Plot: Presumed a work of one of Aristotle’s students rather than the busy man himself, The Athenian Constitution charts the history of the government of Athens from its foundation through tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies, flicking back and forth between these styles of government, including the leaderships of Cylon, Draco, Solon, Pisistratus and Cleisthenes. It ends with a description of the present day (c.322 BC) democracy’s laws and government, at a time prior to the Macedonians stamping their presence on Greece.
My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by P. J. Rhodes (ISBN 9780140444315), with half of its 196 pages devoted to explanatory notes, diagrams and maps, glossaries and indexes.
My thoughts: Occasional points of interest did surface while reading this short work. The first individual of note, Solon, was brought in as mediator between the rich few and the poor masses, and enacted moderate laws which proved unpopular to both sides despite their fairness, such as cancelling debts which led to enslavement if not paid, freeing existing slaves, and allowing everyone access to appeal to the courts if they believed themselves wronged. He ended up banishing himself from Athens for ten years after realising his unpopularity, having failed to redistribute all property as the people expected, nor restoring the notables to the highest position, and refusing to side with either side and thereby ignoring the opportunity to set himself up as tyrant.
“I gave to the people as much esteem as is sufficient for them,
Not detracting from the honour or reaching out to take it, …..
I stood holding my mighty shield against both,
And did not allow either to win an unjust victory” Solon, page 51
He also had the rather unusual idea of outlawing anyone who tried to stay neutral in future strife between parties.
The next ruler Pisistratus emerged from the resulting dissatisfaction, and had three attempts as tyrant – the second stint began with a triumphal procession through the city, with a flower seller from Thrace masquerading as Athena beside him in his chariot, lending her ‘holy’ support to his bid. Surprisingly he was a moderate ruler, and enjoyed good relationships with rich and poor alike. We tend to think of the word tyrant as a cruel ruler, but this was not always the case in Ancient Greece.
The last standout section is the reign of terror of The Thirty, an oligarchy arising from the loss of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, and their joint tyranny over Athens, executing 1,500 of their rich or powerful peers to guarantee their grasp on power, and inviting into Athens a garrison of 700 Spartan soldiers. Eventually democracy is restored, and the author spends the last third of the book describing current conditions, including the separation of powers between the ruling Council, the administrators (treasury, leases and mines, and the armed forces) and the Jury-courts.
Diversions and digressions: Some more definitions for you
Telos : the goal at which a thing is aiming for, as its reason for existence e.g. the city-state is a work of nature which exists to provide mankind with a good life
Atthidographer : a writer on the history of Athens (I defy you to use that in a sentence with your loved ones over the dinner table tonight!)
Personal rating: Same as Aristotle’s Politics, 4
The sanity in between: Finally finished book 5 of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series the Wheel of Time, The Fires of Heaven. I think it’s becoming a love/hate relationship between me and this series, but I will be borrowing the rest from the local library as I have run out of personal copies.
Next : Should have been 124. Old Cantankerous by Menander and then 125. Characters by Theophrastus, but they have already been read and posted. I have “lost my bottle” with Aristotle, so any Greek classics lovers out there still enamoured with Ari and his ideas on Metaphysics or Logic had better go it alone, and I’ll meet you at the docks to board the Argo in Apollonius’ Argonautica to search for the Golden Fleece. For the rest of us, I’m afraid it’s back to the OT and the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel.