This article features in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019)

In today’s landscape of political uncertainty and daily protests, we might ask ourselves what the value of studying and analyzing the democratic polis of Athens is. Does it mirror our society today? Do we look at it as a model, an ideal to reach? The city-state has always been looked upon and thought of like heaven for democracy, collective values, and freedom. However, analyzing historical aspects from a more critical perspective will very often introduce us to the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect democracy. Indeed, this article aims at understanding what do we mean by democracy, how it was first created, and what can we learn from it.

Historical Developments

In the 8th century BC, Solon realized a series of reforms that started a long process of political, economic, and demographic changes in Attica. Through the reform of the property classes, according to which political participation was dependent on property class and not birth, Solon drastically reduced the power in the hands of the aristocrats. He also introduced a new law-court: the Heliaia, or ‘people’s court’. Thus, bringing more power into the hands’ of the people, since it was not necessary to have received any special education to hold the office.

Later on, Cleisthenes divided Attica’s into ten tribes and three trittyes: coastal, rural, and urban. Each tribe contained citizens from each trittys, and then, once instituted the Council of the Five Hundred, fifty members from each tribe would sit in it. Someone might call this a democratic distribution of power. However, it might also be read as a form of political weakening of any possible opposition. In fact, by spreading people all over the region, Cleisthenes avoided any assemblage of political ideas in one particular area. He instead distributed different perspectives in a way that no specific and unique value could rise against Athens. 

Participation in the political life of the City-State

Moreover, the practice of ostracism was introduced and carried out in the Assembly. And this should reflect how democracy does not always entail right, good, and positive. Exiling a political enemy through the vote of the majority still means impeding an opposition, and a change in the administration of the polis. It keeps citizens far from having a different point of view on their matters. 

Around 460 BC, Pericles introduced a remuneration for civic service as jurors, councillors, and magistrates. He did so in the hope of involving more citizens, and especially people who lived outside Athens. However, moving from the countryside to serve for a day as juror meant leaving one’s activity. Thus, before this reform, people were expected to serve the city-state with no pay. As a consequence, just a few would leave their farms, families, and start the journey to help the court for no financial benefit. Hence, the majority of jurors and people holding public roles had always been Athenians. Again, this is an example of how giving the majority a chance to be involved in a public function does not mean they will hold it. Moreover, one should wonder if this is not equal to not giving them a chance to hold the office.

However, if paying people for their service to the community might seem a valuable contribution to the development of a government of the multitude, on the other hand, Pericles restricted the requirements to obtain citizenship. Thus, fewer and fewer people would be able to vote, and so this privileged narrowness of citizens could with time become a restricted circle, once again, serving its interests.

Control and Effectiveness

Mainly responsible for any proposal and plan for the City-State were the Archons. Each archon would fill a different office. The Archon Eponymous was the chief; the Archon Polemarch was at the command of the military; and the Archon Basileus dealt with civic matters.

The election process was a long and complicated one that very often allowed patronage, sometimes resulting in bribery. In Cimon 10, Plutarch reports that Cimon “always went about attended by young men fitted out with new clothes…the same attendants carried with them plenty of rear money, and would go up to…the poor in the market place…and slip some small change into their hands”. Another example is Pericles’ introduction of payment for public services, showing how he was looking for a consensus of all classes.

Moreover, many qualities were necessary to good a leader. First of all, the dialectic of mass and elite, together with effectiveness and sovereignty. The cases of democratic incompetence are not too scarce, and Athenians didn’t seem shy when it came to revolts and raising their voice. Xenophon reports that “it was an intolerable thing if the people were not allowed to do what it wanted to do…quite soon afterwards, the Athenians…voted that complaint should be made against those who had deceived the people…” (Xenophon, Hellenica 1.7)

A case of Democratic Revolution

“The Athenians grew in power and proved… that equality is a good thing… Yet, once they got rid of their tyrants, they were by far the best of all… When they were freed, each one was eager to achieve for himself.” With these words, Herodotus reveals and describes the process of democratic growth in Athens, and shows us how it is neither immediate nor perfect, but rather a suffered and long path. 

Today we cannot do more than read the Athenian example, and Herodotus’ words, as wishes for an improved democracy and a brighter political and civic future.