Democracy in Ancient Athens

Written by Antonis Mystriotis

genre: History

Τhis book presents the historical period 507-450 BC, which corresponds to the growth phase of democratic Athens, in a compact but detailed and integrated fashion. Its aim is to reveal the forces which led to the transformation of Athens from a city-state to an empire in just fifty-seven years while its constitution evolved towards pure, direct Democracy, where all decisions were taken in the Assembly by all citizens. The studied period includes an interval (almost thirty years) of what is known as Pentecontaetia (479-433 BC), which is a poorly documented and obscure period of the Athenian history of the 5th century BC. The integrated approach of the present book, which links the events of 479-450 BC to the political situation in Athens during the previous twenty years (499-480 BC), views this period from a new perspective.

The method of analysis used in this book is based on the detailed investigation and interpretation of the primary sources of the studied period. Extended excerpts from the ancient sources quoted in italics, are included in the text to provide the reader with a direct firsthand description of the evidence. The interpretation and analysis of this original information enlighten dark points, gaps, and other discrepancies. Even if discrepancies or contradictions were observed between sources, the information is not rejected, since it most probably concerns unfiltered raw data written down by the ancient historians following the narration of eyewitnesses. In many such cases, discrepancies could be resolved without discarding valuable data.

As it is explained in Chapter 2 of the book, there are only four primary sources for this period: Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian war, Aristotle’s Athens Constitution, and Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca Historica. These four sources are characterized as primary due to their proximity to the events. Contrary to several modern history books covering this period, Plutarch’s Lives are rejected as a primary source, since not only Plutarch’s work was written in 2nd AD century, but also its style corresponds more to a historical novel rather than History. In contrast, the credibility and importance of Aristotle’s Athens Constitution, which are usually underestimated, are upgraded. If the apparent discrepancies between Aristotle’s work and other primary sources such as Herodotus are resolved in a consistent way, the history of classical Athens can be seen from a different perspective. Archeological findings such inscriptions and ostraca were also considered as valid evidence of great importance.

Following this method of analysis, several innovations have been introduced. The most important ones are summarized as follows:

1)   The presence of two parties or factions representing the Athenian populace is recognized. These two parties had conflicting interests and competed for power.

2)   The 2nd Persian War is analyzed on the basis of the Decree of Troezen rather than on the basis of Herodotus’ Histories. This book shows that most discrepancies between these two sources can be resolved.

3)   The Areopagus Council which held power during the decade following the battle of Salamis is shown to have been a government of national unity, rather than a conservative institution.   


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