Centrally planned policies by a crumbling leviathan are being implemented despite a history of failure. This necessitates looking back to examples of governance for inspiration: Namely, the free societies, the city-states, and federations of the past. In this case, we focus on the ancient city-state of Athens, which carries a storied history that provides valuable lessons across the centuries.
Many may argue that Athens is one of the first startup societies. The city consisted of a constellation of ten different settlements that preserved their autonomy under a united system of government. Her location, in the heart of Attica, played an important role in the success of the city's trade. Athens was located far enough from the sea to be protected by any attacks and yet close enough to become the center of trade for the whole Hellenic world. Her harbor was one of the busiest in antiquity, so much that it became a town itself. Even today, Piraeus is a busy port, ranking 39th globally in terms of container capacity.
The riches of Athens and her institutions made it possible for the city to lead the rest of the Greek cities to victory against Persia. After the Persian wars, Athens was a de facto hegemony of the majority of the Greek states. They entered its Golden Century, during which Athens was governed via direct democracy, and the Athenians occupied themselves with political philosophy and the fine arts. It was in Athens, during those times, were Xenophon wrote the first book about economics as a science, his “Oeconomicus”.
However, Athens became more interventionist and authoritarian towards the other city states, leading to her downfall after the Peloponnesian War, between Athens and Sparta. Its theater extended from Sicily to Minor Asia and from the Black Sea to Egypt. Afterwards, Athens lost its prestige, especially after the rise of Alexander's empire.
Life in Athens varied a lot depending on one's class. One must understand not to judge the quality of a society with one's contemporary standards. That said, we must note that slaves had no rights; likewise for women. For example, the Metics were foreign residents in the city of Athens, and held no citizen rights. Yet they had the right to trade and hold property. Many of them became bankers and merchants. Their activity gave the city much of its wealth. Especially since citizens were occupied with running the state, they would rarely choose to be absent for the long periods of time necessary for trade.
For Citizens, they would be granted rights only after completing their military training. For the rest of their life, they served in the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches. They would serve the in the army in case of war and manage their extended households. Holding an office in ancient Greece was considered a great honor. Especially since the state was not a faceless institution, but a union of equals who took and implemented decisions collectively.
Today we find ourselves dwelling in problematic societies that frustrate us with their complexity and dysfunction. To make the necessary changes we should take time and reflect on the lessons that our prime societies have to offer. As we drift away from complex and illiberal forms of government, it matters to study the achievements and the errors of the Athenians: The value of direct active participation in government, the importance of trading products and ideas, and the necessary liberal policies that make it all possible. Last of all: the nemeses that follow the hubris of authoritarianism.
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