This polarizing model has come under attack recently, with critics especially pointing out the limited citizen pool (women and slaves were excluded) in Athens. But this is not the greatest nor the most important difference with our modern democracies. The central issue here lies in how we perceive society to exist.

Herodotus narrates a well known story, that of Solon, lawgiver of Athens, who left his city to travel for 10 years. Before leaving, he made the Athenians swear solemnly that they would not change his laws before his return to Athens. He never returned. It is rather striking that a very similar story exists for Sparta. Lycurgus implemented his laws and journeyed to Crete after asking the people of Lacedaemon not to change them until his return. Lycurgus, however, never returned and died in Crete.

These stories shed light on something important going on in ancient societies: the role of the lawgiver, and the nature of the laws themselves.

Continued in next post