Debates over the relationship between an armed citizen body and the possibility of government tyranny dominate current American political discourse. The rhetoric on both sides of the issue often centers on the Second Amendment and the intentions and political philosophies of the framers of the Constitution. The founding fathers’ political theories, however, were greatly influenced by their interpretations of ancient Greek and Roman history (Wiltshire 1992; Richard 1994), especially the frequency and intensity of stasis in Greek city-states (e.g. the preface to John Adams’ Defence of the U.S. Constitution).
The goal of my paper is therefore to examine the history of ancient Greek citizen disarmament and its ideological connection with the ideas of tyranny and political freedom. Scholars have long identified the connection between tyrants or tyrannical oligarchic groups and disarmament. For example, Berger (1992: 88-89) notes the regularity of arms confiscation by Sicilian tyrants. Likewise, one of the actions that made the “Thirty Tyrants” of Athens so tyrannical was their confiscation of everyone’s weapons except the Three Thousand’s. This paper takes a comprehensive approach and builds on these isolated treatments in order to review the range of ideas and attitudes expressed by Greek writers towards the practice of citizen disarmament. It begins with a brief overview of the historical evidence for weapon confiscations from episodes described in the writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aeneas Tacticus, Aristotle, and Diodorus Siculus. The second section of the paper then traces the idea of a direct relationship between arms confiscation and tyranny (or slavery) and its corollary, arms possession and freedom, in the texts of three influential Greek writers: Lysias, Xenophon, and Aristotle. In his speech against the former oligarch Eratosthenes, Lysias invites the jury members who were at Piraeus to “remember the arms” (τῶν ὅπλων ἀναμνήσθητε, 12.95) and how the Thirty snatched them away, which led to banishments, massacres, and outrages committed against the families of many Athenians. Xenophon explores weapon possession and freedom in his Cyropaedia through Cyrus’ attitudes towards the recently conquered Babylonians. Cyrus justifies his decision to disarm the Babylonian citizens on the grounds that the art and practice of war have been given by the gods as “the means for freedom and happiness” (ἐλευθερίας ταῦτα ὄργανα καὶ εὐδαιμονίας, 7.5.79). He advises his fellow Persians for this reason to remain close to their own weapons, since “those who remain nearest to their arms are also the closest to whatever they desire” (τοῖς ἀεὶ ἐγγυτάτω τῶν ὅπλων οὖσι τούτοις καὶ οἰκειότατά ἐστιν ἃ ἂν βούλωνται). Finally, Aristotle connects both control over the government with the possession of arms and tyrants and oligarchs with disarmament in his Politics. For example, he writes in Book Seven that those who control the weapons have the power to decide whether or not the constitution will change (οἱ γὰρ τῶν ὅπλων κύριοι καὶ τοῦ μένειν ἢ μὴ μένειν κύριοι τὴν πολιτείαν, 1329a) and in Book Five that both tyrants and oligarchs distrust the demos and so they deprive them of their arms (διὸ καὶ τὴν παραίρεσιν ποιοῦνται τῶν ὅπλων, 1311a).
For those who put political importance on the discourse of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, it becomes critically important to understand the relationship between citizen disarmament and political freedom imparted to them from the ancient Greek literature they studied and admired. Their ideas about the relationship between arms-bearing and freedom came out of their own readings of ancient Greek history, a context which should be remembered in contemporary political discourse as well.