The Athenian Origins of Direct Democracy

One of the hallmarks of GREEK CIVILIZATION was the polis, or city-state. The city-states were small, independent communities which were male-dominated and bound together by race. What this means is that membership in the polis was hereditary and could not be passed on to someone outside the citizen family. The citizens of any given polis were an elite group of people – slaves, peasants, women and resident aliens were not part of the body of citizens.

Originally the polis referred to a defensible area to which farmers of a particular area could retreat in the event of an attack. The Acropolis in Athens is one such example. Over time, towns grew around these defensible areas. The growth of these towns was unplanned and unlike the city-states we encounter at Sumer, they were not placed for commercial convenience near rivers or seas. In fact, the poleis were situated well inland to avoid raids by sea. With time, the agora or marketplace began to appear within the polis. The agora was not only a marketplace but the heart of Greek intellectual life and discourse.

The scale of the polis was indeed small. When the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) came to discuss the origins of the polis in his book POLITICS in the early 4thcentury B.C. he suggested that “it is necessary for the citizens to be of such a number that they knew each other’s personal qualities and thus can elect their officials and judge their fellows in a court of law sensibly.” Before Aristotle, Plato fixed the number of citizens in an ideal state at 5040 adult males. For Plato (c.427-c.347 B.C.), as it was for Aristotle, the one true criteria of the size of the polis was that all the citizens know one another. The issue at stake here is between public and private worlds. The ancient Greeks did not really see two distinct worlds in the lives of the citizenry. Instead, the public world was to be joined with the private world.

The citizens in any given polis were related to one another by blood and so family ties were very strong. As boys, they grew up together in schools, and as men, they served side by side during times of war. They debated one another in public assemblies – they elected one another as magistrates – they cast their votes as jurors for or against their fellow citizens. In such a society – the society of the polis – all citizens were intimately and directly involved in politics, justice, military service, religious ceremonies, intellectual discussion, athletics and artistic pursuits. To shirk one’s responsibilities was not only rare but reprehensible in the eyes of the Greek citizen. Greek citizens did not have rights, but duties. A citizen who did not fulfill his duties was socially disruptive. At the polis of Sparta, such a citizen was called “an Inferior.” At Athens, a citizen who held no official position or who was not a habitual orator in the Assembly was branded as idiotai.

Every polis was different from another. For example, some poleis had different names for the months of the year. Although there were similarities and differences between the city-states, they all made the effort to preserve their own unique identity. What we call the ancient Greek world was really hundreds of independent city-states or poleis. No one polis was a replica of another. Those who lived within the confines of a city state considered everyone else to be inferior. Furthermore, those people who did not speak Greek were referred to as barbar, the root of our word barbarian.

There were two city-states that were indicative of Greek city-states as a whole: Sparta and Athens. At Sparta, located on the Peloponnesus, five Dorian villages combined to form the Spartan state. In the 8th century, this state conquered all the other peoples of Laconia, one of the most fertile plains in Greece. Although the Spartans extended their territory, they did not extend their citizenship. The new subjects (perioikoi) were residents of Lacedaemonia, but citizens remained limited to those native born at Sparta.

From Lycurgus (no one knows who this man was or why his name carried so much significance for the Spartans), we learn that boys left home at the age of seven. They were organized into troops and played competitive games until their 18th year, when they underwent four years of military training. From the ages of 18 to 28 they lived together in barracks. At the age of 30, they became citizens in their own right. Amongst themselves they were called “Equals” – in the eyes of everyone else, they were Spartans. There was state education for girls who lived at home but who were also organized into troops. Boys and girls met together to learn basic studies as well as to dance, sing and play musical instruments. Relations between the sexes was much more free than anywhere else in the Greek world. However, after marriage (usually at 30 for men, 16 for women), the husband ate at the men’s club until the age of 60 while his wife remained at home.

The Spartan state arranged for a basic equality in land holding and provided the citizens with laborers, called helots (conquered people such as the Messenians who became Spartan serfs). In other words, the economy was based on the idea that slaves would labor to supply the Spartan armies with food, drink and clothing. As a result, the slave population of Sparta was enormous, thus necessitating the sort of militaristic state that Sparta indeed became. The Spartan constitution allowed for two kings and was therefore a dual monarchy. As the highest magistrates in the city-state, these kings decided issues of war and peace.

The Spartan constitution was mixed, containing elements of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. The oligarchic element was represented by a Council (gerousia) of elders consisting of twenty-eight men over the age of sixty who were held office for life. The elders had important judicial functions and were also consulted before any proposal was put before the Assembly of Spartan citizens. The Assembly (apella) consisted of all male citizens over thirty years of age. In theory, it was the Assembly who was the final authority but in practice the real function of the Assembly was to ratify decisions already decided upon by the elders and kings

For the Greeks, citizenship – that is, the active participation of all citizens in politics – was considered to be the supreme creative art. In essence, the city-state was synonymous with its citizenry. Like a sculptor, the citizen molded a fully rounded society to his preconceived notion of what that society ought to be.

The system developed by the Spartan state by the late 6th century B.C. was deliberate and purposeful. It was created not just to keep the ever-growing population of helots in check but rather to realize man’s full ideal within the society of the polis. The Spartan ideal was austere, severe and limited according to our standards. But when political thinkers such as Plato decided to create their own ideal society on paper, they turned to Sparta for examples and not to Athens. I imagine the real reason for this is that the Spartans created a world in both theory and practice, while the Athenians almost always seemed lost in what might come to be. Although we may find the Spartan world to be repressive or indeed oppressive, this is not the way the Spartans saw it. After all, they had equality in education, training and opportunity. They also enjoyed a large income as well as pride and glory.

While Sparta developed their control over the Peloponnesus, the city-state of Athens controlled the area of the Attic Peninsula, to the east and northeast of Sparta. Athens was similar to other city-states of the period of the Greek Renaissance with two important differences: (1) it was larger both geographically and in terms of its population and (2) those people it conquered were not reduced to servitude – this was the rule at Sparta. So, Athens never faced the problem of trying to control a large population of angry and sometimes violent subjects. This also explains why Sparta had to remain an intensely militaristic state.

Around the year 600 B.C., and while Lycurgus was reforming the legal system of the Spartan state, Athens faced a deepening political crisis. Those farmers who supplied the city-state with food could not keep up with demand because the Athenian population had grown too quickly. Farmers began to trade their land to obtain food and quickly went bankrupt as they traded away their last piece of land. The crisis was solved in 594 B.C. when the Athenians gave control over to Solon (c.640-c.559 B.C.), a former high official. In his role as archon, Solon cancelled all agricultural debts and announced that all slaves were free. He also passed constitutional reforms that divided Athenian subjects into four classes based on their annual agricultural production rather than birth. Members of the three highest orders could hold public office.

Solon’s system excluded all those people who did not own any productive land – women, children, slaves, resident aliens, artisans and merchants. However, with the constitutional reforms of Solon, men from newer and less-established families could work their way up economically and achieve positions of political leadership. Solon did not end the agricultural crisis in Greece and so factional strife remained.

In 561, the former military leader Pisistratus (c.600-527 B.C.) appeared at Athens and seized the Acropolis and began to rule as a tyrant in place of Solon. Down to 527, the year of his death, he rewarded dispossessed peasants with land confiscated from wealthier families. He also encouraged trade and industry and engaged in great public works programs. Temples were built and religious centers improved. New religious festivals were also introduced by Pisistratus, such as the one devoted to the god Dionysis, the god of fertility.

By the middle of the 6th century, the city had grown in size and in wealth. Furthermore, the common people had become more sure of themselves — they had a high standard of living, more leisure time at their disposal and were far-better informed than their ancestors had been. Since a tyrant like Pisistratus wanted to give his power over to a more popular base of support, it was during his reign that the average citizen obtained his political experience. Furthermore, because men continued to qualify for office on the basis of wealth, and since incomes were rising in the 6th century, there was a greater number of citizens being included in the operation of the government.

Pisistratus was succeeded by his eldest son, Hippias, whose rule was somewhat similar to that of his father. In 514 B.C., his brother Hipparchus was murdered and Hippias became nervous and suspicious.  Finally, one of the noble clans exiled by the sons of Pisistratus, the Alemaeonids, won favor with the oracle at Delphi and used its support to persuade Sparta to attack the Athenian tyranny. Led by Cleomenes I, the Spartans marched into Athenian territory in 510 B.C. Hippias was deposed and fled to Persia. 

Cleomenes’ friend Isagoras held the leading position in Athens after the withdrawal of the Spartan troops, but he was not unopposed. Cleisthenes, of the restored Alemaeonid clan was his chief rival. Isagoras tried to restore a version of the pre-Solonian aristocratic state by purifying the citizen lists

Cleisthenes took an unprecedented action by turning to the people for political support and won with it a program of great popular appeal. In 508 B.C., Cleisthenes instituted a new political organization whereby the citizens would take a more forceful and more direct role in running the city-state. He called this new political organization demokratia, or democracy – rule by the entire body of citizens. He created a Council of Five Hundred which planned the business of the public assemblies. All male citizens over the age of thirty could serve for a term of one year on the Council and no one could serve more than two terms in a lifetime. Such an organization was necessary, thought Cleisthenes, so that every citizen would learn from direct political experience. With such a personal interest in his democracy, Cleisthenes believed that there would be no citizens to conspire and attempt to abolish the system.

Cleisthenes also divided all Athenians into ten tribes (replacing the original four). The composition of each tribe guaranteed that no region would dominate any of them. Because the tribes had common religious activities and fought as regimental units, the new organization would also increase devotion to the polis and diminish regional division.

Each tribe would send fifty men to serve on the Council of Five Hundred (thus replacing Solon’s Council of 400). Each set of fifty men would serve as a presiding committee for a period of thirty-five days. The Council convened the Assembly – an Assembly which, as of the year 450 B.C. – consisted of approximately 21,000 citizens. Of this number, perhaps 12-15000 were absent as they were serving in the army, navy or were simply away from Athens on business or otherwise. The Council scrutinized the qualifications of officials and the allocation of funds. They looked after the construction of docks and surveyed public buildings. They collected rent on public land and oversaw the redistribution of confiscated property. Members of the Council were also responsible for examining the horses of the cavalry, administering state pensions and receiving foreign delegations. In other words, the Council was responsible for the smooth running of the daily operations of the Athenian city-state.

Membership on the Council was for one year but it was possible to serve a second term. A minimum of 250 new members had to be chosen every year and it has been suggested that 35-45% of all Athenian citizens had experience on the Council. Serving on the Council of Five Hundred was a full time job and those who did serve were paid a fee.

Every year 500 Council members and 550 Guards were chosen by lot from the villages of the Athenian polis. These men were scrutinized by the Council before they were chosen so that alternates were always available. The rapid turnover in the Council ensured (1) that a large number of Athenians held some political position in their lifetime and that (2) the Assembly would contain a larger and more sophisticated membership. The Assembly contained all those citizens who were not serving on the Council of 500 or who were not serving as public officials. The Assembly had forty regular meetings per year – there were four meetings in each 35 day period into which the Council’s year was divided. The first meeting discussed the corn supply, the qualifications of officials, questions of defense and ostracisms. The second meeting was open to any issue, while the third and fourth meetings were given over to debates on religion and foreign and secular affairs. Special meetings or emergency sessions could be called at any time.

Around 460 B.C., Pericles (c.490-429 B.C.) used the power of the people in the law courts and the Assembly to break up the Council of Five Hundred. Under Pericles, ATHENIAN DEMOCRACY came to mean the equality of justice and the equality of opportunity. The equality of justice was secured by the jury system, which ensured that slaves and resident aliens were represented through their patrons. The equality of opportunity did not mean that every man has the right to everything. What it did mean is that the criteria for choosing citizens for office was merit and efficiency and not wealth. Whereas Solon had used the criterion of birth for his officials and Cleisthenes had used wealth, Pericles now used merit. This was the ideal for Pericles. What indeed happened in practice was quite different. The Greek historian Thucydides (c.460-c.400 B.C.) commented on the reality of democracy under Pericles when he wrote: “It was in theory, a democracy but in fact it became the rule of the first Athenian.” And the historian Herodotus (c.485-425 B.C.) added that “nothing could be found better than the one man, the best.” This “one man, the best,” was the aristoi, the word from which we get the expression aristocracy. So, what began as Greek democracy under Cleisthenes around 500 B.C., became an aristocracy under Pericles by 430 B.C.

The Council of Five Hundred and the Assembly met often and what they discussed focused on decidedly local issues. But they also discussed what we could only call democratic theory – that is, they constantly debated questions like what is the good life? and what is the best form of government? But perhaps the most important of all were discussions and debates over the issues of war. And this is important to grasp for the 5th century, the classical age of Greece, is an age of near constant warfare. Between 490 and 474 B.C., the Greeks fought the Persians and at the end of the century (431-404 B.C.), a war between Sparta and Athens not only spelled the end of Athenian dominance, but also the death of Athenian direct democracy.


About sooteris kyritsis

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