(GREEKS, DEMOCRACY and SLAVERY (650-501 BCE) – continued)

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An Imperfect Democracy

The Athenian democracy had been created on a trust that the average man could be depended upon to do right for his community. It was an orientation that differed from the more intensely religious society of Jews led by an authoritarian priesthood that preached trust and devotion to a wondrous, wise and powerful God. The Greeks did not claim their gods as wise. The gods of the Greeks, for example, were incestuous, while the Greeks abhorred incest. And seeing their gods as more human and with faults of their own, the Greeks were more inclined to put more trust in themselves, which made them more inclined toward democracy.

In Athens, physical training and education were extended to the male children of common families, and it became accepted that boys of commoners should be able to read and write. Schooling was inexpensive because teachers were paid little. Boys started school at the age of seven, and for many it continued for only three or four years, while some others continued until they were eighteen. In addition to reading and writing, the boys studied literature and grammar. They learned poetry by heart, especially the works of Homer. Prose authors were not studied, nor were mathematics and technical subjects. It was not yet a technology-scientific age. Physical education emphasized individual efforts rather than team sports. As before, education in Athens – and elsewhere in Greece – fostered loyalty to the group. It fostered pride in Athens and pride in being Greek as opposed to being "barbarian."

In Athens and some other Greek cities dramas and writing appeared that focused on the human condition rather than the gods. There was a lucid poetry about shared pleasures, love and other feelings. Dramas were written that touched upon human complexity and weakness, including flaws in exemplary heroes. There were insights that modern psychology would build upon: narcissism, the Oedipus complex, phobias and manias.

Mostly it was young men of leisure who were interested in fine literature and worldly knowledge. Democracy brought greater content to common people, but self-interest remained stronger than community interest. Of the forty thousand adult males free to participate in deciding issues, less than a sixth did so. Slaves and women remained without a voice in political affairs. In the city's market place one could see poverty, slave drivers, loud peddlers and those who cheated their customers.

Some wealthy Athenians grumbled about the vulgarity of democratic politics. Some of them found democratic government too slow in making judgments and getting things done. The playwright Aristophanes disliked the politically ambitious promising rewards and playing on superstitions.

Athens lacked a professional, responsible, civil service. The functioning of governmental offices remained the special knowledge of a few ambitious politicians who used this knowledge to gain or maintain power and influence. For decades a man had to pass property qualifications to run for high office. Politics and the judiciary in Athens remained under the influence of people of wealth. Venal judges presided at courts of law marked by corruption and perjury. Common people did not have the leisure to serve their city as officials or as members of juries. Not until after 460, when Athens acquired wealth from empire, would people be paid to participate in jury duty or paid to serve as one of the five hundred city council members – pay that would enable common people to leave their work for such activities.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.