Ancient Greece, part 4 – Athenian Democracy


The Origins of Athenian Democracy

Before the introduction of democracy in 508 BC, Athens was ruled by a tyrant.

(In Ancient Greece, the word ‘tyrannos’ did not have the same negative connotations that our English word ‘tyrant’ does. The word simply referred to an autocratic ruler who was not answerable to any other person or body.)

The members of the family that ruled Athens were known as the Pisistratids. They were named after Pisistratus, the man who had originally established the dynasty.

Hippias was the son of Pisistratus, and he took over from his father in 530 BC.

His rule was unpopular and many Athenian aristocrats soon became opposed to it.

In 514 BC, two aristocratic lovers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, murdered Hipparchius, a brother of Hippias. After this event, Hippias’ rule became even more oppresive.

Many Athenian aristocrats appealed to the Spartans for help. Eventually, the Spartan king Cleomenes led an army to Athens and drove out the Pisistratids.

Hippias rule was initially replaced with an oligarchic form of government, in which power was mainly in the hands of a body known as the Areopagus.

The Areopagus had existed as an institution since long before the time of Pisistratus. It had supposedly been set up by the legendary Athenian statesman Solon.

We cannot be certain as to whether or not Solon actually existed.

The Areopagus was made up mainly of those who belonged to the wealthier classes.

This oligarchic system of government was not to last for very long however.

In 508 BC, the reformer Cleisthenes pushed through a series of reforms which shifted power from the Areopagus to the general Assembly (known in Classical Greek as the Ekklesia) at which all Athenian citizens, whether rich or poor, had the right to vote.

The Athenian Citizen

Although much is made of Athenian democracy, it is important to bear in mind that democratic rights were only available to full Athenian citizens.

The concept of citizenship in Classical Athens was very different from our modern concept of ‘citizenship’.

Only men were allowed to be citizens. Women did not have any political rights.

In one sense, Athenian women were not even considered to be fully ‘Athenian’. The Greek term for Athenian women, for example, is ‘hai Attikai’ which roughly translates as ‘women of Attica’.

Simply having been born in Athens did not qualify a person for Athenian citizenship. One actually had to be the son of an Athenian citizen.

In the latter half of the fifth century. Athenian citizenship was made even more exclusive by being restricted only to those men who had been born to Athenian mothers as well.

What all this meant in real terms was that only a minority of the population had political power.

The Ekklesia

The ‘ekklesia’ was the central organ of the Athenian democracy.

The word ‘ekklesia’ refers to a body that is ‘called out’ in Classical Greek.

All citizens of the city of Athens were eligible for membership in the ‘ekklesia’. The ‘ekklesia’ usually met on a low hill called the Pnyx located in the southwest of the city.

It was at meetings of the ‘ekklesia’ that important matters were debated. Decisions were made by voting, and the ‘ekklesia’ actually had the power to make practically any kind of decision that it wanted to.

In the “Apology of Socrates”, Plato refers to an incident in which the ‘ekklesia’ decided to make a group of naval commanders who had failed to rescue a group of drowning sailors stand trial in one group. By right, each of the commanders should have been tried individually.

Although such a trial was not legal in the strictest sense, the ‘ekklesia’ pushed ahead with it, had the naval commanders condemned to death and even had some of them executed (two of them had fled Athens before the trial).

This incident serves to point up the fact that the ‘ekklesia’ was in a certain sense all-powerful in the Athenian democratic system.

What makes this story all the more remarkable is the fact that these selfsame commanders had just won a major battle (the battle of Arginoussae).

Although most of the important decisions regarding the city were made in the ‘ekklesia’, it seems as though not everyone actually did attend (or was even interested in attending) its meetings.

In practice, many of the rural inhabitants of Attica (the area surrounding Athens) would not have been able to attend these meetings simply because it would have been too much trouble for them to make the journey to the city.

We must remember that many of these people were farmers. Time was therefore precious to them, and many of them would have preferred to spend their day working on their farms rather than attending the political debates in the ‘ekklesia’.

In one of his plays, “The Acharnians”, the great comic playwright Aristophanes refers to the use of a “red rope”. This supposedly refers to the practice of sending out the Athenian equivalent of the police, the Scythian archers (see Lesson 5), with a rope that had been soaked in red dye to herd people who were hanging around in the market-place into the Pnyx.

If such a measure was indeed used, then it does seem that many Athenians would indeed have been reluctant to attend these meetings of the ‘ekklesia’.

In fact, in the fourth century BC, pay for attendance at these meetings had been introduced in order to make up for the time spent there!

The Boule

The ‘boule’ was an elected council of 500 citizens who were chosen to serve for a period of one year. Members could only serve on two separate occasions in their lifetimes.

This body handled most of the day-to-day running of the Athenian state. It did not actually make any major decisions, but instead was responsible for seeing to it that the decisions made by the ‘ekklesia’were actually carried out.

To illustrate how this works, we can consider the example in the last section about the trial of the naval commanders at the battle of Arginoussae.

All the decisions about how the trial was to be held, and the actual proceedings of the trial itself would have been carried out by the ‘ekklesia’. It was only after these decisions had been made that the members of the ‘boule’ were given instructions to actually see to it that they were put into force.

These two words are sometimes translated into English as “Assembly” and “Council”. Such translations can be misleading, as the English translations can actually obscure the nature of the relationship between the two bodies.

The function of the members of the ‘boule’ were rather different from what we would expect the function of a “councillor” to be in our own society!

Anti-democratic elements in Athens

The impression that many people have nowadays about the Ancient Greeks is that they were die-hard freedom-lovers. Such ideas are propagated not only by those who are ignorant, but even by many teachers of the Classics.

The reality is that a very large number of Athenians were violently opposed to democracy.

Opposition to the ideals of democracy was to be found mainly among the wealthier aristocratic classes, as it was they who had lost most with the institution of the democracy in 508 BC.

Many of the most well-known classical authors speak disparagingly about the democratic system, and some even criticise it in no uncertain terms.

Among the famous classical critics of democracy are Plato, Thucydides and Aristophanes. All of these authors came from relatively well-to-do backgrounds, and their criticisms are sometimes tinged with an irritating snobbishness.

In fact, in 411 BC, while the Peloponnesian War was raging, there was a ‘counter-revolution’ in Athens which did away with the democracy and replaced it with an oligarchic form of government.

(This did not last for long however, and was quickly replaced with a democratic system. However, it does illustrate the point that a substantial proportion of Athenians did not like the idea of a democratic state.)