The Athenians: Another warning from history?

Oct 05, 2009
The Athenians: Another warning from history?

(PhysOrg.com) -- The collapse of Greek democracy 2,400 years ago occurred in circumstances so similar to our own it could be read as a dark and often ignored lesson from the past, a new study suggests.

In a new history of the 4th century BC, Cambridge University Classicist Dr. Michael Scott reveals how the implosion of Ancient Athens occurred amid a crippling economic downturn, while politicians committed financial misdemeanours, sent its army to fight unpopular foreign wars and struggled to cope with a surge in immigration.

The book, entitled From Democrats To Kings, aims to overhaul Athens' traditional image as the ancient world's "golden city", arguing that its early successes have obscured a darker history of blood-lust and mob rule.

Other reputations are also taken to task: The "heroic" Spartans of Thermopylae, immortalised in the film 300, are unmasked as warmongering bullies of the ancient world. Alexander the Great, for all his achievements, is described as a "mummy's boy" whose success rested in many ways on the more pragmatic foundations laid by his father, Philip II.

Perhaps more significantly, however, the study suggests that the collapse of Greek democracy and of Athens in particular offer a stark warning from history which is often overlooked.

It argues that it was not the loss of its empire and defeat in war against Sparta at the end of the 5th century that heralded the death knell of Athenian democracy - as it is traditionally perceived. Athens' democracy in fact recovered from these injuries within years. Instead, Dr. Scott argues that the strains and stresses of the 4th century BC, which our own times seem to echo, proved too much for the Athenian democratic system and ultimately caused it to destroy itself.

"If history can provide a map of where we have been, a mirror to where we are right now and perhaps even a guide to what we should do next, the story of this period is perfectly suited to do that in our times," Dr. Scott said.

"It shows how an earlier generation of people responded to similar challenges and which strategies succeeded. It is a period of that we would do well to think about a little more right now - and we ignore it at our peril."

Although the 4th century was one of critical transition, the era has been overlooked by many ancient historians in favour of those which bookend it - the glory days of Athenian democracy in the 5th century and the supremacy of Alexander the Great from 336 to 323 BC.

This, the study says, has led to a two-dimensional view of the intervening decades as a period of unimportant decline. Instead, Dr. Scott argues that this period is fundamental to understanding what really happened to Athenian democracy.

Athens was already a waning star on the international stage resting on past imperial glories, and the book argues that it struggled to keep pace with a world in a state of fast-paced globalisation and political transition.

In an effort to remain a major player in world affairs, it abandoned its ideology and values to ditch past allies while maintaining special relationships with emerging powers like Macedonia and supporting old enemies like the Persian King. This "slippery-fish diplomacy" helped it survive military defeats and widespread political turbulence, but at the expense of its political system. At the start of the century Athens, contrary to traditional reports, was a flourishing democracy. By the end, it was hailing its latest ruler, Demetrius, as both a king and a living God.

Dr. Scott argues that this was caused by a range of circumstances which in many cases were the ancient world's equivalent of those faced by Britain today. Athens, for example, committed itself to unpopular wars which ultimately brought it into direct conflict with the vastly more powerful Macedonia. Its economy, heavily dependent on trade and resources from overseas, crashed when in the 4th century instability in the region began to affect the arterial routes through which those supplies flowed.

The result was a series of domestic problems, including an inability to fund the traditional police force. In an effort to cope, Athens began to create a system of self-regulation, described as a "giant Neighbourhood Watch", asking citizens not to trouble its overstretched bureaucracy with non-urgent, petty crimes.

Ultimately, the city was to respond positively to some of these challenges. Many of its economic problems were gradually solved by attracting wealthy immigrants to Athens - which as a name still carried considerable prestige.

Democracy itself, however, buckled under the strain. Persuasive speakers who seemed to offer solutions - such as Demosthenes - came to the fore but ultimately took it closer to military defeat and submission to Macedonia. Critically, the emphasis on "people power" saw a revolving door of political leaders impeached, exiled and even executed as the inconstant international climate forced a tetchy political assembly into multiple changes in policy direction.

The name of "democracy" became an excuse to turn on anyone regarded as an enemy of the state, even good politicians who have, as a result, almost been forgotten. Dr Scott's study also marks an attempt to recognise figures such as Isocrates and Phocion - sage political advisers who tried to steer it away from crippling confrontations with other Greek states and Macedonia.

"In many ways this was a period of total uncertainty just like our own time," Dr. Scott added. "There are grounds to consider whether we want to go down the same route that Athens did. It survived the period through slippery-fish diplomacy, at the cost of a clear democratic conscience, a policy which, in the end, led it to accept a dictator King and make him a God."

From Democrats To Kings is published by Icon Books.

Provided by University of Cambridge (news : web)

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User comments : 27

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superhuman
not rated yet Oct 05, 2009
Athens, for example, committed itself to unpopular wars which ultimately brought it into direct conflict with the vastly more powerful Macedonia.

Athens lost most of it's power as a result of the disastrous Sicilian expedition. They did recover temporarily but poor judgment of their politicians soon brought their downfall.
http://en.wikiped...sian_War
Nederluv
3.7 / 5 (6) Oct 05, 2009
Let's learn from another past:

“Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

- Thomas Jefferson

Our Western governments are growing. They steal money from people that work (income tax). They tap our phone calls and spy on us with their surveillance cameras. They spend large amounts of our financial capital (read: hard earned money that was stolen from us) on wars and development aid, which goes straight to corrupt politicians in foreign countries. They tell us we have to go to war and spy on our own people to remain safe. We fall for their lies and eagerly give up our freedoms for their temporary safety. Our democracies are failing. Our "free" Western societies are swiftly turning into socialist police states. Let us end them and start a new society. A free, Libertarian society. Just like the brilliant American Founding Fathers would have wanted our societies to be!
ISEEE
5 / 5 (1) Oct 05, 2009
The fundamentals are that when a society reaches its "boundary layer of efficiency" it must fragment. This can be a society of 10 or a society of a billion. Each one has a boundary layer of efficiency. This layer occurs when change from its original objective becomes stagnant and new acceleration must occur or as a whole the society is not evolving. Case in point in Star Wars it was the goal of the dark side to bring peace through domination. When when this domination brings the so called peace the dark side will then become stagnant and will thus splinter. Then you will have the "good dark side" and the "evil dark side". This splintering will occur in perpetuity. Look at today with the union of nations. Sooner or later this union must splinter because of lack of evolution or acceleration from its current objective. Thus the idea of an "axis of evil" is necessary to maintain this union of nations. Once the axis of evil is compliant and after a time the union will splinter.
Shootist
2.4 / 5 (5) Oct 05, 2009
Once the citizens discover they can vote themselves bread and circuses from the public treasure, any Republic is doomed. Dictatorship is always the end result. See de Tocqueville for more information.
defunctdiety
3.4 / 5 (7) Oct 05, 2009
Our Western governments are growing.
...
Let us end them and start a new society. A free, Libertarian society. Just like the brilliant American Founding Fathers would have wanted our societies to be!

The way I see it, the People of America (if not the West) have become too lazy in their prosperity of the Industrial Age. They know nothing accept this economic growth rate that is impossible to maintain into probably even the near future.

All this time we've been conditioned to believe our voice doesn't matter in the government. And that so long as you can buy X-item, life is good. And certainly life is good, compared to some places, but it can so easily turn bad with such big gov't. People are perfectly happy selling their days for a paycheck, and to let absolutely anyone tell them what to do and what to believe so long as they don't have to take responsibility for their own life. How can you fight such conditioned apathy? People just don't care. They don't want to have to care.
DunkMcForkin
Oct 06, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
antialias
5 / 5 (2) Oct 06, 2009
“Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

But we should not forget that the alternative is a system wher 0.001% of the people can take away the rights of the other 99.999%

That said the current system is probably more along the lines of 5%/95% than the above mentioned 51%/49%
Jonseer
1.9 / 5 (7) Oct 06, 2009
simple democracy could be made many times safer and better for people if rather than a "simple majority" important laws required a "super majority."
dmcl
3.4 / 5 (5) Oct 06, 2009
Re. Jefferson, a smart guy who passed the buck on slavery to later generations.

The problem with "starting over" is that if you burn down the house in order to build a new one, you don't have anything left to build with, unless of course you can get someone else to chip in. Typical liberaian fantasy.
marjon
1.5 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2009
Re. Jefferson, a smart guy who passed the buck on slavery to later generations.

The problem with "starting over" is that if you burn down the house in order to build a new one, you don't have anything left to build with, unless of course you can get someone else to chip in. Typical liberaian fantasy.


If Jefferson and his contemporaries had not compromised on slavery, the USA would have not started with 13 states. It may not have started at all.
Aim high and you may not hit your mark, aim low and you surely will.

And don't forget that the great Athenian 'democracy' was nothing of the sort as slaves had no vote and the number of citizens who could vote were a very small minority.

Recall how Rome dealt with Spartacus? Rome understood their 'republic' depended upon slaves.
getgoa
1 / 5 (1) Oct 06, 2009
"Dr. Scott argues that this was caused by a range of circumstances which in many cases were the ancient world's equivalent of those faced by Britain today."
What does America have to do with commonwealth Britain?--but I guess with the jump to conclusion about America, Britain made another loyalist mistake.
marjon
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 06, 2009
simple democracy could be made many times safer and better for people if rather than a "simple majority" important laws required a "super majority."


This is the foundation of the US Constitution.
Hyperion1110
2.5 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2009
The term "democracy" is too broad. It will invariably fail, simply because every different form of democracy suffers from individual catastrophic weaknesses. Athenian democracy, for instance, really was nothing more than mob rule, which is why it was so fragile. Roman democracy, on the other hand, was much, much more stable. The Republic endured for centuries. And even into the Imperial Era, the Senate and the Assembly of Plebs retained significant authority.

Predictions of the fall of democracy, and, hence, the fall of the West, are greatly exaggerated. The American Federal Republic is over 200 years old, with no major signs of weakness. Indeed, it has shown incredible resilience. Imagine, a nation which 50 years ago would not even let blacks eat with whites elected a black man as its leader. Extraordinary!

The ties that bind North America and Europe are strong. As long as one endures, the West endures.

Check out "Darkness and the Light" by Olaf Stapledon.
Hyperion1110
3 / 5 (2) Oct 06, 2009
From the Gettysburg Address:

"The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
E_L_Earnhardt
Oct 06, 2009
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Otto1882
2.5 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2009
Democracy and all related forms of government go against the natural hierarchy that exists. Can't escape reality no matter how much we want to believe in these great abstract ideas that exist nowhere outside of Man's creative mind.
The fatal flaw is the system's trust in the common man and a misunderstanding how easy it is to manipulate the people. The unscrupulous have learned and exploited this fact,it is no suprise those make up the majority of our leaders. The leaders that we need for our own sake are prevented from attaining power in our system, only charlatans make it.
I would argue there is no democracy anywhere, just an illusion of democratic rule. In some countries this is more obvious than others; the US is a good example with its rigid two-party system.
Democracy is still an experiment that will probably again fail the test of time. Nobody else to blame but ourselves. If all people were Thomas Jeffersons then democracy would work,unfortunately that clearly isn't the case
marjon
Oct 06, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
defunctdiety
1.5 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2009
The American Federal Republic is over 200 years old, with no major signs of weakness.

200 years is but the briefest of portions in the history of human civilization/government. And while the Union has withstood several tests, as indicated by some posters, America's government doesn't actually resemble much of a democracy at all in it's present state. It diverges farther and farther from the Founding Father's vision every day. Our government swells and inflation increases far, far faster than our population grows (which in pure market economics the only purpose of inflation should be to keep up with population growth), the People will become more and more dependent upon the government, as the economy cannot sustain it's assumed growth rate indefinitely and the value of our currency will dwindle. The cost of living will also increase as our wages become worth less. After this trend persists long enough, there will not even a semblance of democracy, at best is socialism at worst...
Arkaleus
3.3 / 5 (8) Oct 06, 2009
Add these concepts to your critique of the US government:

Government has NO rights.

It does NOT have:
The right to free speech
The right to bear arms
The right to protect itself
The right to do anything whatsoever of itself

It doesn't even have the right to exist.
Only real human beings have rights, and the only valid government of the United States are the People of the United States.

It's a fallacy to consider the US government a separate entity from the People. If it considers itself such, it has violated its charter and become a occupying force.
WillB
1 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2009
I expected to read about the warning signs. The article provided little if any. I bet if I buy the book in the picture, I'll hear all about it. :)
E_L_Earnhardt
1 / 5 (4) Oct 08, 2009
We have been "going to the dogs" for years! Just before collapse we get a leader like Ronald Reagan to pull us back from the brink! "No God - No hope!"
LuckyBrandon
1.8 / 5 (4) Oct 10, 2009
ah if only our so called "democracy" would fall..so the power could get back to the people where it belongs :)

i find it hilarious actually that our government (the US that is) seems to be primarily based off the roman type of government (president = caesar of course)...which failed miserably over time and went extinct...seems like one helluva a history lesson too...
and yes..sounds like the athenians had a good bit in common with the whole worlds current economic situation (perpetuated of course by those same democracies that should be overthrown)

Neurons_At_Work
4.5 / 5 (2) Oct 11, 2009
Regardless of Jefferson's comment, we are not now, nor have we ever been, a democracy. We are a constitutional republic. Thankfully, we have a Constitution that contains an ever-evolving Bill of Rights, that says to the majority, "This far, and no farther." We were founded on the principle of minority rights, so as to avoid the calamities our forefathers faced in distant and hostile lands--many of them minorities themselves. We are better for it, in my opinion. Regardless of what the doomsayers spout, and regardless of our current apparent disarray, our system works. When and if crunch time comes, we will rise to the challenge, as we always have.
magpies
2.5 / 5 (2) Oct 11, 2009
Crunch time has come.
Scryer
5 / 5 (2) Oct 11, 2009
All this doesn't matter, the United States is a Republic. We have democratic ideals, but our government is not the simple majority rule of a democracy.

If people voted on the facts and our elected officials were actual scholars and leaders, we might be better off.
mgb
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 11, 2009
This superpower, like the rest, will fail. Today or tomorrow. Doesn't matter. All of the points mentioned about democracy are pretty accurate, however they are only diversions (read: b.s.). I have a friend who is a taxi driver in Mozambique. He has a degree from some university in Germany. Of course, I asked him "What are you doing here!?" (Mozambique). His answer... "Because here, I am free." He was so right. In the west there is a law against this and a tax against that. A never-ending competition against your nieghbour and a foul, pervasive apathy. Forget government and live.
jcrow
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2009
This is another great Thomas Jefferson Quote.

"If the American people ever allow private banks
to control the issue of their money,
first by inflation and then by deflation,
the banks and corporations that will
grow up around them (around the banks),
will deprive the people of their property
until their children will wake up homeless
on the continent their fathers conquered."
-Thomas Jefferson

Azpod
2 / 5 (4) Oct 12, 2009
Horrible article, and I don't expect the book to be much better. Economic pressures & unpopular foreign wars happen again & again throughout history. There are vast differences between the western democracies today & Athens in the 4th century BC. He makes such a big deal about Athens and stronger enemies, which results in disaster. There IS no stronger enemy that the USA can tangle with. Even if there were, such a direct conflict would not only end civilization but likely ALL MULTICELLULAR LIFE ON EARTH. Next to that, who cares if democracy survives or not?
frajo
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2009
There IS no stronger enemy that the USA can tangle with.

There WAS no stronger enemy that the Imperium Romanum could tangle with.
Even if there were, such a direct conflict would not only end civilization but likely ALL MULTICELLULAR LIFE ON EARTH.

Now, that's called hybris.

Sic transit gloria mundi.
denijane
1 / 5 (1) Oct 22, 2009
I may not be a historian, but Macedonia was never a raising power. The Empire of Philip and Alexander wasn't called "Macedonia" and using that name will spark a lot of troubles on the Balkans. Which may be the point of the use, but I personally think that if you're writing about history, you should be correct. Macedonia is a modern republic (even if it's called FYR, it's still Macedonia and sooner or later, it will be renamed) and also a name of regions in Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia. So it is extremely politically incorrect to use it as a name of the ancient empire.

As the popular joke states it: "Macedonian looks at the Moon and say - Eh, land of Macedonians, one day, we'll fight for you too". As much as I love Macedonians, this joke makes a lot of sense, so be careful with the wording :)

As for democracy itself - you're very ignorant, if you really believe you're living in a democracy. Even the election in the USA are not democratic, what's left for the rest of the world.
E_L_Earnhardt
Oct 22, 2009
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