The Political Ideas of Ancient Greece

A question we can reflect upon is whether we have achieved the best we can in terms of social form of organization. We’ve been told democracy is the apex of social development, and we’ve given up challenging this paradigm. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on different answers to that same question, drawing on the experiences from different peoples in ancient times that would perhaps frown upon our contemporary way of living, as a society – beyond the labels of East, West, capitalism, socialism, right or left-wing.

From ancient Greece, we can draw on Plutarch’s “Lives” to cite at least two men who went to great lengths to fight injustice and establish governments as harmonious as possible: Solon in Athens and Lycurgus in Sparta. Pursuing different methods and devising completely different constitutions for their cities, both had one common goal: to bring out the best in their citizens.

Let us start with Sparta and its legendary legislator: Lycurgus. Before he ascended to this role, he travelled to other countries, seeking to observe and learn from different legal systems.

His first destination was Crete, and he was struck with admiration of some of the laws from Minos. From Crete, Lycurgus went to Asia Minor, with the aim to compare the Ionian luxury with the Cretan frugality and hard diet; just as physicians compare bodies that are weak with the healthy and robust. He journeyed then to Egypt and, finally, according to some writers, he went to Libya, Spain and India, where he would have conversed with the Gymnosophists (priests and philosophers who led a very frugal life in the woods and had an aversion to idleness).

It turns out the Lacedemonians of Sparta deeply regretted Lycurgus’ departure and sent many ambassadors to entreat him to return. For they perceived their kings didn’t differ from the multitude, apart from their external ornaments, whereas Lycurgus was naturally capable to guide the government and draw the hearts of men to him. On the other hand, the kings also consented to his return, as they hoped that in his presence, they should experience less insolence amongst the people.

Returning to a city thus disposed, Lycurgus immediately applied himself to alter the whole constitution. One of his boldest political enterprises was a new division of the lands, to address the huge inequality. He persuaded land owners to cancel all former divisions of land and to make new ones, in such a manner that they might be perfectly equal in their possessions and way of living. Hence, if they were ambitious of distinction they might seek it in virtue, as no other differences were left between them. His proposal was put in practice, and he made nine thousand lots for Sparta, which he distributed among the citizens.

After this, he attempted to also divide their furniture and smaller items, to take away all appearance of inequality, but he soon perceived they could not bear to have their goods directly taken from them, and therefore took another method. First, he stopped the currency of the gold and silver coin and ordered that they should use iron money only. Secondly, he assigned a very small value for a great quantity and weight of this; so that to lay up a considerable amount a whole room was required, and to transport it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen. When this became current, many kinds of injustice ceased in Sparta. Who would take a bribe or steal, when he could not conceal the booty and be dignified by its possession?

His next strategy was to lay off superfluous trades such as sophists, wandering fortune tellers, dealers of gold and silver trinkets and brothels. If he had not done this, they would have died out anyway, after the new currency was introduced. Their iron coin was not only not accepted in the rest of Greece – it was ridiculed and despised. As such, the Spartans had no means of purchasing any foreign manufactures; nor did any merchant ship unload in their harbours.

Consequently, luxury lost by degrees the means that supported it and died out: even those who had great possessions had no advantage from them, since they could not be displayed in public, but must lie useless, in disregarded repositories. Above all, Lycurgus dedicated himself to passing laws for the education of youth, which he looked upon as being the greatest and most glorious work of a lawgiver.

Athens, on the other hand, took its first steps toward democracy when its laws were reformed by Solon in 594 B.C. At later stages, Cleisthenes and his great-nephew Pericles helped to steer the ship of state through its golden years of political, intellectual and artistic achievement.

Solon rose to the role of legislator in similar circumstances as Lycurgus. The citizens of Athens, having again fallen in old disputes that divided them, cast their eyes upon Solon, for he was the man least obnoxious to all parties. Solon had not engaged in oppressions with the rich, nor entangled in the pleadings of the poor. “Equality causes no war” was, apparently, a saying of his that was then much repeated.

At first, Solon refused to take on the role, nonetheless he was nominated arbitrator and lawgiver. Not satisfied, the different parties entreated him to become king and yield absolute power, but he vehemently turned down such a proposal, contenting himself with enacting new laws. He did not make any concessions on behalf of the powerful classes, nor indulge in pleasing the moods of the lower ones. Hence it was, that having the question put to him afterwards, “whether he had provided the best of laws for the Athenians”, he answered, “the best they were capable of receiving”.

His first decree cancelled people’s previous debts, and he was the first to comply with it. In the same breath, he

moderated the interests and decreed that no man, moving forward, should be held by his debtors. He also enlarged the measures and the value of money so that, as new debts were made, the same amount was paid, but in much less weight of gold and silver.

However, observing that the people, now discharged from their debts, grew insolent and imperious, he proceeded to constitute a council or senate of four hundred members, a hundred out of each tribe. He ordered that no matter should be presented to the people (represented by the “Ekklesia” or the assembly), before their previous consent. This council was chosen by lot and helped to supervise the administration of the assembly, prepare its agenda and take minor decisions. The council’s members changed annually, and no one could serve in it for more than two years.

One could say the most peculiar and surprising of his other laws were those aimed at fostering the citizens’ compassion towards one another. One decree established that a man would be considered infamous if he remained indifferent, in times of social unrest and sedition, just because his personal interests were unaffected and safe. Another resolution defined that if a person was assaulted, or suffered any damage or violence, any other able and willing man could prosecute the offender. Thus, Solon accustomed the citizens to feel and resent one another’s misfortunes – as members of one body.

As we can see, History does unveil, to the inquisitive mind, clear examples of men and women who truly had the common good in sight when passing laws and ruling the society they lived in. Their actions speak for themselves: they were not perfect, but were idealists who were unafraid to face all odds to concretely build a more just society.

Lilian Salaber