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Tensions between Leaders and Followers

Aristocratic chiefs sometimes abused their status and created tensions between leaders and followers. Eventually this tension contributed to the political reorganization of the Greek world in the creation of the city-state. A story from the Iliad1 provides a fictional illustration of the kind of abusive aristocratic behavior that chiefs could exhibit in the period before the city-state emerged. According to the Iliad, when Agamemnon, the aristocratic leader of the Greek army besieging Troy, summoned the troops to announce a decision to prolong the war, now in its tenth year, an ordinary soldier named Thersites spoke up in opposition. Thersites could express his opinion because Agamemnon led the Greeks as a Dark Age chief led a band, which required that all men's opinions be heard with respect. Thersites criticized Agamemnon as unjustly greedy. “Let's leave him here to digest his booty,” Thersites shouted to his fellow soldiers in the ranks. Odysseus, another chief, immediately rose up to support Agamemnon, saying to Thersites, “If I ever find you being so foolish again, may my head not remain on my body if I don't strip you naked and send you back to your ship crying from the blows I give you.” Odysseus thereupon cowed Thersites with a blow to his back, which drew blood.

In this fictional episode, the assembled soldiers approve of Odysseus' inequitable treatment of Thersites, who admittedly speaks without moderation or tact. For the city-state to be created as a political institution in which all free men had a stake, the idea that all men had the right to speak their minds, even rudely, had to emerge in the real world. Non-aristocratic men had to insist that they deserved equitable treatment, even if aristocrats were to remain in leadership positions and carry out the policies agreed on by the group.

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