The Democratic Experiment

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The Democratic Experiment

By Professor Paul Cartledge

The ancient Greeks famously invented democracy. But what was Greek democracy actually like - and how was it different from the 21st-century kind?

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What's in a word? We may live in a very different and much more complex world, but without the ancient Greeks we wouldn't even have the words to talk about many of the things we care most about. Take politics for example: apart from the word itself (from polis, meaning city-state or community) many of the other basic political terms in our everyday vocabulary are borrowed from the ancient Greeks: monarchy, aristocracy, tyranny, oligarchy and - of course - democracy.

Greece was a collection of some 1500 separate communities scattered round the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores "like frogs around a pond".

The Athenian army fought in a phalanx, a military formation of soldiers with overlapping shields that moved together as a unit. The mighty phalanx was more powerful than any individual aristocratic warrior. Warriors no longer needed to be rich enough to afford a horse, and the aristocratic leaders of Athens had to be worried about losing the support of the army if the leaders did not consider the needs of each of the warriors. phalanx

The ancient Greek word demokratia was ambiguous. It meant literally 'people-power'. But who were the people to whom the power belonged? Was it all the people - the 'masses'? Or only some of the people - the fully qualified citizens? The Greek word demos could mean either. There's a theory that the word demokratia was coined by democracy's enemies, members of the rich and aristocratic elite who did not like being outvoted by the common herd, their social and economic inferiors. If this theory is right, democracy must originally have meant something like 'mob rule' or 'dictatorship of the proletariat'.

Greek political systems

By the time of Aristotle (fourth century BC) there were hundreds of Greek democracies. Greece in those times was not a single political entity but rather a collection of some 1,500 separate poleis or 'cities' scattered round the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores 'like frogs around a pond', as Plato once charmingly put it. Those cities that were not democracies were either oligarchies - where power was in the hands of the few richest citizens - or monarchies, called 'tyrannies' in cases where the sole ruler had usurped power by force rather than inheritance. Of the democracies, the oldest, the most stable, the most long-lived, but also the most radical, was Athens.

Athens successfully resisted Persian colonization in 490BCE and again in 480/79, most conspicuously at the land battle of Marathon and the sea battle of Salamis. Those victories in turn encouraged the poorest Athenians to demand a greater say in the running of their city Pericles presided over a radicalization of power that shifted the balance decisively to the poorest sections of society, who served in the phalanxes of the army and the boats of the Athenian navy. This was the democratic Athens that laid the foundations of the Western philosophy of rational and critical thought.

The governing body of the Athenian democracy was the citizens' assembly (ekklesia). This was open to all 30,000 adult male Athenian citizens but was usually attended by only about 5,000. (Although individual women were classed as citizens or noncitizens, they had no political voice either way.) The assembly convened 40 times a year, normally in a natural hillside auditorium. There, by public debate and vote, the people directed foreign policy, revised the laws, approved or condemned the conduct of public officials, and made many other state decisions.

Greek democracy and modern democracy

The creators of the first “democracies” of the modern era, post-revolutionary France and the United States, claimed a special relationship with classical Greek demokratia - 'government of the people by the people for the people', as Abraham Lincoln put it. But at this point it is crucial that we keep in mind the differences between our and the Greeks' systems of democracy - three key differences in particular: of scale, of participation and of eligibility.

Athenian democracy was direct and in-your-face... most officials and all jurymen were selected by lottery.

First, scale. There were no proper population censuses in ancient Athens, but the most educated modern guess puts the total population of fifth-century Athens at around 250,000 - men, women and children, free and unfree. Of those 250,000 some 30,000 on average were full citizens - the adult males of Athenian birth, whose parents were both Athenian citizens. Of those 30,000 perhaps 5,000 might regularly attend one or more meetings of the popular Assembly, of which there were at least 40 a year. 6,000 citizens were selected to fill the annual panel of potential jurymen who would staff the popular jury courts (a typical size of jury was 501).

An Athenian men's club

The second key difference is the level of participation. Our democracy is representative - we choose politicians to rule for us. Athenian democracy was direct and in-your-face. To make it as participatory as possible, most officials and all jurymen were selected by lottery. This was thought to be the democratic way, since election campaigns favoured the rich, famous and powerful over the ordinary citizen. From the mid fifth century, office holders, jurymen, members of the city's main administrative Council of 500, and even Assembly attenders were paid a small sum from public funds to compensate them for time spent on political service away from field or workshop.

The third key difference is eligibility. Only adult male citizens need apply for the privileges and duties of democratic government, and a birth criterion of double descent - from an Athenian mother as well as father - was strictly insisted upon. Women, even Athenian women, were totally excluded - this was a men's club. Foreigners, especially foreign slaves, were excluded. The citizen body was a closed political elite.

Power to the people

One distinctively Athenian democratic practice that aroused the special anger of the system's critics was the practice of ostracism - from the Greek word for potsherd (piece of broken pottery). In this reverse election to decide which leading politician should be exiled for ten years, voters scratched or painted the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of broken pottery. At least 6,000 citizens had to 'vote' for an ostracism to be valid, and all the biggest politicians risked being kicked out of the city. For almost 100 years ostracism fulfilled its function of ending serious civil unrest or even civil war.

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