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Classical Athenian Democracy

Updated on January 12, 2013
The Acropolis
The Acropolis | Source

The Greek civilisation has contributed a vast amount of knowledge, literature, theatre, mythology, and abstract philosophical concepts to Western culture, but perhaps none of their contributions are so great as their employment of democracy at a time when oligarchy and monarchy were the dominant forces. Classical Greek democracy was, unlike the representative democracy utilised by many nations today, open for participation by all Greek citizens (free males over the age of eighteen) and evolved through a number of reforms throughout the centuries, starting, perhaps, with Drakon.


Drakon, a charactered defined by little besides his notoriously harsh laws (so harsh, in fact, they were said to be written in blood and cited death as the punishment for the majority of crimes) and focus on the aristocracy, is credited with having devised the first formal Athenian law code around 621 BCE, replacing both oral law and the concept of the blood feud, or 'an eye for an eye'. The Athenian democracy that was slowly emerging from previous institutions of monarchy and oligarchy still heavily favoured the elite, but can perhaps be said to begin with this formal set of laws that could be used in court, and that therefore provided the citizens with a sense of structure and commonality.

Solon | Source

Solon, elected arkhon in 594 BCE, appears to be the first man to have truly introduced a democratic system to Athens, focussing on a shift of power away from the elite noble families who had, since the Ancient times of monarchy, governed the community through the arkhons that they elected and placed into a council known as the Areopagus. Solon devised a legislation that cancelled all debts and prohibited slavery as a consequence of debt, endeavouring to enhance the prosperity of the city. Eager to invigorate the dwindling Athenian economy and to establish a system of power independent from the aristocracy, he is credited with having designed a council of 400 members, with opening up the Assembly to all Athenian citizens, and with introducing a court system that encompassed a broad spread of jurors, enabling all citizens to appeal the verdict of the arkhons. Whilst Solon was not entirely successful at alleviating Athens' extreme poverty during this time, he did, perhaps, initiate the concept of power for the people, attempting to sever the complete control held by the aristocracy and the council of the Areopagus.

Greek Silver Tetradrachm, coinage introduced by Peisistratos
Greek Silver Tetradrachm, coinage introduced by Peisistratos | Source

Solon's reforms were upheld by Peisistratos, the tyrant who seized control of Athens in 561 BCE. Whilst 'tyrant' in modern English contains negative connotations and implies poor leadership, in Greek the word referred only to someone who gained power without inheriting it, often through force or trickery, and by modern standards certainly cannot be said to apply to Peisistratos, who was, by surviving accounts, a just leader, and whose governance greatly improved the prosperity of Athens. Exiled twice during his reign and utilising both the force of armies and a tall woman who he cast in the role of Athena (the Greek Goddess of wisdom, war, battle strategy etc.) to legitimise his story of divine appointment, Peisistratos eventually solidified the power that he held until his death in 527 BCE. During this time he maintained most of Solon's laws, whilst also cutting taxes for the poorer classes, minting coins and therefore increasing trade, instituting a program to beautify the city, introducing new forms of poetry, and commissioning the archiving of Homer's great epic poems from c. 8th-century, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in a move the saw the gradual development of sculpture, theatre and the arts. His death in 527 BCE left his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, in joint-control, unfortunately beginning a period of oppression and instability.

Kleisthenes | Source

Although Hippias and Hipparchus adhered to their father's reforms and continued to rule justly in his stead, a successful murder plot against Hipparchus resulted in the bitter revenge of Hippias, leading to ferocious purges against the community and unjust governance that concluded with his exile from Athens. Replaced by Kleisthenes around 510 BCE, a period of true democracy is said to have been employed, marked by the dismissal of the political significance of the old tribes, their replacement with ten new tribes based around the coastal and inland regions of Athens, and the division of Attica into 139 demes (community centres in which people were registered). The new tribes appointed members to the Council of 500, the Boule, comprised of fifty members from each tribe and responsible for carrying out the decisions made by the the Ekklesia, the Assembly. Although the Assembly was only open to members from a relatively high economic class, it was noted, even at the time, for its far more democratic standard, and contributed to the moderate democracy that would later become radical.

Perikles | Source

In 462 BCE Ephialtes, working with Perikles, succeeded in depriving the Areopagus of its still highly significant power, loosening its control over the constitution and transferring authority to the Boule and the Heliaia, the popular court, run by the Athenian citizens. Public policy could now be determined through votes in the Ekklesia, whilst a number of jury courts were also implemented, manned by jurors who, as the representatives of the city, held the highest authority and therefore voiced decisions that could not be appealed. The Boule drew up the agenda for the assembly, at which all members were free to speak and where votes were determined through a show of hands. Following Ephialtes' assassination in 461 BCE, Perikles was placed into a position of complete control, achieving a popularity that rendered the previous law of only one general from each tribe being elected by the Assembly futile, as he appears to have been consistently elected as general until his death around 429 BCE. These generals were crucial in times of war and in the supervision of public works. Perikles also likely introduced pay for civilian service and certainly commissioned the rebuilding of the Acropolis following its destruction by the Persians. Although slightly corrupt and perhaps largely responsible for the plague that decimated Athens around 429 BCE, resulting in his own death, Perikles' reign highlights the height of the Athenian Golden Age, characterised by flourishes in art, sculpture, theatre, philosophy and literature.

Although Greek democracy was advantageous in many respects, including the benefits it provided for the public, it also had many faults, placing great pressure upon those who did speak out at Assembly and therefore often creating a position from which only a select view offered their opinions, enabling corruption and manipulation to thrive. Despite this, it was truly a complex, carefully devised political institution that this brief account can hardly hope to encapsulate.


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    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      6 years ago from Planet Earth

      Nice information here! I love the 'inside look' on Drakon - we all use the term inherited from his laws, but few know the history behind it. Voted up!


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