Athens and the Greeks
The purpose of this essay is to discuss the issue of democracy. First we will begin with the invention and evolution of democracy in ancient Athens, its main characteristics and critics. Then we will proceed with the defining elements of modern political democracies, and the contemporary challenges these face. With the analusis of the ancient Athenian democracy – which is considered to be the original – and of the modern Western democracy, we will try to show that in both cases the ideal of democracy was never totally achieved; that the ideal democracy never became a reality.
Finally we will examine democracy as an ideal, and the functions it acquires as such. Our main argument will be that democracy is an ideal like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘equality’, and ‘human rights’, and as such it is always differently interpreted by people, according to their historical, social and economic realities. Therefore, it does not have and it will probably never achieve a single agreed meaning; it will remain an ideal that will serve as a corrective to all our present and future political systems.
Definition and invention of democracy The term ‘Democracy’ is an originally Greek word, which combines two shorter words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’ – both having more than one meaning. ‘Demos’ could mean the whole citizen body living within a particular city-state (polis), but might also be used to describe the ‘rabble’ or the ‘lower orders’. ‘Kratos’ could mean ‘rule’ or ‘power’ – two different things, as it is possible to imagine individuals or groups who have power without actually ruling in a more evident sense.
Thus on the one hand, a formal democracy where the people or the people’s representatives appeared to rule might conceal a quite undemocratic distribution of actual power. On the other hand, a political system where a monarch or an aristocracy formally ruled might cover up the fact that real power was in the people’s hands. This ambiguity in both constituent terms, inherent with the birth of the concept and reality of democracy, is of lasting significance in the understanding of its meaning and history.
Democracy meant ‘rule by the people or the many’; but as the many were also poor, it was often taken to mean rule by the poor, or by the rabble. Aristotle believed that a state in which a rich majority governed could not be properly called a democracy. He argued that ‘whenever men rule by virtue of their wealth, be they few or many, there you have oligarchy; and where the poor rule, there you have democracy’1. A similar and complementary ambiguity existed also about the term ‘aristocracy’, which actually meant the rule or power of the best.
But the meaning it has since acquired is because it was assumed that the few who were rich and well-born were also, morally and politically, the ‘best’. Aristotle and writers like him – all unsympathetic to democracy – used such terms as ‘the noble’, ‘the virtuous’, ‘the best’, to contrast this elite group with another, called variously ‘the mob’, ‘the mass’, and so on2. Democracy has always been associated with class hostility and social conflict. Both in ancient Greece and in the politics of the past two centuries, democracy has never been achieved without a struggle, and that struggle has been primarily, a type of class struggle.
The Greeks did not just invent the concept of democracy. This was developed to describe an evolving reality – the type of city-state where the citizen body did actually govern itself3. The ‘polis’, or city-state, was generally a small, self-sustaining, self-governing unit which possessed very few of the characteristics of the modern state, apart from its political autonomy. If we consider the state to be a structure of government, then actually the term ‘polis’ describes a certain kind of political society rather than a state.
Ancient Athens will serve as our model of democracy as the Greeks evolved and understood it, not because it was the only democracy in the ancient Greek world but because it was the most stable, long-lived, and best documented, as it was politically the most important and culturally the most creative and inspired of all the city-states. Around the year 594 BC, Solon produced for the city a constitution which is considered to be the beginning of the evolution of democracy. According to Aristotle in ‘The Athenian Constitution’4, Solon’s intervention was the outcome of a period of conflict between ‘the masses’ and ‘the notables’.
Solon divided the citizen body into four classes based on wealth or property ownership. The most important political offices were confined to the higher of these classes, while the lowest were entitled to attend the Assembly or ‘Ecclesia’, and to make up the juries who decided on guilt and innocence and on sentences in the courts. These powers were not large, but later changes enlarged them. In 508 BC the next major reforms were again the outcome of conflict between the conservative aristocrats led by Isagoras, and the masses led by Cleisthenes.
Isagoras called upon help from king Cleomenes of Sparta, and made an attempt to restore the aristocratic oligarchy in Athens. Isagoras with the Spartans were surrounded in Acropolis by the popular forces and compelled to surrender. With Cleisthenes return to Athens radical reforms took place. He instituted changes in the state’s ‘constituency’ structure which were designed to neutralize kinship and local allegiances and enhance citizens’ loyalty to the ‘polis’ as a whole.
The council or ‘Boule’, which met daily and prepared the agenda for meetings of the citizen assembly, was enlarged from 400 to 500 members. Every one of the ten constituencies or ‘tribes’ chose by lot 50 people to serve as members of the council for a year, and those 50 would act as a steering and administrative committee for a tenth of the year within the council. The traditional offices and institutions, such as the council of Areopagus and the office of the Archon committee, continued to be held by the aristocracy, but power now shifted to the council and the assembly5.
For the next 50 years, further moves were made towards the dominance of popular power in Athens. Some of these moves were directly prompted by the necessities of the Persian wars, which were taking place that time. During those 50 years Athens and the Greeks decisively rebuffed the attempts of the Persians under Darius and Xerxes to destroy their independent states. In 487 BC the archonship ceased to be an elected position, chosen by the aristocracy, and was henceforth filled by lot.
In 461 BC the council of the Areopagus, which was composed by the ex-archons, was also deprived of its powers. From this time on, the council of 500, the assembly and the popular courts – with their juries filled by lot from the citizen body as a whole – became the most powerful institutions of the city-state. Popular government was thus established in Athens from 461 BC until it was finally swept away by the Macedonian conquerors in 322 BC, to be replaced by the kind of restricted franchise which its opponents had always preferred.