Democracy Under Threat

An analysis on the resilience of Athenian democracy in the final stages of the Peloponnesian War and the failure of the oligarchic coups of 411 BC in Thucydides.

Learn more about the oligarchic coup of 411 BCE

I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom: left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality, their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible: they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, – but they will not endure aristocracy.

This is true at all times, and especially true in our own. All men and all powers seeking to cope with this irresistible passion, will be overthrown and destroyed by it. In our age, freedom cannot be established without it, and despotism itself cannot reign without its support. 1

Introduction

By 411 BC Athens had experienced nearly a century of continuous democratic rule. However, the Peloponnesian War, especially in the years following the disastrous campaign in Sicily, had placed Athens and its society under such strenuous and exceptional circumstances that a previously unfathomable oligarchic revolution would take place in the city. This revolution was, in the end, a resounding failure, the causes of which this essay will attempt to ascertain in a two-pronged analysis. The first vector of analysis regards the operational conditions which the leaders of the oligarchic movement failed to properly act on, thus mismanaging their keys to power through their actions, while the second vector indulges in a more philosophical approach that aims to show how Athens, having experienced democracy, was now synonymous with it, which in turn made a return to oligarchy an exercise contrary to its nature.

Causes for the coup

Notwithstanding these two approaches, it is convenient to first state the causes for the Athenian coup of 411. It is easy to forget that by this time Athens had experienced a plague that had killed roughly a third of its population, to which we then add the consequences of the more recent debacle in Sicily. These, combined with all the years of fighting, placed Athens in a dire situation regarding manpower, ships, and finances.2 Although the upper classes in Athens had developed a working relationship with its democratic government – Pericles, Nicias, and other Athenian leaders mentioned throughout Thucydides hailed from the nobility – some among them subscribed to aristocratic and oligarchic political thought, such as that of Theognis of Megara and Pindar3, and felt as if the good and virtuous (chrestoi) were burdened with the highest responsibilities of the city while the common – yet enfranchised – folk (poneroi) reaped the benefits.4 These sentiments were exacerbated during the trying times of the war, and in turn these times provided for an unique opportunity to frame a change in constitution as a matter of expediency (namely regarding Alcibiades’ ability to gain Persian support) in order to win the war.5

Failure of the hand

With the general motivations behind anti-democratic sentiment established, we may now turn our attention to answering the question at hand, which asks as to how the coup of 411 failed in bringing to power and maintaining a narrow form of oligarchy in Athens. Following our proposed first vector of analysis, I argue that the coup’s organisers failed in achieving their core operational requirements to succeed in holding power, chief among these were the following: the failure in establishing an oligarchy in Samos and taking over the Athenian fleet stationed at that island, which would play a key part in maintaining ideological unity throughout the empire and ensuring its integrity; the inability to establish a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Sparta, on which the revolutionary movement relied to consolidate its own domestic affairs (even as it justified its own necessity as a part of a theory for victory in the war); and the alienation of Alcibiades, whose support wielded a lot of influence even in disgrace, however mistaken the perceptions of his true influence over Tissaphernes might have been.

Ideological cohesion of the military and the empire

Regardless of their intentions, the oligarchic faction of Athens, having succeeded in changing the regime in the capital6, now hoped for a consolidation of their own ideology throughout the empire, and especially required it in the island of Samos, the Athenians’ primary naval base in the Aegean in this phase of the conflict. The failure of the oligarchic coup in Samos7 can largely be attributed to the poor timing of the attempt in two regards, first failing to assess the popular faction’s willingness to defend democracy (it is worthy to remember that Samos had revolted against its elite the previous summer, installing a zealous democracy8), and likewise failing in reigning in the armed forces stationed on the island which rushed to the aid of the popular party, proving their fears that the navy’s sympathies lied with democracy.9 This would prove to be fatal for the oligarchy, as a botched coup in Samos meant it now lacked control over the armed forces which protected the city and the empire at large, and which could actually enforce the payment of tributes throughout its holdings.10

The oligarchs’ hopes to make peace with Sparta

Additionally, the oligarchy, though its initial rhetoric made ostensive use of the promise for victory in the war against the Spartans, sought to establish a peaceful resolution with Agis, hoping that a change in government would incline Sparta to deal with Athens in more amicable terms. This was essential for the Four Hundred in Athens, as continuing the hostilities while transitioning from a democracy to oligarchy would endanger them both domestically and in their foreign affairs. Agis, however, was not convinced of the new government’s stability, and understood these developments as a chance to take over Athens during the city’s internal turmoil.11 Though he did not succeed in taking the city and acceded to negotiate with the Four Hundred, the oligarchs were now in a bad position to bargain, having made sworn enemies of their own armed forces12 and still being at war with Sparta.

Alcibiades’ alienation

Finally, it should be noted how Alcibiades’ alienation from the coup severely hampered its chances at success on the long term. Alcibiades, although distrusted by most for his fluid allegiances, was a tactician and orator of high calibre, capable of dictating the course of action of whichever faction he sided with, and wrecking confusion and disarray in his opposition’s camp for fear of his (often exaggerated) influence. The oligarchs, which had already shown little interest in the city’s fate in favour of their own power and influence, ought to have at least accepted Alcibiades and reinstating him to Athens as some sort of token figure for their movement, if only to prevent him from serving the counter-revolutionary cause as he did, and earning him a rare compliment from Thucydides for his ability to unite the democratic camp in a reasonable strategy, setting aside the passions which often dominated it.13

Failure of the heart

Having analysed the practical failures of the oligarchic revolution in wielding its sword, we may then proceed to our second – and perhaps more relevant for the study of politics – vector, which pertains to the extreme resilience which Athenian democracy demonstrates, and its characteristics which make the establishment of a lasting oligarchy in Athens a near-impossible endeavour.

Pericles, himself a man of noble birth, provided us with one of the greatest eulogies of democracy, the rule of the many, with his funeral oration. In this exercise in rhetoric, he appealed to the city as a whole, reminding it of the defining features of the democracy which not only governed it, but which was integrally connected to its nature. The speech14 not only elevates the valour of those who died for Athens, but more interestingly it presents democracy itself – the regime of the polis, as opposed to the polis in itself – as worthy of dying for, the patriotism he so often mentions referring not to the city of Athens, but to the common cause of defending (and the moral imperative to expand15) its constitution.16 Pericles’ funeral oration seems thus, in this regard, to perpetuate the (then) secular but growing notion that there was something to the effect of an Athenian exceptionalism that was impossible to disconnect from its form of government.

I am of the opinion that Tocqueville, quoted in the introduction of this essay, captured, in his analysis of eighteenth-century American democracy, the essence of what the oligarchs in Athens failed to understand about the rule of the many. Athens was the genesis of humanity’s experiments with popular forms of government, and its response to an oligarchic coup perfectly demonstrates, even at such an early stage, that the democratic man may endure the greatest privations on his own freedom and well-being, but that he will not tolerate the aforementioned writings of Theognis and Pindar and their notions of the chrestoi’s inherent superiority over the poneroi, being disposed to go so far as to ally himself with a man as traitorous as Alcibiades in the name of democracy than to betray his love for equality in the name of his own personal expediency.

Bibliography

  • Tocqueville, Alexis. 1835. Democracy in America. 1862 Edition. Translated by Henry Reeve. Vol. II. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.
  • Kagan, Donald. 2003. The Peloponnesian War. 2004 Edition. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. “Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War”. 2008. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. Translated by Richard Crawley. New York: Free Press.

Notes

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1835), Vol. II, Second Book, Chapter One. 

  2. Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 327-328. 

  3. In particular the two segments from the poems quoted by Kagan, in the following note: Nemean Odes 3.40-42, and Olympian Odes 2.83-88. 

  4. Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, 362-363. 

  5. Thuc. 8.47, Thuc. 8.53, Thuc. 8.54. 

  6. This new regime was known as the Four Hundred. 

  7. Thuc. 8.73. 

  8. Thuc. 8.21. 

  9. Thuc. 8.72, Thuc. 8.75. 

  10. Thuc. 8.76.4. 

  11. Thuc. 8.70-8.71. 

  12. Thuc. 8.75. 

  13. Thuc. 8.86. 

  14. Thuc. 2.35-2.46. 

  15. To expand its reach, being likewise a constitution worthy of ultimately being encouraged or imposed unto others. Extrapolated from Thuc. 2.37.1. 

  16. Thuc. 2.37.