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.