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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
     Rival systems
     Athenian democracy
     The people's army
     The mechanics of democracy
     Generals and treasurers
     The Athenian administration
     The end of the experiment

Medieval democracy
Modern democracy
To be completed

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Rival systems

How many people hold power in a society, and how they exercise it, are eternal themes of political debate.

At one extreme a single person rules. Such a system is usually called a monarchy (Greek for 'rule by one') when the position can be inherited within a family. It is likely to be given such names as tyranny (from examples in Greek history) or dictatorship (from Rome) when power is seized by or granted to an individual member of society.


The other extreme is democracy (Greek for 'power of the people'), in which theoretically every adult can influence group decisions. Such an egalitarian approach is familiar to anthropologists, studying the customs of small tribal groups, but it has been a rarity in more developed societies.

Between the two extremes is oligarchy (Greek for 'rule by a few'). In a sense all early clashes between oligarchy and democracy are an argument over how many to include in the few, with democrats pressing for a higher figure than oligarchs can accept. Even in Athens, where sophisticated democracy begins, only a small proportion of the community can vote.


Athenian democracy: 5th century BC

In the 5th century BC Athens pioneers an experiment in direct democracy, as opposed to the representative democracy of modern societies. It is copied by her Greek allies and colonies at the time, but it has rarely been attempted anywhere else since (Switzerland in the 13th century is one example).

Democracy of this kind has two preconditions. The community must be small enough for citizens to be capable of attending debates and voting on issues. And its economy must give these citizens enough leisure to engage in politics; in the ancient world this means that there must be slaves to do most of the work. Both circumstances prevail in Athens.


The citizen democrats of Athens are those males, over the age of eighteen, who are sons of an Athenian father (after 451 BC the mother must be Athenian as well). They number no more than 50,000 in the whole of Attica. In addition to these citizens the population includes about 25,000 metics (metoikoi, or foreigners trading in Athens, for this is a major commercial centre), together with free women and children and perhaps 100,000 slaves. This gives a total of about 300,000 people. So the voting citizens form at most 20% of the population.

Democracy is achieved in several stages, through reforms linked with Solon in 594, with the Ten tribes of Cleisthenes in 508, and with Pericles in 462.


The people's army: 6th - 5th century BC

The move towards democracy reflects other changes in society. In the prehistoric period, throughout Greece, aristocratic families have provided the main fighting force, as cavalry.

In the 7th century the Greek city-states develop the new military concept of the heavily armed infantryman, the hoplite. A remorseless phalanx of hoplites becomes as effective on the battlefield as the tank in modern times. These soldiers provide their own weapons and armour, but this is expensive. Several of the Greek oligarchies, including that of Athens in the 6th century, reflect the power of this middle class of citizens.


The poorer citizens of a Greek state, unable to afford armour, can only play their part in the army as light infantry - useful in a skirmish, but relatively unimportant on the battlefields of the day.

A strategic change of direction by Athens, early in the 5th century, gives these poorer citizens a new power. The military effort is diverted into building up an Athenian navy. Triremes, the fast warships of the time, need men to row them. Suddenly every citizen has a part to play, and the crews of a fleet of warships have a self-evident political strength. A more radical democracy, introduced by Pericles in 462, is almost an inevitable result.


The mechanics of Athenian democracy: 5th century BC

The system which emerges in the mid-5th century involves citizens in government in a variety of ways.

Each has a voice in the highest forum of the nation, the ecclesia or assembly, which meets four times a month on the Pnyx, a flat-topped hill in Athens. On major occasions, with important issues to be decided, as many as 5000 citizens attend. It is not always easy to assemble a large crowd. Scythian slaves (serving as state police) are much in evidence at the start of each meeting, tightening a long red-dyed rope to net any nearby loiterers. In about 400 BC pay is introduced for attendance, to compensate for loss of working time.


Any citizen may answer the herald's question 'Who wishes to speak?', but addressing such a large crowd in the open air is difficult. Most of the debate is carried on by regular speakers - in effect the leading politicians, who are known as rhetores (orators).

The business of the day is fixed by another body of 500 members, called the boule or council. Here the principle of amateurism is more firmly established, for the members are chosen by drawing lots. Fifty are selected at village level by each of the ten tribes which make up Athenian society (the reforms of Cleisthenes, in 508, have imposed these arbitrary tribal divisions in order to share out democratic power).


The principle of selection by lot is carried even further in the council of 500. Each member serves for a month as one of the 50 prutaneis, or presidents, who run the everyday administration of the city (there are ten months in the Athenian year, so every councillor has one monthly term of office). Furthermore the chairman of the boule changes every day, again selected by lot from the 50 prutaneis. So almost every councillor is effectively head of state for one day of the year.

Non-specialization can hardly be carried further. But the Athenians do have the common sense to use election, without any time limit, for the most important posts.


Generals and treasurers

The effective leaders of Athens, because of their responsibility for war (an almost constant state of affairs), are the ten strategoi or generals. There is one from each of the ten tribes, elected each year by the ecclesia in which every citizen has a vote (see the Ten tribes of Cleisthenes). The dominant position of Pericles in mid-5th century Athens is reflected in his election, year after year, as the leading strategos.

The only other officials to be elected rather than chosen by lot are the treasurers, with responsibility for the state's accounts - evidence again that the Athenian citizens recognize the areas where expertise rather than common sense is essential.


The Athenian administration

The functions associated with a modern civil service are carried out in Athens by citizens chosen randomly by lot. Such tasks range from supervising the markets and checking weights and measures to keeping the minutes of the council or travelling abroad on diplomatic business. All such offices are held for a year.

Even in law, an important area of each citizen's responsibility, there are no experts. Jurors are selected by lot and a second lottery assigns each man to a particular case. Pericles introduces payment for jury service so that no citizen is excluded by poverty. Without professional judges or lawyers, and with huge juries, an Athenian court of law is rough and ready justice.



The most dramatic example of direct democracy in 5th-century Athens is the system of ostracism, used from about 487 to 417. Anyone ostracized must go into exile for ten years but no harm is done to his family, his property or his own subsequent rights. Intended as a way of ridding the city of a powerful but unpopular figure, it can all too easily be used for political vendetta. There is no charge to answer, and no redress.

At a mass meeting, summoned specifically to decide on ostracism, each citizen writes one name on a broken shard of pottery (an ostrakon). Anyone featuring on more than a given number of shards (variously interpreted as 6000 or a majority from 6000 voters) is removed from public life.


The end of the experiment: 322 BC

Democracy survives the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, in 404 BC, only to come to an abrupt end a century later. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Athenians join other Greek states in an unsuccessful revolt against Macedonian rule. The Macedonians retaliate in 322 by placing a garrison in Attica. An oligarchy is imposed, with the franchise restricted to the rich.

Among modern countries where democracy is the favoured system, the Athenian experiment eventually acquires a hallowed status. But more than 2000 years will pass, after the heyday of Athens, before anyone again regards with approval the dangerous idea of giving real power to the people.


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