Essay, Research Paper
Power in the Hands of the Many
In reading the political speech by the Old Oligarch, it is not hard to see just how bitter some Athenians were about the institution of Democracy. This being so, one must examine the reverse side of the coin, the empowerment of the lower class known as the ?commons?. The Athenian democracy brought with it a variety of opportunity for the common men of Athens. Prior to this period, the upper class held the top positions and had the final say in governmental proceedings. It is through the bitter words of men, such as the Old Oligarch, that historians come to understand just how Athens, as well as the commons, benefited from their form of government and control of the so-called allies.
Toward the end of the Persian wars, a league was established among Greek cities who depended upon trade in the Aegean as a livelihood. The Delian League began as a voluntary way for strong, as well as weak cities, to band together against Persia in Greek inhabited areas of Asia Minor. Over time Athens became the head of this league and the Persian threat was put down for the time being. A few members of the league felt it was due time they severed their tie to the league and went back to life their way of life. Athens on the other hand had grown accustomed to the money in the form of tribute payments which kept the navy among other things in tip-top shape. When the cities threatened to leave the league, Athens not only prevented their departure, but quashed them to the point they would no longer have the means to leave the league.
It might be suggested that the ability of the allies to pay tribute is
the strength of Athens. The democrats think it more advantageous
that each individual Athenian should possess the wealth of the allies
and the allies only enough to live on, and continue working
without having the power to conspire (Oligarch, 15).
During this same time, the common men of Athens were being given power in the government far beyond those of cities where aristocratic rule was favored. For Athens, the common men made up the navy and were paid for their service rendered as rowers on ships such as the coveted Athenian trireme. This was a new idea in the waging of war. Cities, such as Sparta, still relied on the conventional land bound Hoplite warfare which was made up mostly of aristocrats due to the expense of armor and weaponry. Another area in which the common men of Athens took to power was in public speaking. What once was a forum of aristocratic gentlemen gave way to an assembly made up of all Athenian citizens who wished to speak on behalf of his fellow man. Athens as a whole benefited from their power over the so-called allies with their control of the sea. Trade was crucial to Athens in both commerce and a means of sustaining life. Grain as well as materials for ship building made their way to Athens? port. This trade was highly regulated and enforced in all allied cities.
If a city is rich in shipbuilding timber where will it dispose of it
unless it win the consent of the ruler of the sea? More over they will
not allow our rivals to take their goods elsewhere or (if they try) they
will not use the sea (Oligarch II. 11-12).
Through this trade monopoly, Athens and the commons had the advantage. All of the ships were made in Athens by the commons. That brought in money and supplies from the allies, while providing a means of living for the commons and power to the Empire as a whole. Athens had grown in power to the point where, ?…the large [were] in subjection because of fear, [and] the small simply because of need…? (Oligarch II. 3).
The democracy of Athens was in sharp contrast the the aristocratic rule of the rival city Sparta. The commons of Athens were given the rights previously held by the upper crust of the citizenry. Given the location of Athens and dependence upon trade, democracy may have been the only way to go. Without the need for a strong navy to protect its port, or ships to negate trade, Athens, like Sparta, could have gone on in much the same governmental style. Regardless, the skills of the common man in Athens were key to the formation of the democracy. Athens? sheer domination over trade as a means to control those once voluntarily allied to the Delian League was a huge political maneuver. However, such a move would not go unnoticed and the tensions between Athens and Sparta would continue to fester.
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