Athens, Pericles and the Birth of Democracy: Part 2

About the history and biography ancient Greek political leader of Athens Pericles and the government which gave birth to democracy.


WHEN: 457 B.C.--430 B.C.

Under Pericles, Athens became the most powerful and influential of the Greek city-states. Her leadership was exercised through the Delian League, ostensibly a confederation of equals but in fact an apparatus through which Athens extracted tributes and support. A period of great cultural accomplishment followed: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides brought tragic drama to its height; the Parthe-non and other magnificent public buildings were constructed; mathematics, astronomy, and medicine flourished; and a key political reform--payment for public service--was instituted. But imperialism and its concomitant, slavery, were undermining the strength of Athenian society, and even the great cultural achievements of the Periclean age can be viewed as responses to the cancer of the slave economy.

Athens had achieved military supremacy in the Mediterranean because her advanced technology, notably the development of iron tools, gave her the largest ships and the best weapons. Machines for pressing olives for oil and for crushing silver ore led to exportable surpluses. Athenian pottery, wines, and armaments were also in demand wherever her ships entered port. Because exporting manufactured goods was so profitable, there was pressure to increase production. Small factories were organized, with labor divided among several workers. Whereas one craftsman used to make pots, start to finish, in a factory one man would fire the kiln, another throw the pot, another paint it, and so on. His work divided into simpler steps, the master craftsman was replaceable by slaves. Factories employing 15 or more men became common in the age of Pericles. In the mines the numbers ran up to 1,000. One effect of reliance on slave labor was to inhibit invention. It became cheaper to use 3 or 4 slaves for a heavy task than to design and build a machine to do it. And the existence of slave labor not only determined the income to be derived from manual work, but the social status of it. Labor became despised.

Competing against slave labor, the resident aliens sank to the status Aristotle later called "limited slavery." As for the poorer citizens, they used their voting power to pressure Pericles into establishing a kind of welfare system. Many of his key "democratic" reforms, such as payment for jury duty, were attempts to maintain the unpropertied citizens in a slightly privileged status.

By 430 B.C., the last year of Pericles' reign, some 20,000 citizens (between 1/3 and 1/2 the whole citizenry) were being supported at public expense. The money came in part from the other Greek city-states, and from further colonial expansion. As a result of this situation, the political spokesmen of the poorer citizens became the leading advocates of Athenian imperialism. They supported Pericles in a policy of confrontation with Sparta, a policy that made the Peloponnesian War--and the decline of Athenian power--inevitable.

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