An unexpected election result

This seems a topical moment to talk about the world's first election that didn't quite go to plan.  It happened in 416BC, or thereabouts, in ancient Athens.

Back then two men were vying for control of the city: Nicias and Alcibiades.

Nicias was a crusty old conservative General and an associate of Pericles.  (Pericles had died thirteen years before.) 

Alcibiades was a charismatic, handsome, intelligent, deceitful, self-serving and utterly untrustworthy distant relative of Pericles.  If you think a combination of used car salesman and junk bond trader you won't be far wrong.

A vote against Hyperbolas, from the excellent site

A vote against Hyperbolas, from the excellent site

To put it mildly, these two didn't along.  They both controlled factions that between them were tearing apart the General Assembly, which was the world's first democratic parliament.  

Now in Athens they didn't need elections to their parliament, because every citizen was his own representative.

But they did have elections to exile people from the city.  This was called an ostracism.  The way it worked was that once a year anyone could propose that there be an ostracism.  If the Assembly voted in favour, then it was certain that someone was going to get tossed out, but no one knew yet who that someone was.  They had to have a vote.

This was a vote you wanted to lose, since the "winner" was exiled for ten years.  

On election day every citizen would write the name of the person they wanted to see gone.  Whoever got the most votes was the loser.  The voting slips were broken pieces of pottery, of which Athens had plenty since almost every type of food in every kitchen was stored in ceramic jars.  The ancient Greek word for pottery shard is ostrakon.  The vote was named after the voting slip: ostrakismos. Hence our English word ostracism is named for broken bits of pottery.

So Nicias and Alcibiades were causing lots of trouble, and everyone would be quite happy to see one or the other ostracised.

A dodgy minor politician named Hyperbolos, who wanted more power, realized he could make use of this.  He proposed an ostracism.  The followers of both Nicias and Alcibiades thought this was a wonderful idea, imagining the other side's leader being told to pack his bags.  The vote passed easily.

It was at this point that Nicias and Alcibiades both became very, very uneasy.  Neither was certain he'd survive the vote.

The two got together for a quiet chat, and probably through gritted teeth for the first time in their lives managed to agree on something.  

They both told their followers to vote for Hyperbolos.

When the count was complete, Hyperbolos was the one who ended up being ostracized.  Which probably isn't what he had in mind when he proposed the vote.

The result was such a shocker that the Athenians never again held an ostracism.

The voting slips when they were done with were used as landfill, since ceramic is kind of hard to get rid of any other way.  Thousands of these ostraka have been dug up around Athens.  The one in the picture has the name Hyperbolas written around the edge.  This is one of the votes that did him in.



What is a stoa?

Nico & Diotima do a lot of lurking, and they mostly lurk behind the pillars of a stoa.

A stoa is a classical Greek portico.  A stoa in classical Athens is where you go to see and be seen.

You would find people like Pericles and Socrates walking between these columns, under the shady roof, discussing affairs of state, or philosophy, or more likely passing on the sordid details of the latest scandal, and they would be surrounded by hundreds of like-minded citizens, all of them just hanging out.

You would also find Nico and Diotima behind the pillars, listening in on the conversations and going about their detective work.  On most of the book covers they are drawn doing exactly that.

Here on the left are Nico & Diotima, with a stoa in the background (from the cover of The Pericles Commission).  

On the right are two other dodgy characters.  That's me and my wife Helen, in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalus, in the agora of Athens.  We couldn't resist doing the cover shot.


That stoa is a reconstruction built during the 1950s of a for-real one from classical times.  It realy would have looked much like this.

Here's a view of the same building, taken from the Acropolis.


You need to remove the Byzantine church in the foreground.  Then replace all the vegetation with a lot of vendor stalls, because that space to the left of the Stoa of Attalos is the ancient agora of Athens, which obviously has seen better days.  If you then replace the buildings in the background with whitewashed daub double-storey dwellings then you have the center of classical Athens.  

Growing up in classical Greece

These days we think of becoming an adult as a gradual process, but to the Greeks it was an instantaneous event.  Though it worked differently for boys and girls.

In the case of a well-born Athenian girl, she would go to a girls' school at the Sanctuary of Brauron, a year or two before marriageable age.  Less privileged girls would get their education at home.

Either way, at the end of their time the girls would perform a ceremony in which they dedicated their toys to the goddess Artemis.  From that instant they became marriageable adults.

 Proud fathers would commission a statue of their girl to commemorate the occasion.  This was like the graduation photos that families take these days, only back in classical Athens the graduation photo was done  in solid marble.

The great majority of statues of girls from the ancient world come from that sanctuary.  The surviving statues are very beautiful and lifelike, so that we have an astonishingly good idea what the girl children of classical Athens looked like.

On the morning of that ceremonial day, the girl was still a girl.  By nightfall, she was a young lady.  This instant graduation system might seem tough on the girls, but oddly the boys had the exact opposite problem.

Every male went into the army at the age of eighteen and returned to civilian life at twenty.  This two year compulsory service system was still in use across Europe only a few decades ago.  As soon as he reached eighteen the Athenian man could vote in the assembly, but...he didn’t obtain his legal majority until his father had passed away.  It was possible for even a forty year old man to still be a legal child.

This had the odd effect that many young women who were legal adults were married to men older than themselves who were legal children!

The Polemarch lives in the Epilyceum

The Polemarch was one of three senior archons who ran classical Athens.  The job title means war leader, but by the time of my stories his job had changed to being mayor of all the resident aliens in the city, of which there were many.  The resident aliens were a big part of the economy.

Like all archon jobs, people got elected Polemarch for a year, and having done the job once you could never be elected to it again.  Also, if you won the election, you moved home.

The Polemarch had an official residence, called the Epilyceum.  (I'm using the latin form of the name here.  The exact transliteration is Epilykaion.)

Aristotle says that the Polemarch's official residence used to be called the Polemarcheum, but the name changed after one man who held the job, a fellow named Epilycos, totally renovated the place out of his own pocket.  Which was rather clever of him because now he'll be remembered forever.  Though I imagine his real motive was along the lines of his wife saying, "I'm not living in that horrible, drafty, run-down place until you fix it up!"

Some modern historians reject Aristotle on the grounds that epilyceum in Greek means "outside the Lyceum".  Since there happened to be a place called the Lyceum, they take it to mean the Polemarch's residence was next door.

It sounds reasonable, but the problem is they're guessing from a distance of 2,600 years, while Aristotle was passing on what was probably common belief a hundred or so years after the fact.  They can't argue that the name is odd.  There was a comedian called Epilycos, so an archon by that name is perfectly possible.

So now you can say to people at parties that the Polemarch lived in the Epilyceum.

The Battle of Marathon

There are two astonishing ratios about the Battle of Marathon.

There were almost exactly 11,000 Greeks: that's 1,000 men from each of the tribes of Athens, and 1,000 men from nearby Plataea.

The Persians used 600 boats to ferry in troops. The actual number of troops is unknown, but for that number of transport craft it comes to between 30,000 and 100,000 Persians, including a few thousand cavalry.

So the first ratio is that the Greeks were outnumbered somewhere between 3:1 to 9:1, depending what assumptions you want to make about Persian transports.

The next ratio is known with great precision:

203 Greek dead.
6,400 Persian dead.

That's 32 Persian dead for every Greek who fell.

Which isn't bad going when you're not just outnumbered, but also you're the attacking side.

The casualty numbers are known because the Greeks set up a memorial that listed all their fallen.  The Persian numbers are known because before the battle the Greeks had promised to the Gods to sacrifice a goat for every enemy they killed.  They counted the Persian dead carefully and then discovered they'd killed so many enemies that they couldn't find enough goats.  They paid off their debt to the Gods on a yearly instalment plan that took thirteen years to complete.

Despite its vast importance, there's very little agreement about what actually happened.  Modern historians can’t even agree on which direction the opposing lines faced, let alone details like whether the Persian cavalry took the field.

One theory goes that the Persians were aligned with their backs to the sea, and the Greeks attacked from inland.  Like so:

I just can't credit this.  As you can see the plain of Marathon forms a rectangle that runs lengthways along the coast, ringed by mountains to landward.  The Greeks would have to be insane to place their grossly outnumbered troops where they could be easily outflanked by the numerically superior Persians.  Also this alignment puts their left flank in easy reach of the Persian cavalry.

I'm pretty sure if you gave this problem to any modern military commander, he would instantly place his outnumbered Greeks so that they had to span the shortest possible line. Which would be like this:

Right.  From The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz
This map comes from the excellent The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz. My copy's sitting by my left elbow as I write this.

You'll notice there's solid land in the top right of one map and a small bay in the other. Most maps put a marsh there. In fact the Greek coastline changes constantly and all three options have been on that spot at one time or another. Nobody really knows what was there when the battle was fought.

The Greeks made the decision to take the fight to the enemy.  Each soldier lightened his battle load as much as possible the night before and then they marched out at first light.

The next big point of contention is that Herodotus states, very clearly, that the Greeks marched to within 8 stadia of the enemy, and then they ran in the rest of the way under a hail of arrows.

At the ancient Olympics there was an event in which the competitors ran two lengths of the stadium — two stadia — in soldier’s kit.  The men of Marathon ran four times that distance, knowing that at the end they would have to fight for their lives against an enemy many times more numerous.

A lot of modern historians discount that story out of hand, on the grounds that heavy infantry can't run almost a mile and then fight.

The problem is, that the ancient sources are absolutely unanimous that that's what happened.  Every written source, every sculptural relief , gives the same picture.  And Herodotus, who is often vague on numbers, is absolutely precise on this one.  Herodotus also goes out of his way to make the point that everyone dropped as much load as they could, even shedding armour so they could move fast.

Why did they have to run?  I think the reason was the Persian cavalry, who could have torn the Greeks apart. Herodotus says the cavalry was there, but once the battle begins he never mentions them.  I think the reason is that the Greek plan was to engage the enemy line before the enemy cavalry had time to deploy. With the mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it meant that once the infantry engaged the mounted troops were bottled up behind their own line.

The fact is that modern elite troops could make that run.  The counter-argument is that the citizen militia of Athens weren't professional soldiers.  Which is true.  But what is also true is that we're talking about the most successful citizen army in all history, and those guys in the line knew with utter certainty that they wouldn't live to midday if they didn't cross the field in time.