Democracies and their Aristocracies, pt. 2

This serves as a companion piece to this post of some time ago . . .

Hat tip to Martin Gurri, who makes an excellent point in his new book.  The information revolution may very well serve mass democratic movements, and that may not be a good thing . . .


Many events leading up to the Peloponnesian War helped increase tensions between Athens and Sparta.  I never ascribe to theories that make certain events “inevitable,” but given the history between two of Greece’s pre-eminent powers, war was probably a better than 50-50 bet as tensions between them increased in the mid-5th century B.C.  Athens’ decision to build walls around the interior of the city and its harbor clearly added to these tensions.

I had always interpreted Athens’ decision in almost entirely military terms.  The Persians sacked their city in 480 B.C., and the Athenians recovered it only after a last stand naval battle in Salamis.  The psychological and physical scars of that event would naturally lead to a desire for more defense.

Naturally such an action strained things between Athens and Sparta.  Athens had a great navy, Sparta had its infantry.  Each could hurt the other in its own way, a kind of ancient application of “M.A.D.”  Now, Athens could hypothetically hurt Sparta or its allies without worrying too much about the consequences.  As great as Sparta fought in open battle, they had limited abilities in siege warfare.  Athens could remain safely behind the walls of Athens.  You could see the walls of Athens as a first strike weapon, one that allowed them to sally forth with Sparta not able to retaliate in kind.  So too, when President Reagan proposed his SDI “Star Wars” defense, many believed the invention would create a more dangerous world, not a safer one.

Peter J. Fleiss’ book Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity showed me a side of this issue I had not realized before.  Athens’ walls would never have been built without a decisive shift towards democracy in mid-5th century Athens.

Like almost any other place in the ancient world, Athens’ identity came from its landowning farmers.  However, around 600 B.C. the wealthier oligarchs gained an unstable amount of power via the Code of Draco.  At this point, Athens chose a tyrant named Solon to take control of Athens for 20 years, beginning in 590 B.C.  The choice revealed a lot about the Athenians.  Solon had wealth, which earned him the trust of the aristocracy, but . . . he was not an aristocrat, which earned him the respect of the people at large.

Solon embarked on a program to bring social stability back to Athens.  He had to walk a tightrope between competing factions and earned high praise from the ancient world for his reforms. For our purposes here, we note that

  • He refused to redivide land and let the wealthier aristocrats keep what they had acquired from the newly poor.
  • At the same time, he taxed the wealthy at a much higher rate
  • He helped grow a middle class by encouraging the growth of a merchant fleet

The growth of merchants provided a valve to let off social steam.  In addition, many of the city’s poor got jobs rowing the ships.  Solon attempted balance in his reforms, but hindsight shows us that the power of traditional elites was on the clock.

The economic story of Athens ca. 590-450 B.C. mirrors what happened to Rome when she started to shift to a more merchant oriented economy from 200-60 B.C.  Rome’s shift helped to destroy the very elites who profited most from this shift.  The power of elites rests on tradition.  Tradition comes from continuity, and continuity comes from land.  This has been the way of things from the days of yore.  Once cash money, and not land, formed the primary currency, the land-owning elites lost much of their power.

As Athens naval might grew the population shifted to more urban areas.  Of course poorer farmers resided outside the 350px-pelopennesian_war_walls_protecting_the_city_431_b-ccity walls, but we can be sure that the older, established families had most of their land outside the city limits.  This land would be the first target of any invading army.  Building the wall would allow for more protection, but any defensive structure sends a double message.  The Germans, for example, could invade Poland with confidence in 1939 because the Maginot line signaled a purely defensive posture for France along the frontier.  Building the walls around the city signaled that in the event of war Athens would willingly let the majority of its exterior farms fall into Spartan hands–until the war was won, of course.

Popular democracy would be the only plausible political vehicle to accomplish this.  Land of the elites outside the walls would suffer before the merchant class within the city.  In the event of a Spartan invasion, the navy, and the poor who rowed the ships, would rise even more in importance.  Only the navy could then procure food for the city under siege.  When the time came, Pericles proposed this exact strategy.*  At the start of the Peloponnesian War Athens retreated inside its walls and let Sparta have the run of the countryside, while their navy shouldered the military load.

Athens’ walls signaled a cultural shift as well.  Some of the established elites outside the walls were obviously more conservative, and might have had more in common with the average Spartan than the average Athenian inside the city.  The walls repudiated the statesmanship of leaders like Cimon who sought rapprochement with Sparta.**

To me Pericles’ strategy could have the hallmarks of the “tyranny of the majority” problem discussed by so many political philosophers.  Older, elite families lost land, but more importantly, they lost the possibility of gaining status in the war.  In the Greek world, status gave power, not vice-versa.  Pericles’ proposed strategy greatly limited the chances of the landed gentry gaining honor and status via battle, while greatly increasing the chances of the “demos” to gain in both departments.^

The failure of Pericles’ strategy, partly caused by the unforeseen plague that hit Athens, does not prove that democracies need elites.  But their failure in the overall war effort might suggest it.  Solon gained fame, honor, and success by pursuing a political agenda that both rewarded and burdened both the people and the elites.  In the 100 years after Solon left power, Athens went from an also-ran to a major power in the Greek world.  As democracy grew, so too did the people’s opportunities to strike back at their own elite.  They should have resisted the temptation.  As Tocqueville wrote, democracies usually win their wars, but that’s only when they unite against a common enemy.  In Athens’ day the political infighting that began the war lasted only until their situation got desperate.  We can’t measure the effect, but it surely hampered their efforts.  We might wonder if things would have been different if Pericles pursued a military strategy that allowed for participation and honor for both the people and the gentry.

Our recent election saw much ink spilled on the question of “elites.”  Some argued that Clinton is “elite” because of her connections and long political career.  Others argue that Trump is elite because of his wealth.  Whatever your definition, “elite” has become a dirty word.  That’s a shame, because history tells us that healthy democracies need, and perhaps even embrace, their “elites.”


*Thucydides argues that such a strategy would have worked had the Athenians had the discipline to stick with it.  This comment has always perplexed me for three main reasons: 1) At some point the Athenians would have had to deal with the Spartan infantry, and a policy of withdrawing behind walls would only embolden the Spartans, 2) The Athenians did have patience.  They tried this strategy for about 4 years, with no real success.  Initially the Spartans came, burned what they could, and left.  But eventually they realized they could come and stay for much of the year with impunity, because the Athenians never challenged them, and 3) Thucydides shows some disdain for the popular democracy throughout his narrative, and this policy only strengthened the hold of the demos on affairs of state.

**The mood shifted decisively with Cimon’s ostracism.  He father fought and won the Battle of Marathon.  Cimon himself had many noteworthy victories against the Persians.  Everything about “traditional values” pointed to a long and respected career for Cimon.

^This is one reason why I disagree with Thucydides’ assertion that Pericles’ time in power created an aristocratically leaning government with some democratic underpinnings.  Here I agree with Donald Kagan that Periclean democracy was really fully democratic.