Ancient Athens is often hailed as the home of democracy by politicians, journalists and academics alike, yet how accurate is this statement? Irrespective of how democratic you think many modern democracies actually are, given the power held by special interest groups, it is still interesting to explore the genesis of an idea that is invoked so often in our times.
The initial shift towards democracy in ancient Athens can be traced to the reforms of the legislature and poet, Solon, in approximately 593 BC (McWhorter 1951: 292). Solon’s reforms were in part aimed at increasing the level of citizenry representation in the Athenian political institutions of the Assembly and the Council (McWhorter 1951: 292). This put ancient Athens on the path towards democracy, however it was not until more than eight decades later that the move towards democracy truly began to gain traction.
In 510 BC, the reign of the tyrannical family known as the Peisistratids came to an end, with the final nail in the coffin coming when Sparta invaded Athens and the wider region of Attica (Fox 2006: 91). Two years later, Cleisthenes, a statesman who is often referred to today as the ‘father of democracy,’ advocated that the constitution should be modified in a way that would place the sovereign power of the Athenian political system in the hands of the male citizenry (Fox 2006: 92). This is thought to be the first recorded proposal of democracy in the world, a revolutionary moment in history (Fox 2006: 92). At its core, Cleisthenes’ radical proposal would require that the popular assembly should decide the outcome of all the key public issues facing the Athenian population (Fox 2006: 93).
Cleisthenes’ break with the tradition boundaries of politics in the ancient world was met with resistance however. The most notable opponent was the Athenian aristocrat, Isagoras, who appealed to Sparta for assistance (Fox 2006: 93). The Spartans invaded Attica once again, yet they were met with fierce resistance by much of the populace, with the Spartans forced to surrender and retreat shortly after invading.
With the Spartans defeated, the support for the proposal of Cleisthenes skyrocketed (Fox 2006: 93). The distinguishing feature of Athenian democracy was that the voice of every male citizen was considered equal when debating an issue, irrespective of class or property owned by the citizen (Fox 2006: 94). For the next one hundred and eighty years, democracy existed and grew in Athens, with only a few short reversals back to oligarchy (Fox 2006: 96). One such instance came after an alliance led by Athens was defeated by an alliance led by Sparta in the Peloponnesian war. Following the Athenian defeat, a Spartan-imposed oppressive oligarchy was installed, known as the Thirty Tyrants, yet this was quickly replaced by democracy again (McWhorter 1951: 297).
So, it is clear that ancient Athens had many elements and principles that we would recognise as democratic today. Yet the form of democracy in ancient Athens would not be considered a democracy today, as the Athenian form of democracy did not include a major dimension of democracy in the modern context: that of inclusion (meaning who is eligible to vote and participate politically) (Dahl 1971, in Berg-Schlosser 2019: 70). In ancient Athens, there were severe restrictions as to who could participate in the democratic process. Women were excluded from the democratic process entirely, along with slaves and those residents who were not Athenian citizens (McWhorter 1951: 291). Considering these limitations, it is perhaps better to think of ancient Athens as a quasi-democracy or part-democracy, as opposed to a fully-fledged democratic system in the modern context.
Another curious feature of the relationship between democracy and ancient Athens is the fact that many of the most prominent and preeminent philosophers who were born or lived in ancient Athens were not great proponents of democratic government. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were all far from zealot democratic advocates. One of the central criticisms of democracy that both Socrates and his student Plato voiced, was that they believed that the electorate in a democratic system was unable to select officials who were adequately qualified and trained to rule effectively (McWhorter 1951: 298).
Furthermore, Plato was explicit in his condemnation of democracy, as he argued that it stifled true leadership and that the idea of democracy itself was grossly impractical (Braund 1994: 43-45). Interestingly, in the Republic, Plato writes – through the Socratic dialogue – that in nature as well as in politics, an extreme form of one thing can often produce an extreme reaction in the opposite direction (Plato 2007: 301), in an ancient variation of what is known today as Newton’s third law of motion – which essentially states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Through this logical structure, Plato argues that democracy can produce tyranny and tyranny can produce democracy, in a perennial process of constitutional instability (Plato 2007: 301).
Aristotle – who was a student at the Academy of Plato and who also went on to tutor Alexander the Great – was much less critical of democracy than both Socrates and Plato, although he did still voice scepticism towards the idea. Writing in his book The Politics, Aristotle believed that democracy was an “erroneous” constitution along with tyranny and oligarchy (Aristotle 1981: 239). Aristotle noted that one of the main vulnerabilities of democracy that often led to the democratic system being overthrown stemmed from the “unprincipled character of popular leaders” that would sometimes ascend in democracies, with these leaders forcing opposition to arise and eventually try to overthrow them (Aristotle 1981: 310).
Despite Aristotle’s critique of democracy on one hand, he does offer support to democracy on the other, in particular he promotes one of the foundational principles of democracy; namely, that it is better and more just for many people to rule than only a select few. Aristotle (1981: 202) argues – with certain limitations – that there is at least a degree of truth in the belief that a large group of individuals have more collective wisdom than a few individuals who are highly skilled, “as each [individual] has some share of virtue and practical wisdom” that is collectively aggregated in a large group. To illustrate his point, Aristotle (1981: 202) notes that a feast in which many individuals contribute is better than a feast where only one individual contributes.
On balance, it perhaps the case that the relationship between democracy and ancient Athens is far more nuanced in reality than the way it is often portrayed.
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Aristotle (Translation – Sinclair, T., and Saunders, T.) (1981) The Politics (London: Penguin Group).
Berg-Schlosser, D. (2019) “Long Waves and Conjunctures of Democratization,” in Haerpfer, C., Bernhagan, P., Welzel, C. and Inglehart, R. (eds.) Democratization, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 67-81.
Braund, D. (1994) ‘The Luxuries of Athenian Democracy David Braund,’ Greece and Rome, 41:1, 41-48.
Fox, R. L. (2006) The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome (London: Penguin Group).
McWhorter, R. L. (1951) ‘The Athenian Democracy,’ The Georgia Review, 5:3, 290-299.
Plato (Translation Lee, D.) (2007) The Republic (London: Penguin Group).
Note: the sources consulted to construct this narrative do not necessarily endorse the narrative constructed.
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