Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Isagoras vs. Cleisthenes & The Birth of Athenian Democracy

Currently I am struggling over how to tackle one of the more confusing and dense passages in The Histories. It's an important passage too: how Athens became the world's first democracy.

It started in 514 BCE. Two men by the names of Harmodius and Aristogeiton murdered the brother of the ruling tyrant Hippias over a lover's quarrel. This resulted in their deaths and the tyrant clamping down hard on the citizens of Athens. Taking advantage of the unstable atmosphere in the city, an exiled family by the name of Alcmaeonid attempted to overthrow the government that same year, but the coup failed. The family then decided to swell their ranks by bringing the famed Spartan warriors over to their cause. Using their connections and influence, they managed to bribe the Pythia of Delphi into convincing the Spartans to help get rid of Hippias and his family. In 510 BCE The Spartans finally sent a small contingent to help the Alcmaeonid, but this second attack on Athens also ended in a route. Angry at the humiliation, the Spartan king Cleomenes personally led an army into Attica (possibly around 508 BCE?), crushing the Athenian tyrant's forces and chasing out his allies. This left the Athenians free to choose a new leader for their polis.

There were two eligible candidates for a new tyrant: Isagoras, a distinguished Athenian noble, and Cleisthenes, grandson to a tyrant himself (the tyrant of Sicyon) and the possible architect behind the bribing of the Pythia. Perhaps not trusting the Alcmaeonid's ambitions, the people favored Isagoras as their new leader in the upcoming election. Realizing he would lose the vote if he didn't do something fast, the clever Cleisthenes decided to defuse people's suspicions by offering them unprecedented freedoms (as well as stressing the role of rotating leadership positions to ensure one man did not have all the power). This proved to be so popular that Cleisthenes won by a landslide, thus resulting in the world's first real democracy.

Furious at having lost, Isagoras went to Sparta and demanded Cleoemenes get rid of this new democracy and its too clever leader. Recognizing a possible danger to his kingship (what if the helots or non-Spartiates wanted rights of their own?) Cleomenes lead a small army of about 300 Spartans back to Athens and kicked Cleisthenes out on the flimsy pretext of a family curse. He then installed Isagoras and his allies as leaders of the city's new government. The people refused to accept this. They besieged the Spartans and Isagoras on the Acropolis until Cleomenes was forced to admit defeat and march home, taking Isagoras with him. The Alcmaeonid returned to the city and all seemed well... until a vengeful Cleomenes showed up for a third time in Attica, along with the entire Peloponnesian League! The new democracy might have ended right then and there, but luckily the Corinthians had doubts about Cleomenes' intentions and decided to return home. Cleomenes' co-king Demaratus also had doubts about the Agiad king's intentions and left with his half of the army. Alone and humiliated yet again, Cleomenes was forced to disband the rest of the army and returned to Sparta to plot revenge (this time on his unlucky co-king). Sparta would not march into Attica again until well into the next century.

Themistocles is around seven in 514 BCE (or at least in my novel) and about fifteen by the time Cleomenes is thwarted for the third and final time (remember he didn't march to Attica in the first attack). Clearly this is a crucial period in Themis' life. The problem is how to pace these events. How much does Themistocles personally witness? How much does he contribute? I have some ideas, but putting them in order has proven to be daunting. I had a couple of inspirations last night, but I'm still struggling a bit. Any suggestions on how I can achieve more inspirations?


Gary Corby said...

Since you ask, here are my two obols...

Beware of back story and exposition. It's amazing how much background information you do not need to tell a story. I learned the hard way, and to this day I still cut exposition from first, second and third drafts. The stuff I'm cutting might make fascinating history, but if it isn't necessary for the story to move forward then it has to go.

My advice for what it's worth is write the entire story with no background exposition whatsoever, then look to see what doesn't make sense to a normal reader and add the minimum exposition necessary so character motivation makes sense.

If you're writing 1st person POV, Themistocles is not going to see much at 7 to 14, particularly since his Dad Neocles was not a player in the game. If you're in 3rd person POV then you might POV switch out to Cleisthenes, for example, but be careful to make sure it's relevant.

I love your choice of subject, btw. I hope I get to read this.

Carla said...

If you've already got a couple of ideas, I'd suggest try writing them and see how they play out. I often find that what seemed like a good idea in the abstract doesn't work in practice, and vice versa - sometimes an idea that seemed a real long shot will come to life on the page. And the act of writing will very likely generate some new ideas and inspirations to try out as well.

Themistocles wouldn't have seen much aged 7, but by age 15 he'd be starting to be considered a young man and could be playing more of a role. Did the Athenians organise some sort of citizen defence against the third attack, and could Themistocles have been involved in that? Manning the walls, preparing armor and weapons, reflecting on the cause they're fighting for, the escalating tension as messengers and rumour report on the progress of the invading army, then the relief when Cleomenes' allies desert him and the threat is called off.... I could see that making a nice dramatic sequence and explaining the historical background as well. Or what about Themistocles hearing politicians making inspiring / rabble-rousing speeches to remind everybody who the enemy is and why they have to fight? You can convey a lot of background in a couple of paragraphs of oratory.

Good luck!

Meghan said...

Thanks guys! Great insight and ideas for me to mull over. :D

History Geek said...

Would love to read this, or at least have a sneak preview, as Themistocles was one of the greatest military leaders in history. He reminds me very much of Winston Churchill.
Good luck, I have my fingers crossed for you.


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