Neil Faulkner looks at the defeat of the democratic empire centred around Athens in a protracted counter-revolution led by Greek aristocrats, Macedonian kings, and Roman viceroys.

Alexander the Great

As well as being the foremost democracy in Greece, the city-state of Athens was also the richest. Its wealth came from silver mines in southern Attica, from its maritime trade, and from its leadership of an anti-Persian alliance of Aegean city-states which gradually morphed into an Athenian Empire.

To the more conservative city-states of mainland Greece, Athens was a double threat. The Athenian example of democracy made oligarchs elsewhere fearful of revolution from below. And the growing wealth and power of the Athenian Empire threatened the delicate balance of power between the rival city-states.

By the middle of the 5th century BCE (before the common era), democratic-imperialist Athens appeared poised to achieve hegemony over Greece.

The Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BCE pitted a conservative alliance led by Sparta against a democratic confederation led by Athens. Athens was defeated, her empire dissolved, and the democratic cause overshadowed by a new Spartan supremacy.

The war had been both geopolitical struggle over empire and class struggle between oligarchs and democrats. It was the first phase of a protracted counter-revolution by which Greek aristocrats, Macedonian kings, and Roman viceroys destroyed the democratic experiment which had begun with the Athenian Revolution of 510-506 BCE.

Philip II of MacedonThe second phase centred on the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE, when the Macedonian army of King Philip II defeated the combined army of the Greek city-states. Thereafter, the Greek city-states were under foreign rule.

Formal democracy continued in Athens and some other cities for a while, but real power lay elsewhere. When, in 336 BCE, the city-state of Thebes defied Alexander the Great, it was attacked, captured, and totally destroyed.

Radical traditions often survive for centuries beneath the level of history’s gaze, in the hidden depths of society, among the common people, where conceptions of a world transformed, a world without exploitation, violence, and oppression, often persist among dissident minorities. So it was with Greek democracy.

In 146 BCE, when the Greek masses rose against Roman rule and drove out tax-collectors and absentee landlords, they reconstructed the old democracies. Like the Paris Commune of 1871, the Corinthian democracy of 146 BCE went down fighting against a reactionary alliance of foreign invader and local ruling class.

This was the last gasp of Greek democracy. Long before, at the end of the 4th century BCE, the Macedonian supremacy, supported by a majority of the Greek aristocracy, had smothered it.

The Kingdom of Macedonia was a hybrid of Greek civilisation and Balkan barbarism. The royal court was a centre of Hellenism, and King Philip II had forged an army modelled in part on the heavy-infantry phalanx of the Greek city-states.

But Macedonia was also a confederation of feudal landowners and tribal chieftains loosely strapped together by a would-be autocratic monarchy. This makeshift state was plagued by internal revolt. The central preoccupation of the Macedonian king was keeping his throne and preventing the state from falling apart.

Instability spawned imperialism. The king’s power rested on his ability to reward his barons for loyalty and service. The easiest way to fund royal patronage was through war and booty. Under Philip II (360-336 BCE), the Kingdom of Macedonia swelled into an empire in control of the whole of the southern Balkans.

Conquest yielded booty and tribute. Booty and tribute paid for soldiers. The Macedonian Army expanded and became a fully professional force. Philip’s distinctive contribution was to mix three separate elements to create a ‘combined-arms’ force.

The hill-tribes on the frontiers of the kingdom supplied light infantry. The aristocratic retinues of Macedonian lords formed a feudal-type heavy cavalry. And the free peasantry were turned into a Greek-style heavy infantry phalanx. The royal state combined the traditional martial qualities of its human raw material with the methods and principles of the Greek way of war. The result was a military machine of unprecedented power.

The Lion of Chaeronea - the tomb of Theban soldiers killed in a battle for democracyIn 338 BCE, the Macedonian Army destroyed the independence of the Greek city-states at the Battle of Chaeronea in central Greece. Seven years later, at the Battle of Gaugamela in northern Iraq, it destroyed the Persian Empire.

The Athenians had first defeated the Persians in 490 and 480 BCE, and then liberated the Greek cities of western Turkey. But they later succumbed to the relatively backward Kingdom of Macedonia. And it was this bastard civilisation that accomplished the conquest of Western Asia. Why was this?

Only 15% of Greece can be cultivated. The many, small, scattered agricultural plains are separated by mountain ranges. This was the basis for the independence of each city-state. In total, there were some 1,500 separate city-states in the 5th century BCE.

Democracy was cocooned inside these tiny rival polities. Athens, the largest and richest, contained only about 30,000 adult male citizens. The total population – including women, children, foreigners, and slaves – was probably at least 200,000. Greek democracy rested on a narrow and fragmented social base.

Geopolitical division meant endless local wars. The struggle between the major states and their respective allies meant occasional full-scale wars. Greek society, always highly militarised, became more so as surpluses increased and geopolitical rivalries intensified. The Peloponnesian War was the supreme expression of this tendency.

No state was ever strong enough to establish a lasting hegemony. Athens was defeated by Sparta in 404 BCE. Sparta was in turn defeated by Thebes in 371 BCE. The Greek city-states remained divided among themselves while Philip II – ‘the Lion in the North’ – built the empire that would eventually subjugate them all.

At the same time, city-state democracy was eroded at home by the growing militarisation. Long, distant, hard-fought campaigns saw the emergence of professional commanders, mercenary bands, and military specialists. Power in Greece was projected by hoplite spears. When these were wielded by citizen-farmers, democracy was strong. When wielded by professional mercenaries, democracy was undermined.

The civilisation of Ancient Greece was of unparalleled sophistication and dynamism, but it existed in sharp contradiction with the geopolitical and sociological framework within which it was imprisoned. Democracy was generalised neither within the city-state nor across city-states.

Macedonia, on the other hand, appropriated the advances of Greek civilisation and used them to create a military system capable of transforming a medium-sized royal state into a Balkan empire. Technique mattered, but so did size: only the King of Macedon controlled the territory and surpluses necessary to wage wars of conquest and then to unite the Greek world.

The empire of Alexander the GreatBecause Greece was united by force from above – rather than by revolution from below – democracy was doomed. Greece became the logistical base for the conquest of Western Asia. Later, after the disintegration of Alexander’s empire, it became a mere province within a wider Macedonian ‘Successor’ state.

The appropriation of the territory and surpluses of the Persian Empire – representing wealth hundreds of times greater than that of Greece – meant the transformation of Greek civilisation from a network of city-state democracies to a global imperial system.

Meantime, further west, a yet more dynamic form of ancient military imperialism was rising. The ancient city-state of Rome was also transforming itself into a global empire. In time, it would bring down even the mighty Macedonian kingdoms of the new world order in the East.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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