Unit 2: Ancient Greece / Athens and Sparta
The Democratic Aristocracy of Athens
From Busolt, Georg. Griechische Geschichte. As reproduced in Great Issues in Western Civilization, trans. Donald Kagan, ed. Tierney, Brian, Donald Kagan, and L. Pearce Williams (New York: Random House, 1967), 4-5.
Georg Busolt, a German classicist, held the view that while Athenian political life had some plural, democratic aspects, these were in fact only realized in practice among a small elite. Furthermore, Busolt maintained that Pericles led the citizens of the Assembly rather than being led by them, and asserted that a great deal more power was invested in the person of Pericles than would be tolerated in a truly democratic political system.
The extensive and glittering outfitting of the Panathenaic festival, the construction of a splendid new temple of Athena, the whole building activity in general were features of the Periclean leadership which it shared with the regime of the Peisistratids, a democratic monarchy to which, according to the judgment of Thucydides, it was really related. Both regimes were concerned with relief of the lower classes, the attempt to give them employment, to provide a livelihood for them, and also with the acquisition of overseas possessions and the provision of landed property for many citizens. Pericles’s colonization of the Chersonnese and his restoration of circuit judges join directly with the tradition of the time of the Peisistratids [who introduced similar popular measures.]


The oligarchic party lost, with its organizer, its firm coherence and its capacity for robust opposition. Pericles was thus without a rival, and therefore, in the eyes of the people, he became something other than what he had been before. If he had earlier felt himself compelled to be at the people’s disposal and to yield to the wishes of the masses, he now began to behave independently and to take the bridle into his hand. By using the weight of his personality he ruled the state—on the one hand by means of the official authority given to him, on the other by means of his decisive influence on the decisions of the popular assembly. For fifteen years he would be elected to the generalship each year. In difficult times of war he received the supreme command, and at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War he also obtained extraordinarily full powers. Although he did not usually have greater official power than the other generals, he nevertheless held the authoritative position in the college of the generals and thereby collected into his own hand its conduct of the military, maritime, financial, and administrative affairs that were still in its competence. The unbroken continuity of office, in fact, released him still further from the principle of accountability and gave him an exceptional position, which would nevertheless be held within bounds by the fact that the people by means of the epicheirotonia that took place each prytany, could suspend him from office and place him before a court. In addition to the most important ordinary annual offices, Pericles quite regularly held the extraordinary office of Epistates of a public building...

But as the power of Pericles was dependent on popular election and the mood of the people, he could only steer the entire ship of state in the direction he set if he could hold the leadership of the popular assembly in his hand. He succeeded by dint of his firmly based authority, his proven political insight, the integrity of his character, the dignity of his bearing, and the power of his speech. As he did not first need to acquire influence by improper means and was not accustomed to speak in order to please but, on the contrary, by virtue of the esteem in which he was already held, he could, under certain circumstances, even sharply oppose the people. He thus would not be led by the people, but instead he led them. As a result there developed a regime that was a popular government in name but one ruled by the first citizen in fact, a monarchical leadership based on a democratic base, which frequently resumed the traditions of the democratic monarchy of the Peisistratids.

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