What was Athenian Democracy?

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The word “democracy” comes from the Greek word demos (people) and kratos (rule), and thus, like many other important concepts, is considered to have originated from ancient Greece. Democracy, despite some interruptions and exceptions, flourished in Greece from 462 to 322 BCE, particularly in Athens, and became the model for what has become the dominant form of government in the world today. The democracy of ancient Athens, however, did differ to the commonly understood modern forms, as it reflected the history of Athens and the warring Greek states of the period.

After the Ancient Greek Dark Ages (a period which followed the breakdown of Mycenaean civilization around 1100 BCE and lasted until about the ninth century BCE) most of the emergent city-states evolved into oligarchies. In these city-states powerful nobles monopolized and controlled government and used power for their own sake and benefit. The Areopagus, a council and law court consisting of men of aristocratic birth in the city of Athens, possessed power through their control of state machinery, appointing officials, and serving as a civil court, while the population from the lower classes were excluded from office.

This would be challenged in the eighth to seventh centuries BCE with the development of the hoplite (men, mostly citizens, in the heavy infantry) model of citizen-soldiery. This model became disruptive to those who were in power because it embraced a level of egalitarianism. The result was the emergence of a sort of middle class supporting the idea of full citizenry and political representation. At the same time the lower classes were also making demands which led to tensions between them and the elite, particularly on issues of land reform and debt slavery.

Some of these tensions were eased through the efforts of the poet and statesman Solon, who claimed to have paved the foundations of democracy. In 594 BCE, Solon, through his reforms, declared all citizens could vote in matters of state and that a law court should admit all citizens. His reforms were an affront to the upper classes because he introduced a graded oligarchy in which power corresponded to wealth. As such, the aristocracy was expected to control the highest offices, the middle class the lesser offices, and the poor could be selected to serve on juries.

The institution of true democracy in Athens is traditionally dated to 507 BCE through the efforts of Cleisthenes, who is often considered the father of Athenian democracy. Through introducing democracy, Cleisthenes enabled all Athenians to vote directly on Athenian policy. He went on to reorganize the population into units by geography rather than kinship which essentially did away with traditions enforced by the aristocracy. This is known as sortition, which is the random selection of citizens for enrollment within government offices rather than basing the decision on peoples’ hereditary. Cleisthenes also produced reforms for the Boule around 508/507 BCE, with the Boule being the council that controlled the affairs of Athens. One such reform was to make the council’s membership representative of the population of tribes, thus fifty members from ten tribes would make up the council’s 500 membership.

Sometime later, in 462 BCE, Ephialtes, a politician who would become the leader of the democratic movement in Athens, together with his deputy Pericles, dismantled the Areopagus council. The Areopagus was the last bastion of oligarchic control in Athens, and its power was transferred to the Boule, the Ecclessia, and the citizen courts. In 461 BCE, Ephialtes was assassinated. The details of the assassination are unknown although it was likely due to the anger of the oligarchs. After the assassination, Pericles took over the political leadership and would become one of the most influential rulers in the history of ancient Greece. Although at this point in its history Athens had a genuine democracy, it still left many people excluded. Many could not participate in the system because they were not considered true citizens. Only adult males enjoyed political rights while women, foreigners, and slaves were excluded. For example, out of Attica’s roughly 300 000 population only 30 000 people made up the voting population, all of whom were men.

The time between the Persian War (479 BCE) and the start of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE) the city of Athens reached the height of its glory. In many ways life flourished. Philosophy thrived largely due to the likes of Socrates (c. 469-399 BC), the pre-Socratics, and others such a Plato (who opposed democracy), and Aristotle (who set up the Lyceum school and wrote on numerous philosophical and scientific topics). Architecture also flourished. Pericles, in 447 BCE, built the Parthenon temple on a hill called the Acropolis and Athenian citizenship was highly coveted. In 451 BCE, Pericles passed a law restricting citizenship to men whose parents were both Athenians.

Democracy soon faced many challenges. During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), in which the Athenians were defeated by the Spartans, Athenian democracy was twice suspended (in 411 and 404 BCE). The Athenian oligarchs also charged that the city’s weak position was due to democracy, which led them to stage a revolution to replace democratic rule with an extreme oligarchy. In both of these cases democracy was restored within a year and then flourished for the next 80 years until the Macedonian conquest of Athens under Philip II and his son Alexander (later named Alexander the Great) in 322 BCE. Following the conquests, democracy would be restored at certain points during the Hellenistic age before being killed off for good by the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BCE.

References and Recommended Readings

Grant, R. et al. 2016. The History Book. p. 48-51

Cartwright, M. 2018. Athenian Democracy. Available.

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