Democracy in Athens

"School of Athens" by Raphael

"School of Athens" by Raphael

One of the best examples of direct (pure) democracy is also the earliest.  The ancient Greek city-state of Athens has been called the “Cradle of Democracy”.  Athenians established what is generally considered to be the world’s first democracy in 508–507 BC.  There may have been earlier examples of democracy and other city-states in Greece also had democratic governments, but we know a great deal more about democracy in Athens because written records describing the political life of Athenian citizens and the history of Athens were preserved and have survived to the modern era.   

Interested students and scholars have been able to study the Constitution of the Athenians; texts of over a hundred speeches; histories written by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon; and the ideas of political philosophers residing in Athens, including complete works by Aristotle and Plato and (through Plato’s dialogues) Socrates. 

Thanks to these, and other, written records, we know how democracy was practiced in Athens.  The main democratic body in Athens was the assembly, which met from one to three times per month.  A smaller council (the boule), consisting of 500 citizens chosen by lot each year, decided what topics would be discussed in the assembly.  Nine presidents (proedroi), were chosen by lot and limited to a single term in office.  They were in charge of presiding over meetings of the assembly and counting the votes on each issue.     

The main flaw in the Athenian model of democracy was that only the male citizens of Athens had the right to address the assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to vote.  Women, slaves, and foreigners residing in Athens were not allowed to participate in governing.  As estimated and recorded by Thucydides, approximately ten percent of the population of Athens were allowed to participate in governing.   

For those who were allowed to participate, democracy in Athens was as pure as any other examples to be found thus far in the history of the human race.  Male citizens over the age of 18 had equal rights regardless of their wealth, education, or social status.  After each issue was discussed, a vote was taken with a show of hands, with the votes of the majority determining the outcome.  The decisions of the assembly were final – not subject to veto or to being declared “unconstitutional”.  The will of the people, as expressed by a majority vote of the assembly, was clearly and consistently expressed in laws and public policies.   

Athenian democracy was not without its critics.  Aristophanes and Thucydides, argued that an elite group of talented orators and popular leaders could sway those who lacked the knowledge needed to make sound decisions and who, instead, often acted on emotions.  Bad decisions were made and when those bad decisions involved carrying out a death sentence, they were irreversible.  The case of Socrates being sentenced to death (for “impiety” and for “corrupting the youth of Athens”) offers a prime example of such a bad decision.  Socrates was put to death for asking a lot of questions that made people uncomfortable.