Democracy in Athens

In 507 B.C., Democracy introduced at Athens by the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes and implemented political changes he termed demokratia, or “rule by the people” (from demos, “the people,” and Kratos, or “power”). It was the world’s first known democracy.

This system consisted of three different institutions: the ekklesia, a sovereign governing body that drafted laws and determined foreign policy; the boule, a council of representatives from the ten Athenian tribes; and the Dikasteria, the popular courts in which citizens argued cases before a jury selected by lot. Although this Athenian democracy lasted for barely two centuries, its creation by Cleisthenes, “The Father of Democracy,” was one of the most enduring legacies of ancient Greece to contemporary society. The direct democracy system in Greece would pave the way for representative democracies everywhere.

Who had Voting Rights in Ancient Greece’s Democracy?

In a democracy, observed the Greek historian Herodotus, the most magnificent of qualities is equality before the law. It was true that Cleisthenes’ democracy eliminated the political divisions between the Athenian aristocracy, who had long dominated political decision-making, and the middle- and working-class individuals who comprised the army and the navy (and whose incipient discontent was the reason Cleisthenes introduced his reforms in the first place).

However, the “equality” reported by Herodotus was restricted to a tiny portion of the ancient Athenian population. During the middle of the fourth century, Athens had approximately 100,000 citizens (Athenian citizenship was restricted to men and women whose parents were also Athenian citizens), approximately 10,000 metoikoi, or “resident foreigners,” and 150,000 enslaved people. Only male citizens over 18 comprised the demos, meaning that only roughly 40,000 individuals could participate in the democratic process.

The Epistles

The democracy of ancient Athens was a direct democracy comprised of three significant institutions. The first was the Assembly, the supreme governing body of ancient Athens. Any member of the demos, or any of the 40,000 adult male citizens, was welcome to attend the ekklesia sessions, which were conducted forty times a year at the Pnyx, an auditorium located west of the Acropolis. (Only around 5,000 men attended each session of the Assembly; the remainder were serving in the military or supporting their families via employment.)

At these gatherings, the ekklesia made decisions about war and foreign policy, drafted and changed laws, and endorsed or criticized the behavior of public leaders. (Among the ekklesia’s powers was ostracism, whereby a citizen may be exiled from the Athenian city-state for ten years.) A simple majority vote determined decisions.

The Boule

The boule, or Council of Five Hundred, was the second key organization. The boule consisted of 500 men, 50 from each of 10 Athenian tribes, who served a one-year term on the Council. Contrary to the ekklesia, the boule convened daily and performed most administrative tasks. It oversaw government employees and was responsible for items such as navy ships (triremes) and army horses. It dealt with delegates and ambassadors from other city-states. Its primary job was determining which issues would be brought before the ekklesia. In this manner, the 500 members of the boule governed the operation of the real democracy.

The positions on the boule were determined by chance, not election. This was because, in principle, a lottery was more democratic than an election: considerations like money and popularity could not affect pure chance. Additionally, the lottery system precluded the development of a permanent class of public workers who would have been tempted to utilize the government for their advancement or enrichment. However, according to historians, selecting the boule was not always a random process. They observe that affluent and important individuals and their families sat on the Council far more frequently than expected in a genuinely random lottery.

The Dikasteria

The third significant institution was the disasters or popular courts. More than 500 male residents older than 30 were selected by lot as jurors each day. Aristotle maintained that, of all the democratic institutions, the Dikasteria “contributed most to the development of democracy” since the jury had nearly limitless authority.

In Athens, there was no police force. Thus, the demos presented court cases, argued for the prosecution and defense, and rendered majority-ruled decisions and penalties. Athenian residents regularly utilized the disasters to punish or humiliate their opponents since there were no regulations governing the kind of crimes that could be pursued or what could and could not be stated in court.

The jurors were compensated for their labor so that the position was open to anyone, not just the rich (but, since the wage was less than what the average worker earned in a day, the typical juror was an elderly retiree). Since Athenians did not pay taxes, these payments were funded by customs duties, ally contributions, and taxes on the metoikoi. The only exception to this rule was the leitourgia, or liturgy, which was a type of tax that wealthy people volunteered to pay to sponsor significant civic endeavors such as the maintenance of a navy ship (this liturgy was known as the trierarchs) or the production of a play or choral performance at the city’s annual festival.

The End of Democracy in Athens

Around 460 B.C., under the authority of the general Pericles (generals were among the only public officials who were elected, not appointed), the Athenian democracy began to transform into an aristocracy: the rule of “the one man, the best,” as Herodotus described it. Even though democratic principles and procedures did not endure in ancient Greece, they have influenced politicians and governments ever since.

In contrast to direct democracies, voters in representative democracies elect representatives who formulate and enact laws on their behalf. Canada, the United States, and South Africa are examples of representative democracies in the contemporary era.

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