May 10, 2019 in Analysis

Greece was the cradle of civilization. It started with philosophers such as Aristotle and his student Plato then it spread to their followers. The various philosophies of governance were then implemented in ancient Greece and today their effects are visible across the globe. Governance is a thorny issue not only in America but the whole world as each leader follows a philosophy depending on his or her intentions for their followers. This essay will, therefore, explore the various political systems that used in ancient Greece.

Discussion

Democracy

Often referred to as a government of the people, by the people and for the people, democracy has its roots in ancient Greece. As one of the political systems in ancient Greece, democracy was the most popular. In fact, the word democracy derives from the Greek word demos which refers to the entire body of the citizenry. As a political system, democracy started at around 460 BCE in the ancient city of Athens and later spread to other Greek cities namely, Argos, Rhodes, Erythrai, and Syracuse. Athens is, however, the city most associated with democracy and hence the term Athenian democracy. In that city, there was an assembly place that could accommodate about 6000 people where citizens met at least once a month to deliberate on issues affecting the state. In that assembly, any male who was above the age of 18 years was permitted to vote in the assembly, and voting usually took place by a show of hands.  In several occasions, people were paid as to attend the meetings. The payment was used as a strategy to encourage people, especially those living in faraway places to attend the meetings.

 

It is estimated that only around 3000 people actively participated in politics and this number accounted for about 10-20% of the polis population. Within this group of 3000 or so, only about 100 actively participated and dominated the political arena both behind the scenes in private conspiratorial political meetings known as xynomosiai and in front of the assembly. This group of 100 largely consisted of the most influential, the best speakers and the wealthiest.  There were, however, a few vocal individuals including Aristophanes and Thucydides, who criticized the rule by democracy. They argued that demos could be too easily swayed by a popular leader or an individual who knows how to speak well to crowds.  Such leaders knew how to stir people’s emotions and thus influencing their thinking in an unfavorable manner thus causing them to make poor decisions. An instance of a poor decision that resulted from the Athenian democracy was the death sentence handed down to Socrates, the philosopher, in 399 BCE. The assembly often discussed a wide range of issues affecting the Athenians including making judicial decisions, debates on military affairs and maintenance of food supplies among other discussions.

 

In Athens and the other states that adopted country democracy as a form of governance early, a smaller body of known as the boule prioritized the topics of discussion during the assembly proceedings. Additionally, during times of emergencies, wars, and crisis, the boule could make decisions without the assembly’s approval. It consisted of a council of around 500 individuals and it served as an executive committee of the assembly. There was also a council of elders (gerousia) whose primary task was to hear and resolve disputes. Some of the decrees made by the assembly were appealable to this council of elders. Persons who sat in the gerousia were only men who had to be more than 60 years of age. The two Spartan kings known as the Sparta also crisscrossed the roles of the Genousia. Similar political structures were in existence in Corinth and Stymphalos. In other states in the country, there were democratic assemblies where attendees were permitted to make suggestions. Even monarchs such as Molossia and Macedonia applied mixed democratic principles by incorporating some of the views of the citizens.

Monarchy

Another political system that subsisted in Ancient Greece was the monarchy. Simply put the monarchy is a rule by the sovereign. It is a political system whereby sovereignty rests with an individual or a group of individuals until their death or abdication. In the world of the Greeks, however, monarchies were not very common. In fact, it was difficult to distinguish them from tyranny. The only way one could distinguish a monarchy from a tyrannical rule was where the monarch was quite benevolent and exercised his power for a genuine benefit of his subjects. The most renowned monarchs in ancient Greece were the Spartans. The most notable monarchies existed in the in the states of Macedonia and Epeiros. In these monarchs, the ruler shared power with an assembly. Such a practice was however limited since most of the monarchs preferred to keep power to themselves and rule in a manner in which they deemed best. Just like in the case of democracy in Athens, the Sparta also had a citizen assembly. It is however not famous for that; rather it is renowned for its system of two kings. Owing to the fact that Macedonia had an assembly, it could not be completely considered to be an absolute monarch. The state (sovereign) however had a considerable amount of power. This power was especially apparent because they often provided leadership when a war arose. When there was peace and tranquility in the state, the king's powers would be kept in check by the legislators (ephros or ephroi). Citizens elected these legislators into the assembly. Additionally, kings constituted the gerousia but unlike in the Athenian democracy where it was a preserve for the old, those who were in the king's lineage were invited to participate in its sessions. This was done so as to sharpen the leader from a tender age so that they acquire advantage of more wisdom over the other council members.  Members who couldn’t join until they were 60. Despite all the power held by Spartan kings, they still could be put on trial, and when found guilty they would face punishment like any other ordinary member could even further be exiled. 

Tyranny

The other form of political system that subsisted in ancient Greece is tyranny. As noted above most monarchs were tyrants. Tyranny in most cases goes hand in hand with totalitarianism where the leader seeks to regulate all the private and public of its citizens. In ancient Greece, most of the tyrants took power using unconstitutional means, in most cases the sitting legitimate ruler was ousted via various means such as being murdered. Other writers claim that tyrants were not necessarily evil rulers; they only sought power to fulfill their desires and look after their interests.  For example, Pesisistors who ruled in Athens from 560 BCE was a tyrant who was benevolent and is remembered for having paved way for the democratic mode of governance. Others, however, sought to rule their subjects with an iron fist. They took over power, imposed themselves and controlled anything and everything that took place within their jurisdiction. Of the states in Greece, the state of Syracuse in Sicily bore the brunt of tyrants. Tyrannical leaders in Sicily includes leaders such as Dionysios and his son Dionysios the II who ruled from 405 and 367 BCE respectively. Other states were not spared of tyrants either. Argos had Pheidon in 660 BCE, Thessaly ruled over Lykophron, Perinder in Corinth, and Polykrates in Samos. For individuals who came from Athens, tyranny became the exact opposite of the democracy. This gave Athenians a feeling of superiority over their neighbors.

Oligarchy

An oligarchy is a rule by individuals who are more powerful and richer than others in the society. This class of people in the society contains only a few people, and hence it denotes a rule by the few nobles or aristocrats I the society. It is important to note that oligarchs are not necessarily men, they can be rich women as well. Generally, oligarchs are beneficial for the rich but not helpful in the cause of the poor in any way. For Greeks, and more specifically, Athenians, any political system that excluded power from the citizenry and was neither tyrannical or a monarch was described as an oligarchy. They were the most common city or state governments and in most cases took place where democracy failed. There were very few instances of oligarchies in ancient Greece. At around 411 BCE, ‘the oligarchy of the 400’ took over power from the hands of the Assembly. That group was however overpowered by a more moderate oligarchy of about 5000 individuals. Another incidence of an oligarchy in Athens took place in 404 BCE, following the defeat of the Athenian army at the hands of Sicily. An oligarchy of ‘Thirty Tyrants’ took over the power of the whole state. That regime is noted for its brutal rule and ruthlessness. A lot of summary executions occurred during the regime. Other states that had an oligarchy include Megara and Thebes. Sometimes oligarchs are born into those powerful positions, at times they are diligently elected by oblivious citizens, and at other times they are they gain power by having a certain amount of wealth. Members of an oligarchy often meet probably weekly or monthly to make decisions on important issues and appoint of their own to deal with certain matters. For instance, they make a law that it is illegal. They can then appoint one of their own to make decisions whether people are indeed guilty. If one is adjudged guilty, they decide on what to do with the person. In essence, it is not the appointed individual who makes the decision but the oligarch. The individual is just a puppet of the rest. 

Public Officials

Another form of governance in ancient Greece involves the use of public officials.  In Athens, the law was made and sanctioned by archai (magistrates). Each and every citizen was eligible for appointment to that position, and in any case it is the expectation that any honorable citizen would play an active role in fulfilling their civic obligations. It is just like in the United States where it the expectation, that any patriotic citizen would positively respond when called to undertake jury duties. For the Greeks back then, the citizens viewed the state as an apparatus via which they could express their membership of the community rather than a tool for limiting personal freedoms. Public members volunteered to work as archai’s, and this was a good show of patriotism. The turnover for the position was frequent due to the limited time in holding the office, and there was no chance for re-election. Abuse of power derived from this position was kept in check since the rulers became the ruled sooner than they expected.

There were also various board officials tasked with making administrative decisions, and there was equal representation into the boards because its members were chosen from each of the ten traditional tribes. Most of these civic positions were voted for by the masses and only lasted for very short periods to ensure that corruption and bribery were kept to a minimum. Most importantly powerful positions not only required an individual with free time to spare, but also the fiscal muscle to fund some of the municipal projects such as such as festivals and ship building. This requirement was a drawback in the sense that it created a situation where the few rich citizens dominated public service. In the same breath, it restricted the poor citizens to only the minute jobs in the public service. In Sparta, the most critical state positions were the five Ephors who were voted for by the Assembly and of Sparta and served for a one-year duration. Once appointed, the ephors had the power over a majority of the areas of civic life since they could appoint and check on all the other public officials without restrictions. Army commanders, for instance, held state offices in some cities. In Athens for instance, a board of 10 elected generals referred to as the strategoi had the power to influence the agenda of the assembly and prioritize its causes. One powerful army general known as Pericles held office for 15 consecutive years despite the fact that the Assembly subjected him to a vote of no confidence on several occasions.

Conclusion

This essay explores the various political systems in ancient Greece. If indeed the country’s political development was this advanced, then Greece is probably the cradle of civilization. In the essay, five systems of governance have been highlighted that were used by the Greeks during the olden days. The essay first describes democracy as a political system. It was the most popular form of governance, and it has its roots in the city of Athens. A notable feature of that democracy is that it has the elements of “modern democracy”, that is, it allowed every member to air their views, it allowed for voting, only those who were above 18 years are allowed to vote. The doctrine of separation of powers is also exhibited.  However on the flip side, voting was not done in secrecy and women were not eligible voters. It was however criticized on the basis that charismatic and popular individuals could sway opinion in their favor and lead to poor decisions. The essay also describes monarchy as another political system used in some parts of Greece. Monarchy denotes the rule by a sovereign until abdication or death. Although this form of leadership was not as popular, it was used nevertheless in several cities such as Macedonia and Epeiros. However, the tendency towards democracy was still there since some monarchs shared power with their assemblies. Also, there existed a judiciary known as gerousia which implies that the state was at advanced developmental stages. Another form of political system highlighted in the essay refers to tyranny. There were totalitarian rulers even in those days who sought to control individuals’ public and private life. Most of them however only intended to benefit themselves and not harm their citizens, so they weren’t as bad as the ones witnessed in the present day. The essay also discusses oligarchy as a rule by those considered wealthier and powerful in the society. It is explained as being beneficial to the rich only. Lastly, the essay discusses the use of public officials in governance. The work did by public officials was voluntary and citizens relished the opportunity to serve their government in public service. To sum it up, today’s political systems used across the globe is a reflection of what happened in Greece very many centuries ago. It, therefore, means that the journey of development started long ago.

 

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