Things You May Not Know About Democracy in Ancient Greece

Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as "the father of Athenian democracy" | © Unknown/WikiCommons
Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as "the father of Athenian democracy" | © Unknown/WikiCommons
Photo of Ethel Dilouambaka
19 September 2017

We all know what we ought about the revolutionary practice of democracy in Ancient Greece. But how deep does your knowledge of it go? Here are seven facts you may not have known about democracy in Ancient Greece.

Democracy in Ancient Athens was more like a gentlemen’s club

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.

Pnyx hill, Athens. Pnyx was used for popular assemblies in Athens as early as 507 BC, when the reforms of Cleisthenes transferred political power to the citizenry | ©Qwqchris/WikiCommons

Democracy in ancient Greece was a direct democracy

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.

Democracy had more foes than friends

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.

19th century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly | ©Public Domain/WikiCommons

Athens was not the first Greek city-state to implement democracy

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.

There were other democracies in and outside Greece

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.

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Syracuse, Italy | © Giovanni Dall'Orto/WikiCommons

Democracy was not always the cause of major social reforms

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.

Athenian democracy was short-lived

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.

View of the Acropolis from the Pnyx by Rudolph Muller | © Public domain/WikiCommons

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