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The Decline of the Athenian Polis

All this movement, like the constant stasis, marked a failing of the community, and therefore of the polis. The more the polis had to hire its armed forces, the more citizens it could no longer satisfy economically, and that meant above all with land, so that they went elsewhere in order to live; the mort failed to maintain some sort of equilibrium between the few and the many, the more the cities were populated by outsiders, whether free migrants from abroad or emancipated slaves (who can be called metaphorically free migrants from within) -- the less meaningful, the less real was the community.  "Decline" is a tricky and dangerous word to use in this context: it has biological overtones which are inappropriate, and it evokes a continuous downhill movement in all aspects of civilization which is demonstrably false.  Yet there is no escaping the evidence: the fourth century was the time when the Greek polis declined, unevenly, with bursts of recovery and heraldic moments of struggle to save itself, to become, after Alexander, a sham polis in which the preservation of the many external forms of polis life could not conceal that henceforth the Greeks lived, in Clemenceau's words, "in a sweet peace of decadence, accepting all sorts of servitudes as they came."

He even fourth century Athens was not free from signs of the general decline.  Contemporary political commentators themselves made much of the fact that whereas right through the fifth century political leaders were, and were expected to be, military leaders at the same time, so that among the ten generals were regularly found the outstanding political figures (elected to the office because of their political importance, not the other way around), in the fourth century the two sides of public activity, the civil and the military, were separated. The generals were now professional soldiers, most of them quite outside politics or political influence, who often served foreign powers as mercenary commanders as well as serving their own polis. There are number of reasons for the shift, among which the inadequate finances of the state rank high, but, whatever the explanation, the break was a bad thing for the polis, a cleavage in the responsibility of the members to their community which weakened the sense of community without producing visibly better generalship.  In the Navy signs took a different form. A heavy share of the costs still fell in the richest 1200 men and the Navy continued to perform well, but there was more invasion of responsibility, more need than before to compel the contributions and to pursue the defaulters at law. The crews themselves were often conscripted; voluntary enlistment could no longer provide the necessary complements.  No doubt that was primarily because the treasury was too depleted to provide regular pay for long periods, just as the unwillingness of some to contribute their allotted share of the expenses resulted from an unsatisfactory system of distributing the burden, rather than from lack of patriotism.  Wherever the responsibility lay, however, the result was again a partial breakdown in the polis.

There is no need to exaggerate.  Athens nearly carried it off, and the end came because Macedon, or at least Alexander, was simply too powerful.  But Macedon did exist, and so did Persia and Carthage, and later Rome.  The polis was developed in such a world, not in a vacuum or in Cloud-Cukoo-Land, and it grew on poor Greek soil.  Was it really a viable form of political organization?  Or its decline and disappearance the result of factors which could have been remedied, or of an accident -- the power of Macedon -- or of inherent structural weaknesses?  These questions have exercised philosophers and historians ever since the late fifth century (and is noteworthy how the problem was being posed long before the polis could be thought of as on its way out in any literal sense). Plato wished to rescue it by placing all authority in the hands of morally perfect philosophers.  Others blamed the demos and their misleaders, the demagogues, for every ill. Still others, especially in the past century or so, insist on the stupid failure to unite in a national state.  For all their disparity, these solutions all have one thing in common: they all propose to rescue the polis by destroying it, by replacing it, in its roots sense of a community which is at the same time a self-governing state, by something else.  The polis one concludes, was a brilliant conception, but one which required so rare a combination of material and institutional circumstances that it could never be realized; that it could be approximated only for a very brief period of time; that had a past, a fleeting present, and no future.  In that fleeting moment its members succeeded in capturing and recording as man has not often done in his history, the greatness of which the human mind and spirits are capable.

[Source: M. I. Finley, The Ancient Greeks (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp. 90-93.]

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