Democracy — When did the process begin

Democracy  —  When Did the Process Begin

Tahirir Square, Cairo, Egypt is presumably the place where the latest field work is going on, a carryover, apparently, of the experiment that started in Tunisia. But the experiment is not exactly new, it had begun long ago in a land washed by a Homeric wine-dark sea, over the sun-drenched expanse of which, says Henry Miller sightless statues in ancient ruins keep on gazing.  


Believed to be one of the very first and most important ancient democracies in the world, Athenian democracy or classical democracy was the system of governance in the city – state of Athens and its surrounding area of Attica in ancient Greece. There were other city – state democracies in Greece as well, modeled to some extent after Athens, but none were as powerful and as firmly settled as Athens. Nor were their surviving records as numerous. People in Athens did not vote to elect representatives who would frame on their behalf legislations and executive bills, they voted to create such instruments of governance themselves on their own right. It was an astonishing and bewildering devlopment in an age, when very few people had a clear idea of what a purposeful life was. Not all the people in Attica took part in this direct democratic process, but those who did were so chosen not for any economic consideration, and their numbers were staggering. It was indeed a matter of wonder that so many people worked together so far away in time to give a shape to their future.

The word democracy is derived by combining the Greek words demos meaning people and kratia meaning rule or power. Kratia apparently is not a polite word, and instead of using the conventional word “arche” the detractors of the system used this pejorative. Anyway, it won the approval of the Athenians as would be seen in the attestation (ca 440 – 430 BCE) of Herodotus, author of some of the earliest surviving Greek prose. It is not certain that the word was used before the beginning of democracy, but around 460 BCE a child was named Democrates.

Such a name was quite common in Aeolian Temnus, not quite a democratic state.

The   Pioneers

Historians are divided over who contributed which institution towards the inception and growth of Athenian Democracy, the path – breakers being Solon (594 BCE), Cleisthenes (508) and Ephialtes (462). It seems Solon started the democratic movement, and his constitution was discarded by the tyrant Peisistratos. Quite a darling of the aristocratic opponents of democracy, Peisistratos and his sons Hippias and Hipparchus let loose a reign of increasing severity thereby undermining their authoritative hold over the Athenian society. Hipparchus was assassinated by Harmonius and Aristogeiton, and a revolution four years later brought about the end of the tyranny. In the relatively peaceful conditions which followed, Ephialtes revised the constitution Cleisthenes had prepared and kept in abeyance due to the tyrannical conditions. For this reason, Athenian democracy is considered to have began in the time of Cleisthenes. Many years later Athenians honoured Harmonius and Aristogeiton  for their roles in the restoration of Athenian freedom.  To Pericles goes the honour of being the greatest and longest-lasting democratic leader of Athens. Following his death, there were two brief oligarchic revolutions towards the end of the Peloponnesian war when the democratic institutions were suspended. The restoration was brought about by Eucleides along with some modifications in the constitution. This fourth century BCE account is recorded in much greater detail than that of the Periclean system. The Macedonians in 322 BCE put an end to the Athenian institutions which were later restored. In what measure the revived institutions reflected the democratic spirit was, however, not quite clear.          .

Participants  and  outsiders

Only informed guesses could be made about the population, as no reliable census figures were available in the Athenian records, and there were wide rise and fall in the numbers of metics or resident aliens and slaves. There were perhaps some 250,000-300,000 people in Athens during the 4th century BCE, out of which citizen families probably amounted to 100,000 people and some 30,000 among them would have been the adult male citizens entitled to vote in the assembly. Apparently, this number of adult male citizens rose to 60,000 in the mid-5th century, but fell steeply during the Peloponnesian war. It was a permanent loss due to the adoption of a stricter definition of citizen. Viewed at present the figures seem woefully small, but at that point of time Athens was a huge Greek city – state. Most of its thousand or so contemporaries could only gather 1000-1500 adult male citizens and Corinth, a major power, had 15,000 at the most. Metics and slaves constituted the non-citizen component of the population, the slaves apparently being more in numbers.  According to the orator Hyperides,  there were 150,000 slaves in Attica, an impressionistic figure making slaves more numerous than citizens. Slaves did outnumber citizens, but never did they overwhelm the latter.

Athenian citizens

Eighteen year old or above in age male Athenians, having done their military service as ephebes, were entitled to vote in Athens, thus excluding a majority of the population, such as, slaves, children, women and resident foreigners or metics.  Citizens whose rights were under suspension due to failure to pay a debt to the city were not allowed to vote.This disqualification for some Athenians amounted to a permanent and inheritable liability. Even then, as in oligarchical societies, there were no real property requirements limiting access. In Solon’s constitution, there were indeed provisions limiting voting power to propertied classes only, but such stipulations remained a dead letter for all practical purposes. Having regard to the exclusionary and ancestral conception of citizenship in Greek city – states, it was significant that quite a relatively large portion of the population took part in the government of Athens and of other radical democracies like it. No doubt, in Athens some citizens were far more active than others.  Still, vast numbers of people were required just for the system to work. That in itself was a testimony to a degree of participation among those eligible, and their numbers greatly exceeded the numbers of people actively taking part in any present day democracy.

As per the reforms introduced by Pericles in 450 BCE, Athenian citizenship was granted only to legitimate offsprings of  Athenian men and women.  Children born to Athenian men and foreign – born women were not eligible for citizenship. Upon receipt of a gift of grains from the Egyptian king in  445 BCE, some 5,000 people were deprived of their citizenship (presumably, for a fair and substantial share for the rest). The assembly granted citizenship, and at times extended it to large groups. Thus Plateans and Samians were granted citizenship in  427 and  405 BCE respectively. From 4th century, however, such privileges were granted to individuals only, and for that a special vote with at least 6,000 citizens participating was necessary. Normally, this was done as an award to the person concerned for some act in the interest of the state. In the next hundred years, the process was carried out for hundreds of people if not thousands. Thus polis or the Greek word for a city was regarded more or less as a community, in line with the concept of an extended family.

The  power  structure

Governance was shared between three political bodies constituting of citzens numbering 500 in the council or boule, the courts (minimum 200 and maximum, occasionally, 6,000) and the assembly requiring a quorum of 6,000 at times.  It was Solon who introduced the boule with a special advisory task. Consisting of 400 people, 100 each from the four tribes of Athens, its manner of working at that time was not quite clear. It was enlarged later to accommodate 50 members each from a total of 10 Cleisthenic tribes (apparently the initial number of four had swelled to that figure meanwhile).  Subsequently, known as the council of 500 (the largest body of officeholders),  the boule framed preparatory legislation for consideration by the assembly, supervised  the meetings of the assembly, and at times executed the legislation as directed by the assembly. Those 500 members were selected by drawing lots, carried out annually among men over thirty years of age.  The members were allowed to serve on the council only twice in their lifetime. The process of  drafting legislation for the assembly to consider was called proboleumatic or the preparation of  the agenda for a meeting of the assembly. Common citizens were allowed to suggest topics for inclusion in the agenda, but each such proposal had to be endorsed by a member of the boule. The assembly on its own could direct the boule  to prepare a proboleuma (agenda) on a topic it wanted to discuss. It was, however,  forbidden to take a final decision on any matter that had not been previously considered by the council. The assembly had only the power to approve or reject a topic in the agenda, but circa the 5th century BCE  it had acquired the power to alter and rework the proposals as it deemed necessary. Anyway, even during the peak period of radical democracy, complex proposals from the boule were accepted by the assembly without any alteration, indicating the cardinal role of the council (boule) in making laws.

The  Boule

The boule was presided over  each month by one among the ten prytanies, delegations from the ten Cleisthenic tribes. (At that time the Greek state calendar had ten months in a year.) Lastly, there was the epitastes, an official selected by lot for a single day from among the currently presiding prytany who chaired that day’s meeting of the boule. He also presided over the assembly, if there was a meeting of that body on that day. In addition, he held (for the day) the keys to the treasury and the seal to the city, and was designated to receive credentials of foreign ambassadors and welcome them to the city.  In this manner (by rotation), the city ensured that one quarter of all its citizens at one time in their lives hold this coveted post, and limited it to only once in a lifetime. As an executive committee of the assembly, the boule supervised the activities of a section of the magistracy, coordinated the functions of  various boards and officials who carried out the administrative work of Athens and provided from its own membership randomly selected sub – committees of ten people looking after departments like naval affairs, religious observances and so on. It would be seen that the boule was responsible for a great portion of the administration of the state, but had relatively little elbow – room for initiative. The proboleumatic or drafting of the agenda for discussion in the assembly was the boule’s trump card, beyond that, in the execution of the policy, it just did what the assembly asked it to do. Excepting the days for festivities and the days of ill – omen, the boule used to meet every day.


Athenian democracy kind of centred around the meetings of the assembly. It was not a parliament, and its members were not elected. They attended the meetings if and when they felt like doing so to exercise their right. Athenian democracy was a direct democracy. Unlike the present day representative democracy, it was a duty of male citizens above 18 years in age to participate in it. Most of the officials of the assembly were selected by lottery, while the rest were chosen from among the members. The assembly was called ekklesia, and apparently had four major functions  : Announcement of decrees, like decision to go to war or grant of citizenship to a foreigner; Selection of officials; Legislation; and Trial for political crimes. The law courts were assigned the last two tasks as the system matured. Generally, speakers made statements for or against a position, which was accepted or rejected after a general vote by show of hands indicating yes or no. There were occasionally differing opinions on matters of crucial interest, but as such, there were no political parties, nor any opposition or government. Actually, the government position was whatever the speakers agreed to on a particular day on the basis of majority votes.  There were no curbs on the power exercised by the assembly, at least in the 5th century.  If any law was broken, at the most the proponents of the measure would be punished for misleading the assembly to commit such a mistake. As was customary in ancient democracies, one had to be physically present in the assembly so as to vote. Absence was generally due to distance or engagement in military service elsewhere. The method was normally by show of hands or cheirotonia, while officials made informed guesses. Naturally, counting was out of question when thousands of people took part in the voting process. For matters like granting of citizenship, etc., a quorum of 6000 was prescribed. In such instances, black and white balls were used; white for yes and black for no. It seems the voters dropped one ball in a large clay jar to register their views on the matter under consideration. The jar was broken at the end of the process for counting and the result declared. Anyone found writing his name on the ball was debarred (ostracised), a penalty rarely imposed.

One assembly meeting was held in each month, thus a total of 10 meetings were held in the state calendar of one year during the 5th century BCE. A century later this was increased to four meetings per month making a total of forty in a state calendar year, out of which one was called the main meeting or kyria ekklesia. Additional meetings were not uncommon, especially as up until 355 BCE there were still political trials that were conducted in the assembly rather than in court. There were no fixed dates for the assembly meetings because annual festivals held as per the12 month lunar calendar year fell on different days (when no meetings could be held). Frequently, for this reason, all the four scheduled meetings were held together at the end of the state month.

There was no compulsion to attend the assembly meeting; it was entirely voluntary. Slaves formed a cordon or closed area with red – stained ropes forming its boundaries and shepherded citizens from the agora (seat of the government) into the assembly meeting. Those who got their clothes stained red were made to pay a fine. This was not the same as compulsory voting practiced in some present day democracies, but rather an effective way to build up a crowd.  In  403 BCE, after restoration of democracy, a scheme of payment for attending assembly meetings was introduced.  There was then enthusiastic crowds to get inside, and the red rope cordon was used to keep late comers at bay. Aristophanes mentioned these two kinds of use of the red rope in his comedies Acharnians for guiding in, and Ekklesiazousai  for guiding out.


The extensive legal system of Athens was based on the dikasteria, which in turn was under  heliaia, or the supreme court. Heliaia in ancient Greek meant congregation or a gathering of people. The term also could mean the great outdoors under the sun (helios) where the hearings took place. Yet another meaning was big ecclesia or the ultimate assembly. Anyway, there is not much confusion over the word dikasteria, a derivative of the word dikastes meaning judge / juror (also known  as heliasts). People serving in such jury courts were annually picked by lottery from a large pool of 6,000 citizens. In order to be a juror, a citizen had to be over 30 years of age and in possession of full citizen rights. As Athenians regarded older as wiser, the age limit for the jurors was set at a higher level than that required for participation in the assembly. In addition, the jurors were required to serve under oath, thereby further increasing their standing as opposed to participation in assembly. Nonetheless, authority of both the institutions was derived from the same source, expression of the direct will of the people. The jurors were not like magistrates who were office holders and therefore could be prosecuted and impeached for inappropriate conduct. Nor the jurors could be censured because they were the people and there could be no authority higher than that. In view of this, if the jurors had taken a wrong decision , it was concluded that they had done so having been misled by the false deposition of a litigant.

Lawsuits were of two kinds, suits of small causes or private suits (dike) and suits of important matters or public suits (graphe).  The jury size for private suits was a minimum of 201 (401 where the disputed amount was more than 1000 drachmas) and 501 for public suits. Jury size for important public suits was increased by adding 500, the increments depending on the seriousness of the matter. There was an instance, the first time a new kind of case was brought to court when all 6,000 members of the juror pool participated. The litigants themselves presented their cases in the form of an exchange of single speeches, first the plaintiff and then the defendant. Three hours by water hour glass was the time given to each litigant in public suits while in private suits it was much less and depended on the amount of money under dispute. There was no time for the deliberations over the verdict, the juries either voted yes or no as to the guilt and sentence of the defendant. They often talked among themselves, shouted their beliefs or disbeliefs on the statements of the litigants and created bedlam while working towards a consensus.

The prosecutor or plaintiff in a private suit was the wronged party or his family, while in public suit it could be anyone with full citizen rights since the matter was supposedly affecting the entire community. The trials were quick, completed in a day. If a prescrbed penalty was not there, the litgants suggested what it could be, and the juries voted on it. If a plaintiff used false witnesses, the judgement in his favour was cancelled. Apprently, Pericles introduced the system of paying the juries in 462 BCE which Aristotle described as a regular feature in a radical democracy in his book, Politics. The amount paid in the beginning is not known, but in the early years of the Peloponnesian war itwas increased from 2 to 3 obols. This was done more than half a century before payment for attendance to assembly was introduced. In fact, the  expenses of the justice system was a major drain on the Athenian exchequer and gave rise to occasional financial crisis in the fourth century leading to temporary suspension of private suits. 

Rank amateurism was the hallmark of the system. There were no judges, nor lawyers, nor anyone to give legal directions to the juries either. It seems the only experts in the whole scene were the people who drafted the appeals (logographos). Even they were an elusive species, never advertised their skills in the court areas and politicians known for their speechwriting ability used to downplay that quality. Actually, litgants normally charged each other of benefiting form the services of a logographos, so as to score a point in the debate.  Anyway, during the litigation, 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 far removed by time from those currently addressed, were referred to as if it was consequent to the deliberations of the court in session. Second to the assembly, the courts were looked up as a platform for the expression of people’s sovereignty.

Usurpation  of  the  power  of  the  assembly  by  the  courts

With the passage of time, the courts or citizen jurors composed of people senior in age to people in the assembly (30 as opposed to 18) began to nibble at the powers of the assembly. Political trials were held in the courts instead of the assembly from 355 BCE. The court’s power had previously been increased in 416 BCE with the resolution graphe paranomon (indictment against measures contrary to the laws). It gave the jurors the power to hold up for review anything passed by the assembly or even proposed but not yet voted on. The jurors had the discretion to annul it as also to punish the proposer, if deemed necessary. It would appear that a   measure voted for acceptance in the assembly but blocked thereafter in a court had no need to go back to the assembly if it survived the court challenge. The court was empowered to reinstate it. There was nothing like an impartial intervention by the state. For example, two men had clashed in the assembly about a proposal put by one of them, which was ultimately passed. It would be now open to the loser in the assembly to go to the court to bring both the law and its proposer for prosecution. There were plenty of cases of this nature giving the courts the power of the present day upper houses for legislation.  Actually, both executive decrees and laws were passed by the same processes in the assembly upto the closing years of 5th century BCE. There was a major change in 403 BCE, when special panels of 1000 citizens drawn from the annual jury pool of 6000 set the laws. They were called nomoethai or the lawmakers. Unlike a legislative commission sitting down to discuss the pros and cons and drafting proposals, it took the form of a trial, voting yes or no after the speeches for and against.

Proposals from the Citizens

The citizens were the prime mover of the entire system. Famously known as Hoboulomenos (he who wishes or any one who wishes), he symbolized  the right of citizens to take the initiative: to stand to speak in the assembly, to initiate a public law suit affecting the political community as a whole, to propose a law before the lawmakers or to approach the council with suggestions. He was not required to be vetted before his speech, nor he was reviewed after stepping down (like officeholders). It was a brief moment of action and glory, but this  stepping forward into the democratic limelight  had its pitfalls. If someone else callenged him and what he proposed was found wrong, he was liable to explain why he did that and to punishment for unsatisfactory reasons. Participation among citizens varied greatly, from wholehearted commitment to doing nothing at all. The words “whoever wishes” were considered an open invitation to every qualified free male Athenian citizen. In all, there were three functions: the officeholders organized and looked after the complex protocols; “whoever wishes” was the initiator and the proposer of content; and lastly the people, present in the assembly or in the courts convened as lawmakers, made the decisions, either yes or no, or selecting an alternative there from.

Office  bearers

They were responsible for administration and numbered over a thousand every year. Initially, they were chosen by lot, and then from among them a smaller, more prestigious group was elected. None of it was compulsory, citizens came forward and offered themselves as candidates.  They carried out limited, routine administrative work. Those who were chosen by lot had no particular administrative skills. This could not be avoided because a person was appointed for the office only once, and there was no scope for building of general competence by ongoing involvement. The exceptions were the ten annually elected generals or strategois who could be elected more than once. They were very prominent, especially in the 5th century, for their observations on matters of importance in the assembly and the respect given to them for that reason. Their official powers had nothing to do with it. Citizens particpating in the assembly were considered as representing people, and the consequences of their actions there were beyond reproach and punishment. However, when they held office they were considered as people’s agents and not their representatives. Their actions were reviewed, and they were liable to be punished, severely if that was deemed necessary. Before selection, they were subjected to a qualifying test and another for performance in the office after they stepped down. Office bearers were selected by two methods, lottery and election. Annually, 1,000 members were chosen by holding lottery, including the members of the boule or the council of 500. Another 100 were added to the numbers by election.


It was the most common method for selection because of its democratic nature. In elections, factors like wealth, birth (in families with influence), speech – making abilities, etc. came to play while lotteries spread the work of governance among the entire citizenry. Everyone had a chance to acquire that essential democratic experience, which Aristotle described in his book, Politics as  “ruling and being ruled in turn”. Lotteries ensured that the basis on which the individuals were selected was citizenship only, excluding all other considerations like personal popularity which could be purchased. Giving the citizens a unique form of political equality, the lotteries held in check the corrupt practice of purchasing votes, and provided everybody an equal chance of obtaining government office.

Those who wanted to become an office bearer had to nominate themselves as candidates one year before the selection (lotteries). They were paid a small sum to compensate for the loss of income, but it was more in form than in substance. Devoting the same time as they did in the assembly, people could earn much more. Apparently, the practice was started in the fifth century and discontinued in its closing years (403 BCE) when the oligarchs came to power. Whether it was resumed again upon restoration of democracy was not quite clear. Apparently, this indiscriminate assignment of responsibilities was not quite wise, but the system had its built – in checks and balances to prevent flagrant misuse of power. Normally, the Athenians worked in groups, boards, panels, teams and so on, where each member of the group kept watching what the others were doing. Then there was also the possibility of someone among them knowing the correct thing to do in a particular situation, and others would learn from him. The exceptions were the nine archons or magistrates. Although they formed a group, each individual member had different things to do. Anyway, the minimum age requirement of 30 years (40 years in some instances) set apart permanently about one – third of the population from joining  administration. Then quite a few were debarred from taking office due to various reasons. Ability was not the criterion for taking up office, but (in the 4th century BCE, specially) loyalty to democracy or oligarchy was. Then there was the process of “straightening” or euthunai after leaving office as a check on performance. This and the review before joining were more or less routine procedures, but there were instances when some one intervening and the matter going before a jury court. In that event, there was the risk of the office bearer being found guilty and subjected to heavy punishments. Even during his tenure, the office bearer was liable to impeachment and removal from the office by the assembly. In fact, whether the office bearers were doing their work properly or not was in the agenda of each of the ten annual meetings (kuriai ekklesiai) of the assembly. The lotteries did not permit any one to hold the same office more than once. The exception was the membership of boule or the council of 500, which one could serve twice for demographic reasons of unavailability of suitable candidates among a limited population. For the same reasons, the secretaries and underlings of the magistrates or the archons were allowed to serve twice. The Athenians were not so much concerned about incompetency, they were on guard against using the position of the office holder to build up a base of power. Nonetheless, the officials had precisely defined powers and had little room for taking any initiative. They were there only to administer, and not to govern. They could not impose a penalty exceeding fifty drachmas; anything above this amount had to be decided by the court.

Elected   Officials

Just about 100 officials were elected as opposed to 1,000 selected by lotteries. They were composed of two groups: the ten generals and those who were required to handle large sums of money. The latter category had to be necessarily rich, so that any financial irregularity or embezzlement coming to light could be recovered from their properties. The ten generals, however, belonged to a special class of their own due to their expertise in warfare as also their knowledge and contacts in the Greek world beyond the borders of Athens where many of the wars were fought. At the time of Pericles in the 5th century BCE, the generals were the most important figures in the entire population. It would, however, be not correct to assume that Pericles acquired his powerful status from his long tenures as a general (which he shared annually with nine others). It was more due to his influence in the assembly, an influence which could be wielded by any citizen capable of standing up and speaking before the assembly. In the 4th century, the role of a powerful political speaker and that of a general became somewhat different because wars had by then became a very specialised matter. Like officials selcted by lottery, the elected ones were also subject to scrutiny before taking up and performance review after laying down office. They could also be impeached and removed from office by the assembly, and there was a particular instance when the punishment was exceedingly harsh. In the 5th century, ten accountants of the Delian league charged with embezzlement of funds were sentenced to death, and the executions were carried out one after the other. When the 9th member was put to death, it was found that the accounting method was faulty, and the men indeed were innocent. The tenth man was set free, and to rectify matters those who brought the charges of misappropriation of funds against the accountants were executed. One significant feature of Athenian democracy was that those who did not participate in politics were looked down with contempt. It seems the word idiot has its origins in the ancient Greek word idiotes, meaning an individual not actively interested in politics. Eventually, the word came to acquire its current usage.

Shortcomings  of  Athenian  democracy   

Athenian democracy was a direct democracy, in which (instead of representatives elected or selected by the people) the people themselves participated in making laws and policies. Political activity such as this not only educates people about governance, but also helps them to know their compatriots better. It can even be argued that direct democracy prevents powerful elites to take charge of governance and that people really do not rule themselves unless they frame laws and policies of the state. Despite all these virtues, the biggest shortcoming of Athenian democracy was, perhaps, its exclusivity. By excluding women, non – citizens (for various reasons) as also slaves, and by emphasizing that only male citizens were eligible for participation in the political process, Athenian democracy reduced the status of quite a considerable section of its polity. This narrow definition of eligibility (from a modern point of view) is in sharp contrast with the views of the ancient critics who regarded  the demos in democracy not as the whole people, but the people as opposed to the elite. They were of the opinion that the eligible citizens were from poor and uneducated sections of the society as well, and the political process gave them the power to dominate over their betters, the rich and the educated. It was not seen as a fair system in which everyone had equal rights, but as a patently unjust procedure. Aristotle defined it as the difference between and arithmetical and geometrical (proportional) equality. In other words, the state was seen as a company in which the poor and the uneducated were seen as single share holders while the elites possessed shares commensurate to their status. Athenian democracy (to them) was based on concepts which actually favoured the minority. The trial of the Delian league accountants is an illustration of this point, the precursor of a similar trial in 406 BCE in which Socrates was the citizen presiding over the assembly that day.

Having suffered a series of defeats (and large losses of men) in the invasion of Sicily, the Athenians in that year finally triumphed over the Spartans in a naval battle. Then there was a storm , and the eight commanding generals of the forces failed to rescue many drowning men . The Athenians put them on trial, and sentenced them to death. Socrates protested against and disassociated himself from this illegal decision. It had no effect on the verdict, and the sentences were carried out. As expected the decision was later considered a terrible mistake, and equally expectedly those who brought the charges were put to death. Seven years later, Socrates himself was put on trial on the charge that he believed in strange gods and thereby corrupted the minds of the young people whom he taught. He was sentenced to death, and though he could save himself by escaping from Athens, he refused to do so. Plato calls him the gadfly of Athens, who annoyed and irritated the Athenians to no end by questioning their beliefs and prejudices. His death made him an intellectual martyr and turned Plato, his disciple, into an enemy of direct democracy.  Long after the death of Socrates, Plato wrote in his Dialogues that Socrates actually contemplated a trial and compared it to that of a physician by a pastry cook before a jury of children.

Though the connection appeared to be tenuous, there was a perceptible link between Athenian democracy and imperialism. Athenian state was feeding off the spoils of subjugated places for quite a long time in the fifth century BCE. For opposing such policies, Thucydides, son of Milesias of aristrocratic origins was ostracised in  443 BCE. The imperialistic policies were extremely severe, as would be seen in the decision to kill the entire male population of Melos and sell off the women and children there because of their refusal to become Athenian subjects.

Athenian citizens generally served as rowers in the navy, and used the plunders from their forays overseas to improve their positions back home. They were also employed in the numerous administrative posts in the subject states, using the funds obtained therefrom to become office bearers in the Athenian state. This was stated in an anti – democratic pamphlet written by an anonymous author believed to be an old oligarch. As opposed to this the Athenian hold over other states almost disappeared in the fourth century, and it would not be correct to imply that the state was not viable without such possessions. At about that time the system of payment for attending assembly sessions was introduced. The same practice was resorted to before the Persian wars when the resources of the state was quite limited, and the state was a fledgling proposition.

There were two brief interregnums in democratic rule during the Peloponnesian war, named after the  numbers of people of the groups in control. The group of Four Hundred brought it in 411 BCE, to be followed by the Thirty Tyrants seven years later in 404. Both of these groups tried to reduce the size of the electorate by linking the franchise with property qualifications. Both of them ended up as rogue governments and did not follow through on their constitutional promises. These two coups started as responses from the Athenian elite to what they saw as the inherent arbitrariness of government by the masses. In his Seventh Epistle, Plato commented that the Infamous Thirty were so inept and corrupt they made the  democratic rule before their misadventure look like a Golden Age in Athenian chronicles. It would probably not be correct to regard the lapses of Athenian democracy as systemic failures or the results of extreme conditions of the long – drawn Peloponnesian war. Nevertheless, there was an attempt for course correction, and a new version of democracy was established from 403 BCE, which could be regarded as subsequent to the introduction of graphe parnomon (indictment against measures contrary to the laws) in 416 and the precursor of the end of the assembly trials in 355 BCE. That was the first time a conceptual and procedural distinction was made between laws and decrees. From then on,  responsibility was shifted from the assembly to the courts, with laws being made by jurors and all assembly decisions becoming reviewable by courts. In other words, mass meeting of all citizens lost quite a lot of ground to smaller gatherings (of only a thousand or the like) which were under oath and free of quite a number of unthiking men in their impetuous 20’s and having more time to focus on just one matter (though never more than a day). A drawback of the new democracy was that it needed some time for deliberations and thus the ability to response quickly to a situation was impaired. 

As regards the lowering of status of quite a considerable section of the population, male citiizenship became a newly valuable and quite profitable possession to be jealously guarded against all odds. Pericles, however, in 450 BC stipulated that a citizen had to be born from citizen parentage on both sides, thereby excluding those with foreign mothers or the metroxenoi.   The poorer citizens generally married locally while it was not uncommon among the elite to marry abroad as a part of aristocratic alliance building. Thus the custom of a group developed due to sheer necessity was thus codified as a law for the whole citizen body resulting in a loss of  openness and cultural diversity. Had this law been promulgated earlier, many Athenians prominent in the century preceding would have lost their citizenship. For instance, Cleisthenes the founder of democracy, had a non-Athenian mother while the mothers of Cimon and Themistocles were not Greek at all, but belonged to Thrace. As a prosperous and rich  city – state, Athens was the centre of attraction of an increasing number of resident aliens or metics. By introducing this change in the definition of citizen, the immigrant population were politically differentiated from the locals imore sharply and probably regarded themselves as unwelcome. 

Athenian women were undobtedly a deprived group as against their counterparts in Sparta, who could own properties as also participate in public sports. Aristophanes mentioned in Lysistrata that the Athenian women admired the graceful bodies of the sportswomen of Sparta. It is suggested that misogyny, not exactly confined to the ancient Athenians only, gave rise to a very strict gender discrimination, arising (once again) from the values cherished by the so – called commoners. It is also suggested that without the contribution of women’s labour, the concept of democracy would not perhaps have taken roots. 

Athens had more slaves than any other Greek city state, and employed imported non – Greeks (whom they called barbarians) extensively as chattel slaves. It is not therefore unusual to raise the paradoxical question: Was slavery the main prop of democracy? No doubt, the poorer Athenians owned a few slaves and thus could find time to engage in political activities. It is, however, not clear that democracy was possible due to this free time otherwise needed to make a living. Slaves apparently made the minority of rich Athenians less dependent on the labour of their more numerous fellow citizens. Solon in his reforms in the 6th century BCE abolished debt servitude, but working for others on wages was clearly subjecting oneself to the will of someone else. The availability and employment of chattel slave could thus be imagined as the introduction         

of a new kind of equality, which in turn made particpation in democratic process easy. It is not possible to reach a conclusion on this point, but Cornelius Castoriadis (20th century Current Era Greek philosopher) pointed out that other societies also had slaves without being a democracy.

From Wikipedia and other sources


About chepeyja

chartered engineer(India), B.Sc., risk management consultant, blogger and layabout!
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