One more thing. We discuss the Polis generically until the rise of Athens because its evolution occurred across the Greek peninsula. One of the reasons for the success of the Polis was the number of cities and towns that served as laboratories for its development. Eventually Athens would become the standard and take the structure of the Polis to its endpoint.
We start with the chronology shown above. By 1100 B.C, Mycenae had fallen, dragging the Greek world into its own version of the Dark Ages. It took three hundred years to recover. During those three centuries, slowly but surely, a political system was created.
The military leader, or Basileus, was the first step. No royalty survived the Mycenaean collapse, so all that remained were aristocrats who possessed wealth but no legitimacy to rule. The Basileus, were not wealthy, but emerged because they possessed an uncommon skill – military prowess. The wealthy granted them one and only one power – control of the militia, and that power was confined to the local village or town -- not beyond. With the Basileus well established, the Greeks could have gone in either of two directions politically: strengthening collective action through a complex political organization or moving toward personal leadership. There is evidence that the latter was attempted; that the Basileus became more powerful. But that path was a dead end and they were eventually replaced by an administrator type – similar to the Archons of Athens. The Basileus lacked the historical requirements for personal leadership – wealth, a significant following among the people, and precedent. Ultimately, the people were unwilling to cede power and make them kings. Instead, they kept power for themselves and elected administrators they could control.
Even as a dead end, the Basileus was important to the future development of the Polis because it was the first structural element of an non-hereditary authority – a building block of the future Polis.
In the first half of the Archaic Period, which began in 800 B.C, the threads of the new political system became tighter as a result of two forces: aristocratic power and the unification of the lower class. In the former case, the aristocrats became a power class by banding together based on common interests and employing administrative types to carry out the operations of a rudimentary government. Concurrently, the tactical view of battle evolved and the Phalanx became the Greek’s prime military formation. As I have discussed in previous articles, the Phalanx gave power to the common people because it was a large scale military organization of equals. One they realized what they had, the people began asking for a part in government. The result was power sharing between themselves and the aristocrats.
By 650 B.C. the young Polis was functional but weak -- its structure lacking the power and legitimacy to exercise complete authority over the society. The delicate political balance between the aristocrats and the common people had produced a stalemate. It wasn’t long before that balance was upset by the aristocrats, who became more oppressive, driving popular support away from them and toward anyone who would stand for the people. Ultimately, tyrants stepped in and took power for themselves. The incubator of Democracy had rejected pure aristocratic power as an unworkable political system.
Oddly, the tyrants turned out to be benign rulers for the most part. They did not abuse their power but, instead, found ways to move their society forward. Herodotus wrote,
“not having disturbed the existing magistrates nor changed the ancient laws… they administered the State under that constitution of things which was already established, ordering it fairly and well”
Aristotle wrote, of Peisistratus, that “his administration was temperate…and more like constitutional government than a tyranny.”
Tyrants came to power because the early Polis did not have enough democracy in it to foster the long term stability that would come later. In the end, they corrupted themselves by attempting to prolong control as hereditary models but failed because of uneven governance. Fortunately, the Polis had not retrogressed, so it did not have to regain ground before it could advance again.
So we move on to the period, starting in 510 B.C, where the Polis rises to its zenith, helped along by visionaries who sought to build a structure that would be stable, enduring, and divide power fairly. The strength of the Polis would often be tested over the next eighty years, and it would survive.
The first visionary, Clisthenes, blocked an effort by Isagoras to reverse the rising independence of the lower classes in 508 B.C. Clisthenes intended to permanently break the power of local social units in favor of the state, and to make sure power was permanently placed in the hands of the people. He organized the populace into demes or political units numbering about 140, requiring that each tribe contain demes located in the country, the city, and the coast so that self-interest would be equally distributed.
He also established a council of 500, consisting of 50 men from each tribe. The 500 were chosen by lot to make insure their independence. The council had responsibility for preparing bills for the assembly and supervising public business.
These reforms were tested immediately when Athens was attacked by Boetia and Chalcis in 506 B.C. Both were defeated and the balance between the classes held. The Polis was further strengthened by the wars with Persia. When Athens was attacked and occupied in 480 B.C, unity among the people, created to fight a common enemy, strengthened the bond between them and kept the Athenian political system together.
The second important Athenian visionary was Pericles, who instituted a variety of reforms after 461 B.C. An aristocrat, Pericles had the gifts of intelligence and leadership. He became the leader of the council of ten generals and served as the de facto leader of Athens until his death from the plague in 429 B.C. During his tenure, Pericles passed laws allowing poor citizens to attend plays for free, and began a system of compensation for magistrates and jurors. This allowed a broader spectrum of the populace to participate in government. He also lowered the property qualification for the archonship to help breakup the monopoly of the aristocratic class. The time of Pericles has been labeled the “Golden Age” of Athens because the stable, open democracy provided the fuel for continued Athenian intellectual development.
Still, there is a paradox in the label, because the high point of the Polis was also the beginning of the end. The accomplishments of the Athenians made them arrogant and they abused their partners in the Delan League. Hubris had them believing they could defeat the Spartan Army so they launched the Peloponnesean War in 431 B.C, only to see their political system destroyed after twenty seven years of conflict.
With Athens weak, 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 forever. Thebes stepped in and spent nine years (371-62) trying to control northern Greece, but following the Battle of Mantinea its hegemony came to an end. Greece was now vulnerable as a divided people and that division would leave it ripe for the taking by an autocrat.
Philip of Macedonia was the man whose strong will would overcome a fragmented Greece. The Athenians, led by Demosthenes, tried their best to oppose him, but the end for Athens came at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. As victor, Philip convened the League of Corinth, including all the Greek powers except Sparta who refused to participate. Now the Polis had reached the end of its life, superseded by autocratic rule. The reign of Philip and his son Alexander, the Diodochi, and regional kings occupied Greece until the Macedonian Wars with Rome made her a client state.
The Polis had lasted four hundred years. During that time it evolved into the greatest of the antiquarian political systems. But, like all systems man has created, it would fall. No concept or belief system can remain static because it must adapt to its time. Evolution brings risks and eventually the political structure fails to meet the needs of its people.