Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History

Khalid Elhassan - March 30, 2021

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Petitioners consulting the Oracle of Delphi. Project Delphi

3. Bribing the Gods to Put in a Good Word For One’s Cause

To induce help from the Spartans, who were known for their piety, the enterprising Cleisthenes bribed the priests of Delphi, the Greek world’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi. For centuries, Ancient Greeks had turned to the Oracle for answers, and it typically replied to petitioners with cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Once Cleisthenes bribed Delphi’s priests, however, every Spartan petitioner who showed up received the very clear and not at all cryptic answer: “Liberate Athens!” So the Spartans marched into Attica in 508 BC, liberated Athens, then marched back home.

Left to govern themselves, the Athenians immediately split into rival camps. Oligarchs, led by Isagoras, wanted the government returned to the hands of the wealthy. Populists, led by Cleisthenes and comprising a majority of Athenians, declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly. Cleisthenes’ camp prevailed, but the oligarchic faction solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy. Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Cleisthenes. Wikimedia

2. An Enterprising Solution to Geographic and Nepotistic Tribalism

Cleisthenes and democracy’s supporters did not stay exiled for long. They armed themselves, returned to Athens, and the population rose up in revolt. The city’s aristocratic faction and the Spartan garrison that was there to support them soon found themselves besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels’ beef was not with Sparta, so they allowed the Spartans to leave and return home. The aristocratic anti-democracy Athenians were shown no similar mercy: Cleisthenes and his supporters massacred them to a man. Having decisively dealt with the oligarchic threat, Cleisthenes set about establishing the Athenian democracy.

The major reform was the reorganization of the citizen body (demos) of Athens. Athenians had been grouped into four tribes, based on kin groups. Cleisthenes argued that such grouping lent itself to factionalism. He replaced it with an artificial classification system that divided the citizen body into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. Each tribe thus contained a representative sample of the entire population, including all classes and regions. That reduced the incentives for parochialism because no tribe had cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Broken bits of ancient Athenian pottery, or ostra, with the names of those being proposed for ostracism. Grethexis

1. Ancient Athens Adopted a Creative Method to Get Rid of Unpopular People Without Killing Them

In addition to creating at-large tribes whose members were drawn at random from the citizens of Athens, Cleisthenes continued his enterprising reforms by creating a new council, the boule. It was a democratic body, in which all of Athens’ citizens had the right to speak and voice their opinions on public matters and the affairs of the day. Cleisthenes thus eliminated the parochialism that had plagued Athens for generations, and granted the entire male citizen population access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy.

Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was ostracism. An annual vote would be held in which each citizen could name any person, whose name he wrote down on bits of broken pottery known as ostra, whom he thought was too dangerous or was becoming too powerful. The citizen receiving the most votes would be exiled for ten years, without prejudice to his property while he was gone, or to his citizenship rights upon his return. Cleisthenes’ reforms thus established basic democracy in Athens, and created the constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms were made in future years to transform Athens into a direct democracy.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Coote, Stephen – Drake: The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero (2005)

Cracked – The Guy Who Shipwrecked on a Cannibal Island Then Took it Over

Daily News, The, April 30th, 1938 – Cannibal Capture May Open Way For Sweden in the Pacific

Ehrenberg, Victor – From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries BC (2010)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Muqali, Mongolian General

Encyclopedia Britannica – Peisistratos

Forczyk, Robert – Red Christmas: The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid, 1942 (2012)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Hastings, Max – Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II (2020)

O’Neil, James L. – The Origins and Development of Ancient Greek Democracy (1995)

Plutarch – Parallel Lives

SBS News, October 28th, 2019 – The Little-Known Family Story That Helped Inspire the Pippi Longstocking Books

Stroud, Rick – The Phantom Army of Alamein: How the Camouflage Unit and Operation Bertram Hoodwinked Rommel (2012)

Wikipedia – Francesco I Sforza

Wikipedia – Operation Bertram

Wikipedia – USS Philadelphia (1799)