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The oligarchic coup of 411

The turmoil in Athenian politics and revenues resulting from the Sicilian defeat opened the way for some influential Athenian men, who had long harbored contempt for the broad-based democracy of their city-state, to stage what amounted to an oligarchic coup d'état. They insisted that a small group of elite leaders could manage Athenian policy better than the democratic assembly. Alcibiades furthered their cause by promising to make an alliance with the Persia satraps in western Anatolia and secure funds from them for Athens if only the democracy would be overturned and an oligarchy installed.1 He apparently hoped that the abolition of the democracy would led to the possibility of his being permitted to return to Athens. He had reason to want to go home again because his negotiations with the satraps had by now aroused the suspicions of the Spartan leaders, who rightly suspected that he was intriguing in his own interests rather than theirs. He had also made Agis, one of Sparta's two kings, into a powerful enemy by seducing his wife.2 Alcibiades' promises helped the oligarchical sympathizers in Athens to play on the assembly's hopes by holding out the lure of Persian gold. In 411 they succeeded in having the assembly members turn over all power to a group of four hundred men,3 hoping that this smaller body would provide better guidance for foreign policy in the war and improve Athens' finances. These four hundred were supposed to choose five thousand to act as the city's ultimate governing body, but they in fact kept all power in their own hands. The oligarchic regime did not last long, however. In Athens, the oligarchs soon lost their unity in struggling with each other for dominance. In the Athenian fleet, which was currently stationed in the harbor of the island city-state of Samos4, a staunch ally of democractic Athens, the crews threatened to sail home to restore democracy by force unless the oligarchs stepped aside. In response, a mixed democracy and oligarchy called the constitution of the Five Thousand was created,5 which Thucydides praised as “the best form of government that the Athenians had known, at least in my time.”This new government voted to recall Alcibiades and others in exile6 in the hope that they could improve Athenian military leadership.

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