The path to democracy: 130 years of Athenian politics in 500 words

The first book, whose final title by the way is still undecided, begins a few days after Athens became the world's first democracy. It was, quite obviously, a major event in world history. The democracy didn't happen by accident, and my victim Ephialtes was by no means the only man instrumental in its creation. Ephialtes' reforms were merely the last in a series spanning generations.

I foolishly suggested to Editor Kathleen, over at St Martin's, that in addition to the usual author note at the end, it might be nice to explain in an historical note how Athens went from being like any other ancient city to the founder of western civilization.

Great idea, she said. You have two pages.

In the usual manuscript format, that comes to 500 words. Terrific. I started by writing 11 pages, then cut it to 6, then squeezed it down, agonisingly, to 2. Actually I cheated slightly; I have 566 words.

It is now open season on Gary's 2 page exposition of 130 years of intense politics. I'm going to post one of my longer versions too, so you can see what you're missing.

Feel free to correct my errors or tell me I should have included events other than those I selected. The only rule is, if you want me to add something, you have to tell me what to take out in return.

Any and all comments will be received with great interest.

The final version of this is going to see print. Here 'tis...


Circa 590BC. Solon the Wise writes a constitution for Athens. The city is run by nine archons, who are elected from amongst the wealthy landholder class. When an archon completes his term, he joins the Council of the Areopagus. The Council makes all the decisions and sets laws. Athens is an oligarchy of the wealthy.

Solon also creates a body called the Ecclesia (Assembly) of all the citizens of Athens. The Ecclesia has no power except to make non-binding votes, but it is destined, about 130 years later, to become the world's first democratic parliament.

Circa 546BC. Pisistratus makes himself Tyrant of Athens. He generally rules according to the constitution, though he manipulates it to favor the people over the aristocrats, and stacks the archonship positions with his own family. Pisistratus rules well for 20 years and is succeeded by his elder son Hippias. Hippias is not the man his father was. In 510BC, Hippias is driven from Athens.

508-506BC. Cleisthenes tweaks the constitution to give the people more power. Candidates for the archonship are selected by lot from amongst all those who pass a minimum wealth test. The people then vote from amongst the candidates. This prevents anyone from stacking the official jobs.

Cleisthenes introduces ostracism: once a year, the people can vote for whomever they think should be forced to leave town. The "winner" is exiled for a period of ten years, after which he may return. Nobody gets ostracized until 487BC, and then there's a flurry of victims.

The Ecclesia can now vote for domestic laws and expect their vote to be implemented. The Council of the Areopagus still has the power to nullify laws, and decides all foreign policy, so Athens remains an oligarchy. The power of the people is strong, and they are demanding ever more control. Full democracy is getting close, but then a major interruption arrives.

490BC. The Battle of Marathon. A Persian expeditionary force lands down the road from Athens, at an obscure beach called MARATHON. Their aim is to restore Hippias as Tyrant and make Athens a client state. The Athenians assemble every man they've got and drive the Persians into the sea.

480BC. The Persians return, this time with a massive army. The Greeks unite for the first time ever. You could write a whole book about this war. In fact, someone did: Herodotus, the Father of History. Incredibly, the Persians lose again.

487-462BC. Squabbling between the oligarchs and the common people carries on before and after the Persian Wars. Six members of the Areopagus are ostracized in this time, including Xanthippus, the father of Pericles, who went in 484BC and then was recalled to fight the Persians.

Ephialtes, "a man uncorrupt and upright in political matters", is doing his best to complete the reforms begun by Cleisthenes 50 years before. Ephialtes prosecutes various members of the Areopagus for corruption, hoping to weaken the Council.

The man protecting the powers of the Areopagus throughout this time is Cimon, the son of Miltiades who led the Athenians at Marathon. Cimon himself is an outstanding General, a hero to the people, and an arch-conservative. He's determined to retain the oligarchy and not let the rabble take control. While Cimon is there, Ephialtes can make no headway.

461BC. Cimon leads an unpopular expedition to aid Sparta during a slave revolt. Pericles prosecutes Cimon when the expedition ends badly. It is the first time Pericles is prominent in public affairs.

Cimon is ostracized.

The moment Cimon is gone, Ephialtes pushes through his reforms. The weakened Areopagus can't resist and has all its political powers removed. Athens becomes the world's first total democracy, with the Ecclesia as its parliament.

Days later, Ephialtes is murdered, and the book begins.

2 comments:

Anthony said...

Hi Gary!

I am not a Athenian historian, but I did do a stint for newspapers in the '80s where word count mattered a great deal in the layout of the page.

So I see places you can eliminate words.

For example:

"The city is run by nine archons, who are elected from amongst the wealthy landholder class."

Change to:

"The city is run by nine archons, elected from amongst the wealthy landholder class."

and:

"The Council of the Areopagus has veto over the vote, and decides all foreign policy, so Athens remains an oligarchy."

Change to:

"The Council of the Areopagus has veto and decides all foreign policy, so Athens remains an oligarchy."

Maybe not exactly what you were looking for, but if you are pinching words, there are some you can get rid of. If you toss enough while still maintaining readability, you could stick a whole new paragraph in there!

Gary Corby said...

You're right Anthony, it does need a bit more tightening. Shall do. Thanks.