Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Thirty Tyrants

The Spartan terms for peace for the end of the Peloponnesean War dictated that the Athenians tear down their long walls (connecting Peiraieus to Athens), surrender all ships but twelve, allow their exiles to return, have the same friends and enemies as the Spartans, and follow the Spartans as their leaders. There were Spartan allies who wanted Athens razed, but the Ephors said no. They believed that no one should destroy a people who had given so much to the Greek culture.

Once the long walls were destroyed the Athenian assembly was asked to choose thirty men to rewrite their laws. The names of the chosen were Polychares, Kritias, Melobios, Hippolochos, Eucleides, Hieron, Mnesilochos, Chremon, Theramenes, Aresias, Diokles, Phaedrias, Chaireleos, Anaitios, Peison, Sophocles, Eratosthenes, Charicles, Onomacles, Theognis, Aeschines, Theogenes, Cleomedes, Erasistratos, Pheidon, Dracontides, Eumathes, Aristoteles, Hippomachos, and Mnesitheides. Of these men, twenty-five are obscure, three are known only by anecdote, and two were major players in the drama that would follow.

As Xenophon tells us, the rewriting of the laws bogged down almost immediately because most of The Thirty had another agenda – retribution. All agreed to hunt down and execute traitors from the Peloponnesean War, but they also schemed to take power permanently. They asked Sparta to provide a garrison to protect them until the new constitution could be established and then, with the garrison in place under Kallibios, The Thirty began drawing up a list of those who would oppose their absolute power, in order to have them killed.

Theramenes, who had been to Sparta as part of the negotiation team to end the war, opposed this step as unlawful and immoral. He demanded that The Thirty allow more participation in the Athenian government so they responded by drawing up a list of three thousand who would participate in the government. All other Athenians were disarmed and excluded from the system. Now The Thirty began their reign of terror against the rich and all who opposed them.

Kritias, the unofficial leader of the group, was again opposed by Theramenes, who was denounced and forced to take poison. This caused a general revolt that saw a rebel group located in Peiraieus defeat the army of The Thirty killing Kritias and Hippomachos. The remainder of The Thirty retreated to Eleusis and begged for Spartan help.

This time fortune favored the oppressed. Lysander, the Spartan Admiral sympathetic to The Thirty, was preparing to defend their interests when the Spartan king Pausanias overruled his attack fearing that Lysander was becoming too powerful. He also believed that blind support for the ultra-conservatives was a mistake. After a skirmish with the rebels, Pausanias decided to use them to broker a peace with Athens. In the end a new government was formed and The Thirty were banished to Eleusis.

One year after the Spartan/Athenian treaty created The Thirty, it was gone – destroyed by its oppression and ruthlessness. This same model had been employed by the Spartans in other Poleis, typically with a ten man oligarchy, but the notion of a Spartan garrison backing a group of local henchman did not go down well with the oppressed any place where it was tried.

When their war with Persia broke out in 400 B.C. the Spartans became distracted from their efforts to control Attica and, by 395 B.C, Athens had re-built the long walls, re-occupied the Aegean Islands, and launched a new navy.

One can certainly understand the Spartan position. They wanted to avoid a continuation of The Thirty year Peloponnesean War by keeping their adversaries under control. The problem was their use of a political model which worked for them but not in cultures used to wider public participation. The Spartans knew how to win wars, but not how to govern those they conquered.


Shane said...

Judging by the remorseless treatment of the Helots (Greeks as well), why didn't the Spartans resort to enslaving the Athenians? They made far more efficient masters than they did overlords, no?

BTW - thanks for the blog, it a jewel of a find for those of us fascinated by this time period!

Mike Anderson said...


Remember that the Helot experience was unique in the sense that they were neighbors in a fertile land adjacent to Sparta. Proximity made control easier and the Spartans did spilt the crop profits with them.

My sense is that the Spartans were so insular, they did not understand the thinking of the rest of the Greeks. Note the comment made by Leonidas about the Athenians at the beginning of 300. Plato wrote that the Spartans were crzy to give women rights.

As I mentioned in the post, the Spartans only built these local oligrachies to try and avoid another war and they probably had no concept of a permanent political solution which might include slavery.

The same can be said of Rome during the Republican period. As Rome expanded it became more and more uncomfortable managing its holdings. There is an old joke about trying to rule the world with a city council.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader said...

Shane, I think you have a misconception about the status and rights of helots. The helots in Sparta were treated far better than chattel slaves, which formed the basis of the economy in other Greek cities, including Athens. Helots could not be bought or sold like chattel slaves. Futhermore, they could marry and have families; in contrast chattel slaves were the sexual property of their masters, which means they could be abused and prostituted but could not marry, and any children born to them by whatever father were likewise the property of the master and could be killed at birth or sold anytime thereafter without the consent of the mother let alone father. Helots retained up to 50% of their harvests and could accumulate considerable wealth - chattel slaves owned only that which their masters gave them and nothing whatever of the fruits of their labour. The list goes on and on, but for the sake of brevity, let me just say, given a choice, I would 100 times have perferred to be a helot in Lacedaemon than a slave anywhere else in Greece.

The Athenian accounts of brutality against helots are, furthermore, incredibly hypocritcal. Not only was Athens a slave-owning and slave-trading city, when it defeated another Greek city-state (Melos), it slaughtered the entire male population and carted all the women and children back to Athens to be sold in the public market as chattel slaves. In contrast the subject peoples of Lacedaemon and Messenia enjoyed the far more privileged status of helots.

Athenian "outrage" about the treatment of helots was largely propaganda. It was the outgrowth of a foreign policy designed to encourage the subject Messenians to revolt.

If you are interested in this topic, you might want to consult my website "Sparta Reconsidered." That said, I am working on an up-date of the site. When complete, the site will provide greater detail on this and other topics, so you'll want to check it again in about two weeks time. Note, I provide a list of key references so you can do your own research if you like. http://elysiumgates.com/~helena/index.html