ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS           home | history

Wealth, Poverty and Revolution

During his conquests, Alexander saw local nobles as potential opponents, and he countered them with support of councils of common people to address local issues. Some monarchs who ruled after Alexander's death supported popular participation in local government while maintaining their central authority. But with the passing of time the rich were getting richer, and their power and influence were increasing.

With their growing influence they paid less in taxes, but city governments called on the most wealthy of them to help their city. Merchants contributed to the construction of temples, gymnasiums, schools, other city buildings, to the construction of bridges, covered sewers and to other civic projects.

They paid for city festivals and ceremonial sacrifices to the gods, for banquets, free meals for the hungry and prizes for school children. They patronized the arts, and they contributed to city beautification that included a proliferation of fountains and statues — many of the statues of themselves. And free from the daily labors that burdened common people, men of wealth had the time to serve as diplomats. And during war, wealthy merchants profited from supplying their monarch's armies, while continuous warfare added to the misery and insecurity of people in general.

And there was an endemic poverty. Populations were small compared to today, but not small relative to the amount of food being produced. In Greece and West Asia a bad harvest still meant famine. The Greeks were still dependent upon imports to keep people fed, and they were not exporting enough in minerals or manufactured goods to exchange for food. In the place of exports in goods, men in Greece continued to export themselves as soldiers.

Across Greece and the Middle East, migration from the countryside to the cities created urban slums and overcrowding. With new supplies of slaves and an abundance of freemen looking for work came a drop in wages, often while the price of food was rising, and those who labored were physically burdened beyond their ability to stay fit.

Work at mining was especially hard on laborers. Egypt's gold and quicksilver mines were worked by slaves, criminals and prisoners of war, including women, elderly men and children. Young men hacked the quartz loose. Older men broke the quartz into fragments. Children dragged the quartz to the grinders powered by women who, like others, worked without rest, walking in circles and pushing levers that rotated a shaft. The Greek writer Agatharchides (around 215-145 BCE) would write that relief came only with death, which these miners welcomed.

Attempts at Revolution

The most serious attempt at changing society came in the year 279 at the Macedonian port city of Cassandreia (on the Chalcidice Peninsula, renamed from Potidaea). There a man named Apollodorus rode a wave of discontent that gave him local power. His followers vented their anger on the wealthy with violence and confiscated wealth and property. To succeed, his revolution would need to spread to other cities and acquire more power to defend itself. Instead, with money taken from the rich, Apollodorus hired an army of mercenaries to defend the revolution. After a few months, forces directed by the king of Macedonia, Antigonus II, overran Cassandreia and ended the revolution.

An attempt at revolution failed also in Sparta. Sparta had two kings. One of them, a young man named Cleomenes III, led an army that joined other Greek cities that opposed Macedonia's attempt to renew its hegemony in Greece. When Cleomenes returned home with his army from battle, he ousted the other king, he abolished debts, favored a more equitable distribution of land and created a new constitution. He encouraged reformers elsewhere in Greece, and men of wealth in Greece responded with fear and sought help from Macedonia. In the year 222 the Macedonians annihilated Sparta's army, and for the first time a foreign army entered Sparta in triumph. Cleomenes fled to Egypt, and there he again took up what he saw as the cause of social justice. In Alexandria in 219 he tried to raise a revolt, but he failed and that year took his own life.

Meanwhile, some like the Cynics had no dreams of social change. Some looked back to what they thought was an unspoiled past, to what they imagined were virtuous barbarians living according to nature. From a few came dreams of a harmonious society and a "brotherhood of man." Around the mid-100s BCE a merchant and writer named Iambulus designed a society without class differences, a society in which people would be equal, sharing what they produced and taking turns in doing menial work. Iambulus saw his utopia as a democracy and he saw people acquiring equality in wisdom and relating to each other with love.

CONTINUE READING: Influences in Western thought

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.