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Privilege, Poverty and Failed Revolutions

During the century that followed Alexander's death, societies around the Mediterranean provided education for the professions – mainly for sons of the wealthy. In some Hellenized cities, the children of common people were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and "civilized" behavior – with teachers using corporal punishment as their only recourse against the inadequacy of their pupils.

In Western Asia Minor, an elementary school education was also available to girls. Girls ended school at a younger age than did boys, who continued their education if their fathers cared to pay for it. But some upper-class women did acquire higher education, and a few became philosophers. Women poets appeared. Around 218 BCE Aristodama of Smyrna was touring Greece, giving recitals and receiving honors. A woman named Hestiaea in Alexandria acquired a reputation as a scholar, and women were painting.

In some cities, Alexander had favored the common people over local nobles, who had been potential competitors against his power. Alexander had backed the creation of councils to tackle local issues. And among the monarchs who arose following the disintegration of Alexander's empire were those who supported popular participation in local government while maintaining their central authority. But with the passing of time, the participation by common people in local government declined, as the gap between the rich and poor widened. While assemblies elected by the common citizenry continued to meet and pass decrees, real power and influence were passing into the hands of men of wealth.

City governments called on local men of wealth to help their city. Merchants contributed to the construction of temples, gymnasiums, schools and other city buildings, to the construction of bridges and covered sewers, and to other civic projects. They paid for city festivals and ceremonial sacrifices to the gods, for banquets, free meals for the hungry and prizes for school children. They patronized the arts, and they contributed to city beautification that included a proliferation of fountains and statues, and many of statues were of them.

With their rise in influence, these men of wealth began paying less in taxes than did common people. In Athens the courts were under the control of wealthy magistrates.

Being free from the daily labors that burdened poorer folk, men of wealth had the time to serve as diplomats. And in times of war, they profited from supplying armies with war material.

Continuous warfare added to the misery and insecurity of common people. And there was an endemic poverty. The population was small compared to modern times, but not small relative to the amount of food being produced. In Greece and West Asia a bad harvest still meant famine. In Greece, hunger prevailed because the area was not exporting enough in minerals or manufactured goods to exchange for food. Greece was still dependent upon imports to keep people fed. And in the place of exports in goods, men in Greece were still exporting themselves as soldiers.

Across Greece and West Asia, migration from the countryside to the cities created urban slums and overcrowding. With new supplies of slaves and an abundance of freemen looking for work came a drop in the wages, often while the price of food was rising. An abundance of slaves offered no incentives for creating devices that would replace muscle power and sweat, and those who labored were physically burdened beyond their ability to stay fit.

Mining was an especially hard occupation. Egypt's gold and quicksilver mines were worked by slaves, criminals and prisoners of war, including women, elderly men and children. Young men hacked the quartz loose. Older men broke the quartz into fragments. Children dragged the quartz to the grinders powered by women who like others worked without rest, walking in circles and pushing levers that rotated a shaft. According to the Greek writer Agatharchides, in the mid-100s BCE, relief came only with death, which these miners welcomed.

As it was in Athens in the time of Solon, the wealthy feared revolt by those who were miserable. And from a few who empathized with the miserable came dreams of a better society. Some dreamed of a "brotherhood of man." In dreaming about a better world, some looked back to what they thought was an unspoiled past, to what they imagined were virtuous barbarians living according to nature. Some put into writing their ideas about a harmonious society. Around the mid-100s BCE a writer named Iambulus designed a society without class differences, a society in which people would be equal, sharing what they produced and taking turns in doing menial work. Iambulus saw his utopia as a democracy, and he saw people in his utopia acquiring equality in wisdom and relating to each other with love.

Antigonus II

Antigonus II, king of Macedonia

The most serious attempt at changing society came with hate and violence back in 279 BCE in the port city of Cassandreia – formerly Potidaea – in Chalcidice. There a man named Apolodorus rode a wave of discontent that gave him power. His followers vented their anger on the wealthy with physical violence, and they confiscated wealth and property. Appolodorus established a communist dictatorship, and with money taken from the rich he hired an army of mercenaries to defend the revolution. To succeed, the revolution would have had to grow in power by spreading to other cities. Instead, after a few months, forces directed by the king of Macedonia, Antigonus II, who had been busy uniting Macedonia under his rule, overran Cassanderia and ended the revolution.

Failed revolution in Sparta

An attempt at revolution failed also in Sparta. There, a few people had bought up lands and had combined them into plantations worked by slaves. Sparta had no middle class as a buffer between rich and poor. As elsewhere in Greece, many landless Spartan men sold themselves abroad as mercenary soldiers, and by the mid-200s, with citizenship tied to the ownership of property, only 700 Spartans were fully enfranchised.

Sparta still had two kings, one of them, a young man named Cleomenes III, led a Spartan army in war alongside other Greek cities opposing Macedonia's attempt to renew hegemony in Greece. When he returned with his army from one of his battles, he ousted Sparta's second king and installed one of his brothers in that position. Then he embarked upon his revolution. He abolished debts and divided the land into 4,000 lots for Spartans and 15,000 lots for those who had come to live in villages surrounding Sparta. He created a new constitution, and his reforms allowed Sparta's army to grow in size and morale.

Cleomenes encouraged reformers elsewhere in Greece, and, across Greece, men of wealth and land responded with fear. They opposed reforms more than they did Macedonian hegemony, and they sought help from Macedonia. War erupted between Sparta and cities led by those resisting reforms. Cleomenes allied Sparta with other Peloponnesian cities. But in the year 222 the Macedonians annihilated Sparta's army, and for the first time a foreign army entered Sparta in triumph. Cleomenes fled to Egypt, and there he again took up what he saw as the cause of social justice. In Alexandria in 219 he tried to raise a revolt, but he failed and that year took his own life.


Alexander the Great, by Robin Lane Fox, 1994

Alexander the Great: King, Commander and Statesman, by N G L Hammond, 1994

The Genius of Alexander the Great, by N G L Hammond, 1998

The Greek World After Alexander, 323-30 BC, by Graham Shipley, 2000

The Harvest of Hellenism, by F E Peters, 1971

From Alexander to Cleopatra: the Hellenistic World, by Michael Grant, 1982

Alexander to Actium: the Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, by Peter Green, 1993

Ancient Persia: from 550 BC to AD 650, by Josef Wiesehofer, 2001

Crossroads of Civilization: 3000 years of Persian History, by Irving Clive, 1979

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