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When Lincoln sought to put into words what those who had died at Gettysburg had been sacrificed for, he famously defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Many in the West today would agree with Lincoln’s assessment that democracy is an ideal worth fighting for, while even those more sceptical would concede to Churchill’s point that democracy was “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Yet this broadly supportive attitude is the exception, and for most of history a majority of commentators followed Plato and Socrates, who turned their backs on what they viewed as ‘mob rule’. Central to understanding why democracy was viewed negatively for most of human history is the story of Athens. Athenian democracy was a radical and momentous experiment the likes of which the world had never seen, yet it also starkly revealed many of the problems of elected government, and these ultimately doomed the Attic city.

During the 8th and 7th Centuries B.C., Athenian society was ordered into four distinct groups. The Eupatridae were ‘well-born’ nobles and large landowners who owned much of the fertile plain, and monopolised high offices such as the Archonship (effective head of the city), judgeships, the priesthood and sat in the governing city council, the Areopagus. Below the Eupatridae in Athenian society were the Georgoi, small farmers who sat in the assembly and could vote. The Demiurgoi, craftsmen, had the same rights as the Georgoi, but the Thetes were the free but landless labouring class, and lacked any political rights. Governing this society were the nine Archons, the magistrates of the city. The Eponymous Archon was the chief magistrate and gave his name to the year in which he held office, while command of the soldiers was given to the Polemarch. Religious duties were overseen by the Archon Basileus, while the other six Archons were the Themothetae, who upheld the laws. Appointing the Archons was the responsibility of the Council of the Areopagus, a body dominated by the Eupatridae, which voted amongst itself to select the magistrates. The last body of note was the Ecclesia, a group of elected magistrates, who held only limited power. For all intents and purposes, this was an oligarchy, but the presence of a vote, even if at this early stage it was awarded only to a handful of elites, served as the foundations which would be built on as more men were recognised as equals.

Ironically, the events which culminated in democracy were begun by an attempted coup. In the late 7th Century, an Athenian named Cylon won the double foot race at the Olympic Games. Now enormously popular, Cylon attempted to seize the Acropolis and create a tyranny. The attempt failed and ended with him and his acolytes hiding in the temple of Athena, surrounded by an angry mob. While Cylon should have been safe in the sanctuary, he was eventually hauled out and put to death.

Not long after the Cylon affair, and perhaps partially promoted by it, Draco was enlisted to write a new constitution for Athens in the 620s. Aristotle observed it gave rights to those who “bore arms”, but as the only people who could purchase bronze weapons to defend the city were the wealthy, this was still effectively an oligarchy. The word Draconian has entered the English vernacular for the supposed harshness of the code, with Plutarch noting “one penalty was assigned to almost all transgressions, namely death, so that even those convicted of idleness were put to death.” The oligarchy thrived under Draco’s laws, and soon a debt crisis began to develop. Poor tenant farmers, under pressure to pay their rents, began having to borrow more and more drachmae, first using their loved ones as security, and then offering themselves. Soon, a substantial portion of the population was indebted to the wealthiest and had to sell themselves into slavery.

By 594 B.C. events had come to a head. Solon, a noted poet and statesman, was chosen to wield absolute power and revise the constitution. To resolve the debt crisis, he ordered that all debts be annulled, all debt slaves in Athens were freed and messengers were dispatched to free those slaves who had been sold to other Greek cities. At the same time, Solon refused to confiscate the lands of the wealthy, and so farmers still had to pay rent. Neither side was pleased, but the prospect of a slave society had been avoided. Then, Solon gave every Athenian the right to serve on the jury, reducing the Archons’ power, and split the population into new groups based on wealth. The Pentacosiomedimni were those whose estates could produce five hundred bushels of wet or dry goods a year and were eligible for membership of all the key institutions of the state. The Hippeis were those whose estates could produce three hundred bushels and afford to serve as cavalry. The Hippeis could serve on the Ecclesia and the Council of Four Hundred (the Boule), as could the Zeugitae, who, as their estates produced two hundred bushels, could purchase armour to serve as hoplites. At the bottom of society were the Thetes, whose total assets amounted to less than one hundred and fifty bushels. These served the state as light soldiers or rowers, but, crucially, were also able to serve on the Ecclesia.

This Ecclesia was the most important institution in Athens, since it decided all matters of state. The other body of note was the Boule, which was made up of one hundred representatives from each of the four social classes. At this stage it had vague powers related to the courts. The elections of the Archons were also reformed; every social class elected ten men as candidates, their names were placed in contention and nine of the candidates were then chosen by lot. Finally, Solon invited all classes to serve on the jury courts. A pool of potential jurors, the Heliaea, was chosen by lot every year, and this was then split into smaller groups to try individual cases. The size of a jury could range from two hundred to over a thousand, and eventually these juries assumed the powers of the Archons, making them judges as well as jurors. Ultimately the rule of law obeyed the people, not vice versa.

Solon left Athens after finalising his reforms, hoping that, in his absence, no one would be able to tamper with his new social order. Unfortunately for Solon, in 546 B.C., an Athenian noble named Peisistratus managed, after several increasingly bizarre attempts to seize power, but neither he nor his sons made any radical changes to the Solonian Constitution. 

In 510 B.C., the tyranny ended after one of Peisistratus’ sons was assassinated and the other was chased out of Athens. Two groups now jostled to rule Athens, those of Cleisthenes and Isagoras. When Isagoras tried to evict Cleisthenes with the aid of Sparta, he was himself driven out by the outraged Athenians, meaning that all power was now in the hands of his rival. Cleisthenes had rallied the common Athenians to his cause by inviting them into his faction (something that no politician had done before), meaning that a new political order needed to be established. This new order took the form of Athenian democracy. Previously, Athenian society had been grouped into geographical factions, such as those living in the coast, which had only enabled the rise of the tyrants. Cleisthenes split the region of Attica into demes (villages), which were in turn organised by a Demarch, a mayor like figure. The demes were then organised into ten tribes, of equal size, each of which had demes in every part of Attica. Every deme would send fifty men, selected by lot, to serve for a year on the Boule, the institution which was granted the power to set the agenda for the meetings of the Ecclesia. Only the Thetes were unable to serve on the Boule. At least 6,000 men had to be present for the Ecclesia to be considered in session, something which happened once every nine days. While the Ecclesia could only debate issues presented by the Boule, its authority was paramount and no institution could overrule its decisions.

The final measure Cleisthenes introduced was ostracism, a mechanism designed to prevent a tyranny and safeguard Athenian democracy. Every year, Athens voted on whether it should hold an ostracism or not. If it voted to do so, every man could write down the name of any citizen he wished to see ostracised on a shard of pottery (an ostracon) and then deposit it in an urn. If at least 6,000 citizens voted, the person who was named most often was expelled from the city for ten years but could return when that exile was over with all his property intact, and no stigma against him. The ostracism would soon become the way leading Athenian political figures removed their rivals, and the city was headed by a series of brilliant political figures who had advised the Ecclesia. The first of these was Themistocles, who oversaw Athens’ victory in the Second Persian Invasion. Yet Themistocles became suspected of seeking a tyranny and undermining Athenian democracy, and so he was ostracised. In his place rose Cimon, a passionate defender of Sparta with slightly oligarchic views on the democracy. But overtime, as relations with Sparta broke down, Cimon’s influence began to wane.

The final reform to the Athenian constitution came in 462 B.C., when a man named Ephialtes led a movement to limit the influence the Areopagus. Cimon had taken supportive hoplites (and to be a hoplite one had to pay for the costly equipment) out of the city to assist Sparta, meaning those with oligarchic sympathies who would limit the democracy were gone. The Areopagus, as it is commonly known, was an ancient institution, which Aristotle described as “the guardian of the laws.” The Areopagus had always been the abode of the aristocrats; only they were able to choose the Archons, while only ex-Archons were able to enter the Areopagus. Despite Solon’s reforms of the Archonship, the Areopagus maintained its oligarchic rights and a considerable amount of power. All this changed when Ephialtes publicly denounced the court in in front of the council and assembly. Ephialtes declared that the elections of the Archons should be done by lot, rather than by vote, so the wealthy would be unable to abuse the system. The Areopagus was then stripped of most of its powers and was left only with authority over trials of murder, wounding, poison and arson. While it could conduct investigations into corruption, it had to present its findings before the Boule and the Ecclesia. The Areopagus was left as a respected, but diluted, institution, and Athenian democracy became radical – stripped of all oligarchic elements. Ephialtes was soon assassinated, clearing the political scene for his young acolyte, Pericles. 

In the years preceding the Peloponnesian War, Pericles emerged at the forefront of Athenian politics. Thucydides termed him the “first citizen of Athens,” for Pericles held no position other than that of general (one of the few offices to which men were elected and not chosen by lot). Pericles’ domination of the office, holding it from 453 to 429 B.C, reveals the source of his power: his popularity with the people. As Athens’ most persuasive rhetorician, he could usually sway the assembly to his point of view. The final steps into radical democracy occurred under Pericles’ guidance, as the laws against Thetes serving in the Boule were quietly disregarded and more important offices were chosen by lot. To reward these men’s civic service (and because many were poor labourers who would go bankrupt if they left their careers for any period of time), Pericles had those holding state offices awarded pay. Today, however, Pericles is primarily remembered for his extensive building program, which included marvels such as the Parthenon. Towering atop the Acropolis, the image of the Parthenon is inherently linked to the Athenian democracy and evokes notions of the “shining city on a hill.”

Yet there was a darker side to Athenian democracy. By now, the Athenians had built an empire of tributary states sprawling across the Aegean, which provided the funds needed to pay for the art of Phidias. The Parthenon itself was built to house the money Athens effectively extorted from its empire and was a symbol of tyranny as well as democracy. Athens pushed to expand its power across the Greek world, and this brought it into conflict with Sparta and the Peloponnesian League, beginning a twenty-seven-year war. By now all checks on the Ecclesia had been removed, and while Thucydides claimed that the democracy could function as long as Pericles was alive, Athens lost its first citizen in 429 B.C. Athens fell into the clutches of demagogues, men who would tell the people exactly what they wanted to hear for temporary power. The Athenian democracy proceeded to wage the war disastrously. When the city of Mytilene revolted from the Athenian yoke, the assembly voted one day to have the entire population executed, only to change its mind the next day and hurriedly dispatch a ship to hurry to Mytilene to prevent the massacre it had previously ordered. When the city of Melos revolted, Athens was not so merciful, and the democracy voted every man should be killed and every woman thrown into slavery. When asked about the injustice of his actions, one Athenian famously commented “the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.” In 415 B.C., the Ecclesia made the ludicrous decision to attempt a conquest of Sicily, despite the fact Sparta had not been subdued. Athens never truly recovered from the stinging defeat it was dealt in Sicily, but the assembly still voted to fund a revolt against Persia. The Ecclesia voted to execute its leading admirals after a storm had meant they were unable to collect the dead, and later executed the one man who had warned the Athenians of their folly: Socrates.

Constantly draining its resources and making new foes unnecessarily, Athens soon found the Spartans were at the gates, but even as the people were dying of starvation, the assembly was voting to not countenance surrender. The Athenians recognised flaws in their system and attempted to reduce the powers of the radical democracy between 411 and 404, but a bizarre sequence of coups and counter-coups staled that project. With Athens’ eventual defeat, Sparta imposed an oligarchy upon the city and stripped the city of its navy and its long walls. While the oligarchy was thrown out not long after, Athens never truly regained its status as a great power. 

Athenian democracy was an inherently flawed form of government. By removing all checks on the people, including the rule of law, the state was often lurching from one extreme to another. Many aspects of the Athenian democracy would be considered praiseworthy today: high civic engagement, theoretical universal suffrage (among men at least) and a considerable amount of pride in the Athenian constitution. Yet we must remember that without the institutions to temper the popular will, Athens made a series of disastrous decisions, which cost the city dearly.

Aristotle., The Athenian Constitution

Everitt, A., 2017. The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization. Amberley Publishing

Plutarch., Solon

Potter, J., 1966. The Gettysburg Address. The Cornell Library Journal

Thucydides., The History of the Peloponnesian War