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Past present: Two faces of Greece

July 21, 2012

The conflict between rich and poor is as old as the hills. History shows that sometimes it became so bitter and bloody that it created chaos and disintegrated the society.

The rich being powerful and resourceful always managed to subdue the lower classes and spared no endeavour to protect their status and privileges.

In ancient Athens, the aristocracy augmented its power and wealth by acquiring agricultural land from peasants,   enslaving them for non-payment of loan. When the peasants reacted against the injustice, a legal system of Draconian laws was introduced to control them.

Founded by Dracon, an Athenian statesman, these laws were very strict and the death penalty was applied to almost all crime. However, the situation and disorder prevalent in the society could not be improved.

Realising the serious political and social situation, Solan (638 BC), another Athenian statesman, lawgiver and reformer implemented a new legal system of reforms to prevent bloody clashes between the rich and poor. Solon annulled all mortgages and debts, limited the amount of land anyone might add to his holdings, and outlawed all borrowing in which a person's liberty might be pledged. The last reform put an end to serfdom and slavery. Other economic reforms included a ban on the export of all agricultural products except olive oil and the granting of citizenship to immigrant artisans.

Solon also made important constitutional changes. The assembly was opened to all freemen.

His legislature made Athenian democracy strong and allowed the common man to take part in decision making. After completing his work of reform, Solon surrendered his extraordinary authority and left Athens.

Cleisthenes (508 BC) further empowered people and is known as the founder of Athenian democracy. Under his system, all men 18 years of age and older were registered as citizens and as members of the deme (village or town) in which they lived. All male citizens over the age of thirty could serve for a term of one year on the Council and no one could serve more than two terms in a lifetime. Such an organisation was necessary, Cleisthenes believed, so that every citizen would learn from direct political experience. With such a personal interest in his democracy, there would be no citizens to conspire and attempt to abolish the system.

Once democratic institutions were established, the Athenian society flourished culturally and socially. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle introduced radical views in human thinking, enriching the human thought so that Athens became a centre of learning. Its reputation as a city of culture attracted Roman scholars to Athens in quest of knowledge.

Around the 5th century BC, Sophists like Aristotle, Plato, and Aristophanes influenced Athenian politicians who learnt to argue and present their case in the democratic assembly. Orators such as Pericles and Domesthenes emerged and rhetoric became an art. Consequently demagogues would now exploit the emotions of people to win their support.

The Epicureans and Stoics further continued philosophical traditions and the Athenian democracy produced the best dramatists. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote tragedies, Aristophanes earned fame as a comedy writer, while architects, sculptors and artists embellished the city.

The free democratic environment led Herodotus (484 to 425 BC) to write the history of war between Greece and Persia. His book on history became the first systematic writing on historiography. He was followed by Thucydides (455 BC) whose work on the Peloponnesian Wars combines a personal knowledge of several main figures of the time with a determination to discover the truth. The work of Thucydides provides us with one of the greatest works of ancient history.

In ancient Greece, the main city of Laconia in the Peloponnesus was Sparta, a powerful city-state, the development of which was quite different from Athens.

As Greece moved into its Classical period, Sparta extended its control over nearby city-states, maintaining a rigid, militaristic culture that prized discipline, loyalty and athletic prowess. Most Spartan men were soldiers and Sparta played almost no role in the celebrated scholarly and artistic achievements of other Greek city-states (particularly Athens). Individualism was not valued, instead a communal and patriotic spirit was forged among its citizens.

Lycurgus, (820–730 BC) the mythical law maker transformed the whole city of Sparta into a military camp. Boys were indoctrinated to fight and die in the battlefield. By law at the age of seven, they joined camps where they lived till they were 30. They were rigorously trained for war, walked barefoot, slept on the rough floor, ate sparsely and wore a single outfit for the whole year.

Girls were also physically trained like boys. Their strength and dexterity was also aimed at being healthy mothers. When they gave birth, the baby was presented before a committee and unhealthy babies were thrown from the top of a mountain to die.

Sparta produced the best soldiers and its army was invincible. But at what price? It produced no philosophers or writers. When its military power collapsed after 70 or 80 years, having no heritage or culture, Sparta  disappeared in the mist of history.

Athens was a democracy, the result of intellectual innovation, contributing richly to civilisation of mankind. Whereas Sparta, a warrior state failed to contribute to culture and wasted energy and talent on war.

There is a choice for Pakistan either to become an intellectually barren, warrior state like Sparta or a democratic republic like Athens with rich cultural and intellectual traditions.