Athenian Democracy From 508 to 322 BCE

Athenian Democracy

Throughout the 186 years, from 508 to 322 BCE, Athens was under the rule of raw democracy. Although it was not a new discovery and traces of it could be found in the government even before 322 BCE, this period experienced Athenian Democracy in its most independent and progressive form. The transparency of the system was at such a level that the city of Athens was not ruled by a law-making body but rather the people held direct authority of decision-making. They had the right to argue and vote on matters, both great and small, on such a diverse scale that rulings over warfare as well as prescribing the required qualification for seamen were handled by them. Though the system apparently was a disorganized one, people had the mind to understand the necessity of checks and balances, and imposed a professional environment throughout the city (Blackwell 4).

Mogens Herman Hansen, a renowned classical philologist, presented his concept and ideology of the Athenian Democracy in his book The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes. It is his idea that Athenian Democracy can be interpreted at a much higher level as a “constitution”, and the proper interpretation of this “constitution” and its ideology may only be done by a detailed analysis of the government system. According to Hansen, the Athenian Democracy formed its basis on a number of diverse ideas. These included a moderate environment, sequestration of law from the social and political system, individual and specific authorities granted to the various governmental departments, and limitations in the decision-making process of the people. The fundamental legislature, which was designed in accordance with these basic ideas, is the “constitution” that Hansen stresses upon. It was this very quality of the constitution that paved the way towards a more organized, legalized, and unbiased democracy (55-85).

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Democracy served the purpose for the social as well as the political systems of the city of Athens. Taking this into consideration, the nonlinearity between the basic ideas and the modified government institutions is safely justified. Although the institutions exhibited flexibility in practice, their evolution took place within the limitations of the basic guidelines (Finley).

The people of Athens were categorized into three diverse groups: citizens, resident foreigners (metics), and slaves. This categorization clearly indicates that groups were made in light of an individual’s legal status in the city. Moreover, the category of a person was subject to change in accordance with any change in his status. For example, a slave could become a metic if he is freed by his owner, and a metic could attain citizenship if he fulfils the requirements. However, a citizen could also lose his status and flushed out from the society, while a metic could be sold for a slave as a punishment (Hansen 86).

The major advantage an Athenian citizen had over a non-citizen was to have a say in politics. Actually, holding political rights was such a luxurious authority that it defined citizenship in Athens. Every adult male citizen had the benefit to sit in the Assembly; and if over the age of thirty, was permitted to run for magistrate, juror, or a legislator. While magistrates were selected at large from a number of random people who stood as candidates, the election of legislators and jurors was confined to a committee of about 6000 citizens that are above thirty years and under oath. Furthermore, metics and foreigners were not completely restricted to attend court either as a subject or an audience, and were occasionally permitted to see the insides of a court (Hansen 97).

Apart from political rights, citizens also enjoyed several economic benefits. They were the only people that were permitted to buy or own estate property in Attica aside from the metics who were granted special permission by the Assembly to purchase land. In addition, the minerals extracted from the lands were assigned as the property of the community rather than the person whose land it was discovered from. The contracts for the extraction of silver from mines were granted only to citizens or metics who had been given a special decree for mining (Hansen 97).

The financial benefits of being a citizen included receiving payments for participating in the political activities as well as military parades on working days, and “theatre money” on recreational days when various plays were being performed. Furthermore, citizens and their families were also compensated for events like disability, death, and food shortage (Hansen 98).

The citizens also held better rights in the legal department. Punishment for murdering a citizen was death while murdering a metic or a slave cost jail time and a fine, respectively. Although torturing citizens was out of the question, metics were occasionally tortured while it was a necessity to torture a slave before he presents his testimony. However, the rival capital punishment for citizens is withdrawal of all rights of citizenship (Hansen 99).

  The duties of citizens in the Athenian Democracy did not enforce any of their rights as obligations. For instance, the refusal of a citizen to participate in political activities or run for public service office was in compliance with the law. However, citizens were required to pay their taxes on time and provide any kind of military assistance possible, if required. The only tax that was a direct responsibility of the citizens was eisphora (land tax); and it was only imposed on owning a certain amount of land. Moreover, all healthy citizens that belonged to the appropriate age group had an unquestioned responsibility to the armed forces. Citizens between the ages of 20 to 58 years had a legal obligation to provide his services at the time of war. Citizens aged 59 years were exempted from the field but had to extend their services as judges in the order of private lawsuits (Hansen 99-100).

Although metics also had a responsibility towards military service and taxation, duties concerning marriage, family, and personal conduct were exclusively for citizens. For example, marriage between a citizen and a metic, male prostitution, and negligence of parents, were all classified as punishable crimes. It was the duty of a citizen to provide food and shelter to his parents and pay them the proper respect after they die (Hansen 100-101).

Citizenship was granted only on the basis of birth or through naturalization. However, as the Athenian government was not very keen on providing the rights of citizenship to foreigners, the heritage of a person proved to be the basic standard. In the 4th century, a person born of Athenian citizens was defined as a citizen. On the other hand, the process of naturalization was quite a rare luxury for foreigners. According to what was inferred from evidence, only 64 foreigners were naturalized from the year 368 to 322 BCE, of which most of them were foreign politicians who had no intention of living in Athens, and accepted it as an honorary gift of citizenship (Hansen 94). Initially, citizenships were granted all kinds of people including metics, slaves as well as the illegitimate born. As the citizens eventually held a majority at the political institutions, extremely strict rules and regulations were designed for any further grant of citizenship. This act made it impossible for metics and slaves to acquire citizenship unless given special permission by the Athenian government (Hansen 95). In traditional perspective, it was a culture at the time that it is the duty of a woman to look after her house and family while keeping aloft from external matters. Hence, a woman, whether a citizen or noncitizen, was not permitted to participate in warfare and political activities; and thus, did not enjoy the same rights and duties of citizenship as the men (Kapparis 4).

Elite refers to a person who belongs to small group of people that enjoys additional benefits in contrast to the other masses. Pertaining to the various classes of people, Athens witnessed all types of elites including ruling, educated, wealthy, and status elites. The introduction of constitutional democracy in Athens really put the elites on the back foot. The masses were given equal rights in each and every social field. Though the elites tried to blend in with the masses, their extraordinary characteristics always kept them outstanding (Ober 14).

Although elites shared equality with the masses, certain groups still served specific purposes in the Athenian society. For example, the wealthy elite were liable to provide the city with various materialistic and financial services. Moreover, elites diligently participated in political activities; the higher officials and public speakers were of elite ancestry, and all political personalities had a wealthy status (Ober 14). The masses accepted the elites in the roles of authority in the Athenian government. However, based on the principle of egalitarian ideology, they kept a check and balance on the activities of ruling elites and prevented them from exceeding their boundaries (Ober 17). A phrase from George Orwell’s Animal Farm perfectly explains the elite situation in Athenian Democracy: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” (112).

Though Athens may have built a strong foundation for the prosperity of democracy throughout the world, the Athenian Democracy itself was a system saturated with flaws as it ignored the significant role of a majority of population that included women, metics, and slaves. With time, the so-called democratic Athens fell back into the grip of the elites; consequently, corruption prevailed which led to the eventual downfall of the empire.

Works Cited

  1. Blackwell, Christopher W. “Athenian Democracy: a brief overview”. 28 Feb. 2003. Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy, a Stoa Publication. 2 May 2010.
  2. Finley, Moses I. “Politics”. Politics in the Ancient World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 50-69.
  3. Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes. Trans. J.A. Crook. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
  4. Kapparis, K. “Women and Family in Athenian Law”. 22 Mar. 2003. Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy, a Stoa Publication. 2 May 2010.
  5. Ober, Josiah. “Elites and Masses”. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991. 11-17.
  6. Orwell, George. Animal farm. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1946. 112.

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