Capitalism is from Athens, elected government is from Sparta (cont’d)

November 13, 2007

Athenian government relied heavily on random allocation of political power. Modern Western-style government systems are thus more similar to the government system of Sparta than to that of Athens.

However, in terms of official (and probably popular) ideology and the general structure of society, Athens is indeed a precursor of modern Western countries.

Ideology Here is the description of Athenian government given in the funeral speech of Pericles (as told to us by Thucydides in book II of “The History of the Peloponnesian War”):

Our constitution […] favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

The familiar claims of being a society based on political equality and merit are offered. Pluralism shows up in the following sentence:

There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant,

and then, a few sentences onward, “open society”:

Our city is thrown open to the world, though and we never expel a foreigner and prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him.

Another familiar aspect of Pericles’ description of Athens and the Athenians is the recurring claim of superiority – the structure of Athenian government, society and ideology makes Athens and Athenians superior to other Greeks and a shining example to them: “Athens is the school of Hellas”.

Urbanization Athenian economy, more than other cities in Greece, relied heavily on non-agricultural activites. Mining, importation and exportation of various goods and manufacturing took place on a significant scale. While it seems that most of the population of city-state of Athens was rural, it had a large segment of urban population whose occupation was various crafts-making.

Accumulation of wealth and disruption of traditional power structures The non-agricultural economic activities, such as manufacturing and mine operation, provided a path for rapid accumulation of wealth. New found wealth was also a path to political power, as was the case with many of the demagogues (post-Pericles politicians). At the end of the fifth century B.C. the new rich displaced the nobility as the dominant politicians – gaining them the hostility expressed in many Athenian sources, all of whom were written by members of the aristocracy1. The political ascendence of capitalists coincided with the obsolescence of the traditional way of attaining political power – through election to the position of a general. This allowed younger men and men without a military background to become influential.

To conclude: Modern Western societies mix the egalitarian ideology, urban economy and non-traditional, wealth-based power structure of Athens with the hierarchical government institutions of Sparta. The result is a power structure that, unlike Sparta, is able to easily incorporate new elites, but, unlike Athens, gives the majority very limited power to control the elites. This amalgam accommodates powerful contenders to power, giving the structure its stability. At the same time it makes accommodating the desires of the masses unnecessary unless their cause is taken by an elite (existing or emerging) – giving the established elites considerable freedom in determining public policy.


[1] “Money brings a man friends, and then honors, and finally a position nearest the thrones of the loftiest tyranny.” Sohpocles, Aleadae, in Connor, p. 77.

Note: Despite playing one on this blog, I am not a classical scholar. All the information regarding these matters is based on some incidental reading of the sources and reading some scholarship. The books I used in this post are M.H. Hansen’s The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes and W.R. Connor’s The New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens.

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