The Athenian democracy (sometimes called classical democracy) was the democratic system developed in the Greek city-state of Athens (comprising the central city-state of Athens and its surrounding territory Attica). Athens was one of the very first known democracies and probably the most important in ancient times. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most but not all following an Athenian model, but none were as powerful or as stable (or, relatively speaking, as well-documented) as that of Athens. It remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Participation was by no means open to all inhabitants of Attica, but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a scale that was truly phenomenal. Never before had so many people spent so much of their time in governing themselves.

Solon (around 590 BC), Cleisthenes (508 BC), and Ephialtes of Athens (462 BC) all contributed to the development of Athenian democracy. Historians differ on which of them was responsible for which institutions, and which of them most represented a truly democratic movement. It is most usual to date Athenian democracy from Cleisthenes, since Solon's constitution broke down and was replaced by the dictator Pisistratus, whereas Ephialtes revised Cleisthenes' constitution relatively peacefully. The end of the Pisistratid tyranny was later attributed to the assassination of Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, honored in later years by the Athenians for their alleged restoration of Athenian freedom. The assassination took place four years before the revolution; although the increased severity of the dictatorship may have destabilized it. They were particularly popular with the aristocratic opponents of democracy.

The greatest and longest-lasting democratic leader was Pericles; after his death, Athenian democracy was twice briefly interrupted by oligarchic revolution towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts are of this fourth-century modification rather than the Periclean system. It was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 BC. The Athenian institutions were later revived, but the extent to which they were a real democracy is debatable.

Etymology[edit | edit source]

The word "democracy" combines the elements demos (which means "people") and kratos ("force, power"). Kratos is an unexpectedly brutish word. In the words "monarchy" and "oligarchy", the second element arche means rule, leading, or being first. It is possible that the term "democracy" was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of, so to speak, a valid "demarchy". Whatever its original tone, the term was adopted wholeheartedly by Athenian democrats.

The word is attested in Herodotus, who wrote some of the earliest Greek prose to survive, but even this may not have been before 440 or 430 BC. It is not at all certain that the word goes back to the beginning of the democracy, but from around 460 BC[citation needed] at any rate an individual is known whose parents had decided to name him 'Democrates', a name which may have been manufactured as a gesture of democratic loyalty; the name can also be found in Aeolian Temnus, not a particularly democratic state.[1]


Participation and exclusion[edit | edit source]

Size and make-up of the Athenian population[edit | edit source]

The population of Attica can only be roughly guessed at as the Athenians themselves never conducted a complete census. Numbers of slaves and metics (resident aliens) in particular will have fluctuated. During the 4th century BC, the population of Athens may well have comprised some 250,000—300,000 people. Citizen families may have amounted to 100,000 people and out of these some 30,000 will have been the adult male citizens entitled to vote in the assembly. In the mid-5th century the number of adult male citizens was perhaps as high as 60,000, but this number fell precipitously during the Peloponnesian war. This slump was permanent due to the introduction of a stricter definition of citizen described below. From a modern perspective these figures seem pitifully small, but in the world of Greek city-states Athens was huge: most of the thousand or so Greek cities could only muster 1000-1500 adult male citizens and Corinth, a major power, had at most 15,000.

The non-citizen component of the population was divided between metics and slaves, with the latter perhaps somewhat more numerous. Around 338 BC the orator Hyperides (fragment 13) claimed that there were 150,000 slaves in Attica, but this figure is probably not more than an impression: slaves outnumbered those of citizen stock but did not swamp them.

Citizenship in Athens[edit | edit source]

Only adult male Athenian citizens who had completed their military training as ephebes – effectively twenty years and over – had the right to vote in Athens. This excluded a majority of the population, namely slaves, children, women and resident foreigners (metics). Also disallowed citizens whose rights were under suspension (typically for failure to pay a debt to the city: see atimia); for some Athenians this amounted to permanent (and in fact inheritable) disqualification. Still, in contrast with oligarchical societies, there were no real property requirements limiting access. (The property classes of Solon's constitution remained on the books, but they were a dead letter). Given the exclusionary and ancestral conception of citizenship held by Greek city-states, a relatively large portion of the population took part in the government of Athens and of other radical democracies like it. At Athens some citizens were far more active than others, but the vast numbers required just for the system to work testify to a breadth of participation among those eligible that greatly exceeded any present day democracy. Athenian citizens had to be legitimately descended from citizens—after the reforms of Pericles in 450 BC on both sides of the family, excluding the children of Athenian men and foreign women. Although the legislation was not retrospective, five years later the Athenians removed 5000 from the citizen registers when a free gift of grain arrived for all citizens from an Egyptian king. Citizenship could be granted by the assembly and was sometimes given to large groups (Plateans in 427 BC, Samians in 405 BC), but by the 4th century only to individuals and by a special vote with a quorum of 6000. This was generally done as a reward for some service to the state. In the course of a century the numbers involved were in the hundreds rather than thousands. This reflected the general conception of the polis as a community, somewhat like an extended family, rather than as a territorial state.

Main bodies of governance[edit | edit source]

There were three political bodies where citizens gathered in numbers running into the hundreds or thousands. These are the assembly (in some cases with a quorum of 6000), the council of 500 (boule) and the courts (a minimum of 200 people, but running at least on some occasions up to 6000, when Heliaia sited on plenary session). Of these three bodies it is the assembly and the courts that were the true sites of power — although courts, unlike the assembly, were never simply called the demos (the People) as they were manned by a subset of the citizen body, those over thirty. But crucially citizens voting in both were not liable to review and prosecution as were council members and all other officeholders. In the 5th century BC we often hear of the assembly sitting as a court of judgement itself for trials of political importance and it is not a coincidence that 6000 is the number both for the full quorum for the assembly and for the annual pool from which jurors were picked for particular trials. By the mid-4th century however the assembly's judicial functions were largely curtailed, though it always kept a role in the initiation of various kinds of political trial.

Assembly[edit | edit source]

The central events of the Athenian democracy were the meetings of the assembly (Template:Polytonic ekklesia). Unlike a parliament, the assembly's 'members' were not elected, but attended by right when and if they chose. Greek democracy created at Athens was a direct, not a representative democracy: any adult male citizen over the age of 18[citation needed] could take part, and it was a duty to do so. The officials of the democracy were in part chosen by the Assembly and in large part elected by lot.

The ecclesia had at least four functions: it made executive pronouncements (decrees, such as deciding to go to war or granting citizenship to a foreigner); it elected some officials; it legislated; and it tried political crimes. As the system evolved these last two functions were shifted to the law courts. The standard format was that of speakers making speeches for and against a position followed by a general vote (usually by show of hands) of yes or no. Though there might be blocs of opinion, sometimes enduring, on crucial issues, there were no political parties and likewise no government or opposition (as in the Westminster system). In effect, the 'government' was whatever speaker(s) the assembly agreed with on a particular day. Voting was by simple majority. In the 5th century at least there were scarcely any limits on the power exercised by the assembly. If the assembly broke the law, the only thing that might happen is that they would punish those who had made the proposal that they had agreed to. If a mistake had been made, from their viewpoint it could only be because they had been 'misled'.

As usual in ancient democracies, one had to physically attend a gathering in order to vote. Military service or simple distance prevented the exercise of citizenship. Voting was usually by show of hands (cheirŏtonĭa, "arm stretching") with officials 'judging' the outcome by sight. With thousands of people attending, counting was impossible. For a small category of votes a quorum of 6000 was required, principally grants of citizenship, and here coloured balls were used, white for yes and black for no. Probably at the end of the session, each voter tossed one of these into a large clay jar which was afterwards cracked open for the counting of the ballots. (Ostracism required the voters to scratch names onto pieces of broken pottery, though this did not occur within the assembly as such.)

In the 5th century BC, there were 10 fixed assembly meetings per year, one in each of the ten state months, with other meetings called as needed. In the following century the meetings were set to forty a year, with four in each state month. (One of these was now called the main meeting, kyria ekklesia.) Additional meetings might still be called, especially as up until 355 BC there were still political trials that were conducted in the assembly rather than in court. The assembly meetings did not occur at fixed intervals, as they had to dodge the annual festivals that were differently placed in each of the twelve lunar months. There was also a tendency for the four meetings to bunch up toward the end of each state month.

Attendance at the assembly was voluntary. In the 5th century public slaves forming a cordon with a red-stained rope herded citizens from the agora into the assembly meeting place (pnyx), with a fine for those who got the red on their clothes. This, however, cannot compare with the compulsory voting schemes of some modern democracies. It was rather an immediate measure to get enough people rapidly in place, like an aggressive form of ushering. After the restoration of the democracy in 403 BC, pay for assembly attendance was introduced for the first time. At this there was a new enthusiasm for assembly meetings. Only the first 6000 to arrive were admitted and paid, with the red rope now used to keep latecomers at bay. These two uses of the red rope are known from Aristophanes's comedy Acharnians 17-22, the forcing in, and his Ekklesiazousai 378-9 for the keeping out.

Council of 500[edit | edit source]

The council (boule) of 500, the largest board of officeholders, was responsible for drafting preparatory legislation for consideration by the assembly, overseeing the meetings of the assembly, and in certain cases executing legislation as directed by the assembly. The 500 were selected by a lottery, held each year among the men over thirty years of age.[2] A citizen could serve on the council twice in their lifetime.

The duty of drafting legislation for the assembly to consider was known as the "probouleumatic power", after the probouleuma, or agenda for a meeting of an assembly, that the council prepared. Ordinary citizens could suggest proposals to members of the boule, but to enter the assembly's agenda they had to be sponsored by a member;[3] the assembly, on the other hand, could order the boule to prepare a probouleuma on a topic of its choosing.[4] Technically it was forbidden for the assembly to make a final decision on any matter that had not been previously considered by the council.[5] These might be concrete, worked-out proposals or 'open' proposals, that is, little more than items on the agenda. In early Athens (as in other Greek states) the assembly could only vote up or down on a probouleuma, but by the mid 5th century it had acquired the power to alter and rework the proposals as it saw fit; still, even in the heyday of radical democracy, complex proposals from the boule were known to pass through the assembly all but untouched, indicating the important role that the body played in shaping legislation.[6]

The presidency of the boule rotated monthly amongst the ten prytanies, or delegations from the ten Cleisthenic tribes, of the Boule (there were ten months in the Hellenic calendar year). The epitastes, an official selected by lot for a single day from among the currently presiding prytany, chaired that day's meeting or the boule and, if there was one, that day's meeting of the assembly;[7] he also held the keys to the treasury and the seal to the city, and welcomed foreign ambassadors. It has been calculated that one quarter of all citizens must at one time in their lives have held the post, which could be held only once in a lifetime.

The boule also served as an executive committee for the assembly, and oversaw the activities of certain other magistrates. The boule coordinated the activities of the various boards and magistrates that carried out the administrative functions of Athens and provided from its own membership randomly selected boards of ten responsible for areas ranging from naval affairs to religious observances.[8] Altogether, the boule was responsible for a great portion of the administration of the state, but was granted relatively little latitude for initiative; the boule's control over policy was executed in its probouleutic, rather than its executive function; in the latter, it merely executed the wishes of the assembly.[9]

Courts[edit | edit source]

Athens had an elaborate legal system centred on the dikasteria of Heliaia or jury courts: the word is derived from dikastes, 'judge/juror', also called heliasts. These jury courts were manned by large panels selected by lot from an annual pool of 6,000 citizens, otherwise called Heliaia (Greek: ἡλιαία). To be eligible to serve as juror, a citizen had to be over 30 years of age and in possession of full citizen rights (see atimia). The age limit, the same as that for office holders but ten years older than that required for participation in the assembly, gave the courts a certain standing in relation to the assembly: for the Athenians older was wiser. Added to this was the fact that jurors were under oath, which was not a feature of attendance at the assembly. However, the authority exercised by the courts had the same basis as that of the assembly: both were regarded as expressing the direct will of the people. Unlike office holders (magistrates) who could be impeached and prosecuted for misconduct, the jurors could not be censured, for they, in effect, were the people and no authority could be higher than that. A corollary of this was that, at least in words spoken before the jurors, if a court had made an unjust decision, it must have been because it had been misled by a litigant

Essentially there were two grades of suit, a smaller kind known as dike or private suit, and a larger kind known as graphe or public suit. For private suits the minimum jury size was 201 (increased to 401 if a sum of over 1000 drachmas was at issue), for public suits 501. For particularly important public suits the jury could be increased by adding in extra allotments of 500. One thousand and 1500 are regularly encountered as jury sizes and on at least one occasion, the first time a new kind of case was brought to court (see graphe paranomon), all 6,000 members of the juror pool were put onto the one case.

The cases were put by the litigants themselves in the form of an exchange of single speeches timed by water clock, first prosecutor then defendant. In a public suit the litigants each had three hours to speak, much less in private suits (though here it was in proportion to the amount of money at stake). Decisions were made by voting without any time set aside for deliberation. Nothing, however, stopped jurors from talking informally amongst themselves during the voting procedure and juries could be rowdy shouting out their disapproval or disbelief of things said by the litigants. This may have had some role in building a consensus. The jury could only cast a 'yes' or 'no' vote as to the guilt and sentence of the defendant. For private suits only the victims or their families could prosecute, while for public suits anyone (ho boulomenos, 'whoever wants to' i.e. any citizen with full citizen rights) could bring a case since the issues in these major suits were regarded as affecting the community as a whole.

Justice was rapid: a case could last no longer than one day. Some convictions triggered an automatic penalty, but where this was not the case the two litigants each proposed a penalty for the convicted defendant and the jury chose between them in a further vote. No appeal was possible. There was however a mechanism for prosecuting the witnesses of a successful prosecutor, which it appears could lead to the undoing of the earlier verdict.

Payment for jurors was introduced around 462 BC and is ascribed to Pericles, a feature described by Aristotle as fundamental to radical democracy (Politics 1294a37). Pay was raised from 2 to 3 obols by Cleon early in the Peloponnesian war and there it stayed; the original amount is not known. Notably this was introduced more than fifty years before payment for attendance at assembly meetings. Running the courts was one of the major expenses of the Athenian state and there were moments of financial crisis in the 4th century when the courts, at least for private suits, had to be suspended.

The system shows a marked anti-professionalism. No judges presided over the courts nor was there anyone to give legal direction to the jurors, as the magistrates in charge of the courts had only an administrative function and were themselves in any case amateurs (most of the annual magistracies at Athens could only be held once in a lifetime). There were no lawyers as such, but the litigants acted solely in their capacity as citizens. Whatever professionalism there was tended to disguise itself: it was possible to pay for the services of a speechwriter (logographos) but this was not advertised in court (except as something your opponent in court has had to resort to), and even politically prominent litigants made some show of disowning special expertise.

These juries formed a second site for the expression of popular sovereignty: as in the assembly, citizens acting as jurors acted as the people and were immune from review or punishment. (Notably when the jurors are addressed by speakers as "you", they can be referred to as having committed any act ever committed by the 'Athenian people', such as battles fought before any of them were born or court decisions made by other juries whose membership may have had no overlap with those currently addressed.) Jurors however had a minimum age of 30 and they were under oath. From an Athenian perspective, where the young are rash and age brings wisdom and where an oath is a serious matter, both of these requirements gave jurors more weight than the citizens attending the assembly. Here only the legislative function of courts will be described, though this by no means exhausts the relevance of the courts to the workings of the democracy

Shifting balance between Assembly and Courts[edit | edit source]

As the system evolved, the courts (that is, citizens under another guise) intruded upon the power of the assembly. From 355 BC political trials were no longer held in the assembly, but only in a court. In 416 BC the graphe paranomon ("indictment against measures contrary to the laws") was introduced. Under this anything passed by the assembly or even proposed but not yet voted on, could be put on hold for review before a jury — which might annul it and perhaps punish the proposer as well. Remarkably, it seems that a measure blocked before the assembly voted on it did not need to go back to the assembly if it survived the court challenge: the court was enough to validate it. Once again it is important to bear in mind the lack of 'neutral' state intervention. To give a schematic scenario by way of illustration: two men have clashed in the assembly about a proposal put by one of them; it passed, and now the two of them go to court with the loser in the assembly prosecuting both the law and its proposer. The quantity of these suits was enormous: in effect the courts became a kind of upper house.

In the 5th century there was in effect no procedural difference between an executive decree and a law: they were both simply passed by the assembly. But from 403 BC they were set sharply apart. Henceforth laws were made not in the assembly, but by special panels of 1000 citizens drawn from the annual jury pool of 6000. They were known as the nomothetai, the lawmakers. Here again it is not anything like a legislative commission sitting down to discuss the pros and cons and drafting proposals, but the format is that of a trial, voting yes or no after a clash of speeches.

Citizen-initiator[edit | edit source]

The institutions sketched above — assembly, officeholders, council, courts — are incomplete without the figure that drove the whole system, Ho boulomenos, he who wishes, or anyone who wishes. This expression encapsulated the right of citizens to take the initiative: to stand to speak in the assembly, to initiate a public law suit (that is, one held to affect the political community as a whole), to propose a law before the lawmakers or to approach the council with suggestions. Unlike officeholders, the citizen initiator was not vetted before taking up office or automatically reviewed after stepping down — it had after all no set tenure and might be an action lasting only a moment. But any stepping forward into the democratic limelight was risky and if someone chose (another citizen initiator) they could be called to account for their actions and punished.

The degree of participation among citizens varied greatly, along a spectrum from doing virtually nothing towards something like a fulltime committent. But for even the most active citizen the formal basis of his political activity was the invitation issued to everyone (every qualified free male Athenian citizen) by the phrase "whoever wishes". There are then three functions: the officeholders organized and saw to the complex protocols; Ho boulomenos was the initiator and the proposer of content; and finally the people, massed in assembly or court or convened as lawmakers, made the decisions, either yes or no, or choosing between alternatives.

Officeholders[edit | edit source]

Administration was in the hands of officeholders, over a thousand each year. They were mostly chosen by lot, with a much smaller (and more prestigious) group elected. Neither was compulsory; individuals had to nominate themselves for both selection methods. By and large the power exercised by these officials was routine administration and quite limited. In particular, those chosen by lot were citizens acting without particular expertise. This was almost inevitable since, with the notable exception of the generals (strategoi), each office could be held by the same person only once. Part of the ethos of democracy, however, was the building of general competence by ongoing involvement. In the 5th century version of the democracy, the ten annually elected generals were often very prominent, but for those who had power, it lay primarily in their frequent speeches and in the respect accorded them in the assembly, rather than their vested powers. While citizens voting in the assembly were the people and so were free of review or punishment, those same citizens when holding an office served the people and could be punished very severely. All of them were subject to a review beforehand that might disqualify them for office and an examination after stepping down. Officeholders were the agents of the people, not their representatives.

Citizens active as office holders served in a quite different capacity from when they voted in the assembly or served as jurors. The assembly and the courts were regarded as the instantiation of the people of Athens: they were the people, no power was above them and they could not be reviewed, impeached or punished. However, when an Athenian took up an office, he was regarded as 'serving' the people. As such, he could be regarded as failing in his duty and be punished for it. There were two methods of selecting people as officeholders, lottery or election. Something like 1100 citizens (including the members of the council of 500) held office each year and about a 100 of these were elected.

Selection by lot (Allotment)[edit | edit source]

Selection by lottery was the standard means as it was regarded as the more democratic: elections will favour those who are rich, noble, eloquent and well-known, while allotment spreads the work of administration throughout the whole citizen body, engaging them in the crucial democratic experience of, to use Aristotle's words, "ruling and being ruled in turn" (Politics 1317b28-30). The allotment of an individual was based on citizenship rather than merit or any form of personal popularity which could be bought. Allotment therefore was seen as a means to prevent the corrupt purchase of votes and it gave citizens a unique form of political equality as all had an equal chance of obtaining government office.

Individuals who were interested in holding office had to nominate themselves as available for selection the year before. Officeholders were paid a stipend, but it was intended as a small sum to cover loss of income fixed at the lowest end of the scale. That is, virtually anyone able to work could earn more elsewhere. Payment is confirmed for the 5th century; was cancelled under the oligarchs in 404; may or may not have been restored after democracy was reinstituted.

The random assignment of responsibility to individuals who may or may not be competent has obvious risks, but the system included features meant to obviate possible problems. Athenians selected for office served as teams (boards, panels). In a group someone will know the right way to do things and those that do not may learn from those that do. During the period of holding a particular office everyone on the team is observing everybody else. There were however officials such as the nine archons, who while seemingly a board carried out very different functions from each other.

There were in fact some limitations on who could hold office. Age restrictions were in place with thirty (and in some cases forty) years as a minimum, rendering something like a third of the adult citizen body ineligible at any one time. An unknown proportion of citizens were also subject to disenfranchisement (atimia), excluding some of them permanently and others temporarily (depending on the type). Furthermore, all citizens selected were reviewed before taking up office (dokimasia) at which they might be disqualified. Competence does not seem to have been the main issue, but rather, at least in the 4th century BC, whether they were loyal democrats or had oligarchic tendencies. After leaving office they were subject to a scrutiny (euthunai, literally 'straightenings') to review their performance. Both of these processes were in most cases brief and formulaic, but they opened up in the possibility, if some citizen wanted to take some matter up, of a contest before a jury court. In the case of a scrutiny going to trial, there was the risk for the former officeholder of suffering severe penalties. Finally, even during his period of office, any officeholder could be impeached and removed from office by the assembly. In each of the ten "main meetings" (kuriai ekklesiai) a year, the question was explicitly raised in the assembly agenda: were the office holders carrying out their duties correctly?

No office appointed by lot could be held twice by the same individual. The only exception was the boule or council of 500. In this case, simply by demographic necessity, an individual could serve twice in a lifetime. This principle extended down to the secretaries and undersecretaries who served as assistants to magistrates such as the archons. To the Athenians it seems what had to be guarded against was not incompetence but any tendency to use office as a way of accumulating ongoing power.

The powers of officials were precisely defined and their capacity for initiative limited. They administered rather than governed. When it came to penal sanctions, no officeholder could impose a fine over fifty drachmas. Anything higher had to go before a court.

Elected[edit | edit source]

Something like a hundred officials out of around a thousand were elected rather than chosen by lot. There were two main categories in this group: those required to handle large sums of money, and the 10 generals, the strategoi. One reason that financial officials were elected was that any money embezzled could be recovered from their estates; election in general strongly favoured the rich, but in this case wealth was virtually a prerequisite.

Generals were elected not only because their role required expert knowledge but also because they needed to be people with experience and contacts in the wider Greek world where wars were fought. In the 5th century BC, principally as seen through the figure of Pericles, the generals could be among the most powerful people in the polis. Yet in the case of Pericles it is wrong to see his power as coming from his long series of annual generalships (each year along with nine others). His office holding was rather an expression and a result of the influence he wielded. That influence was based on his relation with the assembly, a relation that in the first instance lay simply in the right of any citizen to stand and speak before the people. Under the 4th century version of democracy the roles of general and of key political speaker in the assembly tended to be filled by different persons. In part this was a consequence of the increasingly specialised forms of warfare practiced in the later period.

Elected officials too were subject to review before holding office and scrutiny after office. And they too could be removed from office any time the assembly met. In one case from the 5th century BC the 10 treasurers of the Delian league (the hellenotamiai) were accused at their scrutinies of misappropriation of funds. Put on trial, they were condemned and executed one by one until before the trial of the tenth and last an error of accounting was discovered, allowing him to go free. (Antiphon 5.69-70)

Individualism in Athenian democracy[edit | edit source]

Another interesting insight into Athenian democracy comes from the law that excluded from decisions of war those citizens who had property close to the city walls - on the basis that they had a personal interest in the outcome of such debates because the practice of an invading army was at the time to destroy the land outside the walls. A good example of the contempt the first democrats felt for those who did not participate in politics can be found in the modern word 'idiot', which finds its origins in the ancient Greek word Template:Polytonic (idiōtēs), meaning a private person, a person who is not actively interested in politics; such characters were talked about with contempt and the word eventually acquired its modern meaning. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles states: 'it is only us who regard the one not participating in these duties not as unambitious but as useless.'

Criticism of the democracy[edit | edit source]

Athenian democracy has had many critics, both ancient and modern. Modern critics are more likely to find fault with the narrow definition of the citizen body, but in the ancient world the complaint if anything went in the opposite direction. Ancient authors were almost invariably from an elite background for whom giving poor and uneducated people power over their betters seemed a reversal of the proper, rational order of society. For them the demos in democracy meant not the whole people, but the people as opposed to the elite. Instead of seeing it as a fair system under which 'everyone' has equal rights, they saw it as the numerically preponderant poor tyrannising over the rich. They viewed society like a modern stock company: democracy is like a company where all shareholders have an equal say regardless of the scale of their holding; one share or ten thousand, it makes no difference. They regarded this as manifestly unjust. In Aristotle this is categorised as the difference between 'arithmetic' and 'geometric' (i.e. proportional) equality. Democracy was far from being the normal style of governance and the beliefs on which it was based were in effect a minority opinion. Those writing in later centuries generally had no direct experience of democracy themselves.

To its ancient detractors the democracy was reckless and arbitrary. They had some signal instances to point to, especially from the long years of the Peloponnesian War.

  • In 406 BC, after years of defeats in the wake of the annihilation of their vast invasion force in Sicily, the Athenians at last won a naval victory at Arginusae over the Spartans. After the battle a storm arose and the eight generals in command failed to collect survivors: the Athenians sentenced all of them to death. Technically, it was illegal, as the generals were tried and sentenced together, rather than one by one as Athenian law required. Socrates happened to be the citizen presiding over the assembly that day and refused to cooperate, though to little effect. Standing against the idea that it was outrageous for the people to be unable to do whatever they wanted. Later they repented the executions, but made up for it by executing those who had accused the generals before them. (A long account in Xenophon Hellenica 1.7.1-35)
  • Years earlier, the ten treasurers of the Delian league (Hellenotamiai) had been accused of embezzlement. They were tried and executed one after the other until, when only one was still alive, the accounting error was discovered and that last surviving treasurer was acquitted. Perfectly legal in this case, but an example of the extreme severity with which the people could punish those who served them. (Antiphon 5.69-70)
  • In 399 BC Socrates himself was put on trial and executed for 'corrupting the young and believing in strange gods'. His death gave Europe its first ever intellectual hero and martyr, but guaranteed the democracy an eternity of bad press at the hands of his disciple and enemy to democracy Plato. In the Gorgias written years later Plato has Socrates contemplating the possibility of himself on trial before the Athenians: he says he would be like a doctor prosecuted by a pastry chef before a jury of children.

Two coups briefly interrupted democratic rule during the Peloponnesian war, both named by the numbers in control: the Four Hundred in 411 BC and the Thirty in 404 BC. The focus on number speaks to the drive behind each of them: to reduce the size of the electorate by linking the franchise with property qualifications. Though both ended up as rogue governments and did not follow through on their constitutional promises, they began as responses from the Athenian elite to what they saw as the inherent arbitrariness of government by the masses. (Plato in the Seventh Epistle does remark that the Thirty made the preceding democratic regime look like a Golden Age.)

Whether the democratic failures should be seen as systematic, or as a product of the extreme conditions of the Peloponnesian war, there does seem to have been a move toward correction. A new version of democracy was established from 403 BC, but it can be linked with both earlier and subsequent reforms (graphe paranomon 416 BC; end of assembly trials 355 BC). For the first time a conceptual and procedural distinction was made between laws and decrees. Increasingly, responsibility was shifted from the assembly to the courts, with laws being made by jurors and all assembly decisions becoming reviewable by courts. That is to say, the mass meeting of all citizens lost some ground to smaller gatherings (of only a thousand or so!) which were under oath, free of men in their impetuous 20's and with more time to focus on just one matter (though never more than a day). One downside was that the new democracy was less capable of rapid response.

Another tack of criticism is to notice the disquieting links between democracy and a number of less than appealing features of Athenian life. Although it predated it by over thirty years, democracy is strongly bound up with Athenian imperialism. For much of the 5th century at least democracy fed off an empire of subject states. Thucydides the son of Milesias (not the historian), an aristocrat, stood in opposition to these policies, for which he was ostracised in 443 BC. At times the imperialist democracy acted with extreme brutality, as in the decision to execute the entire male population of Melos and sell off its woman and children simply for refusing to became subjects of Athens. The common people were numerically dominant in the navy, which they used to pursue their own interests in the form of work as rowers and in the hundreds of overseas administrative positions. Further they used the income from empire to fund payment for officeholding. This is the position set out by the anti-democratic pamphlet known whose anonymous author is often called the Old Oligarch. On the other hand the empire was, more or less, defunct in the 4th century BC so it cannot be said that it was democracy was not viable without it. Only then in fact was payment for assembly attendance, the central event of democracy. (Similarly for the period before the Persian wars, but for the very early democracy the sources are very meagre and it can be thought of as being in an embryonic state.)

A case can be made that discriminatory lines came to be drawn more sharply under Athenian democracy than before or elsewhere, in particular in relation to woman and slaves, as well as in the line between citizens and non-citizens. By so strongly validating one role, that of the male citizen, it has been argued that democracy compromised the status of those who did not share it.

  • Male citizenship had become a newly valuable, indeed profitable, possession, to be jealously guarded. Under Pericles in 450 BC restrictions were tightened so that a citizen had to be born from citizen parentage on both sides. Metroxenoi, those with foreign mothers, were now to be excluded. Traditionally for the poorer citizens local marriage was the norm, while the elite had been much more likely to marry abroad as a part of aristocratic alliance building. A habit of one group in society was thus codified as a law for the whole citizen body, which thus lost one axis of openness. Many Athenians prominent earlier in the century would have lost citizenship, had this law applied to them: Cleisthenes, the founder of democracy, had a non-Athenian mother, and the mothers of Cimon and Themistocles were not Greek at all, but Thracian. As Athens attracted an increasing number of resident aliens (metics), this shift in the definition of citizen worked to keep the immigrant population more sharply distinguished politically.
  • Likewise the status of women seems lower in Athens than in many Greek cities. At Sparta women competed in public exercise — so in Aristophanes' Lysistrata the Athenian women admire the tanned, muscular bodies of their Spartan counterparts — and women could own property in their own right, as they could not at Athens. Misogyny was by no means an Athenian invention, but it has been claimed that in regard to gender democracy generalised a harsher set of values derived, again, from the common people. Democracy may well have been impossible without the contribution of women's labour (Hansen 1987: 318).
  • Slavery was more widespread at Athens than in other Greek cities. Indeed the extensive use of imported non-Greeks ("barbarians") as chattel slaves seems to have been an Athenian development. This triggers the parodoxical question: Was democracy "based on" slavery? It does seem clear that possession of slaves allowed even poorer Athenians — owning a few slaves was by no means equated with wealth — to devote more of their time to political life. But whether democracy depended on this extra time is impossible to say. The breadth of slave ownership also meant that the leisure of the rich (the small minority who were actually free of the need to work) rested less than it would have on the exploitation of their less well-off fellow citizens. Working for wages was clearly regarded as subjection to the will of another, but at least debt servitude had been abolished at Athens (under the reforms of Solon at the start of the 6th century BC). By allowing a new kind of equality among citizens this opened the way to democracy, which in turn called for a new means, chattel slavery, to at least partially equalise the availability of leisure between rich and poor. In the absence of reliable statistics all these connections remain speculative. However, as Cornelius Castoriadis pointed out, other societies also kept slaves, yet did not develop democracy. Even with respect to slavery the new citizen law of 450 BC may have had effect: it is speculated that originally Athenian fathers had been able to register for citizenship offspring had with slave women (Hansen 1987:53). This will have rested on an older, less categorical sense of what it meant to be a slave.

Contemporary opponents of majoritarianism (arguably the principle behind Athenian democracy) call it an illiberal regime (in contrast to liberal democracy) that allegedly leads to anomie, balkanization and xenophobia. Proponents (especially of majoritarianism) deny these accusations, and argue that any faults in Athenian democracy were due to the fact that the franchise was quite limited (only male citizens could vote - women, slaves and non-citizens were excluded). Despite this limited franchise, Athenian democracy was certainly the first - and perhaps the best - example of a working direct democracy. DO YOU TRUST ME? WELL YOU SHOULDN'T

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • Hansen M.H. 1987, The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes. Oxford.
  • Hignett, Charles. A History of the Athenian Constitution (Oxford, 1962) ISBN 0-19-814213-7
  • Manville B. and J. Ober 2003, A company of citizens : what the world's first democracy teaches leaders about creating great organizations. Boston.
  • Meier C. 1998, Athens: a portrait of the city in its Golden Age (translated by R. and R. Kimber). New York.
  • Ober J 1989, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology and the Power of the People. Princeton.
  • Ober J and C. Hendrick (edds) 1996, Demokratia : a conversation on democracies, ancient and modern. Princeton.
  • Rhodes P.J.(ed) 2004, Athenian democracy. Edinburgh.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Xenophon, Anabasis 4.4.15
  2. Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 237
  3. Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 242-3
  4. Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 234
  5. Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 237
  6. Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 243
  7. Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 237
  8. Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 238
  9. Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 241

External links[edit | edit source]

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