One of the most common clichés the media uses when talking about Greece is the label ‘birthplace of democracy’. Along with reminders that words like tragedy and crisis are Greek after all, the cliche is repeated without any context. There’s rarely a mention of what this historic label refers to and it can be used to give a hint of historical legitimacy to the current system of government. As we’re all told the ancient Greeks were the smartest, most intelligent group of people which ever existed, so if our political system can trace itself back to those clever folks it must be good, right?
If we take a quick look at the historical events to which the cliché refers it’s hard to see any connection spanning the millennia. The word democracy of course, like so many others, comes from Greek. But the demokratia (δημοκρατία) of the ancient world had a completely different origin, theory, and practice to what is called democracy today. Demokratia as it was lived in the Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BC has very few similarities with modern parliamentary systems. When speaking of ancient Athens I will retain the word demokratia to distinguish it from modern democracy.
“In a demokratia the poor should have more power than the rich, being the greater number; for this is one aspect of freedom which all framers of demokratia lay down as a criterion of that state; another is, to live as every one likes”(1)
Ancient Athenian demokratia was born out of a revolution after a long period of social tension. This Athenian model required the active participation of each of its members rather than the passive placing of periodic Xs on a piece of paper. An open hill top where any could speak was the main site of action instead of a fence-ringed and police-garrisoned palace. Whilst I’ve no intention of praising the society of classical Athens a brief look at its history and idea of democracy would be useful.
Of course I’m not about to say that ancient Athens was some sort of glorious example to emulate. For all that classical Athens had a radical political structure it was an extremely conservative and restrictive society. The demokratia was open only to citizens and to be a citizen you had to be a male pure- born Athenian. Foreigners were excluded and a mass of slaves exploited. For women Athens was one of the most repressive places to live in the ancient world, even oligarchic and fanatically militaristic Sparta was a better place for women. Athens was imperialist and terrorised the Aegean world in order to impose its own interests.
At no point during the centuries of demokratia was private property or the privileges of the rich elite challenged. The rich and aristocratic had their political power curtailed but were left to live a life of luxury. Whilst the aristocrat lounged on couches at lavish dinner parties and discussed love and the good life the poor built their wealth. In many ways ancient Athens is an example which shows that a radical political organisation will not necessarily lead to radical social changes for the poor and oppressed.
In short the Athenian demokratia was an attempt to organise the political life of the territory along direct democratic lines. This experiment functioned successfully from 508/7 BC until the 320s BC. For almost two hundred years the largest territory in the Greek world had no continuous representative leaders and no judicial or bureaucratic class. It was remarkably stable at a time when the rest of the Greek city-states frequently underwent dramatic and bloody social conflicts. Only twice in its lifetime was the demokratia overthrown. In 411/10 under the pressure of a brutal war and after a huge military disaster an oligarchic coup briefly dissolved the demokratia. The only other break was in 404/3 when after defeat in war a brief foreign backed aristocratic regime was imposed. It was only the rise of the despotic Macedonian monarchy and the superpower politics of the post-Alexander the Great world that finally crushed demokratia in Athens.
The demokratia of Athens was born out of the world of the Greek Polis. What is now the territory of the Greek state was divided into a myriad of city-states. Each city was self-governing and fiercely independent. The 7th and 6th centuries BC were times of great change in these city-states. Social life was growing and so were social tensions. With Greece being a predominately agricultural society land was of paramount importance but with the territory being largely mountainous good land was limited. The tension between those who had land and those who didn’t led to conflict within the city-states. One consequence of this was emigration, landless Greeks set up colonies all across the Mediterranean. Another consequence was political strife. Often one man was able to use the discontent of the disadvantaged to set himself up as a tyrant. In other cities the rich ruled as an oligarchy.
Toward the end of the sixth century the family of tyrants which had ruled Athens for two generations was overthrown by a mixture of internal agitation and foreign intervention. Two aristocratic factions rose to prominence in the wake of the tyranny. After a few years of political strife between these aristocratic factions the people of Athens rose up supported by the aristocrat Kleisthenes. They surrounded the partisans of Isagoras and the Spartan troops on the acropolis before forcing them out. At this point the Athenian people set out a new way of governing which would become the demokratia. The ‘constitution’ which followed is sometimes referred to as Kleisthenic due to the fact that the uprising was in support of Kleisthenes. However this leader of the people quickly disappears from the historical record and very little is known about him.
“The demokratia has made itself master of everything and administers everything by its votes in the assembly and by the law- courts”(2)
The constitution which the Athenians created and evolved after the revolution in 508/7 BC was based on the idea that the people were sovereign and this sovereignty was expressed through the mass participation of the citizen body in a popular assembly and the law courts.
The assembly (ekklesia/ἐκκλησία) was the physical gathering of the citizen body in one place in order to debate and vote. All citizens had the right to attend the assembly which took place on the hill of the Pynx close to the Athenian acropolis and met roughly every ten days. Payment was introduced to encourage participation in the assembly. In this open space thousands gathered(estimates range from 6-13,000) and all decrees of the state had to be ratified here. In addition to voting on public policy the citizens of the assembly also elected the generals and could act as a law court.
Meetings of the assembly would begin with the question ‘who wishes to speak?’ and anyone in attendance had the right to address the crowd. Debates were held on policies which had been proposed by citizens and after listening to speeches for and against, those assembled would vote. Whilst confident and articulate speakers held an advantage in the assembly no political parties as we have them today were formed. The Athenians voted for policies not parties. For the citizen of the demokratia the possibility existed that their voice and opinion could be heard on a regular basis.
Citizens came together in a mass to form the Athenian court system also. There were no judges or lawyers in these courts. The prosecutor and defendant put their respective cases directly to their fellow citizens gathered as a jury. Juries were made up of a randomly selected group of citizens with numbers varying from a low of 201 to a high of 2,500 depending on the type and severity of the case. As with the assembly payment for participation on the juries was introduced to support those who participated. These juries listened to both sides and then voted yes or no to a guilty verdict. If the vote was guilty then the defendant and prosecutor came back and each suggested a suitable punishment which the jury then voted on. There was never a detailed law code in Athens and the juries were expected to apply general laws in specific cases in line with the best interests of the Athenian people. To the Athenians “complete articulation of the law was a denial of the collective wisdom of the masses”(3). In the law courts we can see again the idea of the people as sovereign.
These two institutions, assembly and courts, were the methods the Athenians used to make group decisions. The day to day administration of Athenian territory was also handled by the citizen body. Councils and committees were formed to handle all the needs of the largest city in Greece. The poorest Athenians were initially barred from some of these positions but it seems this rule was later ignored and participation was thrown open to all. These committees and councils were manned by a randomly selected group of citizens. A council (Boule/βουλή) of 500 randomly chosen citizens oversaw much of the administration and prepared legislation for the assembly to debate. Since citizens were chosen at random and the membership changed every year there was a good chance that most citizens served on this council at some point in their life.
Other committees were created to run the infrastructure of the city. From the council of 500 down to the committees, participation of a maximum number of citizens was ensured by having term limits for office holders and random selection by lot. For only a few posts would there be a direct vote for one particular person, the most important of these posts being the ten generals. As elections favour the rich the Athenians generally avoided them. Since membership of the councils and committees was decided by random lot no professional civil service or bureaucracy developed in Athens. The largest of the ancient Greek cities and the largest city in Europe at the time was essentially run by amateurs.
Demokratia extended beyond the city of Athens to be practised across the whole of Attika. Athenian territory was divided into demes which were essentially small villages. Physical distance from the assembly and law-courts in the city could be compensated for by local demokratia. Indeed “democracy at deme level was an important feature of Athenian life”(4). Selection for membership of the council took place in the demes and each had its own assembly as well as a political officer chosen by lot. Law courts also existed at local level.
Whilst Athens had no continuous official leaders individuals did rise to prominence. Often these prominent individuals were from the rich elite. With their abundant leisure time and access to education and military experience the wealthy retained a favoured position which they could turn into influence. There has been a tendency to view the history of the demokratia through the histories of these prominent aristocratic individuals. In part this is a result of the historical record. Even modern histories can read as a succession of (aristocratic)leaders Kleisthenes-Kimon-Perikles-Demosthenes. The historians of ancient Athens, and historians in general, were themselves from the wealthy elite and so they focused their studies around members of their own class and ignored the rest. When a non- aristocratic citizen rose to prominence the historians and philosophers despised them as demagogues who had let the idea of democracy go to their heads and forgotten their proper station in life.
If an aristocrat could train themselves to speak well in the assembly and had a level of military experience they could gain a position of influence. However no individual was able to transform this influence into outright authority as there were no political positions which could give them control of the city. At each turn an individual had to persuade the assembly or law- courts to back their ideas. Even the most influential of these individuals, Perikles, at times found himself unceremoniously ignored when his advice and policies had failed. The demokratia also had a built-in safe guard should any individual get too powerful. Every year the Athenians held a vote for ostracism. If any one individual was deemed too dangerous they could be exiled from the city for ten years by popular vote.
“Athens is an example of a direct democracy that achieved genuine, long term, stable methods of decision making by the masses and that was not co-opted by the growth of an internal ruling elite”(5)
The basic practical principal of the demokratia was participation. At every level a citizen was expected to participate in the organisation of the city. They made the major decisions collectively in the assembly. Those decisions were interpreted and acted on by the citizens making up the juries in the law courts. Athenians from all walks of life carried out the administration of the city on a day to day basis and many would for a day even have been the titular head of state. At some point in their life, and for many on a constant basis, an Athenian citizen would have played a direct role in the political life of their community whether by debating in the assembly, sitting in the law courts or involvement in an administrative committee. To the Athenians demokratia meant “the regime in which the demos [the people] gains a collective capacity to effect change in the public realm”(6).
This collective and participatory nature is distinctly different from the reality of modern democracy. If the original concept of democracy was that the public has the ability to debate, decideandmakethingshappen(7) then clearly modern parliamentary systems fall far short of this. For the vast majority of modern populations the only political participation in their life is a simple vote in an election, they are asked only who will do their talking for them not whether they wish to speak themselves. Political parties and professional politicians as well as a professional bureaucracy and judiciary were completely absent from the demokratia.
If we look at the foundation myth of modern democracy the difference between ancient and modern becomes clear. The foundation myth of modern democracy took place in an unremarkable spot called Runnymede. Parliamentary democracy, in its English variant at least, traces its historic roots to the signing of the Magna Carta back in 1215. Supposedly this document marked the point when the English rejected the unlimited power of the king and demanded a say in their community. In reality the Magna Carta was a deal exacted out of the king by his rebellious aristocrat nobles desperate to secure their own privileges. The document itself was written in Latin so was doubly distanced from the illiterate English speaking person. As representative democracy started so it continued. Parliaments started and evolved as an act of negotiation and power sharing amongst the elite which gradually broadened out. The people, once fully enfranchised, were to have a say in who governs but were never to govern for themselves.
“Modern democracy did not develop out of admiration for Athenian democracy”(8)
As parliaments and representative democracy developed from the 18th century the example of the Athenian demokratia was not in the minds of the ruling classes. After the revolution of 508/7BC the Athenians stripped power from individual positions of authority, gave the administration to the citizen body and attempted to include all citizens in the decision making process. Representative democracy vests the majority of power in the hands of a small group with minimal participation of the rest of society. When a small proportion of the citizen body has the power to direct society the ancient Greeks called this oligarchy. Indeed for many of the founders of modern democracies the oligarchic regime of Sparta was a more likely source of inspiration than Athens.
“parliament and representative government are, in democracies, merely executive organs of the bourgeoisie”(9)
The gap between modern and ancient democracy is not just a matter of time. The two systems are different concepts of society. In the modern world democracy means, at best, the people having some limited say in who exercises political power. The levers of power are still retained by an elite and only by working with or joining that elite can a citizen play a role in politics.
In the ancient world democracy meant the people exercising political power through mass participation in the executive, legislative and judicial organisation of the society. The people of Athens took control of their society from the elite through revolution. Whilst an elite still retained its wealth privileges it lost its ability to control the society for its own benefit. Decisions regarding the life of the community and the day to day management of a large city were carried out collectively with the active participation of each citizen. With its mixture of open assemblies and rotating randomly selected councils Athens offers an example of how a large group of people can organise without needing leadership or full-time bureaucracy.
“a demokratia is a government in the hands of men of no birth, poor circumstances and mechanical employments”(10)
The clichés about Greece as the birthplace of democracy hide the origins of the current system of government dominant in the western world. A look at the historical example behind the cliché has shown that these current governmental systems do not fit with the original meaning of democracy. Democracy should be used to describe a situation in which a person actively takes part in the life of their community. The members of a democracy will each have an equal position in their society and will reach decisions together with the day to day administration and justice managed collectively. When viewed as a whole society (not just the exclusive citizen body) ancient Athens failed to live up to its ideals. That doesn’t mean we should ignore their attempt to create something new. For those not happy with the current state of affairs the experiences of past generations may be useful.
1. Aristotle, Politics
2. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution
3. J.Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989
4. J.Thorley, Athenian Democracy, Routledge, 2004
5. J.Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989
6. J.Ober, The Original Meaning of Democracy, Stanford University, 2007
7. J.Ober, The Original Meaning of Democracy, Stanford University, 2007
8. J.Thorley, Athenian Democracy, Routledge, 2004
9. Organisational platform of the General Union of Anarchists, ‘Delo Truda’ group, 1926
10. Aristotle Politics, 1928