Friday, April 13, 2007


In every country the aristocracy is contrasted to the democracy,

There being in the best people the least licentiousness and iniquity,

But the keenest eye for morals; in the people on the other hand we find a very

High degree of ignorance, disorder and vileness; for

Poverty more and more leads them in the direction of bad morals, thus also

The absence of education and in the cause of some persons

The ignorance which is due to the want of money. – The anonymous fifth-century author of the Constitution of the Athenians[1]


1.0 Introduction

The word democracy comes from two Greek words: a noun, demos which means ''people'' and a verb, kratein, which means ''to rule,'' Its basic meaning is ''government by the people" or "rule by the ruled.'[2]'

The city-state of Athens, 5th century Athens to be precise, is the inventor and first practitioner of democracy. So for 4,000 years citizens lived under forms of government other than democratic. For some 2500 years now democracy as a theory and actual system of government has existed, with varying degrees of consistency between theory and practice. But it all began in the middle of the 5th century before Christ in Athens.

2.0 Supporting arguments

According to the Athenians, the source of constitutional power rested in the hands of all the citizens. Ideas were expressed directly through the Assembly, which consisted of all male citizens over 18 years of age and who were willing to attend the sessions held about every 10 days. There was no system of representation calling for long campaigns and expensive elections. Whatever this Assembly decided by vote was the law of the land[3].

The Athenian democracy worked fairly well. The main reason for its success was the quality of the citizens. From the days of Solon, its first lawgiver, the Athenians like the rest of the Greeks had a deep respect for what they called the golden mean, which meant that they avoided extremes in politics. There was a sober devotion to the common good that is frequently missing in modern democracies, which tend to be much more individualistic, dedicated to private and group interests.

Athenians and generally all Greeks appreciated the Athenian Democratic system during the Hellenic-Persian wars. It was The Athenian Assembly that took some crucial decisions for the fate of the Hellenic nation.

Besides some crucial decisions such as the ones concerning the war with Persia most of the problems on which the Athenian Assembly had to vote were far simpler than those modern democracies face. The average citizen could pick up enough information in the Angora to decide how to vote. There was no need or desire to have the kind of official secrecy and power distance that threatens to destroy the very idea of democracy today. Most citizens in Athens who took active part in the Assembly were much better informed on public issues than the average voter today who goes to the polls.

There are various arguments for and against the democracy in ancient Greece. But before we analyse them, it is crucial to refer that not all of the Greek city-states (polis-kratos) had democracy. Each city was a separate state, so Greece was divided to hundred city-states.

Held[4] stated that “its political ideas (meaning the Athenian democracy) – equity among citizens, liberty, respect for the law and justice – have influenced political thinking of the West” (p.15). Pericles in his speech in his famous ‘Funeral speech’[5] had summarized the advantages of the Athenian Democracy. In few words the advantages were the following:

  • The power is in the hands not of an elite or a minority but of the whole people
  • Everyone is equal before the law
  • The Athenian democracy gave freedoms that no other city-state had
  • The private life’s secrecy is respected
  • None is obliged to participate
  • Everyone can become member of the democratic institutions
  • Every citizen is well informed for what is going on the political life of Athens

The Athenians’ democracy was based on the concept of the direct participation of the citizens to the decisions and the procedures of the city state.

In Aristotle’s book “The Politics[6]”, it emphasized that the basic principle of democracy is the liberty. He also mentioned the term ‘equality’. A condition to have democracy is to have equality between the city-state’s citizens. Finley[7] states that the Athenian democracy was direct not representative. Every citizen could participate on the Assembly, which had the final word on issues concerning wars, finance, legislation, treaties and other issues concerning the political life of the city state. The assembly meet forty times the minimum, thus it was quite frequent. Each citizen had the privilege of ‘Isegoria’ that means that he had the right to express his view on the assembly, while all the decisions were taken from a simply majority vote of those present.

In addition to this, Aristotle managed to answer to other authors that have criticised him after 2,500 years. Many author has stated that “Democracy meant rule by the people or the many; but because the many were also poor, it was often taken to mean rule by the poor, or by the rabble[8] Aristotle has stated that a democracy that is run from the rich is an oligarchy rather a democracy. He defined oligarchy as the democracy of the few of the ‘rich and well-born’, defending his views about democracy.

Another issue is the limitation of bureaucracy. There were not any clerks or public workers. There were only few slaves that were acting as civic employees recording the results of the assembly.

Besides the issues of the freedoms and the fact that the decisions were taken by majority, there were also a variety of constitutional safeguards built into the system. Any law passed by the Assembly had to be proposed by some person, whose name appeared at the beginning of the statute. If the citizens later thought they had made a mistake they could attack the saw in court on a "writ of unconstitutionality,'' that is, as being contrary to Athenian principles. If the law was thus challenged within a year after its passage and found unconstitutional, its proposer was fined a sum that would bankrupt almost any citizen. This arrangement had a tendency to discourage frivolous ideas and glory seekers. It encouraged serious thinking and political responsibility.

There was also a way of ridding Athens of overly ambitious politicians. This was the famous unpopularity contest known as "ostracism.'' A special date was set at which citizens wrote on clay shards (ostraca) the name of the man they most disliked. Anyone who got a majority (if more than 600 votes had been cast) was sent into exile for 10 years. This could of course be abused and sometimes citizens that have done nothing against the Athenian democracy were sent into exile, but it was certainly a better system than kangaroo courts or secret police prisons. Lakoff[9] states for the ostraka the following: “Cleisthenes also established the novel system of osctracism ostensibly in order to prevent tyranny but perhaps also to enable him to remove rivals like Isagoras. Each year, the assembly voted on whether to hold an ostracism. The goal may have been to let the people as a whole decide which of the two major policies was to be adopted by temporarily banishing from the political scene the most prominent spokesman of one of them” (p.46). In this way the Athenians could keep away anyone that was seen as a potential ‘threat’ to democracy or that his ideas were not reflecting the majority. From the above it is easily understood that the ostrakismos could be used to protect the democracy but also can be used from some citizens to get rid of their rivals.

Perhaps, the most important institution which helped the Assembly to function smoothly was the steering committee or Council of 500. Athens, both the city and its surrounding countryside was divided into 10 electoral districts called ''tribes.'' These districts were further divided into precincts or ''demes'' which had some limited self-government in the rural areas. Each precinct named candidates over 30 years of age for the Council of 500. From these candidates 50 were chosen by lot for each tribe to serve as members of the Council of 500 for a year' The final choice by lot was one of the most democratic devices imaginable and reduced the danger of political skullduggery. There was no danger that the Council could turn into a private preserve for the wealthy or influential as modern government bodies have a tendency to do, because members served only one year: no man could be a member two years in a row; and no one could serve more than twice in his lifetime. The Council of 500 prepared the published agenda for each session of the Assembly.

Once the Assembly had passed a resolution, the executive branch carried it out on behalf of the people and the Council of 500 supervised its execution. Almost all the administrative officials were chosen by lot for one year. Usually they were selected in groups of 10 to carry out one specific function such as policing the markets or caring for the streets. The street commissioners had a body of public slaves specifically to pick up the bodies of people who died at night in the streets, and public slaves did other work for the community. All officials chosen by lot were examined by the Council before entering office to eliminate the physically or mentally incompetent Any official handling public duties was subject to repeated inspections.

The arguments put for the democracy in ancient Greece and especially ancient Athens are that it was a governance system based on the direct decisions of the majority of the citizens. Each citizen had the right to take part on the procedures and to hold a governmental position.

3.0 Arguments set against democracy by ancient Greece

The arguments were first set from ancient Greek writers and thinkers such as Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plato, who were critics of Athenian democracy.

A close reading of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War[10], in which the author raises questions about democratic political discourse and the quality of leadership in post-Periclean Athens, emphasizing the fact that the procedures were not sufficient like it was during the Pericles golden era, merely because of the lack of popular politicians – citizens such as Pericles who were capable to run Athens successfully. He is also accusing the Athenian leaderships as a corrupted one.

Like Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes’ Wasps develops a critique of democracy in which the critical content is implicit in the dramatic action of the text. Euben[11] argues (Euben 1997, 133) that Aristophanes was also concerned with the corruption of language in democratic discourse and that, in his role as comic

poet, he set an example by asking the audience to judge the particular speeches and

characters in his plays, experience which they (the demos) could then carry into the

political sphere. Comedy, therefore, serves an educational purpose and encourages the

audience to think critically in their roles as citizens of the polis.

Plato seems to comply with the modern criticizers. Plato characterises democracy as being ‘the extreme of popular liberty’, where ‘slaves - male and female - have the same liberty as their owners’ and where there is ‘complete equality and liberty in the relations between the sexes’[12].

Intellectual anti-democrats such as Socrates and Plato, for instance, argued that the majority of the people, because they were ignorant and unskilled, would always get it wrong. In those intellectuals' view, government was an art, craft or skill, and should be entrusted only to the skilled and intelligent, who were by definition a minority. They denied specifically that the sort of knowledge available to and used by ordinary people was really knowledge at all. At best it was mere opinion, and almost always it was ill-informed and wrong opinion. In few words they are calling democracy the ‘law of the mob or of the poor majority’

Modern thinkers are also criticizing the Ancient Greek democracy. J.Roberts puts Athenian democracy on a ‘trial’ making the comment for the ‘despotic rule of the poor people over the rich’ (Roberts, 1999:52). Another issue is the abuse of the ‘Ostrakismos’ (Roberts, 1999: 58-59). Cimon and Thucydides the son of Melesias were ostracized for their political positions or for criticizing other politicians.

The reputation of the Athenian democracy was damaged from the execution of Socrates (Roberts 1999 and Arblaster 1994) who was one of the biggest criticizers of the Athenian democracy. Finley (1983) defends the Athenian democracy stating that Socrates was guilt by 281 to 220, which means that this is not a result that indicates that the decision was not the product of some ‘mob hysteria’. Socrates was also associated with the Thirty tyrants who were considered as a major threat from the Athenians. The execution of Socrates influenced the work of Plato, who was one of his students and affected the works of Aristotle and many other ancient and modern philosophers by dooming the concept of democracy till the 18th century, since most of the philosophers and thinkers viewed the Athenian democracy as a political system based on the mob because they were influenced from Plato and therefore they might give a fake picture of what was the Athenian democracy in reality.

Another issue is the fact that as Held (1996) says; Athens was based on the ‘slave economy’ who could not take part in the political procedures and off course the fact that women were not taking part to the decisions. Roger Just[13] states that “democracy did not represent the authentic voice of the women themselves.” This means that there was actually not a ‘true majority’ but actually it was based on the decision of few privileged citizens of Athens.

4.0 Discussion and conclusion

There are many arguments against the ancient Greek democracy. Most of the evidence comes from the Athenian democracy since there is no evidence for the democracies on the other Greek city-states.

Many thinkers are calling the Athenian democracy as the “tyranny derived from the majority of the poor”. Of course the rule that the ‘majority decides’ is the basis of every modern democracy. Today’s modern democracies are based on majority systems. The difference is that the people are electing representatives who are elected after costly campaigns that few citizens can afford. This gives a superiority to the Athenian democracy since it had given the option to all of the citizens the right to participate in all of the decision making institutes while it was ensuring that none would stay in the council of the 500 for more than a year. If we see around today’s democracies, we will see countries such as the USA that the elected president has come second in the number of votes, therefore does not represent the true majority or many other countries that their citizens can not take part in any of the decision making processes, such as S.Arabia.

The Athenian democracy was not at all based on the majority since women and slaves were not eligible to vote. For its time it was the perfect model of governance. Few authors mentioned that by 500 B.C. many nations had not discovered yet the alphabet and they were living in primitive societies neither the fact that large civilizations such as the Persian and the Egyptian were kingdoms where the kings were treated and praised as immortals or as gods sent to earth in human form[14].

So the Athenian democracy is the cornerstone to the history of political thought. It is considered normal to have mistakes and not being perfect but throughout the history of all sciences we will never found something that was perfect from its birth. Furthermore today there are countries with huge democratic gaps, so criticizing or comparing the Athenian democracy with today’s democracies is not fair and frankly there are establishments today that have poorer performance than of the Athenian democracy.

The Athenian democracy is the only role example of direct democracy in the story of mankind and it seems that none have even managed to copy it successfully.


[1] Roberts,J. (1994) “Athens on trial”, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.48

[2] Ball, T. and Dagger, R. (1991) “Ideals and Ideologies” New York: Harper Collins, p.16

[3] OESB “History of the Hellenic Nation, Book 2” Athens: Ministry of education p. 123

[4] Held,D. (1996), “Models of democracy” 2nd Ed. Cambridge

[5] Pericles, 1998 “Funeral Oration – analysis and comments” Athens: Kapodistriako Panepistimio

[6] Aristotle “The Politics- Books V and VI” Translation by Rackman,H., London: Heineman

[7] Finley, M. (1983) “Politics in the Ancient world”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[8] Arblaster, A. (1994) “Democracy” 2nd Ed. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

[9] Lakoff, S. “Democracy: History, Theory, Practice” Oxford: West-view Press

[10] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Steven Lattimore. Indianapolis:

Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1998.

[11] Euben, J. Peter (1990).“ The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken”. Princeton” Princeton University Press

[12]Robert W. Hall, (1981) “Plato” ,London: George Allen & Unwin

[13] Just.R. (2000) “Women in Athenian law and life” paerts of the book were acquired from www.

[14] Ulrich, M (1962) “History of Ancient GreeceAthens: Cactus ed.

buzz it!



it took me 3-4 days to write this paper, based on books rather than journals, since when i wrote it 3 years ago my athens account did not have access on JSTOR but only on managerial journals.

Please, do not hesitate to post your comments in English!

disa said...


Carnation said...

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Carnation said...


zee said...

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