For a long time, democracy in Athens was a sort of elitist political system, for only wealthy men (read: owners of properties) who had served in the military. Later on, the right of vote was extended to all Athenian men above the age of 20, which amounted to about 10 percent of the population. As such, slaves and women were never allowed a say in the matter.
In fact, our modern democratic systems would be considered by Ancient Greeks as oligarchy, meaning, ruled by the few, as opposed to true democracy, which means “power, control by the people,” or the many. In our modern systems, we, the people, do not rule—we elect people to represent us and entrust them to make decisions for the better good for all. But this, in fact, is what ancient democratic systems were against. Ancient Greeks thought elections systematically favored the few, or, in other words, the wealthy citizens. As such, Athenians actually met once every 10 days to run the city’s affairs by voting usually by a show of hands. The rule was simple: one citizen = one vote, regardless of age, wealth or rank.
Known thinkers we praise for their intellectual and reflexional skills—such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—actually hated democracy. For example, for Socrates, democracy was inherently corrupt, giving in to the will of the people who were inherently depraved. Plato concurred and stated that democracy, in a way, led to tyranny. His follower Aristotle was less hostile and even states the underlying principles of democracy in his work called Politics.
Athens was far from the first Greek city-state to try to implement democracy. The city-state of Sparta also functioned as a form of democracy, between 50 to 200 years before its Athenian rival. However, Sparta was a monarchy with two kings ruling at the same time, but its constitution limited their powers. Furthermore, the Peloponnesian city-state has a Council of Elders as well as a lower governing house established to represent the interests of the people. Women also enjoyed rights that were unheard of elsewhere, although they couldn’t vote. Of course, the city-state’s infamous harsh military regime and its cruel slavery system are what we remember most today.
During Antiquity, Greece was composed of roughly 1,000 city-states and communities. Some were monarchies, such as Macedonia in the north, and some were oligarchies or even constitutional governments. Others had more or less moderate democracies like in Athens. Several historical records show other city-states had democratic regimes, such as in Argos (although short-lived), Megara, Corinth, or even in Rhodes. However, in the case of Rhodes, its long history of conquests and unfortunate alliances caused a decline in its democracy. Outside Greece, other Greek ‘colonies’ such as Syracuse in Sicily or in Metapontum, in the south of Italy operated under democracies.
In ancient Greece, tyrants were rulers who overthrew local oligarchies with the backing of the people. While they are considered to be the complete opposite of democracy, several well-known tyrants actually did more good than democratic regimes. For example, Athenian statesman and poet Solon during 600BC, introduced regulations that freed many slaves and tried to rebalance political power between the poor and the wealthy. He is responsible for the creation of the boule, or vouli in modern Greek, a council of 400 men that operates much like a senate.
Around 550BC, democracy was established in Athens, marking a clear shift from previous ruling systems. It reached its peak between 480 and 404BC, when Athens was undeniably the master of the Greek world. But this Golden Age was short lived, and after suffering considerable loss during the Peloponnesian War, Athens, and the rest of Greece, was conquered by the kingdom of Macedonia in the 4th century BC, leading to the decline of its democratic regime.