Athenian democracy and its legacy

The concept of Athenian democracy has had enduring influence on later lawmakers. Paul Cartledge surveys this tradition.

View the key document of Athenian democracy.

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Athenian democracy and its legacy

Athenian democracy was invented around about 500 BC. The word democratia means ‘people power’ and it is a very different sort of democracy from anything you or I would have experienced. The Ath Pol, as it is known for short, the Constitution of the Athenians, is attributed to Aristotle. Certainly, it emanated from the school that he set up in Athens in the 330s. It is one of 158 such constitutions that he and his pupils compiled. What is extraordinary about this is that though we had something like 91 references to the work, we did not have the work as such, which was, in the form that we have it, written down around about 100 AD, on a bit of papyrus from Egypt, of course, which is where papyrus alone pretty much survives from. It contains a work in two halves. So the first half is, as it were, historical. It is developmental. It traces 11 constitutional changes, the last few of which fall within the rubric of democracy. The second half is a systematic account of the various organs of government, whereby the Athenians governed themselves democratically in the 330s and 320s [BC]. 

From our point of view, what is so striking about ancient Greek democracy is that it was direct. In other words, the Athenians ruled through primary assemblies, for which they were helped by the existence of a council, chosen by lot, as many as 500 of them per annum. In addition to the council and the assembly, they had popular law courts. The Ath Pol, brilliantly from our point of view, sets out, it distinguishes the various functions, in addition to which there was something like 700 officials, most of whom were chosen by lot, the democratic way, not by election. 

The Athenian democracy was, in its own day, controversial, both amongst Greeks but especially the Romans, who actually weren’t very keen on what they saw as rather unreliable, fickle, difficult to manage popular assemblies in particular. And that actually, oddly to our way of thinking – we’re all democrats in some sense today, I mean most of us – but in the ancient world and right through the medieval period, right up to the 19th century, democracy of the ancient Greek sort, that is direct popular self-rule, was regarded as little better than mass, well almost mob rule. 

The People’s Charter of 1838 was part of the movement, since the Great Reform Act of 1832 to widen the franchise. I mean, even by ancient standards, it was still pretty narrow. There were property qualifications and so, one of the things the People’s Charter advocated was no property qualifications and an Athenian democrat would have said, “Hooray, exactly right, one shouldn’t have.”

They also believed in balloting. Of course, they did not think of the lot as the principal means of choosing members of parliament. They thought of election. This was absolutely standard and still is standard, though some people argue that now is the time to return more to the lottery. The People’s Charter advocated, interestingly, the secret ballot and this was a novelty. So, equality and freedom and election for as many people as possible, and voting rights for as many as possible, with all people elected accountable, responsible. The ancient Athenians, if they were to have been brought back to the 1830s, they might have said, “Yes, we agree with sort of 80% of that, but we do think also you should have more lottery to allocate people to office”. 

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