Greece is not a particularly large nation, being just a tad larger than the state of New York in the US or the state of Tamil Nadu in India. Even within that land-mass, most of it was unoccupied, what we know as ‘Greece’ was essentially a handful of self-sufficient ‘city-states’. And it was the political life in these little cities that seems to have given birth to democracy in Europe.
What about these small human communities enabled democratic freedoms and ideas? Sri Aurobindo remarked :
We have below a truly remarkable picture of ancient Greece, one that has stayed with me to this day:
“The cultural and civic life of the Greek city, of which Athens was the supreme achievement, a life in which living itself was an education, where the poorest as well as the richest sat together in the theatre to see and judge the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides and the Athenian trader and shopkeeper took part in the subtle philosophical conversations of Socrates, created for Europe not only its fundamental political types and ideals but practically all its basic forms of intellectual, philosophical, literary and artistic culture.
The natural social type of the small community is such as we see in Athens, where not only Cleon, the tanner, exercised as strong a political influence as the highborn and wealthy Nicias and the highest offices and civic functions were open to men of all classes, but in social functions and connections also there was a free association and equality.. ..We see a similar democratic equality, though of a different type, in the earlier records of Indian civilisation.” 3
Phil Paine, who has researched and written extensively on ancient democracies writes :
City-states thus enabled what we now understand as a ‘direct’ democracy, in which people could directly vote on legislation and bills, in contrast to our modern ‘representative’ democracies. To be honest, when I read about the beauty of city-states (above), all I could think was – why can’t we make all our cities into these lovely ‘city-states’?
It turned out that these marvelous compact units created strong individualistic trends, and posed a great challenge to their collective unity, so much so that ancient Greece had trouble just becoming a nation.
What is especially interesting is Greece’s ephemeral existence; all the great names of poets, philosophers, sculptors of Greece occur in the short span of two centuries. The Roman empire, which took Greece as its ‘mother civilisation’ in comparison survived for so much longer. Why?
Of interest :
‘In the case of the Mediterranean nations, two most important exceptions have to be made to the general participation of all individuals in the full civic and cultural life of the community; for that participation was denied to the slave and hardly granted at all in the narrow life conceded to the woman. In India the institution of slavery was practically absent and the woman had at first a freer and more dignified position than in Greece and Rome; but the slave was soon replaced by the proletariate, called in India the Shudra, and the increasing tendency to deny the highest benefits of the common life and culture to the Shudra and the woman brought down Indian society to the level of its Western congeners.’
For three whole centuries – the 15th to the 18th, Greece was under the powerful Ottoman empire, a period which the Greeks refer to as ‘turkocracy’. Greek identity survived because the Turks, unlike the Romans, never tried culturally replacing it with Ottoman ideas.
“The Greek Empire has gone the way of all empires, but the Greek nation, after many centuries of political non-existence, again possesses its separate body, because it has preserved its separate ego and therefore really existed under the covering rule of the Turk. So has it been with all the races under the Turkish yoke, because that powerful suzerainty, stern as it was in many respects, never attempted to obliterate their national characteristics or substitute an Ottoman nationality. These nations have revived and have reconstituted or are attempting to reconstitute themselves in the measure in which they have preserved their real national sense…Greece attempted to reconstitute herself in her mainland, islands and Asiatic colonies, but could not reconstitute the old Greece because many parts had become Bulgarian, Albanian and Turk and no longer Hellenic..
This truth of a real unity is so strong that even nations which never in the past realised an outward unification, to which Fate and circumstance and their own selves have been adverse, nations which have been full of centrifugal forces and easily overpowered by foreign intrusions, have yet always developed a centripetal force as well and arrived inevitably at organised oneness. Ancient Greece clung to her separatist tendencies, her self-sufficient city or regional states, her little mutually repellent autonomies; but the centripetal force was always there manifested in leagues, associations of States, suzerainties like the Spartan and Athenian. It realised itself in the end..” 6