THE POLITICAL EXPERIENCES GAINED BY THE GREEKS

In the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. the landed nobility 1 overthrew the kings or else kept the bare title and divided the royal powers amongst themselves. The nobles called their government " aristocracy," which means " the rule of the best men." The common people suffered great oppression, but were not yet strong enough to resist. During this period numerous colonies were founded on the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts by discontented aristocrats or profit-seeking merchants. This movement was encouraged by the nobles, for the poor soil could not support a large population, and in spite of infanticide there was not enough land to go round. Ultimately these colonies reached the rich corn lands of south Russia, which supplied the deficiency of home production. " The merry Grecian coaster " sailed into the western Mediterranean also, encroaching on the preserves of the Phoenician. In south Italy so many colonies were founded that the district was called " Great Greece." They also fringed the east and south coasts of Sicily, where they found the Phoenician already before them. A Greek colony was an independent state which owed no duty to its mother city except that of religious respect. Sentiment, however, together with trade connections, usually kept them in dose touch with each other. The safety-valve of colonisation did not always work, and the general discontent often led to the seizure of the government by a single man, whom the Greeks called a Tyrant. This name originally meant an absolute sovereign who had obtained power irregularly. The power of these Tyrants rested on the goodwill of the people and on the circumstances of the time. The Tyrants satisfied the grievances of bankrupt peasant-farmers and of rich traders who were excluded from the government by the landed nobility, but instead of retiring after they had put things right, they clung to power and thus earned an evil reputation. Yet their services to Greece were invaluable, for they destroyed the prestige of the aristocrats, promoted prosperity, and fostered literature and the arts. In many states a Tyranny was followed by a Democracy (Greek democratiarule of the people), but often the rich men would seize the power for themselves and establish an Oligarchy (Greek oligarchiarule of the few). We can trace most clearly in Athens the various stages from monarchy to democracy. In the prehistoric age there had been a kingship, but by the beginning of the seventh century B.C., the state was ruled by an aristocracy which provided the annual magistrates called archons, and a council (the Council of the Areopagus), which was also the chief criminal court of the state, and whose members held office for life. Since the nobles alone knew the law, and often misused it for their own ends, the first reform which the people desired was to get to know what the law really said. This concession was made when Draco, in 621, B.C., wrote down the laws for all to see. Later ages thought them very severe, and said they were " written in blood" (whence comes the term " Draconic "), but at least the nobles had to keep within them.