Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I watched a two-part series on democracy in ancient Athens on PBS last night. It was apparently produced by the BBC, and it tried to give a pretty balanced view of the city state. Though Athens was democratic, slaves were disenfranchised, as were women. Since it is estimated that about a third of the population of Athens was slaves, that means that two-thirds of the adult inhabitants of the city were disenfranchised. The rest, of which there were approximately six thousand, gathered to deliberate upon state policy, and it was direct democracy, because they participated in all decision-making. There were no politicians, as such. However, generally speaking, only about a hundred of the citizens spoke or introduced legislation. According to this show, the ancient Greeks were not averse to "spinning" their positions. This was expected. It was what the art of rhetoric was all about. You were expected to persuade others of your position by whatever rhetorical means you could. Debate was not always civil either. Speakers who espoused positions that were too far from popular opinion were shouted down.

Athens is often portrayed as the seat of democracy, a peaceful city-state that stood in marked contrast to the war-like Sparta. The truth is something different. In its golden age of democracy, not two years went by in which the citizens failed to vote for war, and Athens was definitely an imperial power, dominating city-states all around the Aegean. They even built up an alliance of these states, called the Delian League. It was a decidedly unbalanced alliance that functioned mainly as an instrument of Athenian power.

Like all of the known ancient societies, Athens was intensely partriarchal. So much so that, according to this show, the idea of women wearing veils in public may have originated there. Various pieces of pottery show women veiled when out of the house. Life may have been far for idyllic for them in Athens, but it wasn't just the women who suffered. The city-state itself might have been better off if women had been part of the political process. The code of manhood in ancient societies was so thoroughly intertwined with the martial spirit that it probably didn't take much to get the male voters all worked up and ready to vote for war. The women presumably wouldn't have been so eager to see their men go off to die in often frivolous military adventures.

There were a lot factual bits and pieces in the show, things that I didn't know. Here are a few of them. In history classes, the Parthenon is presented as a temple. In fact, it was more like a bank. That's where the Athens state treasury was kept, and we know of no religious ceremony that was held there. Something that I didn't know was that there have been lots of recent archaelogical discoveries that have deepened our knowledge of the period. In fact, there are apparently hundreds of documents from the fifth century BC that have not yet been translated. The reason is that they are in such bad shape that they have to be carefully handled. Some are even in pieces that have be reassembled. The show talked about one intriguing document that has been recently discovered in the undisturbed tomb of an obviously wealthy man. It's a philosophical document that says that the creation stories should be taken as metaphor and that the true facts of how the world came about are best explained by the atomic theory. It's an astonishingly modern point of view. Then too, there are the humorous trivia. My favorite was this one. The verb "testify" comes from the same Greek root as "testes". You see, in the Greek courts, a witness had to hold the testes of a sacrificed animal in his hand. That was their equivalent of putting his hand on the Bible. Which makes more sense? You be the judge. This isn't ancient Athens. Even you women can decide for yourselves.


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