Democracy in Ancient Greece

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voting scene in ancient Greece
The ancient Greeks are credited with founding democracy (a word derived from Greek words for people, demos , and kratos , rule) and literally means “rule by the people." In the early days most city-states, however, were ruled by local tyrants or oligarchies that formed citizen councils. The philosopher Democritus had nothing really to do with democracy. He is known for his theory on atoms.

Pericles wrote: "Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands of the people, not a minority. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everybody is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty...This is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has not business here at all.

Plato once wrote democracy is a "delightful form of government, anarchic and motley." Some scholars have argued that democracy took root because citizens were more interested in success than domination. They were interested in impressing an audience or cutting a stylish figure than real power. There were few political institutions and the powers of persuasion held sway. Men had prove themselves in front of other men rather than hiding behind a birthrate or a title.

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “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 duly 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'. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 Cartledge is Professor of Greek History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author, co-author, editor and co-editor of 20 or so books, the latest being Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (Pan Macmillan, London, 2004). He was chief historical consultant for the BBC TV series 'The Greeks'.]

“By the time of Aristotle (fourth century B.C.) 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.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Early History of Democracy in Ancient Greece

Demos embodiment being crowned by Democracy from the Agora Museum in Athens

Power was traditionally held by aristocracies, well-connected family, wealthy landlords, despots, military leaders and monarchs. A limited form of democracy first emerged in Babylon, which was ruled by an autocracy but had a popular assembly that made decisions on local affairs while presided over by a royal governor. Forms of democracy also existed in the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon.

In Greece, the city-states were ruled first by local kings or chiefs and then by ruling families while local assemblies were created. At first the assemblies were only advisory bodies. Over time their power grew and they were able to put pressure on the city-state leader and ultimately even select them. Although the assemblies acted somewhat like democratic bodies their members were not democratically elected: they were mostly members of landowning families.

The earliest proto-democracy arose in a climate of war, social chaos and upheaval and was characterized by the people rising up to overthrow a cruel leader. The first so-called firm evidence of this kind of demokratia was documented in Athens in 507 B.C. after a cruel tyrant was assassinated by two gay lovers — Harmodius and Aristogeiton.

But evidence has been found that suggests that democracy was introduced decades earlier in the Italian colony of Metapontion, where the tyrant was killed by a young man named Antileon because the tyrant lusted after his male lover. Both men were caught and killed after they were slowed up in their escape by a flock of sheep tied together. After the death of the tyrant statues were erected to honor the lovers and shepherds were forbidden from tying their sheep together while driving them through the streets.

Democracy Takes Hold in Athens

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “It was under this political system that Athens successfully resisted the Persian onslaughts of 490 and 480/79, most conspicuously at the battles of Marathon and Salamis. That victory in turn encouraged the poorest Athenians to demand a greater say in the running of their city, and in the late 460s Ephialtes and Pericles presided over a radicalisation of power that shifted the balance decisively to the poorest sections of society. This was the democratic Athens that won and lost an empire, that built the Parthenon, that gave a stage to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, and that laid the foundations of western rational and critical thought. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The democratic system was not, of course, without internal critics, and when Athens had been weakened by the catastrophic Peloponnesian War (431-404) these critics got their chance to translate word into deed. In 411 and again in 404 Athenian oligarchs led counter-revolutions that replaced democracy with extreme oligarchy. In 404 the oligarchs were supported by Athens's old enemy, Sparta - but even so the Athenian oligarchs found it impossible to maintain themselves in power, and after just a year democracy was restored. |::|

“A general amnesty was declared (the first in recorded history) and - with some notorious 'blips' such as the trial of Socrates - the restored Athenian democracy flourished stably and effectively for another 80 years. Finally, in 322, the kingdom of Macedon which had risen under Philip and his son Alexander the Great to become the suzerain of all Aegean Greece terminated one of the most successful experiments ever in citizen self-government. Democracy continued elsewhere in the Greek world to a limited extent - until the Romans extinguished it for good. |::|

Democracy in Athens

In Athens the assembly had grown powerful enough by around 500 B.C. that it was making laws and electing magistrates. By the Golden Age period the powers of the ruler were limited and day to day affairs were run by a council made of 10 generals. There were no political parties.

Athens during it Golden Age was the home of the world's first democracy and the only polis with a government resembling a true democracy. Although the Athenian government had courts with juries and a political system where rich and poor free men were allowed to vote; women, foreigners, slaves and ex-slaves were not allowed to vote.

Athenian democracy was wild and chaotic and easily hijacked by demagogues. The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt described it as a “permanent terrorism exercised by the combination of sycophant, the or orators and the constant threat of public prosecution, especially for peculation and incompetence." Some historians say that the role of democracy has been exaggerated, and that Athens’ power resulted more from it military victories and money earned from trade than by a government supported by citizens.

Features of Athenian Democracy

Democracy in Athens was manifested through the Ekklesia, or Assembly, a democratic voting body that ran the city's affairs. The 6,000 or so voting citizens met at a platform near the Acroplis and gave speeches and voted on important matters, usually by a show of hands and sometimes with slotted marble slabs with numbered ballots. Often embers were decided by choosing lots.

Assembly sessions were conducted like town meetings. Members gave speeches. Often the ones with the most power were ones who made the most persuasive arguments and possessed the most oratory skill and had the best speechwriters. Rhetoric was so important that it became one of the foundations of the Greek education.

The Athenian city-state was divided into ten arbitrary tribes. Fifty representatives from each to tribe were chosen to form a boule (Senate) with 500 members. The 50 members of the executive committee of the boule served 35- to 36-day terms on a rotating basis. Terms of office were generally only one year.

Good and Bad Sides of Ancient Greek Democracy

Mary Beard wrote in the New Statesman, “The guiding principle of this system was that every citizen should play a full part in political, military and civic life; there were to be no bystanders. By the middle of the 5th century BC, most jobs - from those on the city council to executive officers and juries - were assigned by lot to give everyone an equal chance of running the city. Admittedly, Sophocles's command was one of the very few military offices still assigned by election (not even the Athenians were wide-eyed enough to draw their generals out of a hat), but having a dramatist who was also a general fits nicely with the spirit of their politics. Their slogans were all about equality: citizens were equal in power and equal before the law and had an equal chance of getting their voice heard. [Source: Mary Beard, New Statesman, October 14, 2010]

“None of this is bad, as democratic aspirations go. In fact, most modern political systems could learn something from Athens. But there is a darker side to this democracy. Part of that darkness is well known. Athens may have been a city in which every citizen was equal, but those equal citizens were a tiny minority of the population: perhaps 30,000 men out of 250,000 inhabitants altogether. The vast majority - slaves, women and immigrants - were totally excluded from the political process. Ancient Athenian politics was more an exclusive gentleman's club than a democracy in our terms. Even the autocratic Romans welcomed immigrants more warmly than democratic Athens.

voting jetons

Greek Democracy Versus Modern Democracy

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “The architects of the first democracies of the modern era, post-revolutionary France and the United States, claimed a line of descent from 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. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“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, including its home territory of Attica, at around 250,000 - men, women and children, free and unfree, enfranchised and disenfranchised. Of those 250,000 some 30,000 on average were fully paid-up citizens - the adult males of Athenian birth and full status. 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 in Aristotle's day. 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), as for the trial of Socrates. |::| 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 lot. This was thought to be the democratic way, since election 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 unfree slave foreigners, were excluded formally and rigorously. The citizen body was a closed political elite. |::|

“There are some other important differences too. Athenian democracy did not happen only in the Assembly and Council. The courts were also essentially political spaces, located symbolically right at the centre of the city. Aristotle in his Politics defined the democratic citizen as the man 'who has a share in (legal) judgment and office'. Also in the shadow of the Acropolis lay the theatre of Dionysus. Athenian drama, both tragic and comic, was a fundamentally political activity as well, involving the city and the citizen-body directly or indirectly in the staged dramatic action. |::|

20120222-Ballots and tokens Pinakia.jpg
Ballots and tokens

Problems with Adapting Ancient Greek Democracy to the Modern World

Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker: “What would American government look like if it began from the principle that people in a democracy should exercise the levers of power individually and collectively? The fairest way to make sure that everyone had an equal chance to rule would be a lottery. Imagine, then, that on November 6th, instead of going to the polls, you opened your e-mail and found a message informing you that, for the next term of office, you would be a senator, or a mayor, or a city councilman. Of course, as Alan Ryan notes in “On Politics” (Norton), his magisterial new two-volume history of political philosophy, there are so many people in the United States that it would be hard to give everyone a chance to serve. If, in the next four years, every adult in New York City were to be mayor for an equal term, that term would be just twenty seconds long. [Source: Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker, October 29 & November 5, 2012 \~]

“To avoid such absurdities, our jurisdictions would have to be much smaller: a city, or even a country, would have to contain no more than about twenty thousand citizens, to insure that every adult had a chance to hold power for a meaningful amount of time, at least once. Such small polities would be bound to come into frequent conflict, and much of our time would be spent fighting or preparing to fight; military service would be a prerequisite for political eligibility. Naturally, spending so much time fighting and thinking about politics would mean that we had much less time for making a living. So we would have to designate a class of people to do the work for us—ideally, robots, but, failing that, slaves, ones that we either bought or took prisoner in war. And if we were to exercise real power as rulers, no part of the government should be off-limits to any of us: we should be able to judge criminal cases, make laws, and choose generals, as the situation demanded. \~\ “In pursuit of democracy, then, we would end up with a society with immutable social hierarchies, without checks and balances or a separation of powers—a slave state in which the only life that mattered would be public life, and individual rights would be irrelevant. In other words, we would end up with an ancient Greek polis, a city much like Athens in its prime, in the fifth century B.C. For thousands of years, the West has admired Athens and paid tribute to it as the birthplace of democracy. Yet most of us would find such a city not only undesirable but unfree and unjust. In achieving true democracy, we would come up with a form of government that violates what we think of as liberty. \~\

“This paradox was never more clearly stated than by the French politician Benjamin Constant, in his 1819 lecture “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns.” Speaking to an audience that had lived through the Revolution, the Terror, the Napoleonic Empire, and the restoration of the monarchy, Constant asked what sort of freedom modern people really valued. He argued that in the modern age liberty meant, primarily, freedom from coercion and interference. People want to be free from arbitrary imprisonment, free to speak their minds, free to choose their professions and associates. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, freedom meant something much more positive: freedom to participate in government decisions, to make laws and declare war and judge criminals. Yet this ancient liberty came at a price that we would find prohibitively high—“the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the group.” A Spartan lyre player, Constant noted, once got into legal trouble for adding a new string to his instrument; how much less would a Spartan expect to have the freedom to marry for love, to set up in business, to stay home when others went to war? \~\

voting jetons

“Constant wrote, “The aim of the ancients was to share power among the citizens of a single country; that’s what they called ‘liberty.’ The aim of the moderns is to be secure in their private benefits; and ‘liberty’ is their name for the guarantees accorded by institutions to these benefits.” The error of the French Revolution, he argued, was that it expected modern individualists to build a Republic of Virtue as austere and demanding and total in its claims as any ancient polis. But life had changed too much for ancient institutions to serve modern men, who “should never be asked to make sacrifices in order to establish political liberty.” True happiness, he concluded, requires combining ancient and modern liberty, the immunities of liberalism with the commitments of democracy. \~\

“The classical idea of politics dominated until the rise of Christianity, which was based on a new idea of what was good for people. Ryan explains how St. Augustine’s “The City of God” radically revised notions of the purpose of existence. For Augustine, we are on earth only as pilgrims, travelling back to the God who placed us here for inscrutable reasons. It follows that nothing we do on earth, especially politics, is of ultimate value: “What difference does it make under what rule a man lives who is soon to die, provided only that those who rule him do not compel him to what is impious and wicked?” Seen from this point of view, the desire for glory and expansion, which the Roman world took for granted, becomes a case of what Augustine called libido dominandi, the lust for conquest. The most we can hope for is to live under a just ruler who keeps the peace. Meanwhile, as Ryan puts it, “deep matters, questions of the meaning of life and the ultimate rewards of virtue, must be settled elsewhere.”“ \~\

Greek Democracy Versus Persian Authoritarianism

Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker: “Another way of framing Constant’s dualism, Ryan writes, is as a struggle for the soul of the West between ancient Greece and the Persian Empire. Historians looking for the turning point in Western history often point to the Battles of Marathon and Salamis, in the early fifth century B.C., when Greek armies and navies thwarted an invasion attempt by the much larger forces of the Persians. Persia was an absolute monarchy, its ruler known as “the Great King”; yet it was also a highly efficient state, capable of ruling a large territory and an ethnically various population. (As Ryan notes, the U.S. Postal Service’s slogan—“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”—is borrowed from Herodotus’ praise of the Persian messenger service, a triumph of effective bureaucracy.) [Source: Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker, October 29 & November 5, 2012 \~]

“To live under the Persians was to enjoy the benefits of good government, but not the rights of free men. Herodotus relates that in 480 B.C., on the eve of an invasion of Greece, the Persian king Xerxes showed off his armies to the exiled Spartan king Demaratus. How could the loose alliances of Greek city-states, lacking a single master, possibly stand up to his own monolithic power, he asked? The Greek replied, “They have a master, and that master is Law, which they fear much more than your subjects fear you. Whatever this master commands they do; and his command never varies: it is never to retreat in battle, however great the odds, but always to remain in formation and to conquer or die.” \~\

Persian leader Cyrus the Great

“For Ryan, the stern liberty of the ancient Greeks represents an ideal that we are no longer certain we can aspire to. “Perhaps the modern world, modern politics, and the modern state were the delayed revenge of the Persian Empire on the victors of Marathon and Salamis,” he writes. Do we not value good government and private happiness more than the chance to govern ourselves and uphold public virtue? And, if so, is that necessarily a loss? The questions, raised in Ryan’s first pages, hover in the background throughout “On Politics,” and return with urgency in the last section, when he addresses the flaws and fears of liberal democracies after the Second World War. \~\

“From the Persian War to the Second World War is a long time, however, and, for much of that span, democracy didn’t play much of a role in how people thought about politics. Ryan describes “On Politics” as “a history of political thought,” which strikes a balance between the history of political philosophy in its narrowest definition and the broader history of the practice of politics—which might end up becoming simply a history of the world.” \~\

Greeks Willing to Fight the Mighty Persians Because They Want Freedom

Herodotus wrote in Book VII of “Histories”: “Then the king's orders were obeyed; and the army marched out between the two halves of the carcase. As Xerxes leads his troops in Greece, he asks a native Greek if the Greeks will put up a fight. Now after Xerxes had sailed down the whole line and was gone ashore, he sent for Demaratus the son of Ariston, who had accompanied him in his march upon Greece, and bespake him thus: "Demaratus, it is my pleasure at this time to ask thee certain things which I wish to know. Thou art a Greek, and, as I hear from the other Greeks with whom I converse, no less than from thine own lips, thou art a native of a city which is not the meanest or the weakest in their land. Tell me, therefore, what thinkest thou? Will the Greeks lift a hand against us? Mine own judgment is, that even if all the Greeks and all the barbarians of the West were gathered together in one place, they would not be able to abide my onset, not being really of one mind. But I would fain know what thou thinkest hereon." [Source: Herodotus “The History of Herodotus” Book VII on the Persian War, 440 B.C., translated by George Rawlinson, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“Thus Xerxes questioned; and the other replied in his turn,- "O king! is it thy will that I give thee a true answer, or dost thou wish for a pleasant one?" Then the king bade him speak the plain truth, and promised that he would not on that account hold him in less favour than heretofore. So Demaratus, when he heard the promise, spake as follows: "O king! since thou biddest me at all risks speak the truth, and not say what will one day prove me to have lied to thee, thus I answer. Want has at all times been a fellow-dweller with us in our land, while Valour is an ally whom we have gained by dint of wisdom and strict laws. Her aid enables us to drive out want and escape thraldom. Brave are all the Greeks who dwell in any Dorian land; but what I am about to say does not concern all, but only the Lacedaemonians. First then, come what may, they will never accept thy terms, which would reduce Greece to slavery; and further, they are sure to join battle with thee, though all the rest of the Greeks should submit to thy will. As for their numbers, do not ask how many they are, that their resistance should be a possible thing; for if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet thee in battle, and so will any number, be it less than this, or be it more."

Greeks defeat the Persians at Thermopylae

“When Xerxes heard this answer of Demaratus, he laughed and answered: "What wild words, Demaratus! A thousand men join battle with such an army as this! Come then, wilt thou- who wert once, as thou sayest, their king- engage to fight this very day with ten men? I trow not. And yet, if all thy fellow-citizens be indeed such as thou sayest they are, thou oughtest, as their king, by thine own country's usages, to be ready to fight with twice the number. If then each one of them be a match for ten of my soldiers, I may well call upon thee to be a match for twenty. So wouldest thou assure the truth of what thou hast now said. If, however, you Greeks, who vaunt yourselves so much, are of a truth men like those whom I have seen about my court, as thyself, Demaratus, and the others with whom I am wont to converse- if, I say, you are really men of this sort and size, how is the speech that thou hast uttered more than a mere empty boast? For, to go to the very verge of likelihood- how could a thousand men, or ten thousand, or even fifty thousand, particularly if they were all alike free, and not under one lord- how could such a force, I say, stand against an army like mine? Let them be five thousand, and we shall have more than a thousand men to each one of theirs. If, indeed, like our troops, they had a single master, their fear of him might make them courageous beyond their natural bent; or they might be urged by lashes against an enemy which far outnumbered them. But left to their own free choice, assuredly they will act differently. For mine own part, I believe, that if the Greeks had to contend with the Persians only, and the numbers were equal on both sides, the Greeks would find it hard to stand their ground. We too have among us such men as those of whom thou spakest- not many indeed, but still we possess a few. For instance, some of my bodyguard would be willing to engage singly with three Greeks. But this thou didst not know; and therefore it was thou talkedst so foolishly."

“Demaratus answered him- "I knew, O king! at the outset, that if I told thee the truth, my speech would displease thine ears. But as thou didst require me to answer thee with all possible truthfulness, I informed thee what the Spartans will do. And in this I spake not from any love that I bear them- for none knows better than thou what my love towards them is likely to be at the present time, when they have robbed me of my rank and my ancestral honours, and made me a homeless exile, whom thy father did receive, bestowing on me both shelter and sustenance. What likelihood is there that a man of understanding should be unthankful for kindness shown him, and not cherish it in his heart? For mine own self, I pretend not to cope with ten men, nor with two- nay, had I the choice, I would rather not fight even with one. But, if need appeared, or if there were any great cause urging me on, I would contend with right good will against one of those persons who boast themselves a match for any three Greeks. So likewise the Lacedaemonians, when they fight singly, are as good men as any in the world, and when they fight in a body, are the bravest of all. For though they be free-men, they are not in all respects free; Law is the master whom they own; and this master they fear more than thy subjects fear thee. Whatever he commands they do; and his commandment is always the same: it forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand firm, and either to conquer or die. If in these words, O king! I seem to thee to speak foolishly, I am content from this time forward evermore to hold my peace. I had not now spoken unless compelled by thee. Certes, I pray that all may turn out according to thy wishes." Such was the answer of Demaratus; and Xerxes was not angry with him at all, but only laughed, and sent him away with words of kindness.”

Voices Against Democracy (Mob Rule) in Ancient Greece

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “To its opponents democracy was no more, and no better, than mob-rule, since for them it meant the political power of the masses exercised over and at the expense of the elite. That was one, class-based sort of objection to Greek-style direct democracy. Others were rather more subtly expressed. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Socrates and Plato both disliked democracy

“Intellectual anti-democrats such as Socrates and Plato, for instance, argued that the majority of the people, because they were by and large ignorant and unskilled, would always get it wrong. In these intellectuals' view, government was an art, craft or skill, and should be entrusted only to the skilled and intelligent, who were by definition a minority. They denied specifically that the sort of knowledge available to and used by ordinary people, popular knowledge if you like, was really knowledge at all. At best it was mere opinion, and almost always it was ill-informed and wrong opinion. |::|

“A further variant on this view was that the masses or the mob, being ignorant and stupid for the most part, were easily swayed by specious rhetoric - so easily swayed that they were incapable of taking longer views or of sticking resolutely to one, good view once that had been adopted. The masses were, in brief, shortsighted, selfish and fickle, an easy prey to unscrupulous orators who came to be known as demagogues. Demagogue meant literally 'leader of the demos' ('demos' means people); but democracy's critics took it to mean mis-leaders of the people, mere rabble-rousers. |::|

“Then there was the view that the mob, the poor majority, were nothing but a collective tyrant. A very clever example of this line of oligarchic attack is contained in a fictitious dialogue included by Xenophon - a former pupil of Socrates, and, like Plato, an anti-democrat - in his work entitled 'Memoirs of Socrates'. |::|

“'What', asks the teenage Alcibiades pseudo-innocently, is 'law'? 'Why', answers his guardian Pericles, who was then at the height of his influence, 'it is whatever the people decides and decrees'. 'What?', replies Alcibiades; 'even when it decrees by fiat, acting like a tyrant and riding roughshod over the views of the minority - is that still "law"?' 'Certainly', says Pericles. 'So', persists Alcibiades, 'democracy is really just another form of tyranny?' 'Oh, run away and play', rejoins Pericles, irritated; 'I was good at those sorts of debating tricks when I was your age.'

Old Oligarch’s Pamphlet on the Strengths and Weaknesses of People Power

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “Not all anti-democrats, however, saw only democracy's weaknesses and were entirely blind to democracy's strengths. One unusual critic is an Athenian writer whom we know familiarly as the 'Old Oligarch'. Certainly, he was an oligarch, but whether he was old or not we can't say. His short and vehement pamphlet was produced probably in the 420s, during the first decade of the Peloponnesian War, and makes the following case: democracy is appalling, since it represents the rule of the poor, ignorant, fickle and stupid majority over the socially and intellectually superior minority, the world turned upside down. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“But - a big 'but' - it works: that is, it delivers the goods - for the masses. After all, at the time of writing, Athens was the greatest single power in the entire Greek world, and that fact could not be totally unconnected with the fact that Athens was a democracy. The specific connection made by the anonymous writer is that the ultimate source of Athens' power was its navy, and that navy was powered essentially (though not exclusively) by the strong arms of the thetes, that is to say, the poorest section of the Athenian citizen population. They therefore in a sense deserved the political pay-off of mass-biased democracy as a reward for their crucial naval role. |::|

Ephoren of Sparta

“The Polity of the Athenians (c. 424 B.C.) By the Old Oligarch Reads: “As for the constitution of the Athenians, their choice of this type of constitution I do not approve, for in choosing thus they choose that thieves should fare better than the elite. This then is why I do not approve. First of all, then, I shall say that at Athens the poor and the commons seem justly to have the advantage over the well-born and the wealthy; for it is the poor which mans the fleet and has brought the state her power, and the steersmen and the boatswains and the shipmasters and the lookout-men and the shipwrights---these have brought the state her power much rather than the hoplites and the best-born and the elite. This being so, it seems right that all should have a share in offices filled by lot or by election, and that any citizen who wishes should be allowed to speak. Then, in those offices which bring security to the whole people if they are in the hands of good citizens, but, if not, ruin, the poor desires to have no share. They do not think that they ought to have a share through the lot in the supreme commands or in the cavalry commands, for the poor realize that they reap greater benefit by not having these offices in their own hands, but by allowing men of standing to hold them. All those offices, however, whose end is pay and family benefits the poor do seek to hold. [Source: Fred Fling, ed.,”A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 155-159. This selection is normally attributed to "The Old Oligarch" after its identification with Xenophon was disproved in the 1930s but Prof. Fling's 1907 sourcebook has it as Xenophon]

“Secondly, some people are surprised that everywhere they give the advantage to thieves, the poor, and the radical elements rather than to the the elite. This is just where they will be seen to be preserving democracy. For if the poor and the common people and the worse elements are treated well, the growth of these classes will exalt the democracy; whereas if the rich and the the elite are treated well the democrats strengthen their own opponents. In every land the elite are opposed to democracy. Among the elite there is very little license and injustice, very great discrimination as to what is worthy, while among the poor there is very great ignorance, disorderliness, and thievery; for poverty tends to lead them to what is disgraceful as does lack of education and the ignorance which befall some men as a result of poverty.

“It may be said that they ought not to have allowed everyone in turn to make speeches or sit on the Council, but only those of the highest capability and quality. As it is, anyone who wants, a thief maybe, gets up and makes a speech, and devises what is to the advantage of himself and those like him. From such procedure then a city would not attain the ideal, but the democracy would be best preserved. For it is the wish of the poor not that the state should be well-ordered and the poor themselves in complete subjection, but that the poor should have their freedom and be in control; disorderliness is of little consequence to it. From what you consider lack of order come the strength and the liberty of the commons itself. If, on the other hand, you investigate good order, first of all you will see that the most capable make laws for others; then the the elite will keep the thieves in check and will deliberate on matters of state, refusing to allow madmen to sit on the Council or make speeches or attend the general assemblies. Such advantages would indeed very soon throw the poor into complete subjection.

slave youth and master

“The license allowed to slaves and foreigners at Athens is extreme, and a blow to them is forbidden there, nor will a slave make way for you! I shall tell you why this is the custom of the country. If it were legal for a slave or a foreigner or a freedman to be beaten by a free man, you would often have taken the Athenian for a slave, and struck him, for the poor there do not dress better than the slaves and the foreigners! If anyone is surprised also at their allowing slaves---at least some of them---to live luxuriously and magnificently there, here too they would be seen to act with wisdom. In a naval state slaves must serve for hire, that we may receive the fee for their labor, and we must let them go free. Where there are rich slaves it is no longer profitable that my slave should be afraid of you. In Sparta my slave is afraid of you. If your slave is afraid of me there will be a danger even of his giving his own money to avoid personal risks. This then is why we placed even slaves on a footing of equality with free men; and we placed foreigners on a footing of equality with citizens because the state has need of foreigners, owing to the number of skilled trades and because of the fleet.

“As for the states allied to Athens, the Athenians enforce democracy in these states because they know that if the rich and the elite have control the rule of the poor back at Athens will be short-lived. This then is why they disenfranchise the the elite, rob them of their wealth, drive them into exile, or put them to death, while they exalt the thieves. The poor of Athens protect the poor in the allied cities, realizing that it is to their own advantage always to protect the elite elements in the various cities.....Of such mainland states as are subject to Athenian rule the large are in subjection because of fear, the small simply because of need; there is not a city which does not require both import and export trade, and it will not have that unless it is subject to Athens---the rulers of the seas....The Athenians alone possess the wealth of the Hellenes and the foreigners. If a city is rich in shipbuilding timber, where will it dispose of it unless it win the consent of the Athenians? What if some city is rich in iron or bronze or cloth? Where will it dispose of it unless it win the consent of the rulers of the seas?

“Again, oligarchical states must abide by their alliances and their oaths. If they do not keep to the agreement, penalties can be exacted from the few who made it. But whenever the poor of Athens make an agreement they can lay the blame on the individual speaker or the proposer, and say to the other party that it was not present and does not approve what they know was agreed upon in full assembly; and should it be decided that this is not so, the poor have discovered a hundred excuses for not doing what they do not wish to do. If anything bad result from a decision of the Assembly, they lay the blame on a minority for opposing and working its ruin, whereas if any good comes about they take the credit to themselves. They do not allow caricature and abuse of the commons, lest they should hear themselves the butt of endless jokes, but they do allow you to caricature any person you wish to. They well know that generally the man who is caricatured is not of the poor or of the crowd, but someone rich or well-born or influential, and that few of the poor and democrats are caricatured, and they only because they are busy-bodies and try to overreach the commons; so they are not angry when such men are caricatured either.

“I say, then, that the poor at Athens realize which citizens are good and which are thieves. With this knowledge, they favor those who are friendly and useful to them, even if they are thieves, whereas they hate rather the elite. This type of constitution of the Athenians I do not approve, but as they saw fit to be a democracy, in my opinion they preserve their democracy well by employing the means I have pointed out.

Decline of Democracy in Athens

Greek general

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “Not all anti-democrats, however, saw only democracy's weaknesses and were entirely blind to democracy's strengths. One unusual critic is an Athenian writer whom we know familiarly as the 'Old Oligarch'. Certainly, he was an oligarch, but whether he was old or not we can't say. His short and vehement pamphlet was produced probably in the 420s, during the first decade of the Peloponnesian War, and makes the following case: democracy is appalling, since it represents the rule of the poor, ignorant, fickle and stupid majority over the socially and intellectually superior minority, the world turned upside down. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“By 413, however, the argument from success in favour of radical democracy was beginning to collapse, as Athens' fortunes in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta began seriously to decline. In 411 and again in 404 Athens experienced two, equally radical counter-coups and the establishment of narrow oligarchic regimes, first of the 400 led by the formidable intellectual Antiphon, and then of the 30, led by Plato's relative Critias. Antiphon's regime lasted only a few months, and after a brief experiment with a more moderate form of oligarchy the Athenians restored the old democratic institutions pretty much as they had been. |::|

“It was this revived democracy that in 406 committed what its critics both ancient and modern consider to have been the biggest single practical blunder in the democracy's history: the trial and condemnation to death of all eight generals involved in the pyrrhic naval victory at Arginusae. |::|

“The generals' collective crime, so it was alleged by Theramenes (formerly one of the 400) and others with suspiciously un- or anti-democratic credentials, was to have failed to rescue several thousands of Athenian citizen survivors. Passions ran high and at one point during a crucial Assembly meeting, over which Socrates may have presided, the cry went up that it would be monstrous if the people were prevented from doing its will, even at the expense of strict legality. The resulting decision to try and condemn to death the eight generals collectively was in fact the height, or depth, of illegality. It only hastened Athens' eventual defeat in the war, which was followed by the installation at Sparta's behest of an even narrower oligarchy than that of the 400 - that of the 30.” |::|

Restoration of Democracy and the Condemnation of Socrates

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “This, fortunately, did not last long; even Sparta felt unable to prop up such a hugely unpopular regime, nicknamed the '30 Tyrants', and the restoration of democracy was surprisingly speedy and smooth - on the whole. Inevitably, there was some fallout, and one of the victims of the simmering personal and ideological tensions was Socrates. In 399 he was charged with impiety (through not duly recognising the gods the city recognised, and introducing new, unrecognised divinities) and, a separate alleged offence, corrupting the young. | [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Death of Socrates

“To some extent Socrates was being used as a scapegoat, an expiatory sacrifice to appease the gods who must have been implacably angry with the Athenians to inflict on them such horrors as plague and famine as well as military defeat and civil war. Yet the religious views of Socrates were deeply unorthodox, his political sympathies were far from radically democratic, and he had been the teacher of at least two notorious traitors, Alcibiades and Critias. Nor did he do anything to help defend his own cause, so that more of the 501 jurors voted for the death penalty than had voted him guilty as charged in the first place. By Athenian democratic standards of justice, which are not ours, the guilt of Socrates was sufficiently proven. |::|

“Nevertheless, in one sense the condemnation of Socrates was disastrous for the reputation of the Athenian democracy, because it helped decisively to form one of democracy's - all democracy's, not just the Athenian democracy's - most formidable critics: Plato. His influence and that of his best pupil Aristotle were such that it was not until the 18th century that democracy's fortunes began seriously to revive, and the form of democracy that was then implemented tentatively in the United States and, briefly, France was far from its original Athenian model. If we are all democrats today, we are not - and it is importantly because we are not - Athenian-style democrats. Yet, with the advent of new technology, it would actually be possible to reinvent today a form of indirect but participatory tele-democracy. The real question now is not can we, but should we... go back to the Greeks?

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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