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The Contribution of the Poor

No thoroughly satisfactory alternative or complement to the theory of hoplite revolution has yet emerged to explain the rise of the polis as a political organization that opened citizenship to poor citizens as well as those better off1. The laboring free poor—the workers in agriculture, trade, and crafts—contributed much to the economic strength of the city-state, but it is hard to see how their value as laborers2 could have been translated into political rights. The better-off elements in society certainly did not extend the rights of citizenship to the poor out of any romanticized vision of poverty as spiritually noble. As one contemporary put it, “Money is the man; no poor man ever counts as good or honorable.” One significant boost to extending political rights to the poor perhaps came from the sole rulers, called tyrants3, who seized power for a time in some city-states and whose history will be discussed subsequently. Tyrants could have used grants of citizenship to poor or disenfranchised men as a means of marshaling popular support for their regimes. Another, more speculative possibility is that the aristocrats and hoplites4 had simply become less cohesive as a political group in this period of dramatic change, thereby weakening opposition to the growing idea that it was unjust to exclude the poor from political participation. When the poor agitated for power in the citizen community, on this view, there would have been no united front of aristocrats and hoplites to oppose them, making compromise necessary to prevent destructive civil unrest. Or it may be that we underestimate the significance of lightly-armed combatants in the eighth century, when hoplites were presumably not as numerous as in later times and perhaps the sheer force of the numbers of poor men—wielding staves, throwing rocks, employing farming implements as weapons—could have helped their city-state's contingent of hoplites to sway the tide of battle against an opposing force.

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