How a cult was built around a political ideal in Ancient Greece

How a cult was built around a political ideal in Ancient Greece.

Freedom did not always hold a central place in Greek political culture. In his Works and Days, one of the earliest Greek literary sources, the poet Hesiod never used the words freedom or free. For him, justice was the most important attribute of a well-functioning community. “They who give straight judgments to strangers and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just,” Hesiod admonished his audience, “their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it.” At the same time, Hesiod was enough of a realist to know that justice was rarely achieved in this world. He therefore also counseled a quietist acceptance of the right of the strongest to do what they wanted, telling his audience that “he is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame.”

Homer, one of our other major sources for the earliest period of Greek history, occasionally spoke of “free” individuals. But he always used the term to describe an individual’s legal status, to distinguish free persons from slaves. Like Hesiod, he never talked about “freedom” as a political condition, something that could be enjoyed under one political system but not another. Thus, in the Iliad, the Trojan warrior Hector explained that he was fighting, first and foremost, to preserve the “freedom” of his wife Andromache. But what he feared was that his wife and other Trojan women would be carried off as booty by his enemies and turned into household slaves—not that they would be subjected to a tyrannical leader or oppressive political system.

To the extent that Homer expressed a preference for one form of government over another, it was for one-man rule, not popular self-government. At the outset of the Iliad, Greek troops, weary of the ten-year battle against Troy, mutiny against Agamemnon’s command. Longing to go home, they rush toward their ships and are all but ready to concede their defeat at the hands of the Trojans. But Odysseus, spurred on by the goddess Athena, forcefully restores order. Beating the soldiers with his staff, he commands them to obey their superiors. “The rule of many is not good,” Homer has Odysseus remark while browbeating the soldiers, and “let there be one ruler, one king.”

These attitudes probably reflected existing power structures. In the early Archaic period, Greek communities were in all likelihood dominated by the heads of powerful families who achieved and maintained their authority on the strength of their martial prowess and noble birth. Our evidence suggests that in the course of the seventh century bc, the power of these basileis, or “kings” as they are described in Homer’s oeuvre, was eroded in favor of a broader aristocracy that shared power. As cities on the Greek mainland grew bigger and more prosperous, distinctions between the elite and the commoners became more pronounced. A telling indication is the appearance of terminology used to distinguish the elite—such as kaloi (“beautiful”), agathoi (“good”), and esthloi (“good” or “brave”)—and that used to refer to commoners, such as kakoi (“ugly” or “bad”) and deiloi (“cowardly” or “wretched”). The elites monopolized the growing number of public offices required to govern the increasingly complex communities of the late Archaic period.

There are some indications that freedom became a more important ideal in Greek political culture with the democratization of many city-states around 500 bc. It was then that ordinary [ … ]

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