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Ancient Greece: The Nature of the City-State
by   Richard   Rieben
Written – 1975
On the village level, communities were formed to develop a level of security of production which could not be afforded to individuals. People came together essentially for economic and military protection ... they were seeking to have their basic needs met and protected and were willing to submit to the economic needs of the community to ensure their own needs. With increased security from the development of the village structure of production and protection, there evolved an increased sense of a "freedom to manuver;" i.e., one was not as restricted by the risks of producing the bare necessities and dealing with the unknown alone. Even though the communal structure itself does provide restrictions to the individual, and even though the individual has a vested-interest in maintaining that structure for future security, there exists additional room for considering personal preferences in such ways and areas as will not threaten the security already attained. As security increases or is maintained, there is greater incentive to remove or alter some of the strictures of the communal structure while maintaining the broader structure itself.

Security is a condition which provides a context in which to act. A process is a state of purposeful activity. Living is a process. Sustenance is the fundamental process common to all forms of life. The capacity of the human mind is not such as to restrict the human being to the level of sustenance. The security afforded by the communal structure allows a development of consciousness. The structure which facilitates security is determined by the level of consciousness of the consensus of the controlling population. With the rising of the level of consciousness of the capabilities of the human mind, the structure is stretched, challenged and modified to reflect the new "needs" of the community.

The vested-interest of maintaining the security as provided by the communal structure constitutes the basis of tradition and communal fear of challenge to tradition. Thus the structure is difficult to change, and only when it can be proven that there is room to manuver and change without threatening the fundamental security of the group can change be effected - and this only if security is more or less steady in its rate of increase: if, by repeated threats of outsiders or acts of God (e.g., crop failures) or for any other reason, a community stagnates in its state of security, tradition solidifies and superstition sets in. The distinction of the Greek city-states is that there existed a period coming out of the Dark Ages during which there was a steady increase in the security of production (though not uniform in its rate or limits throughout the Greek world).

The degree of self consciousness of a community qua community reflects the stage of the development of security. Through the process of the repeated stages of growth and change, an awareness is evolved of the governmental structure in respect to its function. This awareness is the essence of a new level of self consciousness which is characterized by the community's recognition of itself as a polity.

At early Sparta, the conquering Dorians, a warrior race, completely dominated the new state. (p. 31) "The earliest real evidence of the Spartan constitution is the 'Great Rhetra'." (p. 33) "... the whole document ... represents the act of reorganizing the state, though almost exclusively its constitutional elements. They all ... seem to have existed before, but were then put on a new basis." (p. 34) "Perhaps the most remarkable fact ... is the absence of the ephors." (p. 34) "After a certain period, however, the citizen-soldiers became the backbone of military strength, and they began to ask for equal rights with the nobles. In Sparta, with her old traditions of the warriors' assembly and the common life of the damos, the ground was well prepared; but the damos had to overcome the resistance of kings and elders, that is to say, the state as represented in the Rhetra had grown out of date." (p. 38) "Against gerusia and kings the damos needed new leaders. They were found in the five ephors, who, annually elected by and from the people, gradually gained power." (p. 41) "No doubt the Spartiates were proud of their new order.... They called freedom what by others would be called authoritarian rule." (p. 44) "Most legal and moral matters were directed by the ephors, and they could interfere in the private lives of the citizens ..." (p. 46) The ephors "were the powerful tools rather than the masters of the system, and the old men of the derusia were the guardians of the tradition." (p. 48) "The harsh rule of the Spartiate minority over the helots ... and .... the political non-existence of the perioeci, bore signs of a strictly oligarchic state." (p. 48)

Thus, by gearing its society to the military functions of the communal structure, Sparta stagnated under a rule of tradition. It grew powerful, but the raising of its level of self consciousness was confined to the community of the Spartiates themselves and limited by the tight discipline of its educational system.

In early Athens, the "Archons and Aeropagus were the exclusive domain of the nobles.... There were two other classes or groups in early Athens, the farmers and the artisans." (p. 54) Via a change of military tactics (the introduction of the phalanx), non-nobles became the main strength of the army and "gradually intensified their claims, and the nobles began to give way ... (The nobles) now played a decisive role within the whole community, not only as a ruling society.... The ruling class had to recognize that arbitrary jurisdiction by noble judges ... would no longer be possible." (p. 55) "Dracon (about 624) gave Athens the first written codification of laws and thus granted the people some safety against arbitrary jurisdiction." (p. 57) Later: "The general situation ... was that the rule of an oligarchy of noble and wealthy landowners had become so oppresive that a revolution did not seem far away." (p. 61) "Solon's constitutional and social work was possible only as the continuation of the artistocratic state and society of the past, but it went far beyond that." (p. 67) Solon's constitution "can best be explained as the necessary political result of the change in military structure, which itself resulted from the changing economic capability of the citizens." (p. 67)

"Freedom and responsibility of the citizen went hand in hand." (p. 70) Solon "had a strong sense of the possible, and at the same time a deep feeling for that balance between freedom and responsibility, which was to be the principle in all further developments of the state." (p. 75)

Athens, with the same security to manuver as Sparta, but without its incipient tradition of militarism, manuvered itself into a recognition of the relationship between freedom and the continuation of a structure to provide security for that freedom (i.e., responsibility). And this recognition is, indeed, representative of a new level of self consciousness.

(All quotations from Victor Ehrenberg's From Solon to Socrates)


copyright © 2005 by Richard G. Rieben