Tribes and Demes of Athens

Every time I mention someone's deme, I gloss over what a deme is. This is starting to annoy me, so here's the story.

Originally, every citizen of Athens belonged to one of four tribes. This, and the fact that the word Athens is plural even in the original Greek, might mean that Athens was founded by four local villages which came together to form a city, back in pre-historic times. No one really knows, but it's a guess.

The tribes had a real social function even into Classical times: almost all big events were managed on a per tribe basis. Because the tribes were groupings of families, essentially clans, they also tended to become a problem in political questions. Alliances would form or dissolve based on who was in what tribe.

After the last tyrant of Athens fell in 510BC, fifty years before my first story, a man called Cleisthenes rose to great influence. Cleisthenes is sometimes called the Father of Democracy because he instituted a large number of reforms all designed to drive Athens in that direction. He didn't quite get there -- that was left to Ephialtes in the next generation -- but he was fundamental in creating all the necessary social structures.

One of the things Cleisthenes did was expand the four tribes into ten. The population had grown and there were so many people that four tribes weren't enough. Cleisthenes also wanted to allocate men to tribes in a more or less random way, so that the power of the larger families was broken.

By the time of Nicolaos and Diotima, the tribes had become pure and very handy administrative groups.

The ten new tribes were named after famous men of the past. They became known collectively as the Eponymous Heroes and a statue to them was set up in the Agora. Here's an excerpt from my first book. Nicolaos is wandering about the Agora.

I wished them luck and went on my way, coming to the statues of the Ten Heroes, each of whom lends his name to one of the ten tribes. All the people of Attica – the large region of mainland Greece which Athens controls – belong to one or the other of these tribes, and Government jobs are shared equally among the men of each tribe so that no group can have too much influence.

The Ten Heroes are spread out in a line, each hero in such a noble pose that I’m sure his own mother wouldn’t have recognized him. Eight of the Ten were famous Kings of old: Ægeus, Erechtheus, Pandion, Oeneus, Leos, Acamas, Cecrops, and Hippothoon; then there was Ajax, who fought at Troy, and finally Antiochus, the son of Heracles, the tribe to which my own family belonged.

These then were the famous heroes of old, their statues in the Agora, and not for the first time I wondered why Theseus, surely the greatest hero Athens ever produced, was not among them. Theseus after all sent himself as a sacrificial tribute to Crete, slew the Minotaur, and returned to Athens having delivered the city from subjugation at the hands of King Minos. You can’t get more heroic than that.

As I always did when I came this way, I walked around to the rear of Antiochus, to check once more on my greatest triumph as a young boy in Athens. There, scratched deep into the hero’s ass, just below the cloak line, was a large N. It’s very hard to cut graffiti into marble, the other boys had had to make do with ink that had soon washed off; sometimes being the son of a sculptor has its advantages.

The monument serves as the notice board of Athens; anything of importance, any official proclamation, is announced by writing it on the plinth. Someone had splashed whitewash across the plinth, obliterating everything that had been there before, replacing all those words with a single message in large letters: Ephialtes is murdered.

Attica was divided into three arbitrary provinces. Each province was in turn divided into tenths, one for each tribe. Thus a third of each tribe's territory lay in each province, from which they became known as trittyes, which means thirds. Three provinces times ten tribes meant thirty trittyes. Each tritty was in turn broken up into smaller areas called demes. Athens itself was broken up into many small demes shared equally among the ten tribes. In the countryside where populations were lower, demes were larger in area.

Thus a deme was in a real sense like a modern suburb. If you knew someone's deme, which you would because people included their deme when they introduced themselves, then you could turn up at the deme and ask anyone where to find your friend's house.

But in addition everyone in a deme belonged to the same tribe. The affiliation mattered a lot. The archons who ran the city for a year were selected from each tribe in fixed turns. So every tribe got to control Attica and Athens for one year out of ten.

The way you got elected was this: Ten candidates were selected for each archonship, by random lot from amongst the entire membership of the tribe whose turn it was to rule, and then everyone got to vote from amongst the ten. The randomness meant that some years there was nothing on offer but ten losers. If it happened, it happened, and people just had to wear it.

Similarly the council (Boule) which arranged the agenda for the city's parliament (Ecclesia) consisted of 500 men: 50 from each tribe, rotated annually. Each deme had to supply a certain number of their tribe's 50.

As you can see the whole system was extensively designed to prevent anyone from getting too much power. Every deme had to carry its share of responsibility, and since every government job rotated every year, it meant as long as you were not actually a drooling idiot, you were guaranteed to get a turn as an office holder at some point in your life.

The Library of Alexandria

I promised Mimzy back in March that I'd do an article on the Library of Alexandria. I've been ages getting to it -- I'm afraid writing books takes precedence -- but here it is at last. Thanks for the suggestion Mimzy.

If anyone else has something they'd like me to write about, do please tell!

The Library of Alexandria was an idea cooked up between two men: Ptolemy I of Egypt, and his son's tutor, Demetrios of Phaleron.

Demetrios suggested to Ptolemy they should gather together all the books in the world into a single place.

Now Demetrios and Ptolemy had one important thing in common: as boys they had both been students of Aristotle, and Aristotle owned a substantial private library. When they sat around talking about their own library, they probably had in mind a super-sized version of what their old school master had.

Demetrios and Ptolemy had just invented the world's first public library.

The benefits seem obvious to us, but that's because we've lived with 2,000+ years of public libraries. What these guys had done was visionary.

It's important to understand what was happening in the world at that time. In the space of one man's life, the largest empire the world had yet seen -- the Persian Empire -- had been toppled by a military genius, and then replaced by an even larger empire. Then Alexander had died, plunging the world into a disastrous series of wars as his Generals struggled for power. Soldiers who had once fought side by side under Alexander were now ripping into each other. National governments rose and then collapsed everywhere. The gold looted from the Persian Empire by the soldiers was carried about as the fighting spread, inducing hyper-inflation wherever they went. People who think we live in tough times today should try spending a few days back then.

Ptolemy and Demetrios had lived through all this. Indeed Ptolemy had been one of Alexander's Generals, and was probably his elder half-brother. Demetrios during the wars had made himself tyrant of Athens, only to be tossed out ten years later. Both men were only too aware of how insubstantial the plans of men could be, and they were looking to build something which could preserve civilisation, which was looking particularly precarious at that moment.

It's easy to get building approval when you're an absolute monarch. Work began at once. They chose a site next to the Temple of Muses. The Muses in Greek religion are spirits who inspire men to create art, science and literature, a meaning we retain to this day. There were temples dedicated to the Muses all over the world, but this particular one was about to become very famous. People began to refer to the area of the library as being part of the temple, in Greek: museion of the Muses. In later Latinised Greek, the suffix was changed to -um. Muse-um.

Next time you go to a museum, keep in mind you are visiting a temple to the Muses.

The words don't stop there. The Greek word for book collection is biblioteke. Look familiar? The word library itself comes from the Latin for book: liber and a collection: librarium. They were all used in reference to the Library of Alexandria.

The problem of growing the collection was solved through an innovative piece of legislation. Ptolemy decreed a law that every single book carried into Egypt had to be handed over to the library. Incoming ships were routinely searched for books and any found were taken.

Scribes at the library copied every incoming book. They were supposed to send the original back to the owner, but what they did, if the book was valuable, was keep the original and send back the copy.

Ptolemy II wrote to all the other rulers of the earth and asked to borrow their books.

You guessed it. He "forgot" to return them. Don't you hate it when someone does that? He did eventually send back copies though.

This reached its peak when Ptolemy III asked the Athenians if he could "borrow" the complete works of Aeshylus, Sophocles and Euripides, all written in their own hands. The value of these books can't be exaggerated. It's like having the complete works of Shakespeare written in his own hand.

The Athenians weren't totally stupid. They refused. Ptolemy offered 15 talents as surety the manuscripts would be returned. The Athenians needed the money; they agreed. Ptolemy III returned copies and forfeited the bond.

I confess this compulsory acquisition system reminds me of a similar effort underway by a well known internet company.

Build it, and they will come. With the entire world's knowledge stored at the Library, philosophers and scientists flocked to the place. They of course wrote their own books, which were stored in the Library. A virtuous cycle had been created which caused the Library to grow organically. One later scholar called Callimachus counted 490,000 books.

There were so many books they had to build an overflow building. Keep in mind, book here means a scroll, or a set of scrolls kept in scroll cases. Zip files on a hard drive were a luxury yet to be, so 490,000 books takes a lot of space. They would certainly have been kept in racks on the walls, and there would have been librarians whose sole job was to know what was where. No dewey numbers for them!

With all the top teachers there, that's where the students went. Fathers paid the academics to teach their sons, creating in the process a model of research funded via teaching, which worked well, because people really wanted the education.

A stellar line up of academics either worked there or visited over the centuries. Archimedes, surely one of the top three scientists of all time, popped in for a visit. Eratosthenes was head Librarian. He worked out the world was round and measured the circumference with astounding accuracy. He also created the Sieve of Eratosthenes, which you probably used in maths class to find prime numbers. Hiero probably invented the world's first steam engine there. Ptolemy the Astronomer came up with his theories. And of course the final star was the amazing Hypatia.

Incredibly, despite everything that's been written about the place, no one knows what the Library actually looked like. You can find lots of people on the net offering their own descriptions, but as far as I'm aware there's not a single reliable original source description. Fundamentally, everyone's guessing.

There are competing theories about how the library was destroyed, beginning with Julius Caesar (very unlikely) and ending with Muslim invasions (not too likely was probably gone by then). It does appear the books were destroyed before the teaching institution went, and fire is the obvious culprit, but the reality is, it doesn't matter, because the Library was effectively destroyed when Hypatia was murdered for the crime of being a smart pagan woman. After that, it was all downhill and the influence of the Library trickled to nothing long before it was physically gone.

Yet more adventures in anachronistic phrases

This subject keeps cropping up for me: the problem of avoiding anachronistic phrases in historical novels. Here are two more.

I can't have my characters describe something as sandwiched between two other things. Lord Sandwich is yet to make his contribution to the culinary arts.

Nor can a character look daggers at someone else. It comes, slightly mangled, from Hamlet, where Hamlet promises to speak daggers.

Greek Names

Everyone in Classical Greece had a single name. When you introduced yourself, you gave your name, your father's name, and more often than not where you came from. Here are two introductions from the opening scene of my first book. Two strangers are looking down at the body of a man called Ephialtes. The first says:

“I am Nicolaos, of the deme Alopece, son of Sophroniscus the Sculptor.”

He hadn’t anything to say to that. I hesitated, expecting his name in return, and not getting it. He’d called Ephialtes, ‘my friend.’ He looked down at the corpse, and I followed his gaze, thinking as I did that it was astonishing how quickly a man can be reduced from greatness to nothing. The death of this man had the power to change Athens forever.

“And who are you, sir?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity.

“I am Pericles, of the deme Cholargos, son of Xanthippus.”

Pericles and Nico provide their deme as their origin, because they are both Athenians. A deme was like a combination of suburb and sub-tribe, used in civic administration. If Nico was visiting a different city, such as Ephesus, he would introduce himself as Nicolaos, son of Sophroniscus, of Athens, because to an Ephesian his deme is irrelevant but his city is meaningful (and might put his listener on guard, because there's no telling what one of those tricky Athenians could be up to).

The patronymics and the demes I used above are totally correct, by the way. Because this was the standard way of naming, even in writing, there are many real people mentioned in classical sources about whom we know almost nothing, except who their father was, and where to find their house if we happen to be visiting Athens in 460BC. A man took the same deme as his father, and since Nico is the brother of Socrates, I need merely look up Socrates' information to find the right deme for Nico.

The naming of children followed a set pattern. The first son was named for the paternal grandfather. More often than not the second son was named for the maternal grandfather. Third sons and onwards were more of a free for all, though it was fairly common for the third son to be named for the father. Thus Pericles, son of Xanthippus, had in turn an eldest son called Xanthippus, son of Pericles, who as I mentioned in a previous post obtained a loan when he was still a child. Pericles later had a son by Aspasia, and that boy was called Pericles, son of Pericles.

Daughters had a similar naming system, though less well known since women were so rarely written of, and once they were married would usually be named in reference to their husbands. A married woman belonged to her husband's deme.

This system means the same names keep cropping up every second generation, and if you know the names from two successive generations then sometimes you can trawl the classical sources to build up a family history.

This is incredibly useful if you happen to be me. There was a legal expert called Archestratus who helped Ephialtes introduce the democracy, and there was an Archestratus who co-founded the Antisthenes and Archestratus Savings and Loan Company. There's no ancient record connecting the two, but the odds are pretty good that Archestratus the Banker is son or grandson to Archestratus the Lawyer.

Almost all names had a clear meaning and were made from one or two words. Some were descriptive: Pericles is a single word meaning surrounded by glory. Some were a virtue or desirable attribute: Nicolaos is made up from Nike (Victory) and laos (of the people)...victory of the people. Many were religious: Diotima is Dio (God, in this case Zeus) and tima (honour)... honoured of Zeus. Phil means lover. Hippos means horse. Hence our modern Philip comes from Phil-Hippos...lover of horses.

Like us, the Greeks used nicknames, usually to emphasize some characteristic of the person, and like us sometimes the nickname took over. There was an Olympic wrestler called Aristocles, son of Ariston, of the deme Collytus. Like many wrestlers he had particularly broad shoulders, so much so that everyone called him Broad and his real name was almost forgotten. This man later gave up wrestling and turned to philosophy, and that is why today we know him as Broad, which in Attic Greek is the word...Plato.

Why the clocks?

Anthony asked why I have dodgy-looking clocks on my blog.

Much as I love living where I am, being on the other side of the planet to so many of my friends can be a pain. Many of the people I chat to are between NY-4 hours (West Coast US) and NY+5 hours (Netherlands).

Even if no one else uses them, the clocks give me a clue who's awake and who's asleep among my US and Euro friends.

Except for Janet, she lives on Sydney time.

New Blog Template

I have removed my highly customised blogger template, which I wrote myself, and replaced it with a standard one, because the time cost of maintaining my own had become too high. Also, it was preventing me from using features blogger had introduced.

There is now a follower list down the right hand side, which is forlorn and lonely because no one is on it.

I'm going to customize the new look over time and add other things I've always wished I had, such as a links to friends section.

I hope this is the last major fiddle of the blog until the cover of the first book is done, at which point I'll probably change the look of the site to match the cover.

He rises from the dead

Six weeks ago I reached a mental state best described as I'm-Gonna-Die-If-I-Don't-Finish-This-Book.

Yes, it was almost done, but it wasn't finished.

So I cut myself off from the world. No blogging, no tweeting, very little email. If I wasn't doing family stuff or sleeping, then I was in the office writing or, more often, staring at writing already there. (Why must I stare at my own words for so long?)

I finished it in two and a half weeks.

I sent the ms off to my beta readers, who very kindly read what passes for prose from my fingertips, and who tell me which bits suck and, just as importantly, which bits don't suck. (It can be surprising the answers you get back...sometimes I get praise for sections I feared were weak.)

It was going to take weeks before anyone got back to me, so I could catch up on blogging, tweeting, etc, for a gap of about 3 weeks. Right?

Wrong. The first feedback from one reader came in next day, on the first 80 pages. Three days later he'd finished the book and I had complete, detailed, and brilliant information. So the blog and the tweets went back in the cupboard and I started on revisions. As I was revising I got a response from another of my generous readers, who had very perceptive things to say. I'm very lucky to have these people give me their time and talents.

It turned out I had a sagging middle. Well, I'm a guy in my 40s, these things happen.

I revised for two weeks. Everything got fixed (I hope), 6,000 words disappeared, 1,000 words came into being, and then the ms was off to my agent, Janet, so she could have her turn tearing it to shreds. Which I actually like, btw. The mission objective is to publish the best book I can write that you will enjoy reading. That's not going to happen unless people tell me where it can be better. I don't understand writers who can't handle criticism; if it were a bridge and someone pointed out a flaw in your design, would you whinge? Of course not.

As soon as I'd emailed the ms off to Janet I hopped back on the net -- the addiction never went away -- to immediately see a tweet from Deb Vlock that she'd just that moment sent her ms off to Janet. Then Susan Adrian said she was about to send in her revisions. Bill Cameron mentioned his was going in next week. Somehow Janet's clients had contrived to simultaneously hit her with manuscripts.

Terrific. That meant I had time to get some other stuff done, such as write my first blog post for six weeks. So here it is and it's nice to be back.

I might not have much time though. I thought I had weeks (again) but Janet's started reading.