Greek Polis. We’ve seen this same cycle so many times in the history of man. A civilization rises to a peak and then drops off -- an inevitable response to the changes in people, their attitudes, and changes in the balance of power within a political system.