Athenian definition of democracy

Discuss the Athenian definition of democracy. Is the city state the only kind of state in which true democracy can exist? What happens to democracy when it is applied to a society with a large dispersed population? What are other examples of democratic societies besides Athens? Compare and contrast Athenian democracy with American democracy. Is the United States a democracy in the classical sense of the word?
The ancient Greek word “demokratia” was ambiguous. It met literally “people power”. But who were the people to whom the power of the long? Was it all the people -all duly qualified citizens? Or only some of the people — the masses? The Greek word demos could mean either. There is a theory that the word demokratia was claimed 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”.
By the fourth century B.C.E. there were hundreds of Greek democracies. Greece was not a single political entity it was a collection of about 1500 separate poleis or cities scattered around the Mediterranean and black sea shores. The cities that were not democracies were either oligarchies or monarchies (often times called tyrannies). Of the democracies, the oldest, the most stable, the most long-lived, and the most radical, was Athens.

The origin of the Athenian democracy of the fifth and for centuries can be traced back to Solon. Solon was a poet and a wise statesmen but not a Democrat. His constitutional reform package laid the basis on which an aristocrat called Cleisthenes could pioneer democracy. Cleisthenes championed a radical political reform movement which in 508 -507 ushered in the Athenian democratic constitution. Under this political system Athens successfully resisted the Persian onslaughts that victory in turn encourage the poorest Athenian’s to demand a greater say in the ruling of their city. In the late 460’s a radicalization of power shifted the balance decisively to the poorest sections of society. This was the democratic Athens that laid the foundations of Western rational and critical thought.
In 411 and again in 404 Athenian oligarchs led to counter revolutions that replaced democracy with extreme oligarchy. The Athenian oligarchs found it impossible to maintain themselves in power, after just a year democracy was restored. The restored Athenian democracy flourished stably and effectively for another 80 years. Finally, in 322, the kingdom of Macedon terminated one of the most successful experiments ever in citizen self-government.

The architects of the first democracies of the modern era in the United States claimed a line of descent from classical Greek demokratia – “government of the people by the people” as Abraham Lincoln put it. There are 3 major differences in the Greek’s system of democracy and in the United States; scale, participation, and eligibility.
In reference to the scale there were no proper population censuses in ancient Athens, the most accurate guess today puts the total population of 4th century Athens at around 250,000, this includes men, women and children, the free and unfree, and enfranchised and disenfranchised. Of the 250,000 about 30,000 were fully paid citizens – the adult males of Athenian birth and full status. Of the 30,000 about 5000 might regularly attend one or more meetings of the popular assembly, of which there were at least 40 a year and Aristotle’s day. 6000 citizens were selected to fill the annual panel of potential jurymen who would staff the popular jury courts (a typical size of the jury was 501).

The second key difference is the level of participation. Our democracy is representative — we choose politicians to rule for us. The Athenian democracy was direct and in your face. Most officials and all jurymen were selected by the lot because this was thought to be the democratic way. Election favored the rich, faintness, and the powerful or over the ordinary citizen. From the mid fifth century, officeholders, jury men, members of the city’s main administrative council of 500, and even assembly attendees were paid a small some from public funds to compensate them for time spent on political service away from their fields or workshops.

The third key difference between Athenian democracy and the United States democracy is eligibility. In Athenian democracy only adult males 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 were totally excluded. Foreigners, especially unfree slave foreigners, were excluded formally and rigorously. The citizen body was a closed political elite. In the early United States there was property qualifications for citizenship and slaves and women were excluded today every resident can qualify for citizenship and vote if they’re over the age of 18.
One distinctively Athenian democratic practice that arouses special ire of the systems critics was the practice of ostracism. This is a reverse election to decide which leading politician should be exiled for 10 years, voters scratched or painted the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of broken pottery. At least 6000 citizens had to go for an ostracism to be valid, and the entire political elite risked being fired in this ceremonious way. At the end of the fifth century it was replaced by a legal procedure administrated by the jurors of the people’s courts. The power to the people, all the people, especially the poor majority, remained the guiding principle of Athenian democracy.

To recap, Athens as all other societies during ancient times and until much later, was not a country, as you would envision it today. The city-states were the only states they knew. In Athenian democracy was also not as you would imagine, would every member of society a citizen. Qualifications for sufficient ship was quite merrily defined it required extensive Athenian verifiable bloodline’s bus it is likely that few people outside of the cities were citizens. One of the problems with “true democracy” is that population size makes it unwieldy. Everyone cannot have a say in every issue. Tribal society, such as that of the American Indian, approaches democracy, perhaps more closely than that of Greek city-states. American democracy of course is a democratic republic; it is not a true democracy; that is we elected representatives that speak for us at several levels of government. In a true democracy everyone would go on every issue. There are other differences today also. As stated earlier to qualify for citizenship in Athens required extensive Athenian verifiable bloodlines. And in the early United States there were property qualifications for citizenship’s and slaves and women were excluded today every resident of the United States can qualify for citizenship.

Martin, Thomas. R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New York & London,
Yale University, 2000.

McEvedy, Colin. The New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History. London, England, Penguin Books,
– – – The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. London, England, Penguin Books, no publication
No publication date.
Oliphant, Margaret. The Atlas of the Ancient World., London, Ebury Press, 1992.

Scholastic Inc. Scholastic Atlas of the World. U.S.A., Miles Kelly, 2001.
Further information about the Greeks and Athens can be found at the following sites:


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