Important Figures in Classical Antiquity

I have been thinking about the nature of “big men” in ancient times?

The two periods of interest to me in my essay are the Homeric times of 1200 odd BC as represented by Homer in the 8th century and classical antiquity of 4th and 5th century Athens. There is a very obvious comparison to make here between the former, a conglomeration of principalities, and the latter as a democracy. The role of the “big men” would seem to start out as the only notable members of society, gradually eroded into the position of leaders amongst equals.

Yet the history of Athens, as recorded by Herodotus, Thucydides and Plutarch is depicted as a series of great men passing the mantel of leadership from one to the next. Plutarch in particular has this view, but he is regarded as a less reliable source than Thucydides. Aristotle’s view is more group-centric than his mentor, Plato, who saw the virtues of a small band of elite as outweighing the general masss. Though, by “passing the mantel” I’m obfuscating and telescoping several long periods of political intrigue and revolution.

Athens and her great rival, Sparta, both ascribed their laws to single men, rallying and reforming the entire population according to their will. Athens had Solon (Sparta had Lycurgus, who is far less interesting and not related to anything else I want to talk about), whose various exploits are alluded to in Herodotus and Aristotle, but covered in detail by Plutarch. Solon was credited with a wholesale reformation of Athenian law and the definition of what it was to be Athenian. It was a common thing to ascribe all law to him, whether he in fact created it or not. Demosthenes, a 5th century orator was especially bad in this way. Solon reformed Athenian law in 594 BC, Demosthenes was writing in the mid 400s.

So, while we might see Athens in classical times as being a democracy, there was still a propensity to magnify the exploits of individuals. Solon became as much a mythic figure of law-creation as Achilleus was of martial prowess. The tales of Solon’s exploits as related by Herodotus are in that realm no less impressive. My favourite part of that tale was that journey to Croessus which I have elsewhere related.

Of course, Athens had, not only historic figures of high standing, but allowed several prominent citizens to have free reign over them in classical times. The three which “spring to mind” are Pisistratus, Pericles and Alcibiades. Pisistratus was in the generation after Solon, and ruled Athens as a tyrant. He began the impressive succession of public works which are still famous, though Pericles a hundred and fifty years later must be credited too with enhancing the public appearance of the city. Alciades was a less completely successful public figure than either of the others I named. He had periods of favour and disgrace, but ultimately in his best-day had almost absolute authority over the city state. His power was founded in public good will, and so as this waned, he was forced to retire from public life, where he died an ignominious death.

There were also a second-tier of public figures who appeared at around the time of Pericles and Alcibiades. Men who were great public orators, like Kleon. These people had no martial prowess to generate good public opinions in the way that Alcibiades managed. They were consequently less influential on the course of Athenian history.

The exact question that these background thoughts pertain to is: How did Athenian society negotiate between the demands of private life and those of group life? Which were more important in theory? To what extent did theory and practise coincide?

My answer is really that the democracy restrained the impulses and actions of the powerful. They were forced to act with the popular will behind them. This retraint largely seems to take the form of requiring them to wage the war of public opinion before undertaking their glorious actions. Concommitant with this is the need to ensure that the actions undertaken are at least plausibly presented as being for the good of the demos, rather than purely self-enhancing. For example, Achilleus in the Iliad acts in all parts as seeking his own personal ends. He has no concern for the wellfare of his fellow Greeks. Alcibiades, while seeking the same glory in battle, must act where possible with the objectives of the Athenian public in mind. Alcibiades, like Achilleus, does act contrary to those interests where circumstances demand it, but utlimately he always returns to a course for the good of the city state wherever possible.

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26 Responses to Important Figures in Classical Antiquity

  1. adrexia says:

    I have a love hate relationship with Homer (namely, I love the Odyssey, and hate the Illiad πŸ˜‰ ). Good luck on your essay. I get the feeling you could do it in your sleep anyway.

    I handed in a thousand word commentary on the sheild of Achillies today. I think I am done with the Illiad for the year. Now I have to read Herodotus, Thucydides and Plutarch. Hopefully before the end of the ‘holidays’.
    I believe you are taking the course we were warned about when our lecturer discussed resources for our essay’s. πŸ˜€

    • mashugenah says:

      Yeah, I’m finding the array of assessment on offer this year pretty yawn-worthy. 😦 There’s nothing that I know of coming up that concerns me except the slide test for BAA, which I have no idea how to prepare for. 😦

      I own all the sources I need for this essay except possibly Aristophanes’ Frogs.

      Why do you hate the Iliad? (answer to be 500 words or less! πŸ˜‰ )

      • This 750 word proto-essay needs to be spun out to 2000 words with appropriate quotations from the various sources mentioned. I think it can be done, and I have 24 hours to be proven right or wrong.
        Out of curiousity, why do you always leave essays to the day before the due date? Myself, I find starting a couple of weeks before hand is the lazy option which entirely removes the need for all nighters. (Sorry, I don’t mean to lecture.)

        Good luck with your essay.

      • mashugenah says:

        Sorry, I don’t mean to lecture.

        Then don’t. :/

        I guess a serious answer to your question would be that I (arrogantly) back myself to produce sufficient quality work within the time period of a couple of days, and that my experience has not dissuaded me from this view.

        I don’t do “all nighters”, in fact, I rarely feel pressured by essays even starting the day before. Heck, even starting on the actual day I have been getting by with B+/A- and had time to spare.

        I don’t like editing and revisiting my work. I like to formulate my essay plan, sit down, write it and forget about it. As the process of “thinking” is the only interestig phase I find it hard to get enthused about re-writing anything later. I take some joy in getting good grades, but it is in no way a motivation for me.

        Does that answer your question?

      • adrexia says:

        Starting early is cheating. πŸ˜›

      • adrexia says:

        I might have the frogs. I’m sure I used to…
        I don’t own Herodotus yet, but that’s because unibooks sold out. I learnt a good lesson too: I should always check my bookshelf before buying books, otherwise I end up with multiple copies. I would have sworn I didn’t have Plutarch, but it looks like I did. I also seem to have two copies of Suetonius. One is pretty dated though. They also seem to have different titles. One is “The lives of the Caesars”, the other is “The 12 Caesars”. I’m pretty sure they are the same book though.

        I don’t hate the Illiad. Not really. Hate is too strong a word really… I just… don’t like it much. The fact that I’ve had to study a topic I don’t like multiple times has meant that I have developed a rather large distaste for it.

        Of course, it could just be that I haven’t found the right translation. I’ve heard wonderful things about translations I haven’t read.

      • mashugenah says:

        I own two: Lattimore and Fagles. I found the Fagles was really easy to read. It has a pleasant thythm to it. πŸ™‚

        For myself, I prefer the Iliad in a lot of ways. It is a more centred work. Plus, there’s much better smack-talk. πŸ™‚

        Herodotus is readily available on the second hand market. Many of the standard uni texts are. You can hardly look at a classics section in a bookstore without seeing Lattimore’s Iliad, for example.

      • adrexia says:

        I know, but I’m lazy. Unibookstore is closer. πŸ™‚

        I have studied Fagles version. Easy to read, yes. But it still didn’t grab me. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and learn Greek.

        I guess it took me a while to enjoy the Odyssey. I didn’t take an immediate liking to it… it just kinda happened somewhere along the way. The Illiad has unfortunatly had the opposite reaction from me. I like it as a source, but not as a story.

      • I think I gave you _The Twelve Caesars_ …

      • adrexia says:

        I think you may have done. I used to have a copy in high school, but I was pretty sure I had lost it. πŸ™‚

  2. I have only one comment to make: You said this: thens and her great rival, Sparta, both ascribed their laws to single men, rallying and reforming the entire population according to their will.

    You then proceeded to yak about Solon and other Athenians. I kept waiting for you to talk about Sparta and the big men responsible for Spartan law, but you never did…

    • mashugenah says:

      πŸ™‚ Sparta’s lawmaker was a man called Lycurgus, and he was veyr different from Solon, and working in a very different society. Spart had control of ample land and a large supply of slaves to work it, and so he formed his society around the ideal of the professional soldier as citizen, an idea Heinlen adopted for his book Starship Troopers. Athens, with its very small supply of arable land, needed its citizens to be productive as well as military in character.

      I didn’t talk about him because he does not enter into my essay at all. Also, I have only read Plutarch’s account of his life, so feel less well informed about him.

  3. thirstygirl says:

    i am SAD at your spurnage of Lycurgus, I *loved* him when I started Plutarch. He was fantastically deranged- he wanted to ban all currency! and storytellers! and food more complicated than bean stew and hard bread!

    Solon was all righteous, Lycurgus was frothing at the mouth, of course i loved him best.

    • mashugenah says:

      πŸ™‚ Fair enough. I guess I just find Spartan society hard to relate to.

      Mind you, Athenian society had it’s downsides. I mean, have a read of Aristotle’s take on women! OMG! Though, reading it now it would seem silly if you didn’t realise that people genuinely believed that stuff.

      I didn’t realise you were into classics. πŸ™‚ Yay.

      • adrexia says:

        Aristotle. Well, if I had to pick a classical philosopher I disliked more than Aristotle I think I would be stumped. Socrates for teh win!

        err…Wait, did I just say that?

        One of the reasons I like the Spartans is their comparatively nice view of women.

      • mashugenah says:

        Aristotle had some very profoundly thoughtful things to say, but yes, he dragged into his thinking a lot of fairly unpleasant views. I am more annoyed at the later philosophers who simply took his word as almost divine ordinance, rather than continue his spirit of inquiry. The french dramatists of the 17th century, for example…

      • adrexia says:

        I am more annoyed at the later philosophers who simply took his word as almost divine ordinance, rather than continue his spirit of inquiry.

        Me too, but it is easier to blame the source. πŸ˜€

        I did have to laugh at Aristotle’s bee analogy. He suggested that human society was like that of the bee. But he didn’t know that worker bees are female, and drones are male. I like laughing at Aristotle, even when it is something at little as that. πŸ˜€

        Stupid women-hating &#&^#%.

        I doubt I would care if he hadn’t written so much about the topic. *mutters*

      • mashugenah says:

        Aristotle had some very profoundly thoughtful things to say, but yes, he dragged into his thinking a lot of fairly unpleasant views. I am more annoyed at the later philosophers who simply took his word as almost divine ordinance, rather than continue his spirit of inquiry. The french dramatists of the 17th century, for example…

    • adrexia says:

      I also love Lycurgus. But then, I would pick Spartans over Athenians any day.

      • Anonymous says:

        Aaugh! Must… smite… heretic…


      • adrexia says:

        I’m only a little bit of a heretic really. πŸ˜€

      • mashugenah says:

        Ivan, are you trying to imply you don’t want to live in a police state where the citizen body are psychologically conditioned from an early age to show absolute obediance and to see the infliction of pain on others as a staple of their everyday lives?

        How shockingly closed minded of you! We live in the post-modern age where no truth is absolute, and if it was fine for them, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be fine for us too!

  4. nishatalitha says:

    I have Frogs if you want to borrow it. I may even have two copies.

    Regarding Homer, I take the completely opposite direction to . I’m fond of the Iliad and dislike the Odyssey. I think I feel that way because of overexposure to the latter, and having a very hard time initially getting hold of the former. I need to get another couple of copies of the Iliad to match my translations of the Odyssey.

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