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Athenian Democracy

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A Democracy is defined as a government of, by and for the people. Originally, democracy meant rule by the common people. In this sense, and even before the beginning of modern class society, it was very much a class affair. It meant that power should be in the hands of the largest class: the poorest, least educated and the propertyless. As a result, democracy was feared and rejected by the educated, the cultured, and the wealthy. In classical Greece, democracy was seen by the enlightened and the educated as one of the worst types of government and society imaginable.

The rule of the people was regarded as a threat to all the cherished values of a civilized and orderly society. It would curtail individual freedom and would lead to anarchy.

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The political system of ancient Athens was a Democracy, which involved all of its citizens and not only their representatives, by giving then daily access to civic affairs and political power.

Both decision-making and decision-enforcing were the duty of every citizen, not just of those elected by them or by their leaders. The citizens of Athens were directly involved not only in government matters, but also in matters of justice, as there was no separation of powers in ancient Athens.

The Athenian Democracy is one of the more intriguing aspects of political history. It is a source for much of our modern conception of democracy, but it is also quite singular in many of its features.

Athenian Democracy started developing at the beginning of the 6th century BC. This development began not by a revolution of simple people demanding political rights, but by the initiative of the ruling class of ancient Athens in slow evolutionary ways. By the middle of the 5th century BC, Athens had developed into a pure and absolute Democracy.

In 594 BC, Solon was appointed into power. He took immediate measures to relieve the citizens from the burden of their debts and at the same time began an institutional effort to give everyday people a greater participation in city affairs. Solon gave right to vote to all male citizens and established a new council of 400 (the Boule) to replace the Ecclesia. Members of the Boule were chosen randomly by lot. The term Solon is now often used to describe a wise lawmaker.

In the year 560 BC, Pisitratus seized power after Solon. He was thought to be in the league with the Aristocrats, but soon proved to be an even greater reformer than Solon. He abolished land ownership as a requirement for citizenship. He mandated total redistribution of the land and exiled all people who disagreed with him.

Kleisthenes became a tyrant in 508 BC. He was an Aristocrat who was dedicated to Democracy. He divided Athens in to ten tribes based on geographical distribution and increased the Boule to 500 citizens. Through his reforms common citizens acquired a new sense of power with which they could come to expect and eventually to demand that all matters of significance be submitted to their Assembly for discussion and then decision. This opened the way for the advanced form of Democracy.

The result of tyrants and reformers was the creation of the most democratic government in world history. All officials were randomly chosen by lot. The revived Ecclesia had full and final authority of the making and execution of laws. Juries were comprised of all citizens who chose to take part in the trial. In order to keep aristocrats from gaining control, Athenians adopted a policy of Ostracism, or exile, for those who would attempt to restore the Aristocracy.

Although not all persons living in Athens had these political rights, no other Democracy in human history has provided such a magnificent level of participation. This political system, quite innovative for its times, shaped a society of a distinct character, of great sensibility and of unusual cultural achievements.

The individual citizen, willing to throw himself into the political fray had an impressive array of powers. He could propose a law, which, if it found enough support, could be formulated by the Council of 500, put on the agenda of a later Assembly meeting, discussed and voted upon at that meeting. He could act as a defender of the Constitution (like our Supreme Court) by bringing a prosecution for proposal of a law that was either illegal or not in the best interests of the state. Finally, he could bring a public prosecution against any other citizen whether a private person or a magistrate (in the process of examination). Not even the most influential politician could escape the power of the Athenian citizenry, if he had lost their support.

While we say in our history books that the democracies of the Greek city-states were great accomplishments, they, nevertheless, had numerous problems. All the major Greek philosophers thought democracy was the worst form of government. Plato, in his critique of democracy in The Republic , claims that it allows people to follow all their passions and drives without order or control; Aristotle claimed that the competing interests in a democracy makes for chaos rather than purposive and deliberated action. Democracy did not seem to work very democratically at all, in fact. In Athens, the democratic Assembly was usually dominated by a single powerful, charismatic individual; this individual often dominated the Assembly because of his presence or oratorical skill rather than his individual worth. As a result, the democratic governments could make some surprisingly foolish decisions. The position of these charismatic leaders, however, was always very unstable. The democratic Assemblies could change character overnight; they would often eagerly follow a particular leader, and then exile that leader often for no reason

Government functions were assigned to two bodies:

„h The Assembly, which focused on policy decision-making.

„h The Council, which concentrated on policy implementation and administrative matters.

The Assembly was the supreme decision-making body in Athens, which met in an open area on a hill called the Pnyx. Technically every male citizen over the age of 18 could attend every meeting of the Assembly with the right to speak and vote on all matters of domestic and foreign policy. Space and other practical considerations, however, would not allow every citizen to attend every meeting. As well, not all citizens wanted to attend. In the fifth century, to get an assembling of people, public slaves would proceed through the Agora carrying a long rope coated with fresh red paint. Any citizen who was marked with this paint and was caught not attending the Assembly was subject to a penalty of some kind. When pay was instituted for attendance at the Assembly in the late fifth century, there was no longer need to force citizens to attend.

The Council consisted of 500 members selected annually by lot, 50 from each of the ten Athenian tribes. All male citizens over the age of 30 were eligible to serve in the Council, but service in this body was not compulsory. In the various demes (local municipalities) that make up each tribe, citizens volunteered and were selected by lot for service on the Council. Larger demes were represented by more councillors than smaller ones. The minimum age was 30 years. A citizen could serve twice as a councillor in his lifetime.

The Council met everyday, except for festival days and certain other forbidden days, in the Bouleuterion in the Agora. When the Assembly met, the Council would meet in the afternoon since most Assembly meetings lasted only till noon. The primary responsibilities of this body were the preparation of an agenda for the assembly and the supervision of the magistrates.

Just as the Assembly required a smaller body (the Council) to prepare business for it, the Council needed a group much smaller than 500 to supervise its activities. This supervision was performed by each contingent of 50 Council members from one tribe, serving in turn (decided by lot) as prytaneis or “presiding officers” for 1/10 of the year

The law courts were another crucial part of the Athenian democracy. No citizen was above the law, so as in America everyone, both rich and poor, had to submit to the judgement of their fellow citizens, who made up the juries. Jury service allowed the poor to participate in the political process. Their exercise of real political power in these various capacities was a great source of annoyance to richer, more conservative Athenians.

Every year from citizens, who had volunteered, 6000 jurors were selected by lot and were sworn in. Every day the courts were in session, a varying portion of this panel of 6000 would show up early in the morning, attracted by the prospect of getting paid for their jury duty. No juror could know ahead of time whether he was going to serve that day and, if selected, which case he would be involved in. The reason for the complex process was to prevent bribery. The size of jury panels varied from 201 to 401 in private lawsuits and from 501 to as high as 2501 in more important cases. The large size of these panels also prevented the possibility of bribery. A secret ballot also protected the jurors from outside influence.

The court system was run by non-professionals. There were no professionally trained judges and lawyers. A law attributed to the sixth century BC lawgiver, Solon, stipulated that a prosecution could be undertaken by “anyone who wanted to.¡¨

A comparison with contemporary functions of government is very revealing:

„h Non executive head of state ¡V The closest to this function was the epistates, chairman of the 50 prytaneis. The epistates was selected by drawn lot from the prytaneis, with a mandate of one day. Having once served as epistates, he was excluded from ever doing so again. The epistates summoned the prytaneis and the Council and was chairman of the Assmebly. He held the key to the state treasury, together with the city seal.

„h Executive head of state ¡V This function did not exist in ancient Athens, for no one citizen ever held so much power. Closest, perhaps, was the poilitical practice, which conferred on Perikles a personal impact similar to that of a head of government. This did not derive, however, from his title of general, but ratehr from the ability to get continuously re-elected, and to influence his fellow citizens on matters of policy and courses of action pertaining to city affairs.

„h Government, Ministers ¡V The Council (or Boule), was probably the closest body in the Athenian Democratic system to that of a contemporary government. The Council consisted of 500 citizens, selected by lot. Those, amongst them, entrusted with the supervision of policy implementation fulfilled a role which approximated to minister for that project.

„h Legislative body ¡V A Parliament, Congress or House of Representatives in the sense of a representative body empowered by the people to legislate on the people¡¦s behalf did not exist in classical Athens. All citizens were legislators.

„h Political parties ¡V Athenian political leanings fell into two broad categories: the aristocrats (those supporting the prior political system where a selected few governed) and the democrats ( those who favored the prevailing democratic system). However, these two schools of thought never manifested themselves in the form of clearly defined, organized political parties.

The development of modern democracy is linked fundamentally with the ideas of freedom and equality. In antiquity democracy was based exclusively on citizen rights, that is, on law shaped by man.

Athenian democracy lacked the basic moral principle that stood at the cradle of modern democracy: not to take into account, whether in theory or in political reality, the natural inequality of man. Modern democracy began by realizing the idea of political equality, then strove for social equality, and finally, at least in theory, claimed economic equality for all citizens. In sharp contrast, the evolution of ancient democracy stopped with the concept of political equality. Therefore, the definition of ancient democracy focuses primarily on institutions and numbers of active citizens.

Democracy in the classical Greek sense signifies a particular type of society not a particular form of government. Athenian democracy meant the absence of a division between the state and society. What this really meant was the absence of a professional state apparatus whose function was solely to administer the affairs of the citizens. The citizen body governed itself directly through active participation in administering its own affairs. Participation in government was a duty which fell upon every citizen.

The current democratic model makes no such claims. It rejects citizen participation, or what has come to be termed direct democracy, on the grounds of impracticality. More faithful proponents of elite theory want to protect it from “mass politics” and “mass opinion”. Current political practice in the liberal democratic state does not however necessarily meet the criterion posed by advocates of the model. Democracy as government of the representatives of the majority of the people is not easily attainable.

Both in the United States and in Britain participation in the electoral process is relatively low. In Britain for example, it has been pointed out that no British government in the past forty years has been elected with even a bare majority of the votes cast. In practice the government is elected by and so represents only the largest minority of those who vote. Thus the majority of the voting public are governed by a government not of their own choosing.

On the whole, the democracy served the Athenians well for over one hundred and eighty years. Of course, one could complain that the democracy excluded the majority of the population of Athens. Indeed women, resident aliens, and slaves could not participate in the democratic process. On the other hand, Athenian democracy allowed and fostered a degree of direct participation in the democratic process unknown in modern democracies.

Abbot, Evelyn. A History of Greece. New York, New York.: Putnam¡¦s Sono.

Davies, J.K. Democracy and Classical Greece. Granham, New Jersey.:
Humanities Press. 1978.

Finlay, Moses I. Democracy: Ancient and Modern. New Brunswick, New
Jersey.: Rutgers University Press. 1973.

Hansen, Moses H. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes:
Structure, Priciples and Ideology. Oxford, England.:Blackwell. 1991.

Strantin, G.R. Athenian Politics c. 800-500 B.C.: A Sourcebook. New York,
New York. Routledge. 1990.


Cite this Athenian Democracy

Athenian Democracy. (2018, Jun 17). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/athenian-democracy-2/

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