Chapter XVI. The Ecclesia of Athens.
127. The Rule of Democracy in Athens. - The Ecclesia, or Public Assembly, of Athens is something more than the chief governmental organ in the state. It is the great leveling engine which makes Athens a true democracy, despite the great differences in wealth between her inhabitants, and the marked social pretensions of "the noble and the good" - the educated classes. At this time Athens is profoundly wedded to her democratic constitution. Founded by Solon and Clisthenes, developed by Themistocles and Pericles, it was temporarily overthrown at the end of the Peloponnesian War; but the evil rule then of the "Thirty Tyrants" has proved a better lesson on the evils of oligarchic rule than a thousand rhetoricians' declamations upon the advantages of the "rule of the many" as against the "rule of the few." Attica now acknowledges only one Lord - KING DEMOS - "King Everybody" - and until the coming of bondage to Macedon there will be no serious danger of an aristocratic reaction.
128. Aristocracy and Wealth. Their Status and Burdens. - True, there are old noble families in Athens, - like the Alcmeonide whereof Pericles sprang, and the Eumolpide who supply the priests to Demeter, the Earth Mother. But these great houses have long since ceased to claim anything but SOCIAL preeminence. Even then one must take pains not to assume airs, or the next time one is litigant before the dicastery, the insinuation of "an undemocratic, oligarchic manner of life" will win very many adverse votes among the jury. Nobility and wealth are only allowed to assert themselves in Athens when justified by an extraordinary amount of public service and public generosity.
Xenophon in his "Memorabilia" makes Socrates tell Critobuls, a wealthy and self-important individual, that he is really so hampered by his high position as to be decidedly poor. "You are obliged," says Socrates, "to offer numerous and magnificent sacrifices; you have to receive and entertain sumptuously a great many strangers, and to feast [your fellow] citizens. You have to pay heavy contributions towards the public service, keeping horses and furnishing choruses in peace times and in war bearing the expense of maintaining triremes and paying the special war taxes; and if you fail to do all this, they will punish you with as much severity as if you were caught stealing their money."
129. Athenian Society Truly Democratic up to a Certain Point. - Wealth, then, means one perpetual round of public services and obligations, sweetened perhaps with a little empty praise, an inscription, an honorary crown, or best of all, an honorary statue "to the public benefactor" as the chief reward. On the other hand one may be poor and be a thoroughly self-respecting, nay, prominent citizen. Socrates had an absurdly small invested fortune and the gods knew that he did little enough in the way of profitable labor.[*] He had to support his wife and three children upon this income. He wore no chiton. His himation was always an old one, unchanged from summer to winter. He seems to have possessed only one pair of good sandals all his life. His rations were bread and water, save when he was invited out. Yet this man was welcome in the "very best society." Alcibiades, leader of the fast, rich set, and many more of the gilded youth of Athens dogged his heels. One meets not the slightest evidence that his poverty ever prevented him from carrying his philosophic message home to the wealthy and the noble. There is no snobbishness, then, in this Athenian society. Provided a man is not pursuing a base mechanic art or an ignoble trade, provided he has a real message to convey, - whether in literature, philosophy, or statecraft, - there are no questions "who was your father?" or "what is your income?"[+] Athens will hear him and accept his best. For this open-mindedness - almost unique in ancient communities - one must thank King Demos and his mouthpiece, the Ecclesia.
[*]Socrates's regular income from invested property seems to have been only about $12 per year. It is to be hoped his wife, Xanthippe, had a little property of her own!
[+]Possibly the son of a man whose parents notoriously had been slaves in Athens would have found many doors closed to him.
Athenians are intensely proud of their democracy. In Aeschylus's "Persians," Atossa, the Barbarian queen, asks concerning the Athenians: -
"Who is the lord and shepherd of their flock?"
Very prompt is the answer: -
"They are not slaves, they bow to no man's rule."
Again in Euripides's "Supplicants" there is this boast touching Athens: -
"No will of one
Holdeth this land: it is a city and free.
The whole folk year by year, in parity of service is our king."
130. The Voting Population of Athens. - Nevertheless when we ask about this "whole folk," and who the voters are, we soon discover that Athens is very far from being a pure democracy. The multitudes of slaves are of course without votes, and so is the numerous class of the important, cultivated, and often wealthy metics. To get Athenian citizenship is notoriously hard. For a stranger (say a metic who had done some conspicuous public service) to be given the franchise, a special vote must be passed by the Ecclesia itself; even then the new citizen may be prosecuted as undeserving before a dicastery, and disfranchised. Again, only children both of whose parents are free Athenian citizens can themselves be enrolled on the carefully guarded lists in the deme books. The status of a child, one of whose parents is a metic, is little better than a bastard.[*]
[*]Of course women were entirely excluded from the Ecclesia, as from all other forms of public life. The question of "woman's rights" had been agitated just enough to produce comedies like Aristophanes's "Parliament of Women," and philosophical theories such as appear in Plato's "Republic."