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 thebeginning of modern class society, it was very much a class affair.
It meantthat power should be in the hands of the largest class: the poorest, leasteducated and the propertyless. As a result, democracy was feared and rejected bythe educated, the cultured, and the wealthy. In classical Greece, democracy wasseen by the enlightened and the educated as one of the worst types of governmentand society imaginable. The rule of the people was regarded as a threat to allthe cherished values of a civilized and orderly society. It would curtailindividual freedom and would lead to anarchy. The political system of ancientAthens was a Democracy, which involved all of its citizens and not only theirrepresentatives, by giving then daily access to civic affairs and politicalpower.
Both decision-making and decision-enforcing were the duty of everycitizen, not just of those elected by them or by their leaders. The citizens ofAthens were directly involved not only in government matters, but also inmatters of justice, as there was no separation of powers in ancient Athens. TheAthenian 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 alsoquite singular in many of its features. Athenian Democracy started developing atthe beginning of the 6th century BC. This development began not by a revolutionof simple people demanding political rights, but by the initiative of the rulingclass of ancient Athens in slow evolutionary ways.
By the middle of the 5thcentury BC, Athens had developed into a pure and absolute Democracy. In 594 BC,Solon was appointed into power. He took immediate measures to relieve thecitizens from the burden of their debts and at the same time began aninstitutional effort to give everyday people a greater participation in cityaffairs. Solon gave right to vote to all male citizens and established a newcouncil of 400 (the Boule) to replace the Ecclesia.
Members of the Boule werechosen randomly by lot. The term Solon is now often used to describe a wiselawmaker. In the year 560 BC, Pisitratus seized power after Solon. He wasthought to be in the league with the Aristocrats, but soon proved to be an evengreater reformer than Solon. He abolished land ownership as a requirement forcitizenship.
He mandated total redistribution of the land and exiled all peoplewho disagreed with him. Kleisthenes became a tyrant in 508 BC. He was anAristocrat who was dedicated to Democracy. He divided Athens in to ten tribesbased on geographical distribution and increased the Boule to 500 citizens.
Through his reforms common citizens acquired a new sense of power with whichthey could come to expect and eventually to demand that all matters ofsignificance be submitted to their Assembly for discussion and then decision. This opened the way for the advanced form of Democracy. The result of tyrantsand reformers was the creation of the most democratic government in worldhistory. All officials were randomly chosen by lot. The revived Ecclesia hadfull and final authority of the making and execution of laws. Juries werecomprised of all citizens who chose to take part in the trial.
In order to keeparistocrats from gaining control, Athenians adopted a policy of Ostracism, orexile, for those who would attempt to restore the Aristocracy. Although not allpersons living in Athens had these political rights, no other Democracy in humanhistory has provided such a magnificent level of participation. This politicalsystem, quite innovative for its times, shaped a society of a distinctcharacter, of great sensibility and of unusual cultural achievements. Theindividual citizen, willing to throw himself into the political fray had animpressive array of powers.
He could propose a law, which, if it found enoughsupport, could be formulated by the Council of 500, put on the agenda of a laterAssembly meeting, discussed and voted upon at that meeting. He could act as adefender of the Constitution (like our Supreme Court) by bringing a prosecutionfor proposal of a law that was either illegal or not in the best interests ofthe state. Finally, he could bring a public prosecution against any othercitizen whether a private person or a magistrate (in the process ofexamination). Not even the most influential politician could escape the power ofthe Athenian citizenry, if he had lost their support. While we say in ourhistory books that the democracies of the Greek city-states were greataccomplishments, they, nevertheless, had numerous problems.
All the major Greekphilosophers thought democracy was the worst form of government. Plato, in hiscritique of democracy in The Republic , claims that it allows people to followall their passions and drives without order or control; Aristotle claimed thatthe competing interests in a democracy makes for chaos rather than purposive anddeliberated action. Democracy did not seem to work very democratically at all,in fact. In Athens, the democratic Assembly was usually dominated by a singlepowerful, charismatic individual; this individual often dominated the Assemblybecause of his presence or oratorical skill rather than his individual worth. Asa result, the democratic governments could make some surprisingly foolishdecisions.
The position of these charismatic leaders, however, was always veryunstable. The democratic Assemblies could change character overnight; they wouldoften eagerly follow a particular leader, and then exile that leader often forno reason Government functions were assigned to two bodies: ?h The Assembly,which focused on policy decision-making. ?h The Council, which concentrated onpolicy implementation and administrative matters. The Assembly was the supremedecision-making body in Athens, which met in an open area on a hill called thePnyx. Technically every male citizen over the age of 18 could attend everymeeting of the Assembly with the right to speak and vote on all matters ofdomestic and foreign policy. Space and other practical considerations, however,would not allow every citizen to attend every meeting.
As well, not all citizenswanted to attend. In the fifth century, to get an assembling of people, publicslaves would proceed through the Agora carrying a long rope coated with freshred paint. Any citizen who was marked with this paint and was caught notattending the Assembly was subject to a penalty of some kind. When pay wasinstituted for attendance at the Assembly in the late fifth century, there wasno longer need to force citizens to attend. The Council consisted of 500 membersselected annually by lot, 50 from each of the ten Athenian tribes.
All malecitizens over the age of 30 were eligible to serve in the Council, but servicein this body was not compulsory. In the various demes (local municipalities)that make up each tribe, citizens volunteered and were selected by lot forservice on the Council. Larger demes were represented by more councillors thansmaller ones. The minimum age was 30 years. A citizen could serve twice as acouncillor in his lifetime.
The Council met everyday, except for festival daysand certain other forbidden days, in the Bouleuterion in the Agora. When theAssembly met, the Council would meet in the afternoon since most Assemblymeetings lasted only till noon. The primary responsibilities of this body werethe preparation of an agenda for the assembly and the supervision of themagistrates. Just as the Assembly required a smaller body (the Council) toprepare business for it, the Council needed a group much smaller than 500 tosupervise its activities.
This supervision was performed by each contingent of50 Council members from one tribe, serving in turn (decided by lot) as prytaneisor “presiding officers” for 1/10 of the year The law courts wereanother crucial part of the Athenian democracy. No citizen was above the law, soas in America everyone, both rich and poor, had to submit to the judgement oftheir fellow citizens, who made up the juries. Jury service allowed the poor toparticipate in the political process. Their exercise of real political power inthese various capacities was a great source of annoyance to richer, moreconservative Athenians.
Every year from citizens, who had volunteered, 6000jurors were selected by lot and were sworn in. Every day the courts were insession, a varying portion of this panel of 6000 would show up early in themorning, attracted by the prospect of getting paid for their jury duty. No jurorcould know ahead of time whether he was going to serve that day and, ifselected, which case he would be involved in. The reason for the complex processwas to prevent bribery.
The size of jury panels varied from 201 to 401 inprivate lawsuits and from 501 to as high as 2501 in more important cases. Thelarge size of these panels also prevented the possibility of bribery. A secretballot also protected the jurors from outside influence. The court system wasrun by non-professionals. There were no professionally trained judges andlawyers.
A law attributed to the sixth century BC lawgiver, Solon, stipulatedthat a prosecution could be undertaken by “anyone who wanted to. ¡¨A comparison with contemporary functions of government is very revealing: ?hNon executive head of state ¡V The closest to this function was theepistates, chairman of the 50 prytaneis. The epistates was selected by drawn lotfrom 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 prytaneisand the Council and was chairman of the Assmebly. He held the key to the statetreasury, together with the city seal. ?h Executive head of state ¡VThis function did not exist in ancient Athens, for no one citizen ever held somuch power. Closest, perhaps, was the poilitical practice, which conferred onPerikles a personal impact similar to that of a head of government.
This did notderive, however, from his title of general, but ratehr from the ability to getcontinuously re-elected, and to influence his fellow citizens on matters ofpolicy and courses of action pertaining to city affairs. ?h Government,Ministers ¡V The Council (or Boule), was probably the closest body in theAthenian Democratic system to that of a contemporary government. The Councilconsisted of 500 citizens, selected by lot. Those, amongst them, entrusted withthe supervision of policy implementation fulfilled a role which approximated tominister for that project.
?h Legislative body ¡V A Parliament, Congressor House of Representatives in the sense of a representative body empowered bythe people to legislate on the people¡?s behalf did not exist inclassical Athens. All citizens were legislators. ?h Political parties ¡VAthenian political leanings fell into two broad categories: the aristocrats(those supporting the prior political system where a selected few governed) andthe democrats ( those who favored the prevailing democratic system). However,these two schools of thought never manifested themselves in the form of clearlydefined, organized political parties.
The development of modern democracy islinked fundamentally with the ideas of freedom and equality. In antiquitydemocracy was based exclusively on citizen rights, that is, on law shaped byman. Athenian democracy lacked the basic moral principle that stood at thecradle of modern democracy: not to take into account, whether in theory or inpolitical reality, the natural inequality of man. Modern democracy began byrealizing the idea of political equality, then strove for social equality, andfinally, at least in theory, claimed economic equality for all citizens.
Insharp contrast, the evolution of ancient democracy stopped with the concept ofpolitical equality. Therefore, the definition of ancient democracy focusesprimarily on institutions and numbers of active citizens. Democracy in theclassical Greek sense signifies a particular type of society not a particularform of government. Athenian democracy meant the absence of a division betweenthe state and society. What this really meant was the absence of a professionalstate apparatus whose function was solely to administer the affairs of thecitizens. The citizen body governed itself directly through active participationin administering its own affairs.
Participation in government was a duty whichfell upon every citizen. The current democratic model makes no such claims. Itrejects citizen participation, or what has come to be termed direct democracy,on the grounds of impracticality. More faithful proponents of elite theory wantto protect it from “mass politics” and “mass opinion”.
Current political practice in the liberal democratic state does not howevernecessarily meet the criterion posed by advocates of the model. Democracy asgovernment of the representatives of the majority of the people is not easilyattainable. Both in the United States and in Britain participation in theelectoral process is relatively low. In Britain for example, it has been pointedout that no British government in the past forty years has been elected witheven a bare majority of the votes cast.
In practice the government is elected byand so represents only the largest minority of those who vote. Thus the majorityof the voting public are governed by a government not of their own choosing. Onthe whole, the democracy served the Athenians well for over one hundred andeighty years. Of course, one could complain that the democracy excluded themajority of the population of Athens. Indeed women, resident aliens, and slavescould not participate in the democratic process. On the other hand, Atheniandemocracy allowed and fostered a degree of direct participation in thedemocratic process unknown in modern democracies.
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Davies, J. K. Democracy and Classical Greece. Granham, New Jersey. :Humanities Press. 1978.
Finlay, Moses I. Democracy: Ancient and Modern. NewBrunswick, New Jersey. : Rutgers University Press. 1973.
Hansen, Moses H. TheAthenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Priciples and Ideology. Oxford, England. :Blackwell. 1991.
Strantin, G. R. Athenian Politics c. 800-500B.
C. : A Sourcebook. New York, New York. Routledge. 1990