Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Theseus as the Father of Athenian Democracy

Vicky quoted me a quote the other day on my Fall of Theseus post, and I thought the answer to her question deserved its own post:
This is what Edith Hamilton in MYTHOLOGY, says about Theseus after his return from killing the minotaur: 

"So Theseus became King of Athens, a most wise and disinterested king. He declared to the people that he did not wish to rule over them: he wanted a people's government where all would be equal. He resigned his royal power and organized a commonwealth, building a council hall where the citizens should gather and vote."

So, when Theseus realized that his father had died because of him, he "created" democracy. An interesting myth for the creation of democracy. What's your take on that interpretation? 
I'll admit this was the first time I'd really considered this at all-- but I went back to Plutarch (the go-to Theseus source for everyone) and took a look at what he had to say in regard to Theseus's kingship, and it sounds like Ms. Hamilton consulted Plutarch for her take on this as well. Plutarch says a couple of things along these lines, crediting Theseus with everything from the formation of Athens itself as a true city to coining currency and instituting the Isthmian Games. But in particular to this issue, Plutarch says:

[...] whereas before they lived dispersed, and were not easy to assemble upon any affair for the common interest. Nay, differences and even wars often occurred between them, which he by his persuasions appeased, going from township to township, and from tribe to tribe. And those of a more private and mean condition readily embracing such good advice, to those of greater power he promised a commonwealth without monarchy, a democracy, or people's government, in which he should only be continued as their commander in war and the protector of their laws, all things else being equally distributed among them;- and by this means brought a part of them over to his proposal.
In essence, in order to consolidate the people of Athens and his own power, he cut a deal with the people who opposed his reforms. Good politics, really, and besides which, it freed Theseus to go about taking care of business elsewhere instead of constantly going from community to community putting down disagreements. If Attica were at peace, Theseus could continue hero-ing it up and gallivanting around with Heracles and Pirithous.

But we also have to remember that Plutarch's purpose in writing this was to elevate Rome, first and foremost, by comparing Theseus to Romulus as a ruler, and Plutarch was writing in the First Century CE, and Theseus, if he lived, was born a generation or more before the Trojan War, an event which took place 1200-1300 years earlier.

Plutarch goes on to say this:
He then dissolved all the distinct statehouses, council halls, and magistracies, and built one common state-house and council hall on the site of the present upper town, and gave the name of Athens to the whole state, [...]. Then, as he had promised, he laid down his regal power and proceeded to order a commonwealth
 Theseus continued to expand the influence of Athens by inviting anyone who wished it to become a citizen of Athens to enlarge the population. Again, this would have resulted in fewer border skirmishes and less infighting around the countryside requiring Theseus's mediation. Plutarch tells us:
Yet he did not suffer his state, by the promiscuous multitude that flowed in, to be turned into confusion and he left without any order or degree, but was the first that divided the Commonwealth into three distinct ranks, the noblemen, the husbandmen, and artificers. To the nobility he committed the care of religion, the choice of magistrates, the teaching and dispensing of the laws, and interpretation and direction in all sacred matters; the whole city being, as it were, reduced to an exact equality, the nobles excelling the rest in honour, the husbandmen in profit, and the artificers in number.
From Plutarch's commentary we are left with the impression that above all Theseus wanted order in his kingdom. He wanted peace. Perhaps he did lay down his "regal power" but he did not give up his kingship. He created a system which would keep the disparate peoples and tribes from warring constantly. But why would he be so concerned with expanding Athens and consolidating the people of the lands into one united city if it weren't to bring them all under the umbrella of his influence and control? Theseus was no Solon, who after accomplishing his reforms for Athens, abandoned his power completely and left the country. Theseus stayed on as King.

So I guess to answer the original question, I take Plutarch with a grain of salt in this instance. I expect Theseus did what he had to do in order to grant himself a margin of freedom and some peace of mind. By consolidating Athens and banding the people of Ionia together under his rule, he ensured their safety whether he was physically present or not-- no one outside of Attica would wittingly wage war against a unified force of that size, and his own citizens would not be ripping one another apart when he turned his back on them for more than a week. In other words, with his own people happy and his forces swollen, he could leave without fearing that he'd return to a usurper on his throne from within, or an external king annexing pieces Theseus would then have to wage a war of his own to get back.

Perhaps we should call Theseus the patriarch of good politics rather than democracy. But whatever else he was, Theseus was certainly a very canny king and a clever politician. Between his physical power and his wits, I imagine he had no trouble getting his way in anything.


  1. I think many of the good kings in history have done what it sounds like Theseus did- consolidate a large kingdom so it can be ruled efficiently. It's awfully hard to be in more than one place at a time and it's also difficult to trust the people you put in charge.

    Sigh. It's just hard being king.

  2. No doubt! It just makes SENSE. And especially in Greece where you had all those warring people, binding them together would be the first order of business for any King who wanted to keep his sanity, I'd think!

  3. Or his head, Amalia! Great post. Thanks for getting to the heart of things. Fascinating.

  4. Theseus as Father of Democracy: Democracy is, of course, government by consensus. For me personally, it rankles to think democracy was born of a leader's need to control and maintain power (although it's probably true, and in a way it's divine justice).

    I agree, democracy probably wasn't Theseus' aim, but he wouldn't be the first man in history to grab what he wanted, do what he had to do to get it, and end up an unwitting father. :)

  5. Vicky: Thanks for the prompt!

    VR: I get the impression it was something more like a constitutional monarchy with a King who could change the constitution as needed, if it was even that.

    I was reading The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley, and the culture in regard to Kingship and rulers was really fascinating-- there were no guarantees. No kingship was absolute in that time, all dependent on the will of the people beneath him to be governed at all. "Democracy" then must have arrived long, long before Theseus, if that was the established form of government-- Odysseus was not that far removed from Theseus, historically speaking. Assuming either of them lived, they might have even met before Troy.

  6. Always an excellent blog post when I visit you, Amalia. Yes, Theseus had an enormous job, and keeping all those different people from warring amongst each other was probably the wisest way to rule, considering the times especially. Cutting a deal with those who opposed him was brilliant, in that a peaceful nation would give him a better chance at maintaining his rule.

    Thought-inspiring post, thanks Amalia I feel smarter than I did when I arrived :D

  7. Diana: Not just his rule, but also his lifestyle! If he couldn't govern his own city, what kind of hero would he really have been!

    Glad you enjoyed this one!! :) I love blogging/writing about Theseus.

  8. I never realized just how amazing Theseus was. I never spent much time learning about him... Perhaps I'll have to change that!

    Great post, I loved reading it.

  9. Devin: Theseus is definitely giving Thor a run for his money for the first place spot in my heart. I never really knew that much about him either, until I started looking into him where his myth crossed with Helen, but once I started I couldn't stop!


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