Athenian Democracy: The Greek Origins of Rule by the People

Solon, one of the first Greek Statesmen

It is a well-established historical fact that Democracy began with the Greeks; but how similar was this system to those in the modern world?

“Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

-Abraham Lincoln

Such an observation on the nature of democracy is surely accurate. Democracy – government by popular will of the people – is really the only structure of social politics that has ever been proven truly effective. And as much as it may seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon, with a look back through history this thought is a bit short-sighted.

Democracy, in one form or another, has probably existed as long as humanity. From the first time a group of cavemen got together and allowed a majority of the group to decide to go hunt a mastodon, democracy has been here, even if not fully sanctioned by the powers that be.

Officially Organized Democracy

As far as the first real use of fully organized democracy goes? Well, so much of antiquity is based on myth and legend it is understandably difficult to be fully sure; though it can be certain that the democracy of the Greek City-State of Athens has got to be somewhere near the beginning of the list.

Surely Athenian Democracy was one of the more important forerunners of modern political theory. What is known to historians is that there were a series of social reforms during the fifth through the third centuries, B.C. (from the time of Solon to the reign of Alexander the Great), each of which brought Athens closer and closer to being a true democracy (what was it prior to this? It’s not clear, but apparently there were many elements which would today probably be best described as anarchy). By the latter portion of this period – during the time of Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., there were hundreds of vaguely democratic city-states throughout Greece, but Athens was arguably the first.

The Phrase is Coined

It is surely from ancient Greece, probably from somewhere around this time, that the word democracy was first used. It comes from a combination of the Greek words demos (demos), meaning “people” and kratos (kratos), meaning “power.”

An interesting possible explanation regarding the word democracy (though do not take this as fact, just an interesting theory) is that the word kratos is a very strong word, and often used when referring to abuses of power, or tyranny. More often, when governmental rule or politics were being referred to, the root word used was arche (arch), which means “rule,” as in oligarchy, anarchy, and monarchy. So the theory is that the word democracy was first coined by people who were critical to the system, but somehow their choice of words backfired and became popular.

The Greek System

Even at its most democratic moments (probably during the reign of Pericles, 461-429 B.C.), there were limits to the purity of the Athenian system, but this is to be expected. For instance, voting rights were held only by adult male citizens who had completed the required military training. Yes, to modern ears this idea may seem somewhat barbaric, but living during this time – in a world where war was commonplace and defense of the city essential – it was surely a necessity for every body politic to keep a well-equipped standing army at all times, especially those relatively small city-states such as Athens (with somewhere between two and three hundred thousand people at the most).

War, quite simply, could not possibly be avoided, and so this law was a good way of making sure that there were plenty of soldiers around.

It is from among the legal voters of the public that the highest of the governmental positions were elected, much like in the democratic countries of the world today. But in fact, there are some elements of Athenian Democracy which make it almost more democratic than most democratic systems know today (whether or not this is a good thing is open to debate). For instance, many of Athens’ laws were created in assembly meetings, which in some ways resemble British Parliament, except that one needn’t have been elected to attend. Anyone in Athens (providing they were a legal, voting citizen) could simply show up at will and vote on any of the popular issues of the day. In this way, Athens was a direct democracy, rather than the representative democracy that we see more often today (the latter system being the only effective possibility when dealing with territories as big as, say, America).

Sortition: Election at Random

Another peculiar thing about Athenian politics during the democratic years was the acceptance of an interesting process called sortition, which was used for choosing the holders of certain governmental positions. Sortition is, quite simply, election by way of lottery. For these particular positions (mostly bureaucratic positions with no real power), any voting citizen could enter their name into the running (which they had to do at least a year before the actual lottery), and then by random choice, the positions were given out. While the downsides to this method are quite obvious, there are upsides, as well – mostly, such a system prevents only the social elite and higher class citizens from total control over the government, and rather ordinary citizens could suddenly find themselves holding cushy government jobs.

Of course this has not even scratched the surface on the massive subject that is the history of Athenian Democracy, and how this relates to modern forms of governments, but perhaps this has shown that the subject itself is both a fascinating and relevant one.

There are positive and negative things that we can learn from looking at such civilizations of antiquity as this.

Studies of political systems, both modern and from antiquity, help one to think more clearly about how governments have behaved in the past, and how they perhaps should evolve from here.