Delphi was one of the prime beneficiaries of the renewed sense of purpose that gradually permeated all of Greece in the decades and centuries after Lycurgus. Once again large delegations came to the town from all of the other Greek cities, just as increasing numbers of barbarians visited from across the sea. Delphi prospered from all this commerce almost as it had during those now-mythical times of the distant past, when gods and their heroic descendants had walked its streets.
Yet there were also dangers in Delphi’s reestablished importance. The town had no military. It was a neutral city of peace — which, indeed, was the key to its importance in a divided, oft-conflicted world. Only piety and tradition prevented some ambitious king from seizing the town and its growing riches for himself, or from exploiting them in some other way. The god Apollo — or, as some impious souls said, his oracle acting alone — walked a tricky path, manipulating the suppliants who came to Delphi in ways calculated to maintain the town’s precarious independence.
But despite these efforts, an urgent crisis came around the year 600 BC. Ironically, it involved an old friend to Delphi: the sea port of Cirrha that was located just below the town, where the Cretans who had built the temple of Apollo in Delphi long ago had first been landed by that god’s favoring gale. Cirrha’s fate had been tied to that of Delphi ever since, to such an extent that the names of the two towns were sometimes used interchangeably. When Delphi prospered, so did Cirrha, in recent times as in earlier ones.
Of late, however, Cirrha’s opinion of itself had grown out of proportion to its status as the seaborne gateway to the oracle. First its people had started levying exorbitant tolls on the weary travelers who sailed into its harbor. Then, aggravated by the visitors who chose to land elsewhere and walk to Delphi in order to avoid its tolls, not to mention all of the Greeks from other regions who had always come to Delphi by road, it spread its tendrils all around Mount Parnassus. A time came when access to Delphi was entirely at the pleasure of Cirrha.
Now, there had long existed in Greece a loose international association of government and religious leaders, which met occasionally to plan festivals and to administrate the holy sites of the land. It was called the Amphictyonic League: the “League of Neighbors.” Among its dozen members were Sparta, Athens, Thebes, and many of the other major Greek cities, including Delphi. In fact, the entire league was accustomed to meet at Delphi, what with it being a neutral place relatively centrally located, with the most respected oracle in the land always on hand to bless or question the league’s decisions.
And so the Amphictyonic League came to meet in Delphi one day while the Cirrhan yoke was drawing ever tighter — a fact of which no one involved could be unaware, given that the representatives themselves had had to pay the Cirrhan tolls to come into the town. It was an unprecedented problem — certainly not quite the one that their league had been created to solve — but the representatives took it up nevertheless. When they consulted the oracle, she left no doubt what needed to be done. “You must fight against the Cirrhans day and night,” she said, “and utterly ravage their country if necessary. When you have broken their stranglehold on the god Apollo’s most sacred temple, you should dedicate the rich land that lies all around it to Apollo, Artemis, and their mother Leto, as well as to wise Athena. It should be a neutral land, a land without mortal owners.” The league’s members were not eager for a war so far from their own cities’ borders, but they were more afraid of ignoring the god’s bidding. Thus began what later generations would call the First Sacred War.
It proved a bitter conflict. Cirrha was a rich city, and by the time the league’s legions arrived it had had plenty of warning of the upcoming attack — plenty of time to hire barbarian mercenaries in addition to pressing its own people into service. Then, too, the rugged landscape all around Mount Parnassus favored defenders over attackers. For years, the sounds and smells of war floated up to Delphi from the valley below. With visitors now all but locked out entirely, the town hunkered down and endured as best it could. The war might have gone on for much longer had not an Athenian leader named Solon put on an exhibition of guile worthy of Odysseus: he ordered his men to put poisonous hellebore in the aqueducts that watered Cirrha. The inhabitants of the city sickened and many died, and the beleaguered survivors finally surrendered. Thanks to entreaties which the oracle made on their behalf, they at least suffered a better fate than had the Trojans: they agreed to give up their city’s political freedom and to be subject to the decrees of the Amphictyonic League forevermore. And so peace returned to Delphi.
To celebrate the occasion, the Delphi elders and the rest of the league decided to re-institute the legendary Pythian Games of old. Once again, athletes and performers would pour into Delphi every four years to fill a new amphitheater and coliseum that were to be built for the proceedings, paid for by gold plundered from the treasuries of Cirrha. It was a triumphant moment for Delphi, marking its shedding of the last vestiges of the Dark Ages and its reemergence into glory. Renovation and expansion became the watchwords of the era. More than ever before, Delphi became the neutral hub around which Greek and foreign politics rotated. The consultations, negotiations, and festivities held by its visitors among themselves were so copious as to threaten at times to overshadow the proclamations of the oracle and her god. As foreign gold poured into Delphi’s coffers, enterprising souls within the town took to lending it out with interest; Delphi became an international bank as well as a place for diplomatic meetings, popular entertainment, and contemplative prayer in this burgeoning new Age of Men. Nothing quite like this second golden age of Delphi had ever existed before. All of the activity of the world really did seem to flow through this, Zeus’s ordained center of the world.
But then, the Amphictyonic League that had made it all possible was itself something new in the world of men. Almost without the participants realizing it, a loose-knit discussion group had turned into an alliance of sovereign states, dedicated to securing access to a common good. When the Greek cities had united to go to war against Troy in the past, it had been an ad hoc affair, an emotional response to a slight against Greece’s collective pride. But this new alliance was permanent, sustainable, and reasonable to its core. Its existence heralded a dawning era of rational philosophy.
The most forceful of all the voices who had argued that the Amphictyonic League must come to the aid of Delphi for the good of all was the very same man who had later engineered its victory over Cirrha by poisoning that city’s water supply: the Athenian statesman named Solon. In his forties at the time of these events, he was a living symbol of the new modes of thought that were struggling into existence in a chaotic land. His life so far had constituted a comprehensive rejection of the Spartan virtues of brutal warrior austerity which so many other Greeks had come to admire if not to fully practice. Where Lycurgus had heaped scorn upon commercial trade as beneath a real man’s dignity, Solon reveled in it, to the extent that he had become a very rich man indeed; where Lycurgus had dismissed acts of individual kindness and compassion as a drain on the vitality of the collective, Solon said that he admired most of all among men his late father, who had bankrupted his family by bestowing gifts and charity upon others, forcing his son to start from nothing; where Lycurgus had believed that war was the only true source of meaning in life, Solon believed it to be an abnegation of life, sometimes necessary (as in the case of Delphi and Cirrha) but never to be lightly entered into; where Lycurgus had banned music and poetry that didn’t conform to a rigidly martial aesthetic ideal, the young Solon had written large quantities of lovelorn verse of which the current man remained unashamed; where Lycurgus had celebrated stolid virtue and rigid discipline in his fellow men, Solon valued quick wit and clever ingenuity.
As a politician, Solon was a force to be reckoned with, as he had demonstrated by getting the rest of the Amphictyonic League to agree to go to war to defend the interests of the least militarily powerful of its members. He showed it again shortly after the end of the First Sacred War, when his home city of Athens was consumed with a debate about Salamis, an island which lay just outside its harbor. Many of the city’s military leaders wished to conquer and annex Salamis, for it could become a final redoubt for the government if the rest of Athens should ever be occupied by an invader. Solon, whose disinterest in constant war as a way of life didn’t blind him to the need to safeguard against its occasional eventuality, agreed stridently with this point of view. But the current supreme archon of Athens — “archon” being the title of the city’s rulers — couldn’t imagine his city ever being so threatened, and roundly rejected the calls for annexation. In fact, he grew so annoyed with them that he decreed such exhortations to be a crime punishable by death.
Worried about the issue, Solon returned to Delphi to ask the oracle what he should do. “The god wishes you to conquer Salamis for your city,” she told him. “Use your wits and wiles, of which you have an abundance, and find a way around the archon’s objection. Then lead the attack on the island personally. Take at least 500 men with you, and sacrifice well to the gods before you start out, and you will be successful.”
Back in Athens, Solon grew a beard and disguised himself in the rags of a traveler. Pulling a cap down low over his eyes to ensure he wasn’t recognized, he stood up to speak in the city’s main square. “I am a herald come from Salamis the fair!” he shouted. “My news from thence my verses shall declare!” Then he read a hundred more lines of singsong poetry which he’d composed himself, telling how the people of Salamis supposedly welcomed — indeed, entreated — Athenian occupation. His verse was so delightful that it lodged in the heads of his listeners, who were soon repeating it everywhere they went. The hue and cry for annexation bubbling up from the streets became impossible for the archon to resist. When he grudgingly agreed to mount the expedition, an undisguised Solon immediately volunteered to be its leader.
Solon conquered the island by using yet another subterfuge worthy of Odysseus. He sent two ships to attack Salamis from its seaward side. While the soldiers on the island all rushed over to deal with this threat, the rest of his force swam or boated across the strait separating its other side from the mainland. By the time the defenders realized what had happened, the Athenians had already occupied the principal town. Dismayed, the defenders gave up without a fight when Solon promised them a respectable place in Athenian society. Nary a life was lost in the whole endeavor. Solon’s fame in Athens, already considerable, increased immeasurably.
Yet Athens as a whole remained a profoundly troubled place. The very city where the gods had announced their withdrawal from constant interference in the lives of men had struggled perhaps more than any other to adapt to the new reality. In place of kings — an honorific which seemed to the latter-day populace to be totally out of keeping with their less rarefied age — the Athenians began relying on these rulers they referred to as archontes. At first, archontes were selected by a dangerously under-defined process, whereupon they served for the duration of their lives — which, what with all the intrigue about, could sometimes be a very short term indeed. In 752 BC, inspired to some extent by the reforms enacted by Lycurgus in Sparta about 50 years earlier, Athens shortened the archontes’ term to ten years, then in 683 BC to just one.
This last form of government, which was still in effect during Solon’s time, actually replaced one archon who held absolute power with nine of them who shared it. There were six archontes who debated and passed laws, thereby functioning similarly to the Spartan Senate; an archon in charge of all military affairs; an archon in charge of religious worship; and a supreme archon who, theoretically at least, oversaw all the rest of them. After these archontes had finished serving their one-year terms, they retired for life to a Council of Archontes which met annually on the Areopagus to choose the next year’s slate of rulers.
While this scheme might have seemed more enlightened than the various forms of despotism which had marked earlier eras of Athenian politics, in practice it served the city very poorly. The Council was an ingrown group of mostly aged men, who chose from among their ranks the same names to serve as archontes over and over. The fastest way — in some times the only way — for an ambitious outsider to penetrate this incestuous circle was through bribery. Thus Athens in practice became an oligarchy: a city ruled by its richest men, who were determined above all to perpetuate their own wealth. The masses of the people were virtually all indebted to these rich men. They tilled the land owned by the rich, for which they might be rewarded with just one-sixth of its yield in a good year after they had paid the interest on their lease. And as soon as a bad year caused them to fall behind on their mortgage payments, they were at the mercy of their landlords, who had made all of the city’s laws to benefit themselves. Debtors could be seized and forced to work as slaves — or, if they were getting up in years and were no longer worth the trouble of enslaving themselves, they could see their children seized instead. Meanwhile the pettiest forms of theft by starving men were punished by exile or, more often, execution, all at the whim of the six lawmaking archontes, who served as judge and jury in all cases.
As the decades passed and the archontes’ injustices grew more and more blatant, the people grew more and more restive. By the time of the annexation of Salamis, matters seemed to be coming to a head. The smell of revolution was in the air, as the people took to the streets in such numbers that they could not be suppressed. They demanded a new government, along with the cancellation of all debts, the freeing of all debt slaves, and the seizure and redistribution of all lands and property on the Spartan model. Although badly shaken by the uproar, the oligarchs were certainly not inclined to grant that last demand in particular. Athens stood at a perilous impasse.
In the middle of the two opposing sides stood Solon. He was rich, but he hadn’t joined the Council of Archontes, nor did he support their oppression of the poor. He felt that change was urgently needed, but he didn’t share the taste that so many of his fellow citizens had for the abolition of private property. Desperately worried about the state of his city, he went to Delphi for the second time in as many years to ask the oracle what he should do. “Take the helm and be the vessel’s guide,” she said. “Many in Athens will be on your side.”
So, Solon announced his candidacy to become the next supreme archon. In normal times, he would only have needed to convince the Council of his worthiness, but these were not normal times. The oligarchs were palpably afraid of the chanting mobs who marched through the city’s streets almost every day now. They feared that to appoint the wrong person at this juncture could bring wrack and ruin crashing down on all their heads. In this time of extremes, Solon realized that he could ensure his election through moderation — by making himself just acceptable enough to the Council and to the people. He promised the first group a return to safety and order, even as he promised the second that he would seriously address their legitimate grievances. He made his speeches just cryptic enough to avoid offending either party, whilst encouraging each to build its own edifice of meaning upon the scanty framework of his actual words. For example, he said that “when things are even there can never be war.” This the rich took to mean that he would proceed as supreme archon in a cautious, even-handed, non-disruptive way; this the poor took to mean that he would in fact give them the sweeping redistribution of wealth they had been demanding.
The nervous Council, convinced that he represented their best compromise in these trying times, gave Solon the post he sought. But some in the Council perhaps regretted their vote when, the day after he assumed power, he asked them all to assemble on the Areopagus once again. “The body politic of Athens is sick,” he said to them. “I ask for your permission to attempt a cure. Over the course of the next year, I will prepare a new constitution for our city. This I will formally present to the Council and the people on the last day of my term, just before you select my successor. I ask for a solemn oath from you now to abide by my constitution for ten years, without making any changes except those I myself agree to over that span of time. At the end of a decade, you may change it or throw it out entirely if you find it doesn’t answer Athens’s needs. Will you swear this oath now?”
Solon had put the Council in a difficult position, for he enjoyed the widespread support of the people. To reject him now could very well lead to the open revolution that so terrified the oligarchs. Therefore they reluctantly agreed to his terms, and swore the oath he requested.
The people as well were soon told what Solon planned to do, and agreed to stop their agitating while he prepared his constitution. Athens held its collective breath for a year, its anticipation growing throughout that time. Speculation ran wild. Many suspected that he would use the opportunity to appoint himself and his descendants as kings for perpetuity. After all, how could any man, placed as he was, resist the temptation to do so? Some of the people, and even a few on the Council, said that this might not be such a bad development on the whole. More than anything else, they said, Athens needed strong leadership again, like it had enjoyed from its kings of yore.
At last the day came when Solon, looking surprisingly older and more careworn by his year’s labor, mounted the speaker’s dais atop the Areopagus. Not only was the Council gathered there before him on the promontory itself, but the people filled the balconies, rooftops, and streets below, just as they had on that pivotal day of long ago when Orestes had been put on trial. Though they could hardly realize it now, their city was about to take the next momentous step in man’s fulfillment of his own potential.
“Council and people of Athens,” Solon began, shocking the former by so explicitly making the latter a party to his speech. “I have felt keenly the burden of my responsibility over the last twelve months. I would be a fool to have felt otherwise, for I have tasked my humble self with answering two of the most vexing questions a man can ask: what form of government is best and most just, in the eyes of men and gods alike? And, of equal importance, what merely better form of government than the one we have can this city of Athens reasonably hope to implement in the here and now?
“I have not closed my ears to the talk on the streets. I know that many of you expect me to crown myself king today. And indeed, it is true that the lore of Greece is rife with tales of glorious kings wielding absolute power to extraordinary ends. Yet it is equally rife with despots who have squandered their cities’ resources, and betrayed their peoples’ trust. I won’t speculate which type of king I would be, were I to become one, for becoming a king is not among my desires. You may think this simple-minded of me. You may think me a fisherman with a net full of fish who, through want of heart or wit, declines to haul it up. You may wish you were in my position, may tell yourself that you would never let such an opportunity as this one slip through your fingers. So be it.
“I can only say that, more so than being remembered even as a good king, I would like to be remembered as one who spared his land future violence and chaos by choosing not to be king. For my intention here is to provide Athens with a stable government that can last over many generations. And it seems to me that to invest power in a hereditary line is, whatever its other claims to justice or injustice, inherently unstable; a city living under such a system can prosper only as long as the gods grant it good kings. Meanwhile the damage which one bad king can do must outweigh all the bounties a good king can bestow. So, no new king of Athens will be crowned today.
“What, then, do I give you in lieu of a king? What I give you, I’m afraid, is far more imperfect and less immediately inspiring than a Cadmus, Aegeus, or Agamemnon in his prime: a government of humble laws rather than glorious men. What I give you is not the best system of government that can ever be, but simply the best that I was able to create and that you are able to accept at this time. I have attempted to set Athenian government on a more stable footing, grounded in justice, while minimizing the suffering and disorder that full-on revolutions inevitably bring. If this makes me an incrementalist rather than a revolutionary, so be it. I believe in doing nothing in excess.
“Never fear, though. The times cry out for change, and change there will be — substantial change. To begin with, all debts are forgiven as of today; the slates of lenders and borrowers alike are all wiped clean, to be filled in again only on a more equitable basis. Going forward, it shall be illegal for any lender to charge more than 10 percent annual interest. Further, it shall henceforward be illegal to imprison or enslave a man whose only crime is that of falling into arrears on any debt to another.
“The practice of exiling, executing, or enslaving the perpetrators of petty crimes also ends today. From now on, the accused shall be judged by juries of their peers and, if found guilty, will receive a punishment proportionate to their crimes from the same juries. The ultimate sentence of death will be reserved for those who have themselves taken the life of another. All of this strikes me at least as self-evidently just.”
These words were greeted by lusty cheers from the people assembled down below, even as the Council seated directly before Solon scowled and mumbled. But what he said next had the opposite effect on each of the parties.
“Some of you,” he said, looking down at the people, “have called for the redistribution of wealth; some of you have called for the abolition of all private property. These changes I will not make today. For private property and private wealth lie at the root of individuality. And, unlike our Spartan neighbors, I believe the individual to be as precious as the collective.”
Solon permitted himself a wry smile at the mixed reaction these words brought. “I see now that all of you are more or less uniformly displeased with me. This, I would assert, is the telltale sign of an argument that stakes a prudent middle ground between two unhealthy extremes. So, I will continue offending you.
“The question of the proper role of private property in our city is a thorny one. It is clear to me that the complete abolition of wealth-based rank and its privileges would lead to precisely the sort of social chaos I wish to avoid. Meanwhile those who contribute more to our city’s coffers perhaps genuinely deserve more say in how our city is run. My task, then, has been to give to the masses of the people such power as is practical, but not to strip from the rich all of the influence they have earned, all while also making it possible for the poor to join the ranks of the rich by dint of cleverness and hard work — and, for that matter, for the rich to rejoin the poor, by dint of stupidity and laziness. This is my solution to the puzzle, inevitably imperfect though it must be.
“We will divide the citizenry into four classes, based upon their income. The wealthier will be given more influence on our city’s government in ways which I will describe shortly, but they will also be expected to pay a greater share of their wealth in taxes. Those in the lowest income class, on the other hand, will pay no taxes at all. One will pay progressively more as one rises through the ranks, as it were. By this expediency will we ensure that those on the bottom have a chance to rise without being crushed under the burden of taxation, while those above them will have to remain wise and responsible in order to keep up their tax payments without losing their entire fortunes. Out of the same sort of reasoning, dowries will be outlawed henceforward; a man should earn his own wealth, not marry into it. It is actually better for our city in many ways if marriage and child-rearing are rooted in mutual affection, not economic advantage.
“The tradesman, I say, is as honorable as the soldier. In fact, the profession of soldier is merely a trade like any other. Every man should have a trade of some sort. Therefore any man whose father does not support him in learning a trade by which he can sustain himself shall be under no obligation to sustain his father when the latter grows old and feeble and can no longer work for himself.
“Now, as to the practical mechanics of government: I have studied carefully the system implemented by Lycurgus in Sparta two centuries ago, which was itself an attempt to free his city from at least some of the vicissitudes of hereditary power. Yet I find his system more amenable to stasis than to progression; perhaps this was his intention. Allowing the people to elect only elderly men to positions of power ensures that new ideas will find no purchase in the government, even as elevating said men to the Senate for the rest of their lives ensures that they will feel no sense of accountability to the ordinary citizen. And of course Lycurgus’s system still vests enormous power in a pair of hereditary kings. Therefore, while I have borrowed ideas from Lycurgus, I have decided upon a markedly different overall scheme of government for our city.
“The current system of nine archontes will remain in place, as will the Council of Archontes, the latter body being still made up of all current and former archontes. But the Council will now serve strictly as an advisory board, meeting and aiding the current archontes at the latter’s pleasure. Said archontes will now be elected by a direct vote of all the male citizens of Athens. Only those in the top income tier may serve as supreme archon; only those in one of the top two tiers may serve as his subordinate archontes. Such men have proved themselves to be capable by simple virtue of attaining or maintaining such heights of fortune, while the taxes they pay make them the most invested of all of us, so to speak, in our city’s success. The importance of birthright in our politics, while perhaps impossible to dispense with entirely, should be dramatically less than that of raw ability.
“The six lawmaking archontes will continue to draft new laws as well as changes to existing ones, but must now set their laws before the people before they can take effect. To become binding, a law will have to pass muster by a majority vote among the people. This is to say that the archontes will no longer have the freedom to make laws without taking into account the wishes of the people; their task from now on will be to work with the people to devise the laws, and then to administrate them honestly. Such a scheme comes closest of any I can devise to resolving the most fundamental paradox of the well-constituted state: such being a state where the people obey the wishes of their rulers even as the rulers respond to the wishes of the people.
“This well-constituted state of ours requires above all an active citizenry. Thus all who stand idle while others enter into rebellion against the just power of the government will themselves be disgraced and exiled, for a man who has no feelings for the distemper of his city is no desirable citizen.
“And yet, within its stable framework of government, Athens shall be open to the world and its many new ideas. It should be a city of commerce in all its forms, and should welcome with open arms those men of means and wherewithal from abroad who choose to settle here. They should not be barred from participating in our government either, for their novelty will be our strength when difficult problems call for innovative solutions.
“There are many more details to the constitution I have devised, but I will spare you just now. Scrolls containing the entirety of the constitution have been mounted on rollers and placed in the entry hall of the palace of the archontes even as I have been speaking to you; anyone is permitted to go there and read them at any time. In accordance with the agreement I struck with the current Council of Archontes at the beginning of my term, I ask you all to abide by this constitution for a period of ten years. If at the end of that time the city chooses by a vote of the people to go back to the old ways, or for that matter to try something else completely new, that is your right. For a well-constructed state is most of all one that rests upon the foundation of the people’s consent.
“Now it only remains for me to thank you for your attention, and for the privilege of enacting this experiment in what I call ‘democracy’: government by the people. In closing, I will repeat the motto which has guided me in the drafting of your new constitution: Nothing In Excess. May you take it to heart in the future governance of your great city.”
In ironic accord with Solon’s motto, there came no marked burst of applause when he stepped off the dais. The people gathered down below — those who had been able to make out his words at all — were still coming to terms with them, even as they were being pressured for explanations by those in the ranks behind them who had heard almost nothing at all. And the Council of Archontes too was utterly self-absorbed, busily wondering whether they could accept the dramatic loss of power entailed in Solon’s constitution as the price for an end to Athens’s unrest.
Solon, for his part, spoke only briefly to a few scattered well-wishers before hurrying away from the scene. Mindful that he had told the Council of Archontes that changes to the constitution would be allowed during the first ten years only with his own consent, he had long since decided to make use of one more Odysessian subterfuge. Accordingly, on this momentous day in 594 BC, just after delivering the gift of democracy to Athens, he slipped through the explaining, discussing, sometimes arguing crowds unnoticed and made his way to the city’s deserted harbor. There he boarded a ship which would take him into voluntary exile for the next ten years.
He didn’t even stay in Athens long enough to observe how the Council of Archontes, the only power currently operating, eventually roused itself to the first daunting tasks entailed in the setting up of his re-imagined government: a census to organize all of the people into their four income tiers, followed by a popular election to choose the next slate of archontes. These tasks would, thought Solon, be the first great tests of the immense faith he had placed in all the citizenry of Athens. He had no idea what he would find upon his return.
As it happened, what he found in 584 BC was a truly transformed city. Mind you, it was not a scene of tranquil harmony of the sort the gods might have been able to inculcate through their divine influence; this Athens was a thoroughly human place. People at all levels of society quarreled with one another just as lustily as before, but now they had the final arbitrator of a vote to resolve their differences, right out there in the open. To outsiders especially the city seemed perpetually on the verge of collapsing into anarchy, but it never quite did so. Commerce thrived, even as the people wrote and painted and sculpted and played music and built buildings on a scale no one had ever seen before; Solon was shocked at the physical as well as the mental transformation his city had undergone in just ten years. Meanwhile the government was muddling along. When the time had come to affirm or reject Solon’s constitution just days before his return, the people had voted overwhelmingly for the former option. At least now they had a voice, they said to one another, along with the freedom to define themselves as whatever sorts of individual men they wished to be.
Thus was established the counterweight to Sparta in the life of Greece. Some — not least the Spartans themselves — dismissed the Athenians as a crowd of grasping merchants with no higher ideals than tomorrow’s profit. And it must be admitted that there was at times more than a grain of truth to what such critics said. Nevertheless, Athens flourished, providing all of the other Greek cities with another, alternate model for living, vastly different from that of Sparta. The course of democracy in Athens would not be smooth, uninterrupted, or even terribly long in the grand scheme of things. But it would live long enough to inspire the world of men that you know.
For Greece’s next three centuries were destined to be viewed by people of the future like you, who tend to prioritize the works of men over those of gods, as the greatest in all its history. The spirit of the age would largely live in the relationship between these two powers of Sparta and Athens, the first two states to envision just government as something more than a single hereditary monarch with absolute power. Their two solutions to the problem of post-monarchical government were radically different and yet equally Greek. Conquest or commerce? Closed borders or open ones? Extremity in ideology or moderation in free thought? Austerity or prosperity? Tradition or innovation? Discipline or liberty? The collective or the individual? These were the opposing poles which Sparta and Athens stood upon. All of the rest of Greece would have to decide where it fit on the continuum between these two ways of being.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)