Monday, March 20, 2017

An egalitarian aura to every aspect of the Greek city-state

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson, page 113. One of the great, and often unremarked, strengths of true democracies is that they represent the consent of the governed. That consent enables a mustering and direction of resources not commonly available to coercive or repressive systems of government.
If civic participation in early, broadly oligarchic Greek city-states originally marked a revolutionary invention of consent by the governed, such governments nevertheless often represented less than a fourth of the total resident population. Yet, as Plato lamented, there was a constant evolutionary trend toward egalitarianism and inclusion in the city-state. By the fifth century, especially in Boeotia and some states in the Peloponnese, the qualification for voting and office-holding was as small as a ten-acre farm or the cash equivalent.

The eventual result was that the clear majority of free adult male residents of the surrounding territory by the fifth century B.C. could participate fully in Hellenic government. At imperial Athens and among its democratic satellites every free male born to a male citizen, regardless of wealth or lineage, was eligible for full citizenship, giving rise to an enormous navy of free citizen rowers. Even more startling, the spread of Western democratic ideology evolved far beyond formal matters of voting, but lent an egalitarian aura to every aspect of the Greek city-state, from familiarity in speech and dress to a sameness in public appearance and behavior—a liberality in private life that would survive even under periods of monarchy and autocracy in the later West. Conservatives like the anonymous so-called Old Oligarch (ca. 440 B.C.) scoffed that slaves and the poor were treated no differently from men of substance at Athens. Plato felt that the logical evolution of democracy had no end: all hierarchies of merit would disappear as even deckhands would see themselves as captains, with a birthright to take their turn at the rudder whether or not they knew anything about seamanship. Even the animals at Athens, he jested, would eventually question why they, too, were not equal under an ideology whose aim was to lower all to a common level.

Although many of these Hellenic traditions of autonomy and freedom were eroded by the rise of the dynasts Philip and Alexander (359–323 B.C.) and their imperial Successors (323–31 B.C.) in the Hellenistic world, the ideals of the city-state were not entirely forgotten, but incorporated by states outside Greece itself. Italians, for example, learned more about constitutional rule from the old Greek colonies of southern Italy than from the contemporary Hellenistic kings across the Adriatic. So it was one of the great ironies of the Roman-Greek conflicts of the third and second centuries B.C. that the legions were more Hellenic than the Greek-speaking mercenaries they slaughtered at the battles at Cynoscephalae (197 B.C.) and Pydna (168 B.C.) inside Greece.

Unfortunately for purposes of mustering quality military manpower, Carthage, unlike Rome, had not evolved beyond the first phase of Hellenic-inspired consensual rule. Its government remained in the hands of a select body of aristocrats and landed executives, themselves chosen from that same elite cadre. Carthage was a vast empire run by a small deliberative clique of noble merchants and traders. In contrast, Rome borrowed and improved upon the Greek ideal of civic government through its unique idea of nationhood(natio) and its attendant corollary of allowing autonomy for its Latin-speaking allies, with both full (optimo iure) and partial citizenship (sine suffragio) to residents of other Italian communities—and in the centuries to come full citizenship to those of any race and language that might accept Roman law and pay taxes. What at its inception had nominally been a government of Latin-speaking aristocrats in Rome proper would logically evolve into a pluralistic state, in which local assemblies would weigh in against the Senate, and popular leaders would veto oligarchic legislation. Even consuls like Flaminius and Varro— the former killed at Trasimene, the latter in large part responsible for the catastrophe at Cannae—were purportedly “men of the people” voicing the poor’s desire for precipitate military action in opposition to aristocrats like Fabius Maximus, who favored patience and delay. They had no popular counterparts at Carthage.

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