Restoration of Democracy in Athens, 403 BC

(excerpted from Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies)

The history of the Peloponnesian war and the fall of Athens is still often told, under the influence of Thucydides’ authority, in such a way that the defeat of Athens appears as the ultimate proof of the moral weaknesses of the democratic system. But this view is merely a tendentious distortion, and the well-known facts tell a very different story. The main responsibility for the lost war rests with the treacherous oligarchs who continuously conspired with Sparta. Prominent among these were three former disciples of Socrates, Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides. After the fall of Athens in 404 B.C. the two latter became the leaders of the Thirty Tyrants, who were no more than a puppet government under Spartan protection. The fall of Athens, and the destruction of the walls, are often presented as the final results of the great war which had started in 431 B.C. But in this presentation lies a major distortion; for the democrats fought on. At first only seventy strong, they prepared under the leadership of Thrasybulus and Anytus the liberation of Athens, where Critias was meanwhile killing scores of citizens; during the eight months of his reign of terror the death-roll contained ‘rather a greater number of Athenians than the Peloponnesians had killed during the last ten years of war.’ But after eight months (in 403 B.C.) Critias and the Spartan garrison were attacked and defeated by the democrats, who established themselves in the Piraeus, and both of Plato’s uncles lost their lives in the battle. Their oligarchic followers continued for a time the reign of terror in the city of Athens itself, but their forces were in a state of confusion and dissolution. Having proved themselves incapable of ruling, they were ultimately abandoned by their Spartan protectors, who concluded a treaty with the democrats. The peace re-established democracy in Athens. Thus the democratic form of government had proved its superior strength under the most severe trials, and even its enemies began to think it invincible. (Nine years later, after the battle of Cnidus, the Athenians could re-erect their walls. The defeat of democracy had turned into victory.)

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