Friday, November 30, 2012

Solon and the Polis

In the previous post, I outlined the life cycle of the Polis and included a chronology showing the significant events it its history. The chronology had one notation that was not mentioned in the post (Solon), so I am going to correct that omission here.

Solon was one of the most important figures of his time and on a short list of the greatest Greek politicians. He was an educated aristocrat, successful businessman, and poet. According to Plutarch, Solon had four character traits seldom found in one man: patriotism, integrity, political genius, and intelligence. And we must not leave out ambition – he wanted the job of saving the Athenian state.

As  previously discussed, the Period of Tyrants dated from ~ 650 B.C. to 510 B.C. when Hippias was expelled from Athens. Solon was active during the middle of this period.

In 632 B.C, the opportunist Cylon tried to establish himself as a tyrant of, but failed. He had achieved victory at the Olympic Games and used his fame to gather supporters and take control of the Acropolis. Lured out of hiding with the promises of a pardon, Cylon and his followers were murdered by members of the aristocratic Alcmeonidae family. Athens was not ready to tolerate a tyrant.

A decade later in 621 B.C. the citizens of Athens asked a legislator named Draco to codify Athenian law for the first time. The results of his work were unduly harsh specifying the death penalty for even minor offences.

…he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones."

By 600 B.C, Athenian politics was in complete disarray. The last decades had seen their pottery trade fall behind its Corinthian competition, and the aristocratic class had become more ruthless. Poor farmers became serfs of the rich when they could not pay their debts, and the landless were enslaved and sold abroad. Territorial groups could not be controlled by the weak central government.

As Plutarch tells it, “The state was divided into as many factions as there were parts of the country, for the Diakrii, or mountaineers, favored democracy; the Pedioei, oligarchy; while those who dwelt along the seashore, called Parali, preferred a constitution midway between these two forms, and thus prevented either of the other parties from carrying their point. Moreover, the state was on the verge of revolution, because of the excessive poverty of some citizens, and the enormous wealth of others, and it appeared that the only means of putting an end to these disorders was by establishing an absolute despotism.”

Enter Solon.

Again Plutarch sets the stage.

“In this position of affairs, the most sensible men in Athens perceived that Solon was a person who shared the vices of neither faction, as he took no part in the oppressive conduct of the wealthy, and yet had sufficient fortune to save him from the straits to which the poor were reduced. In consequence of this, they begged him to come forward and end their disputes.

But Phanias of Lesbos says that Solon deceived both parties, in order to save the state, promising the poor a redistribution of lands, and the rich a confirmation of their securities. However, Solon himself tells us that it was with reluctance that he interfered, as he was threatened by the avarice of the one party, and the desperation of the other. He was chosen Archon next after Philombrotus (594 B.C.), to act as an arbitrator and lawgiver at once, because the rich had confidence in him as a man of easy fortune, and the poor trusted him as a good man. It is said also that a saying which he had let fall some time before, that "equality does not breed strife," was much circulated at the time, and pleased both parties, because the rich thought it meant that property should be distributed according to merit and desert, while the poor thought it meant according to rule and measure. Both parties were now elate with hope, and their leaders urged Solon to seize the supreme power in the state, of which he was practically possessed, and make himself king.”

Solon consulted the Oracle at Delphi which said,

“Take thou the helm, the vessel guide,
Athens will rally to thy side.”

But he refused the monarchy saying in his own verse,

"Not a clever man was Solon, not a calculating mind,
For he would not take the kingdom, which the gods to him inclined,
In his net he caught the prey, but would not draw it forth to land,
Overpowered by his terrors, feeble both of heart and hand;
For a man of greater spirit would have occupied the throne,
Proud to be the Lord of Athens, though 'twere for a day alone,
Though the next day he and his into oblivion were thrown."

As senior Archon, Solon chose to proceed quietly to administer so as to

            Not disturb or overset the state

Because if he did he would not have sufficient power to re-constitute and organize again. To rule properly, Solon thought it best to “Combine force and justice together”.

So he started changing Laws. What laws? Nearly all of them.

Solon cancelled all debts and obligations in Athens. He repealed the dreaded Draconian criminal code and substituted his own. Then he wrote a new constitution. Those born of free Attican parents would become citizens of Athens.

The populace would be divided into four classes based on wealth with the top three classes eligible for the magistracies formerly only available to the aristocrats. The lowest class was barred from magistracies but allowed to serve on juries. Solon also made decisions of the magistrate’s court subject to appeal to a special court (Heliaia) which had no judge.

And on he went. He suppressed dowries, barred men from speaking evil of the dead, allowed wills to give property to a friend if no relative was available, regulated the journeys of women, encouraged trade, barred exports except for oil, and allowed foreigners to become Athenian citizens.

Solon was no democrat, because he believed in the reality of the distribution of wealth. Anticipating the Roman Republic, which was  ninety years in the future, he rejected equality – choosing instead a way of creating a balance between the classes. He believed the creation of a middle class would neutralize the conflict between the upper and lower, precisely the role the Knights would take in Republican Rome.

Solon’s year in power came to an end with passions high, yet there was enough support in each class for his reforms to keep the Polis stable. He ordered the new laws to be in force for one hundred years, and then, to the surprise of many, resigned his post and left Athens for ten years.

The balance of forces did not last. Returning to Athens as an old man in 561, Solon witnessed Peisistratus become a tyrant. He died two years later and his ashes were scattered around the Island of Salamis. When the last tyrant, Hippias, was exiled in 510 B.C, the first act of the Athenian government was to re-institute the laws of Solon.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lifecycle of the Greek Polis

I have written several articles about the Polis -- mainly focused on pieces of its history. It’s hard to put the tell the whole story given the space limits of a blog, but I’ve decided to make the attempt here because the Polis is so important to Western Civilization as the model for modern political systems and Democracy. We’ll conserve space by sticking to the main inflection points in its history – the forces that propelled its development forward.

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.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Caesar Against Vercingetorix – The Siege of Alesia

In 52 B.C. Julius Caesar, near the end of his war against Gaul, had one great enemy left – the charismatic Arvernian, Vercingetorix. Expelled from Gergovia, for being too rash, Vercingetorix raised an army on his own, and assumed the role of commander. His strategy against Caesar was simple -- use superior cavalry to harass the Romans and drive them away. Caesar, understanding his own weakness, compensated by recruiting Germans to strengthen his own cavalry units. After a series of reversals, Vercingetorix was forced to retreat to the walled city of Alesia with his army of 80,000.

No obstacle would deter Caesar, however. He knew direct attack was impossible because of the hilltop position of the city, so he planned a siege to starve the Gauls into surrender. Caesar had 12 legions with auxiliaries ready to bring to bear on the enemy. It was mid-summer, 52 B.C.

The image above shows the Gallic camp, town of Alesia, and the Roman fortifications.

This image is a view from the west showing the geography.

For this post we focus on the engineering aspects of the battle, as we did with the Masada and Rhine bridge posts. Here again the tenacity of the Roman people and the skill of their engineers would provide the margin of victory.

Let’s start with The Conquest of Gaul Book 7 chapter LXIX to set the scene.

“The town itself was situated on the top of a hill, in a very lofty position, so that it did not appear likely to be taken, except by a regular siege. Two rivers, on two different sides, washed the foot of the hill. Before the town lay a plain of about three miles in length; on every other side hills at a moderate distance, and of an equal degree of height, surrounded the town. The army of the Gauls had filled all the space under the wall, comprising the part of the hill which looked to the rising sun, and had drawn in front a trench and a stone wall six feet high. The circuit of that fortification, which was commenced by the Romans, comprised eleven miles. The camp was pitched in a strong position, and twenty-three redoubts were raised in it, in which sentinels were placed by day, lest any sally should be made suddenly; and by night the same were occupied by watches and strong guards.”

Before the circumvallation could be completed, however, Vercingetorix sent a party of tribal leaders through the breech on a mission to recruit allies and bring them back as reinforcements. We move on to chapter LXXII.

“Caesar, on learning these proceedings from the deserters and captives, adopted the following system of fortification; he dug a trench twenty feet deep, with perpendicular sides, in such a manner that the base of this trench should extend so far as the edges were apart at the top. He raised all his other works at a distance of four hundred feet from that ditch; [he did] that with this intention, lest (since he necessarily embraced so extensive an area, and the whole works could not be easily surrounded by a line of soldiers) a large number of the enemy should suddenly, or by night, sally against the fortifications; or lest they should by day cast weapons against our men while occupied with the works. Having left this interval, he drew two trenches fifteen feet broad, and of the same depth; the innermost of them, being in low and level ground, he filled with water conveyed from the river. Behind these he raised a rampart and wall twelve feet high: to this he added a parapet and battlements, with large stakes cut like stags' horns, projecting from the junction of the parapet and battlements, to prevent the enemy from scaling it, and surrounded the entire work with turrets, which were eighty feet distant from one another.”

Then the Romans began to construct the countervallation.

This photo shows the hills of Alesia from the Roman line.

Above is a portion of the reconstructed Roman fortifications.

“It was necessary, at one and the same time, to procure timber [for the rampart], lay in supplies of corn, and raise also extensive fortifications, and the available troops were in consequence of this reduced in number, since they used to advance to some distance from the camp, and sometimes the Gauls endeavored to attack our works, and to make a sally from the town by several gates and in great force. On which Caesar thought that further additions should be made to these works, in order that the fortifications might be defensible by a small number of soldiers. Having, therefore, cut down the trunks of trees or very thick branches, and having stripped their tops of the bark, and sharpened them into a point, he drew a continued trench everywhere five feet deep. These stakes being sunk into this trench, and fastened firmly at the bottom, to prevent the possibility of their being torn up, had their branches only projecting from the ground. There were five rows in connection with, and intersecting each other; and whoever entered within them were likely to impale themselves on very sharp stakes. The soldiers called these "cippi." Before these, which were arranged in oblique rows in the form of a quincunx, pits three feet deep were dug, which gradually diminished in depth to the bottom. In these pits tapering stakes, of the thickness of a man's thigh, sharpened at the top and hardened in the fire, were sunk in such a manner as to project from the ground not more than four inches; at the same time for the purpose of giving them strength and stability, they were each filled with trampled clay to the height of one foot from the bottom: the rest of the pit was covered over with osiers and twigs, to conceal the deceit. Eight rows of this kind were dug, and were three feet distant from each other. They called this a lily from its resemblance to that flower. Stakes a foot long, with iron hooks attached to them, were entirely sunk in the ground before these, and were planted in every place at small intervals; these they called spurs.

After completing these works, having selected as level ground as he could, considering the nature of the country, and having enclosed an area of fourteen miles, he constructed, against an external enemy, fortifications of the same kind in every respect, and separate from these, so that the guards of the fortifications could not be surrounded even by immense numbers, if such a circumstance should take place owing to the departure of the enemy's cavalry; and in order that the Roman soldiers might not be compelled to go out of the camp with great risk, he orders all to provide forage and corn for thirty days.”

In late September, a relief force of eighty thousand Gauls arrived and both Gallic forces attacked the Romans – one from the inside and one from the outside. Caesar sent his cavalry against the relief force while his army fought off an attack from those trying to breakout from the city. Neither Gallic army was able to penetrate the fortifications. The next day Vercingetorix concentrated a new attack force against a weak spot in the inner fortifications. His army successfully broke through but were attacked from behind by Roman cavalry that had ridden around the outer ring to their rear. Caesar, himself, appeared with the troops trying to close the gap and the Romans were ultimately successful.

With their reinforcements routed, and no further hope to break the siege, Silesia surrendered and handed over Vercingetorix to Caesar, who imprisoned him for six years and then paraded him through Rome before his execution.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sparta -- Ancient Map and Clans

On June 14, 2009 I published the following map of ancient Sparta showing the location of the villages/clans.

Unfortunately, the map has the tribes incorrectly located. This post ranks fourth in popularity and the thought of readers being exposed to incorrect information is unacceptable to me, so we must rebuild the map.

Searching the web (or looking in the literature) for maps of Sparta is difficult. The few examples one can find are eighteenth century posters, most notably the one by the Frenchman Bocage which first appeared in 1783. It appears that I used this to mark up my own map. I have recently read that Bocage’s map contained misinterpretations from ancient writings. Of course, he did not have the benefit of modern archeology which would have been helpful.

Now examine my rework of the map.

And I quote Toynbee’s description of the villages and clans:

“Thus, about 700 B.C., there were at Sparta, over and above the three privileged clan groups, five locally organized communities, embracing both the clansmen and a large unprivileged population besides. These five were: Pitane, the seat of the Agiadai-clan and their clients (containing the burial place of the Agiad phratria: N.W. of the agora: Limnai, the seat of the Eurypontidai clan and their clients (tombs of the Eurypontid phratria, on the street which seems to have branched N.E. from the agora) on the low lands bordering the Eurotas-bed: Kynosoura, the long ridge S. of Limnai, occupied by the community from Lakedaimon: and Mesoa, between these three, and S. of the agora, occupied by the Minyai from Therai and their clients. Lastly, Amyklai, two miles S. of the Tiasa (Magoula) river, left in possession of its old inhabitants.”

Of course, Leonidas was of the Agiad line. Menelaos (husband of Helen and brother of Agamemnon) was Kynosouran. Forklore has it that Menelaos migrated from Therapne (old Lakedaimon) to the west bank of the Eurotos and later the Spartan people became Lakedaimons. There is a shrine to Menelaos at Therapne.

And there's that fifth village that was part of Sparta -- Amyklai. The map below shows it separation from the others.