The government of the ancient Greek city-state of Athens is the first democracy we know about in great detail. This early attempt at a government run by the people has inspired democracies for hundreds of years, and we can recognize many features of Athenian democracy in modern governments. Athenian democracy also had its drawbacks, but it will always have the distinction of being the jumping-off point for government “by the people.”
While the ancient Greek ideas of assemblies, councils and juries are very familiar to us, modern democracies are largely representative. That is, the people elect representatives to government and trust them to make decisions that are in the best interests of whomever they represent. Ancient Athens, however, was a direct democracy. Every eligible citizen participated in the assembly, where most of the governmental decisions were made, and smaller government bodies were formed by drawing lots so that everyone had a fair chance to serve. It can be argued that direct democracy, like that of ancient Athens, is the purest form of democracy.
The Rise of Athenian Democracy
Early Athens was ruled by a small group of monarchs called Archons, with the later addition of the Council of Areopagus, an aristocratic body made up of former Archons. In 594 B.C., Athens appointed Solon to reform its system of laws. Solon's reforms became the first major step toward democratic government. He introduced an assembly of the people, a Council of 400 representatives and the right of trial by jury, which collectively formed the basis of the later democracy. Even after Solon's reforms, however, Athens was a far cry from democratic until Cleisthenes made further reforms during the last decade of the sixth century B.C.
Assembly of the Demos
Any adult male in Athens who could prove he was not a slave, was at least 18 years old and had Athenian parents was eligible to be included in the assembly. The assembly met approximately 40 times a year, and it is believed that approximately 6,000 members usually attended. Ten representatives, picked by lot to represent the different tribes in Athens, presided over the assembly, and members voted on matters of legislation and governance encompassing every aspect of life in Athens.
Council of 500
Fifty representatives from each of the 10 tribes of Athens, chosen by lot, made up the Council of 500. The Council's main purpose was to create the agendas for assembly meetings, but it also had the power to enact legislation on its own, and councilors served as the city's primary magistrates. Council positions were changed every year. Councilors could only serve twice in their lifetime, and they were judged for their fitness to serve before they could take office.
Until reforms were introduced in the fifth century B.C., the Athenian court was made up of the entire assembly. Later, large juries heard and decided on each case. Every year, members of the assembly 30 years and older could volunteer for jury duty. Of these volunteers, 6,000 were selected to serve for the year. Members of the juror pool presented themselves for service every day and were divided randomly into panels of 200 to 500, each panel taking one case. Jury courts also conducted scrutiny for magistrates and council members and were in charge of investigations and impeachment prosecutions for active members of government.
Athenian Democracy Ends
For all its advantages, Athenian democracy was not without its drawbacks. Many groups of people living in Athens were not considered citizens, including women, slaves and people whose parents were not Athenian. In reality, only about 10 to 20 percent of the population participated in government. In "The Republic," philosopher Plato, who witnessed Athenian democracy first-hand, details further failings of the system. Plato describes a changeable and emotional mass, easily swayed by the political rhetoric of aristocrats, and an inefficient system that was unable to act quickly in times of war or crisis. In the fourth century B.C., the Athenian army was defeated by the Macedonians, the age of Athenian democracy ended and rule by monarchy followed.
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- Gustavus Augustus College: Introduction to the Athenian Democracy of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE; John A. Rothchild
- The Stoa Consortium: Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview
- History Guide: The Athenian Origins of Direct Democracy
- The Stoa Constortium: The Development of Athenian Democracy
- Project Gutenberg: The Republic by Plato
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images