Examining Social Injustice in Rome, Athens, and Sparta

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Words: 1938 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: Nov 22, 2018

Words: 1938|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: Nov 22, 2018

As states develop, it is common for class structures to become more rigidly defined through wealth inequality, often codified through strict laws regarding debt and a harsh and clear distinction between the lifestyles of the wealthy and the common people. Examining the history of Sparta, Athens and Rome around the mid first millennium, it is easy to see that each of these states were forced to confront the political consequences of this inequality, and there are numerous recordings that detail how each state sought to deal with these problems. In Sparta, Lycurgus acquired the popular support of the people and pushed social reforms that created an atmosphere completely inhospitable to wealth inequality. In Athens, Solon instituted radical reforms to relieve citizens of crushing debt, while in Rome, the conflict between the Patricians and the Plebeians nearly forced Rome to catastrophe before a group of powerful magistrates were created to ensure equitable treatment between the classes. Since each state dealt with similar difficulties, the search for commonalities in their method of solution and the procedure used to reach it can yield a number of generalities about the political climate and development about Mediterranean city states at the time. Upon examination, while each state pursued a different series of solution, one thread that ties each effort together is the tactic of appeal to mob rule. Regardless of the system of governance that the state relied on, the solutions to wealth inequality largely depended on the support, not of key political leaders or rational individuals, but the approval of the populace at large. What happened, however, was not that the will of the people was done, but that the politician who was able to best gather the approval of the mob through extreme views enjoyed the greatest success, with those who adopted moderate views abandoned and reviled by all sides.

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The issues of wealth disparity through Athens, Rome and Sparta have been well documented in the Athenian Politeia, Livy’s History of Rome, and Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, respectively. Athenian citizens were described as, “in slavery to the rich… and if they ever failed to pay their rents, they themselves and their children were liable to arrest” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 2). Livy notes the resentment of the Plebeians that arose from the systematic inequality in Rome, writing that “whilst fighting in the field for liberty and empire they were oppressed and enslaved by their fellow-citizens at home,” and describing a story in which a veteran of the Sabine war incited a riot by describing how “he had not only lost the produce of his land through the depredations of the enemy, but his farm had been burnt, all his property plundered, his cattle driven away, the war-tax demanded when he was least able to pay it, and he had got into debt,” with the debt eventually forcing him into slavery (Livy, 2.23). Indeed, Livy goes on to describe an ongoing conflict within Rome that was entirely fueled by the Plebeian’s resentment for laws regarding wealth and debt. Even in Sparta, before Lycurgus’ reforms, it is noted that “the city was heavily burdened with indigent and helpless people, and wealth was wholly concentrated in the hands of a few.” (Plut, Lyc.8.1).

It is clear, then, that at the time period we are concerned with, each of these states struggled to at least some degree with wealth inequality, often with specific regards to debt slavery. The question to ask, in comparing these states, then becomes how each state chose to deal with this conflict. In Athens the matter was dealt with rather directly, where after a long struggle between differently opposed political parties, eventually Solon was chosen as an arbitrator for the dispute, and given the office of Archon to enact the reforms that would be necessary. His reforms were radical ones, most famously the “Shaking Off of Burdens,” which simply and directly excused citizens of all debt, and was then followed by a series of laws to prevent debt from accumulating and outlaw debt slavery altogether (Aristot, Ath. Pol. 6). In Sparta, Lycurgus enacted similarly direct reforms with regards to the distribution of land, as “he persuaded his fellow-citizens to make one parcel of all their territory and divide it up anew, and to live with one another on a basis of entire uniformity and equality,” while also choosing to enact certain indirect policies, such as the imposition of mess halls and a change to iron currency (Plut, Lyc. 8.2). These changes ultimately resulted in helping to erode and destroy the class systems in Sparta, removing differences between classes and discouraging inter-state trade. Plutarch notes that the imposition of iron currency cut off trade with other cities, and that “luxury, thus gradually deprived of that which stimulated and supported it, died away of itself, and men of large possessions had no advantage over the poor, because their wealth found no public outlet,” (Plut, Lyc. 9.4) and that with a single mess hall for all people meant “the rich man could neither use nor enjoy nor even see or display his abundant means, when he went to the same meal as the poor man” (Plut, Lyc. 10.3). It is easy to see that Lycurgus and Solon were able to enact these reforms because of the great support that they were given by the people, with Solon given control over the Athenian government as a final measure to quell the conflict between the classes, and Lycurgus returning to power in Sparta through the popular request of the people. In Rome, the conflict was more staggered, with reforms only being enacted when the Plebeians attempted outright secession from Rome, forcing the Patricians to compromise by creating the office of Tribune, that the rights of the Plebeians would be guarded.

This assists in establishing that wealth inequality existed, and was confronted differently by each of the states in question. What must now be determined is what precise role the “mob” played in these conflicts, and how this affected moderate voices. To this end, it will be important to make note of two individuals; Peisistratus and Appius Claudius. Peisistratus was a dictator of Athens who ruled Athens several decades after Solon’s departure, putting an end to the in-fighting and political squabbles that ruled the city when Solon departed. Appius Claudius was a firmly anti-Plebeian ruler who was elected as Consul despite his harsh rhetoric, even asking to be named Dictator that he could establish a firm rule over the Plebeians, saying “Let me see any one strike a lictor then, when he knows that his back and even his life are in the sole power of the man whose authority he attacks.” (Livy, 2.29). These two figures will prove key in discussing the role of the mob in the remainder of the paper.

Through this paper, there have been a number of examples of rule by ‘mob,’ most notably within Sparta and Rome, where Lycurgus took power not through right of birth or election, but because the people of Sparta demanded his return. In Rome, the Patricians were not forced to compromise until the Plebeians took steps to secede from the city entirely, and in the years leading up to that attempted to force reforms through riot and other such actions. Beyond this, in Sparta Lycurgus’ reforms often involved directing the people towards the culture that he envisioned, rather than imposing it himself, most notably in the creation of mess halls that caused people to enforce the destruction of class system themselves, as the rich were looked upon unfavorably for failing to attend and eat at each meal. A more fundamental fact that the role of the people helps to illustrate, however, is the failure of moderation in each of these cities. This is most notable within Rome, where the Consuls Servilius and the aforementioned Appius Claudius each took different positions. Servilius had acquired the support of the Plebeians in time of war by promising to protect them from any debt that may accumulate while they served. However, after the war the senate forced him to more moderate protections, and a number of Plebeians were still forced into tremendous debt, such that “by taking a middle course he did not escape the odium of the plebs nor did he win the favour of the patricians,” and instead became disliked by both parties (Livy, 2.27). This provides an interesting contrast with the Dictator Valerius, who made similar promises and for the same reasons was unable to fulfill them, but in a gesture of defiance to the Patricians won the popular support of the Plebeians so that it was considered that “The non-fulfilment of his pledge was not due to him” (Livy, 2.31). Both of these figures then stand in contrast with Claudius, who managed to achieve significant political strength in harsh advocacy of utter indifference to the plight of the Plebeians. What is seen throughout this period of Rome is that moderate voices were shut out, and the support of the Patricians or the Plebeians was offered to the loudest and strongest voice. Livy notes in Claudius’ election that “To many the sentiments which Appius uttered seemed cruel and monstrous, as they really were... The advice given by Verginius was regarded as the most moderate, being a middle course between the other two. [2] But through the strength of his party, and the consideration of personal interests which always have injured and always will injure public policy, Appius won the day.” (Livy, 2.30).

However, one needs to go no further than Athens to best examine the fundamental vulnerability that moderate voices had. Solon’s reforms may appear to have been radical, but ultimately he acted in defiance of each of the parties which has elected to name him Archon, and “the people had thought that he would institute universal communism of property, whereas the notables had thought that he would either restore the system in the same form as it was before or with slight alteration; but Solon went against them both, and when he might have been tyrant if he had taken sides with whichever of the two factions he wished, he chose to incur the enmity of both by saving the country and introducing the legislation that was best.” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 11). Because of Solon’s decision, enough of Athens was incensed towards him that he thought it better to leave for Egypt for a time. Solon lived long enough to see social strife overtake the city in his absence, culminating in the ascension of Peisistratus as a tyrant of Athens, who enjoyed significant popular support. Peisistratus was able to spend two decades as ruler of Athens, and was described in the Athenian Politea as, above all else, mild in his rulership, cultivating the support of the people. Solon, implementing necessary reforms, was rejected, while Peisistratus was embraced for his popularity.

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The common thread that ties together Athens, Rome and Sparta during their period of reform was the absolute necessity of popular support in the governing of each state. Politicians have been shown to be unable to maintain power without the strength of the mob behind them, and have further been shown to be unable to acquire the strength of the mob without either pandering to them or demonstrating sufficient fervor as was necessary to incense the people. Regardless of whether the actions taken ultimately benefited the people, and none withstanding what form of government each state practiced (as at the time, even Athens only practiced a moderate democracy), each of these Mediterranean states found their affairs heavily directed by the will, not of heroic individuals as often imagined, but of the mob.

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Examining Social Injustice In Rome, Athens, And Sparta. (2018, November 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from
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