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Athenian democracy developed in Greek city-state of Athens, comprising the central city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, around 550 BC. Athens is one of the first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, and even though most followed an Athenian model, none was as powerful, stable, or as well-documented as that of Athens.
It remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy, a political system in which 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, but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a large scale. The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres.
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.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Participation and exclusion
- 3 Main bodies of governance
- 4 Individualism in Athenian democracy
- 5 Criticism of the democracy
- 6 Aftermath
- 7 References and sources
- 8 External links
The word "democracy" (Greek: δημοκρατία) combines the elements dêmos (δῆμος, which means "people") and krátos (κράτος, which means "force" or "power"). In the words "monarchy" and "oligarchy", the second element arche (ἀρχή) means "rule", "leading" or "being first". It is unlikely that the term "democracy" was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of a valid "demarchy", as the word "demarchy" already existed and had the meaning of mayor or municipal. One could assume the new term was coined and adopted by Athenian democrats.
The word is attested in Herodotus, who wrote some of the first surviving Greek prose, but this might not have been before 440 or 430 BC. We are not certain that the word "democracy" was extant when systems that came to be called democratic were first instituted, but around 460 BC an individual is known whose parents had decided to name him 'Democrates', a name possibly manufactured as a gesture of democratic loyalty; the name can also be found in Aeolian Temnus, not a particularly democratic state.
Participation and exclusion
Size and make-up of the Athenian population
Estimates of the population of ancient Athens vary. During the 4th century BC, there might well have been some 250,000–300,000 people in Attica. Citizen families could have amounted to 100,000 people and out of these some 30,000 would 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 may seem 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 but in some very seldom cases more.
The non-citizen component of the population was divided between resident foreigners (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 no more than an impression: slaves outnumbered those of citizen stock but did not swamp them.
Citizenship in Athens
Only adult male Athenian citizens who had completed their military training as ephebes had the right to vote in Athens. The percentage of the population that actually participated in the government was roughly 20% of the total number of people but this varied from the fifth to the fourth century BC. This excluded from voting a majority of the population, namely slaves, freed slaves, children, women and metics.[clarification needed] The women had limited rights and privileges and were barely considered citizens. They had restricted movement in public and were very segregated from the men.
Also excluded from voting were 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 qualification for voting. (The property classes of Solon's constitution remained on the books, but they fell into disuse.) 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.[clarification needed]
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 surpassed any present day democracy. Athenian citizens had to be descended from citizens—after the reforms of Pericles and Cimon in 450 BC on both sides of the family, excluding the children of Athenian men and foreign women.[clarification needed] 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.
Main bodies of governance
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). 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 subject 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 judgment 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.
The central events of the Athenian democracy were the meetings of the assembly (ἐκκλησία, ekklêsia). Unlike a parliament, the assembly's members were not elected, but attended by right when they chose. Greek democracy created at Athens was direct, rather than representative: any adult male citizen of age[specify] could take part, and it was a duty to do so. The officials of the democracy were in part elected by the Assembly and in large part chosen by lottery.
The assembly had four main 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, the last function was 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 important matters, there were no political parties and likewise no government or opposition (as in the Westminster system). 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 it would punish those who had made the proposal that it had agreed to. If a mistake had been made, from the assembly's viewpoint it could only be because it 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 (χειροτονία, kheirotonia, "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 small coloured stones were used, white for yes and black for no. 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 (ὄστρακα, ostraka), 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 avoid clashing with the annual festivals that followed the lunar calendar. There was also a tendency for the four meetings to be aggregated toward the end of each state month.
Attendance at the assembly was not always 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 being imposed on those who got the red on their clothes. After the restoration of the democracy in 403 BC, pay for assembly attendance was introduced. This promoted 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.
The Council/The Boule
The presidency of the boule (the council) rotated monthly amongst the ten prytanies, or delegations from the ten Cleisthenic tribes, of the Boule (there were ten months in the Hellenic calendar). The epistates (ἐπιστάτης), an official selected by lot for a single day from among the currently presiding prytany, chaired that day's meeting of the boule and, if there was one, that day's meeting of the assembly; 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. 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 former, it prepared measures for deliberation by the assembly, in the latter, it merely executed the wishes of the assembly.
Athens had an elaborate legal system centered on 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 of the court were not only older, but were wiser, too. Jurors were required to be under oath, which was not required for attendance at the assembly. 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 by 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 (δίκη) or private suit, and a larger kind known as graphe or public suit. For private suits the minimum jury size was 200 (increased to 401 if a sum of over 1000 drachmas was at issue), for public suits 501. The juries were selected by lot from a panel of 600 jurors, there being 600 jurors from each of the ten tribes of Athens, making a jury pool of 6000 in total. For particularly important public suits the jury could be increased by adding in extra allotments of 500. 1000 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 graphē paranómōn), all 6,000 members of the jury 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. Jurors did talk 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 showed a marked anti-professionalism. No judges presided over the courts nor did anyone give legal direction to the jurors; magistrates had only an administrative function and were laymen. Most of the annual magistracies at Athens could only be held once in a lifetime. There were no lawyers as such; 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 had to resort to), and even politically prominent litigants made some show of disowning special expertise.
These juries formed a second mode 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.
Shifting balance between assembly and courts
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 graphē paranómōn ("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 (νομοθέται), the lawmakers.[dubious ] Nomothetai are junior archons, not the jury. 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 and such.
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 lawsuit (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 voted 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 full-time 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.
The administration was in the hands of officeholders, for over a thousand years. Something like 1100 citizens (including the members of the council of 500) held office each year. They were mostly chosen by lot, with a much smaller (and more prestigious) group of about 100 elected. Neither was compulsory; individuals had to nominate themselves for both selection methods. 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 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?
By and large the power exercised by these officials was routine administration and quite limited. 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.
Selection by lot (allotment)
Selection by lottery was the standard means as it was regarded as the more democratic: elections would favour those who were rich, noble, eloquent and well-known, while allotment spread 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.
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.
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.
During an Athenian election, approximately one hundred officials out of 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 at any time that the assembly met. There was also a death penalty for "inadequate performance" while in office.
Individualism in Athenian democracy
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 at the time was 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 ἰδιώτης, 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. According to Thucydides, Pericles may have declared in a funeral oration:
We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.
Criticism of the democracy
Athenian democracy 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 tyrannizing 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 categorized as the difference between 'arithmetic' and 'geometric' (i.e. proportional) equality. 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.
- 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. This was 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 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 generals in command failed to collect survivors: the Athenians tried and sentenced six of the eight generals 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) and stood 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)
- In 399 BC Socrates was put on trial and executed for 'corrupting the young and believing in strange gods'. His death gave Europe one of the first intellectual martyrs still recorded, 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 systemic, 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 (graphē paranómōn 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 gatherings of a thousand or so which were under oath, 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 democracy predated Athenian imperialism by over thirty years, they are sometimes associated with each other. 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 women 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 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 women 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 but did not develop democracy. Even with respect to slavery the new citizen law of 450 BC might 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), which rested on an older, less categorical sense of what it meant to be a slave.
Although metics had no direct political influence many were wealthy business owners who could, and sometimes did, influence policy by not allowing their citizen employees time off to attend the assembly, as well as having the simple expedient of wealth.
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 because the franchise was quite limited (only male citizens could vote — women, slaves and non-citizens were excluded). Despite this limited franchise and the absence of the Roman notion of Separation of powers, Athenian democracy is still lauded by its modern proponents as the first example of a working direct democracy.
Alexander the Great had led a coalition of the Greek states to war with Persia in 336 BC, but his Greek soldiers were hostages for the behavior of their states as much as allies. His relations with Athens were already strained when he returned to Babylon in 324 BC; after his death, Athens and Sparta led several Greek states to war with Macedon and lost.
This led to the first of a number of periods in which an outside power controlled Athens; Often the outside power set up a local agent as political boss in Athens; but when Athens was independent, it operated under its traditional form of government; even the bosses, like Demetrius of Phalerum, kept the traditional institutions in formal existence.
An independent Athens was a minor power in the Hellenistic age; it rarely had much in the way of foreign policy; it generally remained at peace, allied either with the Ptolemaic dynasty, or later, with Rome; when it went to war, the result (as in the Lamian, Chremonidean, and Mithridatic War) was usually disastrous.
Under the Roman alliance, the more oligarchic parts of the Athenian constitution, the Areopagus and election of officials, became relatively more important, and the Assembly and selection by lot less so. After about 125 BC, the eponymous archon, and probably the others, were normally prominent men, and this oligarchic tendency appears to have been produced by a system of election.
In 88 BC, there was a revolution under the philosopher Athenion, who persuaded the Assembly to agree to elect whomever he might ask to office. Athenion allied with Mithridates of Pontus, and went to war with Rome; he was killed during the war, and was replaced by Aristion. The victorious Roman general, Publius Cornelius Sulla, left the Athenians their lives and did not sell them into slavery; he also restored the previous government, in 86 BC.
References and sources
- Henderson, J. (1993) Comic Hero versus Political Elite pp.307-19 in Sommerstein, A.H.; S. Halliwell, J. Henderson, B. Zimmerman, ed. (1993). Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis. Bari: Levante Editori.
- Raaflaub, Kurt A. (2007): The Breakthrough of Demokratia in Mid-Fifth-Century Athens, p. 112, in: Raaflaub, Kurt A.; Ober, Josiah; Wallace, Robert, ed. (2007). Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Xenophon, Anabasis 4.4.15
- Aristophanes Acharnians 17–22.
- Aristoph. Ekklesiazousai 378-9
- Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 237
- Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 238
- Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution, 241
- Cartledge, Paul (July 2006). "Ostracism: selection and de-selection in ancient Greece". History & Policy (in English). United Kingdom: History & Policy. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
- Goldhill, S., 2004, The Good Citizen, in Love, Sex & Tragedy: Why Classics Matters. John Murray, London, 179-94.
- Thucydides, The Peloponnesian Wars, Book 1:22 (Rex Warner translation)
- 322-318 BC; 317-307 BC; 266-229 BC (all Macedon); 58-55 BC (Rome).
- It rarely controlled all of Attica, since Piraeus was an excellent naval base, and one of the Hellenistic kings usually controlled it.
- Habicht, passim
- Habicht, Christian, Athens from Alexander to Antony, Havard 1997 ISBN 0-674-05111-4
- Hansen M.H. 1987, The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes. Oxford ISBN 978-0806131436
- Hignett, Charles. A History of the Athenian Constitution (Oxford, 1962) ISBN 0-19-814213-7
- Manville B. and Josiah 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, Josiah 1989, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology and the Power of the People. Princeton
- Ober, Josiah and C. Hendrick (edds) 1996, Demokratia: a conversation on democracies, ancient and modern. Princeton
- Rhodes P.J.(ed) 2004, Athenian democracy. Edinburgh
- Sinclair, R. K. 1988. Democracy and Participation in Athens. Cambridge University Press.
- Ewbank, N. The Nature of Athenian Democracy, Clio History Journal, 2009.