It is not coincidence that western education of history, political science and philosophy generally starts from the ancient Greek. Although the civilization is widely accepted to begin with Sumerians’ discovery of the alphabet (2500 BC), because of the western domination in the world, the ancient Greek is accepted as the starting point of civilization. It is a fact that ancient Greece was a great center politics and philosophy. The old classics from the ancient Greek civilization are still accepted as valid sources in academic works. In this paper, I intend to make an analysis of what we can learn from the ancient Greek civilization about the nature of politics. I am going to use many sources to make this research. I am going to use Plato’s “The Republic”, Sophocles’ “Antigone” from “The Theban Plays”, Homer’s “The Iliad” and Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” in addition to lecture notes. In this paper, it will be argued that the ancient Greece was the source of democratic thought although it was also the center of vicious wars. In order to arrive at that point, it will be started by giving a historical background of the ancient Greek civilization. Later, I am going to analyze some concepts in the ancient Greek politics by taking help from the lecture notes. Thirdly, I am going to analyze each works mentioned above to show basic concepts in ancient Greek politics. Lastly, I am going to make a general analysis of these works and assess the nature of politics in the ancient Greece.
From the historical documents we know that the famous Trojan War between the Myceneans (Greeks) and the Trojans took place around 1200 BC. Around 750-675 BC, the famous ancient Greek writer Homer composed his masterpieces the Iliad and the Odysseus. It is accepted that around 700 BC, Athens moved from monarchy to oligarchy and the king of Athens was replaced by a college of nine rulers. These rulers were chosen by the aristocracy each year through elections. The power was in the hands of the elites which consisted of distinguished people from the warrior, intellectual and ruler class. Around 594 BC, archon (city-states ruler) Solon, expanded the oligarchy and opened new offices to rich commoners. He also established a Council of 400 elite citizens. Around 510 BC, another archon Cleisthenes led Athens to isonomy (democracy) from oligarchy. He divided Athens into 139 neighborhoods and granted equal rights for all accepted citizens. Neighborhood assemblies were open to all citizens and they had huge effect on government’s decisions. Between 490-479 BC Persian Wars took place and Greece was invaded. The invasion lasted short time and it did not prevent ancient Greek civilization to develop. In the first half of the 5th century BC, we see the great development of ancient Greek literature with the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Especially Sophocles’ works left a deep impact on the ancient Greek civilization. Later, Herodotus appeared and wrote the history of Persian Wars. During the years 431-404 BC, the great Peloponnesian War took place between Athens and Sparta city-states. Pericles and Thucydides wrote the history of Peloponnesian War and increase the understanding of politics. However, the greatest achievements of the ancient Greek civilization took after them with three very important philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. At this period, democracy was settled in all city-states and the academic fields like political science and philosophy developed greatly. However, around 322 BC the democratic government of Athens was overthrown.
Now, I want to discuss some conceptions that pass in ancient Greek civilization before further discussion about it. First of all, democracy means “government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives”. Isonomy is similar to democracy but it rather underlines the quality of having equal rights before the law and equal chance to taker part in governmental institutions. Isegoria in ancient Greek civilization refers to all citizens’ equal rights to speak in the Assembly or freedom of speech in short. Eleutheria means the prevention of the concentration of executive power in the hands of the elected person or people and it shows the emphasis given to participatory democracy understanding in the ancient Greece. Citizen not only means a habitant of a city-state but rather a person who enjoys political and civil rights. That is why slaves and women are not accepted as citizens since they do not have such rights. Citizenship is about people’s duties and rights about the governance of the city states which are called as “polis”. Polis refers to the city-states and particularly to a specific community native to Greece. The word political means something proper to polis whereas politics refer to what citizens do in a polis, as an art and practice of self-government.
Now, I want to analyze the works that I named in the introduction separately in chronological order. I will begin with Homer’s The Iliad. Iliad is one of the earliest literature works of human history and it basically tells us the Trojan War. In Iliad, we see Achilles as the main character of the myth, who is a very brave and strong man. We see that in this work, war is a natural part of human life and democracy is not settled yet in Greece. Agamemnon and Priam, two kings, welcome the war and do not see this as a disaster. People generally run after power as far as Homer is concerned. Politics is about power and kings and warriors fight and live for glory. Gods are also like humans and they fall in love, they fight and dispute. Greek mythology tells us a lot about people’s beliefs and historical conditions although it may not be a very valid historical source. It is fantastic but also realistic on the other hand. It is about power, glory and political corruption like we see today.
Another important work is Sophocles’ Antigone. Sophocles (496-406 BC) is a Greek dramatist known with his masterpieces like Ajax, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus. In Antigone, the protagonist of the tragedy is a woman named Antigone. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, sister of Ismene, Eteocles and Polynices. Antigone is about a woman’s desperate search for justice and her courage against the laws of the state for her family honor and love. In the story, we see that Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices fall down in a war but the king of Thebes, Creon does not accept to make a funeral for Polynices whom he accuses as being a traitor. We see Antigone in great pains in the beginning of the story. Antigone talks with Ismene about this injustice taking place and says that they should do something. Ismene however, gets afraid of transgressing the law. “New we two left; and what will be the end of us, If we transgress the law and defy our king? O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us to fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we, And we must obey in this…” (Sophocles, pg 128). Antigone unlike Ismene thinks that she could oppose to the decision of the ruler if it is wrong and then decides to bury his brother Polynices’ corpse without Ismene’s help. Antigone successfully does this and the sentry later explains the situation to Creon. “She was burying the man with her own hands, and that’s the truth” (Sophocles, pg 137). Antigone, after being captured, admits what she has done and accepts the punishment. She thinks that the order did not come from God and it is not justice what Creon is doing. Antigone bravely challenges the laws of the state and uses her right to objection which we see in today’s democracies. “What law of heaven have I transgressed? What god can save me now? If this is God’s will, I shall learn my lesson in death; but if my enemies are wrong, I wish them no worse punishment than mine” (Sophocles, pg 150). Antigone character is very important since we can accept her as the first feminist character in world history who resisted against inequality between men and women and like other men tried to use her right to oppose to the decisions of the government unlike her sister Ismene who thinks who do not have such rights.
Now let us look at the “History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides. In this work, Pericles gives his famous funeral oration after the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Pericles talks about the courage and manliness of soldiers. “Our belief in the courage and manliness of so many should not be hazarded on the goodness or badness of one man’s speech” ((Thucydides, pg 144). Pericles talks about Greek ancestors and their success in keeping their lands and building a free country by their courage and other virtues. He praises Greek type of government since it is unique and more developed, democratic than other countries. “Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people” (Thucydides, pg 145). We see that Pericles is very well aware of democracy’s virtues and he praises his country for implementing democracy. This shows us how Greek democracy is developed because we know that real democracies could only be built after the Second World War in Europe. But 2000 years ago, there was a civilization who achieved this. Pericles continues to his speech by talking about the equality of citizens and the separation of public and private lives. He thinks that their civilization does not have a secret weapon but their power comes from their developed regime and the courage and the loyalty of citizens (Thucydides, pg 146). He adds that poverty is not something to be ashamed of but something to be solved. “As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it” (Thucydides, pg 147). At the end of his speech, Pericles also talks about the role of women in society. “Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you” (Thucydides, pg 151). Although democracy is very developed in the ancient Greece, we see that both in Antigone and Pericles examples, there is a strong dominance of males, namely patriarchy. However, we see that even in today’s democracies there is male domination and it is not very unusual to see this in ancient Greece.
Lastly, I want to talk about Socrates and Plato in the light of Plato’s The Republic. Plato (427 BC-377 BC) was one of the earlier and most important philosophers of the world and is also known as the founder of “The Academy”. The son of wealthy and influential Athenian parents, Plato began his philosophical career as a disciple of Socrates. Socrates was both the tutor and the hero of Plato and he played a great role in Plato’s formation of ideas. Plato used Socrates as the main figure in his works and expressed his views from the mouth of Socrates. We can claim that Socrates represents Plato in his works. In fact all we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s writings. Plato’s most famous works are “The Republic” and “Five Dialogues”. Plato, in his famous work The Republic, develops his view on justice (dikaiosuné) on the level of individual and state. He also draws us a picture of his utopian state and the ideal man. In Plato’s ideal state there are three main classes: the first class is the class of Guardians (Rulers, Auxiliaries), the second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers, businessman and the third class refers to slaves who are not accepted as citizens. Guardians are the golden class of Plato’s ideal society. In his idea, Rulers should exercise the supreme authority and deal with the philosophical aspect of political life whereas Auxiliaries should deal with military, police and executive duties. Plato believes in the supremacy of “true” knowledge and his dream is to live in a society ruled by philosophers who have the greatest capacity of producing knowledge. Plato thinks that after an effective education starting from a young age, selected and trained Guardians can achieve control over themselves and think of the welfare of the community instead of their self-profit. In the case of the individual, we see again the importance of harmonious functioning. As I said before, Plato completely believes in the dominancy of the knowledge and information. So, his ideal just man is a person who always makes rational decisions and suppresses his instincts and emotions. He claims that there are three important parts in our minds: reason, spirit and the desire and appetite. Plato believes that we have to use these three parts with harmony in making decisions. His ideal justice requires always the use of reason before spirit and desire. With Plato we see the dominance of elitism over democracy. We know that Plato witnessed to the execution of Socrates because of his non-conforming views to the Athenian democracy. I think this made a huge effect on Plato’s elitist views. He openly claims that the society should be ruled by people who have most knowledge because in democracy the majority could take wrong decisions since they have less knowledge. As far as I am concerned, we can claim that Plato’s rejection of democracy is the rejection of majoritarian democracy in which the elected part has the right to do whatever it wants. However, in liberal democracies we know that there are inviolable rights of individuals which cannot be violated even by the elected government. Thus, we can think that Plato’s writings are caused by his criticism towards majoritarian democracy and Socrates’ unfair death.
If we have to make a final analysis of all knowledge we acquired from these works, we can claim that ancient Greek civilization was really incredibly developed in terms of philosophy and politics. Issues mentioned by Homer, Sophocles, Thucydides and Plato are nearly contemporary issues and their ideas are not very strange. Women’s role in the society is still a controversial issue like Antigone showed us. There are still wars, invasions in the world like Homer described. We still praise democracy like Pericles did in Thucydides’ work. Also, there are still discussions about the lack of qualities of democracy although it is accepted as the “least evil” among other systems. So, we see that issues and ideas are very contemporary although they were written more than two millenniums ago. Thus, we can easily claim that ancient Greece was a center of civilization for philosophy and politics. We also see that their intellectual achievement did not stop them to engage in huge wars like the famous Peloponnesian War. This is the other part of the medallion because we see that there are very vicious and bloody wars. So, politics is considered as power accumulation and hegemony unlike democratic understanding within the polis when it is an international matter. We can claim that even this view is contemporary because although there is globalization, states follow their own interest even in 21st century. Another problem with ancient Greek civilization is the existence of slaves which our democratic writers do not talk too much about. Slavery is accepted as natural and nobody opposed to this. In fact, we can even claim that the development of democracy and science was caused by the existence of slavery since Greeks did not have to work hard and found leisure time to deal with arts and science. Physical works were handled by citizens in the ancient Greece. But we can still say that even in today’s society, there are rich people who are more effective on decisions and there are “small” people who work and try to find money just for living. These people do all our jobs but they have less knowledge and right to say in politics except for voting. Thus, we can still say that although legal slavery in ancient Greece is disturbing, it is not too much different from today’s understanding.
Finally, as far as I am concerned, ancient Greece tells us nearly everything about modernity and democracy. Except industrialization and imperialism, we see nearly all aspects of political life in the ancient Greece. These writings are very precious both as political historical documents and as guides for humans to build better regimes in contemporary world.
- Homer, 1995, “The Iliad”, New York: Penguin Books
- Plato, 1992, “The Republic”, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company
- Sophocles, 1974, “The Theban Plays”, London: Penguin Books
- Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War”, London: Penguin BooksDictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com
 Definition taken from http://www.dictionary.com
 “O Ismene, what do you think? Our two dear brothers… Creon has given funeral honors to one, And not to the other; nothing but shame and ignominy. Eteocles has been buried, they tell me, in state, With all honorable observances due to the dead. But Polynices, just as unhappily fallen – the Order, Says he is not to be buried, not to be mourned…” (Sophocles, pg 127).