The last recorded oligarchic threat to Athenian democracy came in c.457 after the battle of Tanagra (Thuc. 1.107.4) and, although the Athenians suspected that oligarchic plots lay behind the mutilation of the Hermae in 415 just before the Sicilian expedition set sail (Thuc. 6.27), the possibility of a successful oligarchic coup before 413 was virtually non-existent. However, after the Sicilian disaster in the autumn of 413, a number of influential factors came together which resulted in the establishment of an oligarchy in June 411. There was, first of all, the disillusionment and anger of a large number of Athenians, mainly the wealthy upper class but also among many of the more affluent ‘hoplites’, at the incompetence of the ‘radical’ democracy in its conduct of the Peloponnesian War, and the increasing economic burden upon themselves owing to the war. Second, there was the coordinated action of the upper-class political clubs (‘hetaireiai’) in the build-up to the coup in 411. Third, the Athenian ‘demos’ temporarily lost confidence in its ability, through its own democratic institutions, to win the war; this confidence was only fully restored after the resounding victory over the Peloponnesian fleet at Cyzicus in 410 (see Chapter 22). Finally, the intervention of Persia into Greek affairs led to the widespread belief that Persian support, even at the cost of giving up the democracy, was absolutely essential to avoid defeat at the hands of the Spartans. The first key factor in the build-up to oligarchy was the change in attitude

of the Athenian upper class: men of property and ‘good’ birth who referred to themselves as the ‘kaloikagathoi’ (see Chapter 18). The malicious and confrontational nature of Athenian politics after the death of Pericles in 429, personified by the so-called ‘demagogues’, led many of the wealthy to withdraw from active politics; but the majority of them still accepted the ‘radical’ democracy, while they enjoyed the economic benefits of the Empire. The outbreak of the war had placed a greater financial burden on the upper class through the ravaging of their estates by annual Peloponnesian

invasions (up to 425) and the occasional imposition of a special war tax (‘eisphora’). However, this financial loss was offset by the economic benefits accruing from the possession of extensive land-holdings among the subjectallies (see Chapter 16) and by their exemption from paying for the fleet, which ensured the flow of the subject-allies’ ‘phoros’ into Athens and protected their overseas investments. This grudging acceptance of ‘radical’ democracy by the upper class began

to disintegrate due to the mistakes that were made in foreign policy after 415. The Sicilian campaign, a dramatic departure from the Periclean defensive strategy, was an expensive and risky campaign. After the initial expedition ran into trouble under Nicias, the demos chose to increase their stake by sending out a second lavish relief force under Demosthenes rather than cut their losses and get out of Sicily. Then the demos committed the most foolish of errors: while they were so greatly over-extended and vulnerable, they gave the Spartans the legitimate excuse to renew the war by a provocative attacks on the Peloponnese (Thuc. 7.18-26). The result was the permanent occupation of Decelea in Attica by King Agis. The loss of Attica greatly exacerbated the financial problems of the state: 20,000 slaves, including a high proportion of those employed in industry, had escaped, severely affecting economic output; the revenue from the silver mines was now cut off; all imports from Euboea had to come on the longer and more expensive sea-route; landed estates were now being constantly ravaged; military costs were being pushed up by the need to maintain guards, day and night throughout the year, to protect the Long Walls from assault by Agis’ troops (Thuc. 7.27-28); and finally, the increased demand for imports to feed the vast population, now permanently domiciled behind the Long Walls, led to an inevitable rise in prices, putting more financial pressure on the state treasury which had to support the war widows and orphans:

The loss of their estates had depleted the private wealth of the upper class, but the destruction of the fleet in Sicily was the last straw. Now there were virtually no fleet and no crews (Thuc. 8.1), and the very real danger of a mass revolt of the subject-allies (Thuc. 8.2). The potential loss of allied phoros, the cost of building a new fleet (apart from 1,000 talents emergency fund), the extra expense of subduing the subject-allies in revolt, and the need to maintain a fleet continuously throughout the year against the Peloponnesian navy in the eastern Aegean were bound to impose greater financial hardships upon the wealthy. The wealthy would have strong reasons for wanting a much more efficient conduct of war and foreign policy, and a tighter grip on state finances, but this could only be accomplished by a

change in the democratic constitution. It was this disaffection with their increasing financial burden that persuaded Alcibiades to target the members of this class first, while on campaign in Samos, in order to bring about the removal of democracy and his own recall:

This desire for constitutional change, however, was insufficient in itself to bring about the overthrow of democracy – it would need other factors to come into play to achieve this. The second key factor was the bringing together of the aristocratic clubs

(hetaireiai) into partnership by Peisander, at the very beginning of 411 (see below), and his direction of their coordinated efforts towards the overthrow of democracy. These hetaireiai had traditionally been social organizations, usually nothing more than upper-class dining clubs, although they did help their members at the time of elections or when a lawsuit was in progress. However, they seemed to have become more politically inclined and consequently more secretive from the 420s onwards, and it is within these clubs that the true supporters of oligarchy and the bitterest opponents of democracywere to be found. Apart from isolated acts, which were designed to frighten the demos, such as the mutilation of the Hermae (Thuc. 6.27), they had previously been too disorganized to mount a serious threat against the democracy. The arrival at Athens, either at the end of December 412 or the beginning of January in 411, of Peisander who had been instructed by his fellow conspirators to prepare the ground for the establishment of an oligarchy at Athens, changed all that:

At some time between Peisander’s departure for the court of Tissaphernes and his second return to Athens, i.e. from March or early April to the beginning of June 411, these clubs publicly advertised a programme of modifying the democracy, but secretly organized a series of assassinations which included Androcles, one of the leading politicians of the democracy (Thuc. 8.65). Far more effective was their creation of a climate of fear and distrust among the Boule of 500 and the Assembly, out of all proportion to their small numbers, so that these club members gradually intimidated these institutions into passing their preferred decisions:

This groundwork by the clubs was invaluable for Peisander and his oligarchic conspirators. Within a very short time of the second return of Peisander to Athens, the conspirators were able to seize power in early June 411 and establish the rule of the Four Hundred (see below). The third key factor was the doubt of the Athenian demos itself in its

capacity to conduct the war effectively. When the news of the Sicilian disaster reached Athens, the people refused to believe it, and when it could no longer be doubted, they turned on the politicians who had advocated the invasion of Sicily, conveniently forgetting that they themselves had voted for this policy. The decision that they took in the late summer of 413, although it should not be pressed too hard, marked the beginning of the anti-democratic movement:

In a time of crisis, especially in war, democracies are often prepared to put limitations on their exercise of power. Ten men were chosen to be the ‘probouloi’, probably one from each tribe, and it is known that Sophocles, the tragedian, and Hagnon, one of Pericles’ political supporters, were members of this board. The mention of these probouloi as being ‘already existing’ in 411 (Aristotle, Ath. Pol. 29.2) suggests that there was no time limit on their tenure of office, and 40 was probably the minimum age. Thucydides does not make clear the full extent of their powers and responsibilities, but, from his words above, they may have had the power to present motions directly to the Assembly, thus replacing the probouleutic function of the Boule of 500. Alternatively, and far more likely, they worked in concert with the Boule in the drafting of motions. Aristotle argued that the existence of probouloi and a Boule in the same state was an oligarchic element in the constitution, as the probouloi would have authority over the Boule (Politics 1299b). Although scholarly opinion is divided on the question of whether the appointment of the probouloi was the first move in the establishment of the oligarchy in 411, it is clear that the Athenians were so troubled by the glaring deficiencies of their democracy

in the conduct of the war that they were prepared to give unprecedented power and influence to a small body of elder citizens. The revolts of major allies, such as Chios, Miletus and Rhodes, the operations of the Peloponnesian fleet in the eastern Aegean and Persia’s intervention on the side of the Spartans had further undermined Athenian confidence in their ability to survive. Thus, by the end of 412, the Athenians were in the right frame of mind, with effective prompting, to think the unthinkable: a change in their democratic constitution. The catalyst for bringing the other three elements together was Alcibiades’

seductive offer of bringing the Persians and their vast wealth onto the side of the Athenians. Alcibiades had already run foul of the Spartans who had issued his death warrant (Thuc. 8.45), and had fled to the court of Tissaphernes, the Persian governor (‘satrap’) of south-west Asia Minor, where his advice about Persia’s relations with the warring Greek states was well received (Thuc. 8.46). However, Alcibiades was also planning his own recall to Athens, but presumed that there was no way that the ‘radical’ democracy would agree to this. Therefore, in November 412, he set about winning over the most influential men of the Athenian fleet at Samos by claiming that he had great influence with Tissaphernes and that:

A delegation of these influential Athenians crossed over from Samos to Alcibiades on the Asiatic mainland, where his legendary powers of persuasion convinced them that there was every chance of winning over Tissaphernes and the King to the Athenian side (Thuc. 8.48). These influential Athenians, upon their return to Samos, formed them-

selves and other members of the officer class into a group of conspirators, and declared openly that the friendship and the money of the King were dependent upon the recall of Alcibiades and that they should not be governed by a democracy. The majority of the armed forces at Samos were angry at these conditions but grudgingly accepted them, according to Thucydides, because of the prospect of pay (Thuc. 8.48). This incident is worthy of comment for two reasons. First, this is one of the rare times that Thucydides’ bias against the ‘radical’ democracy comes to the fore – it is just as feasible, perhaps more so, that the Athenian sailors agreed to these conditions through fear for the safety of the city and their families, rather than their desire for pay; and his use of ‘ochlos’ (the mob) strengthens the case of personal prejudice. Second, Alcibiades never uses the word ‘oligarchy’ after his first communication but, from now on, he and the conspirators talk in terms of modifying the democracy. It will be seen later in the chapter

that the conspirators consisted of two groups: the ‘extreme’ oligarchs who adopted this language simply to deceive the demos, and the ‘moderates’ who believed in a more limited form of democracy. Near the end of December 412, Peisander and other representatives were

sent to Athens to carry out the agreed programme of recalling Alcibiades, overthrowing the democracy and gaining the friendship of Tissaphernes (Thuc. 8.49). According to Thucydides (8.53), Peisander immediately approached the Assembly with the conspirators’ proposals, but there is other evidence (e.g. the Lysistrata and the Thesmophoriazusae of Aristophanes) which strongly suggests that Peisander did not approach the Assembly until March or early April 411. It would seem that Thucydides has telescoped the events of 411. In fact, many scholars believe that Book 8, apart from being unfinished, was also unrevised by Thucydides. There are clearly different versions of the same events in different parts of this book, which Thucydides would usually rationalize into one sequence of events; there are also virtually no direct speeches and an unusually high incidence of Thucydidean interpretation of motives, which should be treated with more caution than his statement of facts – the mention of the Athenian sailors’ acceptance of Alcibiades’ proposals solely through their desire for pay is a good case in point. It is reasonable to assume that Peisander used the early months of 411 explaining the conspirators’ plans to oligarchic sympathizers in Athens and thereby winning their support for the planned coup (Thuc. 8.54). In March or early April 411, Peisander put before the Assembly the

conspirators’ proposals about the recall of Alcibiades and an alliance with the Persians, but artfully avoided the mention of oligarchy and talked in terms of ‘adopting a different form of democracy’ (Thuc. 8.53). Although there was a great uproar, Peisander won the argument by concentrating on the demos’ greatest fear:

This concentration on the enormity of the danger to Athens, combined with the argument that the Athenians could always later on change the new constitution back to the old one, won the day. Now that he had won over the Assembly, he was determined to consolidate the strength of the oligarchs. He forged the hetaireiai into a unified faction, who began their policy of intimidation and assassination after he and ten other envoys had

been sent out from Athens to negotiate with Alcibiades and Tissaphernes (Thuc. 8.54). Alcibiades, however, could not deliver his side of the bargain, as Tissa-

phernes preferred the policy of wearing down both sides of the Greeks (see Chapter 22). With the failure of Peisander’s mission to Alcibiades and Tissaphernes, the whole raison d’être for the removal of the democratic constitution at Athens had gone. The conspirators decided to break with Alcibiades and consequently with the Persians but, having gone so far and fearing themselves to be in danger from a democratic backlash at their proposed reforms, the majority decided still to press on with their plan for changing the constitution (Thuc. 8.63). The conspirators evolved a threefold plan: to secure their position at Samos, gain constitutional control of Athens and convert the allied cities’ governments into oligarchies. First, they strengthened their control over the Athenian army at Samos (possibly the hoplites as opposed to the sailors are meant here) and encouraged 300 of the most important Samians to organize an oligarchic coup on Samos; second, Peisander and five of the delegates were sent to Athens to organize the coup, but also to establish oligarchies on their journey to Athens; and third, the other five delegates were also to set up oligarchies in the rest of the Empire (Thuc. 8.63-64). The conspirators clearly believed that oligarchs in allied cities were more likely to stay loyal to Athens, even though Phrynichus had previously poured scorn on this idea (Thuc. 8.48). Peisander arrived in Athens probably in the second half of May 411 and

discovered that the hetaireiai had done an excellent job in preparing the ground for the coup. They had intimidated the Boule of 500 and the Assembly (see above) and had assassinated the conspirators’ main democratic opponents. In addition, they had publicized their programme for ‘adopting a different form of democracy’:

In other words, it would be the middle and upper classes, the hoplites and the knights, who would gain most from the constitutional reforms, and not the class of ‘thetes’, which supplied the rowers for the Athenian fleet. Peisander and his colleagues then summoned an Assembly and proposed that ten men (30 men in Aristotle, Ath. Pol. 29.2) should be given full powers to prepare proposals for the best government of Athens and present them to the people on a fixed day (Thuc. 8.67). When this appointed day arrived (according to Thucydides’ version – see

next section), probably in early June 411, the commissioners made only one

proposal to the Assembly which met at Colonus, outside the city walls, instead of the Pnyx – this location was possibly chosen to discourage the thetes who were unarmed from attending, while encouraging the hoplites who were and who could defend themselves if the Spartan forces under King Agis made a sortie from Decelea. The terms of the proposal were: to suspend the use of the ‘graphe paranomon’ (the right to prosecute someone for putting an illegal or unconstitutional motion) and to allow anyone the freedom, without fear of prosecution, to propose whatever he wanted. The failure by the commissioners to produce a more detailed set of proposals for the reform of the constitution may reflect an inability to agree among themselves on its desired form. This gave Peisander his desired opening for making a ‘legitimate’ proposal:

This motion was passed by the Assembly and, on 9 June 411, the conspirators entered the Boule of 500’s chamber, paid them off for the rest of their term of office, and established the oligarchy of The Four Hundred:

There are two accounts of the oligarchic revolution of 411: Thucydides in Book 8 and Aristotle in the Ath. Pol. (29-33). Although there are certain similarities in their narrative of the events, there is a major split in the description of the constitutional reforms that were passed and the timing of their introduction. Thucydides, who was writing in exile and was a contemporary of and familiar with many of the oligarchic leaders, describes the constitutional change as a swift oligarchic coup by a group of conspirators, all of whom wanted an ‘extreme’ oligarchy and had no intention of introducing a ‘moderate’ rule of The Five Thousand, as mentioned above in 8.67.3; in fact, he makes no mention of the appointment of The Five Thousand, as he regarded their existence as totally irrelevant to The Four

Hundred in their planned government of Athens. The account of Aristotle’s Ath. Pol. was written about a hundred years later and uses a variety of sources, including Thucydides, but also, in all probability, the work of Androtion whose father was one of The Four Hundred, which may explain why this version takes a more lenient view of the oligarchs. In this account, the reform of the constitution takes a much longer time, with the appointment of The Five Thousand and their ratification of two constitutions – one for the future and one for the present, which included the appointment of The Four Hundred. Modern scholarship has made many attempts to reconcile these two tradi-

tions, but the commonly held view is that Aristotle’s account contains much that is fictitious and reflects the contemporary propaganda of the ‘extreme’ oligarchs, for whom it was politically useful to pretend that The Five Thousand had a constitutional existence. Therefore, Thucydides’ account is to be preferred, although it must be used with caution, as it includes his opinions about the motives of the conspirators which are open to serious challenge; in particular, his belief that there was no ‘moderate’ group among The Four Hundred and that such people as Theramenes were cynical, ambitious ‘extreme’ oligarchs who only championed the cause of The Five Thousand when The Four Hundred’s rule was doomed to fall (Thuc. 8.66.1; 68.3; 89.2-4; 92). The rule of the Four Hundred lasted just under four months, from June

to September 411 (Ath. Pol. 31). There were three major reasons for its fall. In the first place, the Athenians had been persuaded to give up their democracy as the price that had to be paid in order to win the support and the financial backing of Tissaphernes and the King of Persia, otherwise they would be defeated by the Spartans (Thuc. 8.53.2). However, the negotiations through Alcibiades had failed to bring about a Persian alliance (Thuc. 8.56). In fact, Tissaphernes had healed his breach with the Spartans concerning a dispute over the two earlier treaties, and had signed a third treaty which greatly strengthened the Spartans’ military position (Thuc. 8.58 – see Chapter 22). Therefore the main incentive for a change in the constitution had failed to materialize. The second reason for the collapse of The Four Hundred was their trea-

sonable intrigues with the Spartans. After Peisander’s negotiations with Alcibiades and Tissaphernes had failed to win Persian support, the conspirators made it a major feature of their programme to continue the war more vigorously than the democracy against the Spartans (Thuc. 8.63). But, as soon as they seized power, they pursued a completely different policy:

Agis rebuffed them at first, thinking that he could exploit the internal strife among the Athenians and bring about their surrender or that Athens would fall to a single attack. However, he had made a serious error of judgement which resulted in Peloponnesian casualties and his retirement back to Decelea. The Four Hundred were not deterred by his original rejection of their overtures, and kept sending envoys to him; upon his advice, they then sent envoys to Sparta with the same request (Thuc. 8.71). As The Four Hundred’s tenure of power became more precarious

through dissatisfaction with their rule both in Athens and in the fleet at Samos, they became even more desperate to make peace with the Spartans:

In addition, they were building a fortification at Eetioneia, which was part of the Piraeus. It was suspected by their opponents that, far from keeping out the democrats at Samos, its real purpose was to let in the Spartan fleet and army which was coming in the direction of the Piraeus. It was believed that The Four Hundred held the view that, if the oligarchy could not stay in power and their own lives were to be at risk from a restored democracy:

It was this suspicion of possible treachery and a betrayal of Athens to the enemy that led the hoplites to destroy this fortification (Thuc. 8.92). When The Four Hundred were finally overthrown, Peisander and most of the remaining ‘extreme’ oligarchs immediately fled to Agis at Decelea (Thuc. 8.98). The third reason for the overthrow of The Four Hundred was the inter-

nal split between the conspirators about the nature of the constitution that should replace the democracy. One faction was the ‘extreme’ oligarchs, which included Peisander who had proposed the establishment of The Four Hundred at the meeting at Colonus and ‘was openly the most eager for the overthrow of the democracy’ (Thuc. 8.68.1); Phrynichus who was a bitter enemy of Alcibiades and ‘showed himself more than all the rest to be the greatest supporter of oligarchy’ (Thuc. 8.68.3); and Antiphon who had masterminded the coup (Thuc. 8.68.1). They held the view that sovereign power should be vested in The Council of Four Hundred, which should be unaccountable for its decisions and actions, and whose membership should be permanent. Ideally, they wanted the Five Thousand to exist only in name

but, if they had to exist, to be consulted as little as possible. Any check upon their power, even by so small a number as 5,000, was totally unacceptable:

The other faction can be referred to as ‘moderates’, although their preferred constitution would cover a broad spectrum of views; they were opposed to ‘extreme’ oligarchy and ‘radical’ democracy, but some would be more inclined towards moderate oligarchy, others to moderate democracy. Therefore, to the ‘moderates’, the Five Thousand were the crucial element in the reformed constitution, either being the sovereign body of state or supplying all the public officials (see below for the modern controversy). The leader of this faction was Theramenes, although he is lumped among the ‘extreme’ oligarchs by Thucydides (8.68.4); Thucydides’ hostile portrayal of Theramenes may be based on the evidence of an ex-member of The Four Hundred who fled after its fall. However, there is sufficient evidence from his later career that Theramenes was not an ‘extreme’ oligarch, but held a consistent view that sovereign power should be vested in the upper class and the hoplites. He played a leading part in organizing resistance to The Four Hundred and in the establishment of its successor, The Five Thousand. Although Antiphon was executed by the restored democracy, Theramenes continued to serve Athens as a general and a trierarch (captain of a ‘trireme’) throughout the Ionian War (413-404). When he was put on trial in 403 for opposing the brutal excesses of The Thirty Tyrants, an extreme Spartan-backed Athenian oligarchy, he made his political beliefs clear:

Theramenes’ description of the constitution that he ‘previously thought the best’ is identical to the political manifesto published by the conspirators before the coup (Thuc. 8.65.3 – see above). The first important reverse for The Four Hundred was the failure of the

oligarchic coup in Samos. The conspirators always had their doubts about the acceptance of oligarchy by the thetes in the fleet at Samos and so, through the agency of Peisander and the oligarchic supporters in the fleet, they had encouraged 300 Samians to seize power and establish an oligarchy. In this way the conspirators hoped to cow any rebellious move by the sailors and further strengthen their hold on the government of Athens. However,

the assassination of the demagogue Hyperbolus, who was living in Samos after his ostracism, forewarned the Samian democrats who appealed to the main Athenian supporters of democracy – the generals Leon and Diomedon, Thrasybulus the captain of a trireme, and Thrasyllus a hoplite. The coup failed and Samos stayed a democracy (Thuc. 8.73). Far more worrying for The Four Hundred was the declaration of support for the ‘radical’ democracy and of enmity to the oligarchs in Athens by the forces in Samos, now under the leadership of the newly elected generals, Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus (Thuc. 8.75-76). The recall of Alcibiades, brought about by the constant urging of Thrasybulus, his rehabilitation and his election as general by the armed forces at Samos, who believed that he could bring Tissaphernes and the Persians over to the Athenian side, deeply worried the oligarchs in power in Athens (Thuc. 8.81-82). It was now that Alcibiades effectively split the ranks of The Four Hundred,

thus fatally weakening them, by a very astute proposal. The Four Hundred had attempted to make a rapprochement with the forces in Samos by sending out a delegation, aimed at allaying their fears about events in Athens. They stressed that the change of government was to strengthen Athens in the war against the Spartans and that The Five Thousand would get their chance to share in the government. Alcibiades’ reply on behalf of the forces at Samos was that he was not against The Five Thousand being the government of Athens, but he insisted on the removal of The Four Hundred and the restoration of the Boule of 500; he also approved of any financial measures that supplied better pay for the troops; and he urged them not to give in to the enemy – so long as the city was safe, there was every chance of a reconciliation between the two groups (Thuc. 8.86). This offer had the desired effect:

The leaders of this dissident group were Theramenes and Aristocrates, who also feared (rightly) that the ‘extreme’ oligarchs were plotting to betray Athens. Alcibiades’ reply, by holding out the hope of a peaceful and safe compromise between the ‘moderates’ in Athens and the forces at Samos and by playing on their fears about the possible betrayal of Athens to Sparta, had destroyed the fragile unity of The Four Hundred. The ‘extreme’ oligarchs, seeing the growing opposition to their rule, even

among their own former supporters, redoubled their efforts to make peace

with Sparta and built the fortification at Eetioneia (see above). However, the hoplites, who were building this fortification, rebelled against Alexicles who was a supporter of the oligarchy and was in charge of the building operation, took him prisoner, and began to destroy the wall, calling for help from all those that wanted The Five Thousand to govern (Thuc. 8.92). The Four Hundred tried to placate the hoplites by promising that they would publish the names of The Five Thousand and that, in future, membership of The Four Hundred would be recruited from this number on a rotational basis. They also agreed to hold an Assembly on a fixed day to settle the problems (Thuc. 8.93). The sighting of 42 Peloponnesian ships sailing along the coast of Salamis prevented the Assembly from being held on the appointed day and provoked great panic, again renewing the fears of the ‘moderates’ that The Four Hundred were about to betray Athens. The Peloponnesian ships, in fact, sailed to Oropus near Euboea and promptly defeated the hastily manned Athenian fleet which had been sent to defend Euboea (Thuc. 8.95). This revolt of Euboea, which caused even more terror and despair than the loss of the Sicilian expedition (8.96), brought about the downfall of the oligarchy; the ‘moderates’ now had their chance to make a better job of governing Athens.