‘Gun Control’ and the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Very interesting post at the New Yorker‘s Culture Desk by Melissa Lane … here’s a bit in medias res:

The pioneers of citizen armies were also pioneers of withdrawing weapons from the places of civilized life. The ancient Greek armies were manned exclusively by citizens who brought their own weapons into battle. Getting to serve in an élite combat unit required being wealthy enough to afford to buy one’s own armor. It was this vision of citizen militias, further developed by the Romans, that went on to inspire the English revolutionaries of the seventeenth century and the American revolutionaries of the eighteenth—so shaping the values expressed in the Second Amendment.

Nevertheless, when one early-nineteenth-century American reflected on what the new American Republic could learn from the ancient Greeks, he drew attention to another feature that was widespread in their politics: refraining from carrying weapons in public spaces. In some cities, this was a matter of custom, in others it was a matter of law. Citizens carried their weapons abroad when serving in the military for public defense. But, even in these cities, it was believed that carrying weapons at home would be tantamount to letting weapons, not laws, rule.

This point is emphasized in a study of ancient-Greek laws attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though apparently composed by the founding editor of the Western Minerva, who published it in 1820. The laws, the author insisted, “apply with peculiar energy and propriety to the circumstances of the United States.” Number fifteen in this collection of a hundred “principles of political wisdom,” drawn from the school of Pythagoras, legislators for Greek settlements on the Italian mainland, was this: “Let the laws rule alone. When weapons rule, they kill the law.”

This is the opposite of the view attributed to the Founding Fathers by the N.R.A.’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, in 2009, when he said that “our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.” On the contrary, letting the guys with weapons make the rules of ordinary life was the opposite of the classical practices that inspired the American founders. Writing of the evolution of Greek societies in the first book of his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” the Greek historian Thucydides reported that the Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons. Whereas men in all Greek societies used to carry arms at home, this had been a sign of an uncivilized era of piracy in which the most powerful men could dominate all the rest. Laying aside the everyday wearing of weapons was part of what Thucydides believed had allowed Athens to become fully civilized, developing the commerce and culture that made her the envy of the Greek world. The Romans, too, banned the carrying of weapons within the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city.

The banning of carrying weapons in public was based on the idea that civilized coexistence could not tolerate public spaces that were dominated by those wearing weapons, on pain of intimidating those around them. Apart from the physical risks posed, such intimidation would inherently undermine civic equality. It is hard for the unarmed to argue with the armed. Key to civil society was that citizen-warriors put their weapons in storage when they returned to everyday social and political life.

… definitely worth reading the whole thing. I suspect this question comes up frequently in Classical Civ type classes …

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One thought on “‘Gun Control’ and the Ancient Greeks and Romans

  1. I would argue that, in ancient Greek times, carrying a weapon was almost exclusively for the already strong. Swords were no joke, and javelins and spears weren’t easy to learn to throw. Women, children and the elderly were automatically excluded from that club (and were still subject to being dominated by the strong.) These laws were meant to keep the strong (young makes) from threatening the other strong (young males.)

    Firearms don’t have that issue and, in the case of a woman/elderly vs. a young man, it actually equalizes the fight in a way that was never possible in ancient Greece.

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