ESSAYS: Trinity College Dublin, Business Economics and Social Studies: “Was Ancient Athens Really Democratic? by Michelle Clarke


‘Without the moral freedom to make one’s own decisions of right and wrong and to express them in the area of political arena through representative machinery, every society tends to assume the patterns of mass behaviour which liken it to an ant heap or a beehive or to an animal society like the herd, whose sole function is survival’ (Elliott and McDonald, 1949: 957).

In other words, without a system of control, there can be no freedom. It is rationality that distinguishes humanity from other species.

In order to address this question, I will firstly define the origins of Ancient Athenian Democracy, review its constitution and direct form of democratic system, outline the institutions established and functions applicable. I will review the ideals and aims of that system and argue that Ancient Athenian democracy as a form of Government, at least within the context of what is meant by democracy today, was not what one would call democratic.

Origin: Ancient Athenian Democracy:
The earliest surviving writings of the nature of political matters are those of Plato (428 B.C.). Solon, 6th century was appointed Archon (Regent) and engaged in what could be deemed to be the precedent of the democracy proto-type. He removed power from the Areopagus (senate) of the old aristocrats who could frame legislation and placed control in the Council of Four Hundred which was made up of four tribes, thought to be selected by lot. Solon also created the system of popular courts of judges chosen by lot from all the freemen. He did not try to destroy the distinctions of wealth. During the 5th century the popular assembly won a complete ascendancy over the old senate giving it sovereign power. Athens achieved a direct democracy and the Assembly became the extreme legislative organ. Since the Assembly met only on occasion, the Council of Five Hundred remained the real government of Athens…. Members of the Council were chosen by lot, which was the most democratic method. In terms of a limited citizenship, Athens represented democratic equality. The concept of the constitution as a fundamental law to safeguard freedom is not expressly stated in Greek thought:

‘However, the Greek city state, when it acted through an assembly of citizens with direct democracy, tended to place the sovereignty of the people above any sovereignty of law…’ (Elliott and McDonald, 1949: 64)

‘The only absolute in constitutionalism is the ultimate responsibility and freedom of the individual moral person. There must be a sufficient agreement in any national community on what Cicero called the consensus juris to assure the acceptance of a constitutional system that both protects civil liberties and organises a government’. Unless a responsible government, so grounded on consent, can umpire the rules of the game and serve as a vehicle for orderly change in those roles, constitutionalism cannot be preserved: (Elliott and McDonald, 1949: 952).

Athenian Democracy: the Greek word was Demokratia, the demos are the people and kratia means ‘to rule’. Democracy is a remarkably difficult form of Government to create and sustain (Held: D, 1987: Introduction). Political thinkers have been highly critical of the theory and practice of democracy. It is a form of Government in contradistinction to Monarchy and Aristocracy in which the people rule. Aristotle (circa 380 B.C.) analyses claims, ethics, standards and aims of democracy….democracy means the poor have more power. The classical polity was marked by unity, solidarity, participation and a highly restricted citizenship. Civic virtue meant private life was subordinate to public life and common good.

Thucydides (471?-400 B.C.) in History of the Peloponnesian War (incomplete) outlines some of the practices and aspirations of the Greeks at the height of their achievement. He wrote about the Funeral Oration of Pericles, whose name is synonymous with greatest period of Athenian history. Who are the people? What level of participation? How broad or narrow does one construe the scope of rule? Does rule cover law and order as well as politics? Must the rules be obeyed? Note the attempts to restrict the term people (men only, white, age). Direct/Participatory Democracy is decision making about public affairs in which the citizens are directly involved. Liberal Representative Democracy is a system of rule which involves elected officers who undertake to represent the interests or views of citizens within the framework of the Rule of Law. It is thought perhaps that the objective was to ensure no geographic groupings which could challenge the system. Demes had control over minor crime adjudication. Demes men could grant citizenship.

The constituency comprised two main groupings: the Phyle which is a geographically defined area of Athens, there were approximately 200 demes microcosms of Athenian society. The Ekklesia (Assembly) was made up of all citizens approximately 6,000. This was the sovereign power. The Assembly met 40 times per year and had a quorum of 6,000. It was concerned with public order matters such as finance, legal matters, taxation, ostracism etc. Aristotle did not support the Ekklesia making changes, he favoured the Rule of Law. The Ekklesia inter alia made law, passed edicts, declared war. Multiplicity of channels existed – the Ekklesia, the Demos, the Boule, the Dikastery (no barristers, solicitors, judges) just the ordinary citizens selected by lot. The court system is included in the constitutional review. Agenda was compiled by Boule (Council of 500), the details of which were announced by Herald and vote of hands determined the decision. The Boule was the real centre of power. The 500 were chosen by lot and gained office for one year only. The Boule was aided by a committee of 50 headed by a President who could only hold office for one day. The Magistrates carried out the executive functions, nearly all were elected for a non renewable one year period. To preserve accountability of the political administrators and state, methods of selection used were rotation of tasks, sortition and direct election. The Magistrates (Archons) administered the decisions. The Dikastery. Minimum jury 101, normally 500.

Ideals and aims of Athenian Democracy
Ideals and aims of Athenian Democracy are recounted in the Funeral Oration attributed to Pericles composed by Thucydides some thirty years later. It extols the fact that Athens did not imitate the institutions of its neighbours thus making it a model rather than an imitator. Power is not in hands of a minority but the whole people. It appeared that citizens faced no obstacles to involvement in public affairs. The Demos held the Sovereign Power, it had supreme authority to engage in executive and legislative functions. Civic Virtue meant dedication to the state and subordination of private life to public affairs and common good i.e. ‘Good Life’. The connotation from the oration is that the definition of democracy was in terms of its meaning rather than the values aspired to. The meaning conveys a systematic rule giving people a central role (Isonomia). In effect, democracy means the political equality of every citizen. It is legitimate to say the judiciary of a political power, can disagree with legislation. In reality however, the individual has limited power to influence the interpretation. To the Athenians, ordinary people had an equal role to others of a different ranking. Elevtheria enabled the citizens to participate in public life to live in accordance with their choice. Isegoria ensured that each citizen could speak at the Assembly. Parrhesia i.e. freedom of speech pertained. The Dikastery and Ekklesia members were paid to ensure presence. Esos was made up of those not equal educationally or healthwise but institutionally, these being fundamental to Athenian Democracy.

Social Inequalities
Athenians supported the concept of Democracy as a form of Government as they deemed it to be a normative judgement. Three dimensions existed to the system of decision making. The direct consequences are the decisions arrived at. The indirect consequences may result in a weaker decision but the presence of a challenging opposition may initiate an investigation into the policies pursued. Democracy intrinsically offers the means of people taking responsibility for themselves i.e. ‘a happy versatility’. Some writers hold that the system of Government is democratic because the decision rests with people that total representation means justice is inherent. This does not however take account of women, slaves, metics – their interests were not represented yet their work provided a large proportion of the finance necessary to fund the system. Citizens had slaves available to facilitate their dedicated involvement to politics.

Arguments against Athenian Democracy being described as Just:
Democracy is a constitution based on argumentation. Debate in Ancient Athens nurtured the development of rhetoric. Parties were not part of direct Assembly democracy. There were groupings of political leaders, but they were not backed by party supporters as exists in an indirect democracy. The English legal system is adversarial based and the objective is to obtain the truth by sourcing inter alia via argument, how effective this system would be in relation to Athenian type politics is questionable particularly as the population expanded without the necessary adaptations being made.

‘The modern conception of democracy which recognises the division between the few and the many in occupying different but countervailing roles is deeply indebted to the tradition. It is however an equivocal inheritance because at the heart of classical republicanism is a conception of citizenship which has expectations of political participation much beyond that of modern democratic societies’: (Murray-Forsyth and Keens-Soper, 1988: 66). Measured by modern standards, men of antiquity were not free according to our notion of individual freedom. Democracy could not be said to have been said to respect the individual, it tended more to suspect him. Labouylaye commented ‘the only guarantee for a citizen was his part of sovereignty’ (Sartori, G, 1958: 259). One could easily move from the extreme wealth to equally extreme poverty.

According to Field to call a state a democracy where the supreme power rests with a minority, elected every five years, and in which laws could be passed, judicial decisions made, executive actions taken and war or peace declared is inaccurate. Yet, Plato indicted the Athenian system for what it represented and said ‘democracy marginalises the wise’. To Plato, the Tyrants were the true navigators. For Plato, the problems of the world could only be resolved when educated and trained philosophers ruled. ‘In Plato’s and Aristotle’s utopias schooling is universal and compulsory and the lack of a public educational system was one of the most insistent criticisms directed by the philosophers against the democracy’ (Hansen, M, 1991: 312). Aristotle puts forward in one passage:

‘he suggests the use of the term ‘democracy’ for what he regards as a perverted form of government in which the poor rule the state in their own exclusive interest’ (Field, 1956: 279).

The foregoing is a sample of the conflict that arises in trying to define democracy.

The citizen in Ancient Athens gave himself to the State totally, he engaged in war for the State, public affairs were the priority over private life. The outcome of this was the more perfect the democracy became, the poorer the citizens became. This meant wealth had to be seized to fund the democracy.  So a ‘vicious circle’ scenario arose.

In Athens, there was no continuing executive like the modern civil service or equivalent. There only existed a very small slave police force, no professional judiciary, no professional legislature: ‘Even the most direct democracy cannot remove the differences between men, cannot render them politically identical’ (Dunn, J 1940: 17). The decision to go to War in the last century – seldom were the citizens asked to decide – unlike Athens. An Athenian who did not want to fight had the right to address the Assembly.

Like Socialism, Communism today democracy could be regarded as a term of abuse to those who disapproved of it and of praise for those who approved of it. A recognised opposition was foreign to a Greek democracy although there is no indication that Plato ever got in trouble for writing the Republic. Within the limits of the democratic constitution, however there was complete freedom of opposition and criticism on any particular words. But then there was no recognised Government. Athens at the end of each year a public examination of every official was carried out. However ultimately, Ostracism meant opposition leaders who challenged democracy could be sent into exile thus granting great power to the Athenian democratic system.

‘The Peloponnesian Wars were a contest not only between the advocates of the competing ideologies of democracy and aristocracy, but also between the traditional insular and military values of Sparta and the new commercialist values of the Athenian League. It is not surprising that members of the Athenian educated elite, whether native like Plato or foreign like Aristotle, had more sympathy with traditional Sparta than modern democratic Athens’ (Murray-Forsyth and Keens-Soper, 1988:38).

This essay is an attempt to outline Ancient Athenian Democracy and to comment on how democratic it was. I have outlined its origin, discussed the constitution and democracy principle, highlighted the main institutions. I then state the ideals and aims of Athenian Democracy and briefly refer to some of the social inequalities. The main text concerns the arguments against Athenian Democracy being described as just. Democracy as a form of Government only re-appeared in the late 1700’s and because it bestows an ‘air of legitimacy’ and per consequence is a popular categorisation particularly for West European countries. However, there is little to compare between Democracy as a form of Government today and that of Athenian Democracy. I will conclude with a quote by J. Dunn which in my opinion is a good appraisal of the word ‘Democratic’ before it is expanded to a variety of connotations:-

‘Democratic theory is the moral Esperanto of the present nation-state system, the language in which all Nations are truly united, the public cant of the modern world, a dubious currency indeed – and one which only a complete imbecile would be likely to take at its face value, quite literally. But it is with democratic theory that it seems quite right to begin – not the reality of democracy, democracy as a social fact, a theme about which there being so little concrete evidence, so little social and historical reality to talk about, there might prove to be rather little to say. Democratic theory is certainly pretty thin on the ground ‘Dunn, J, 1940: 2).


Dahl, R. A., Democracy and its Critics. Yale: Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publications Data.
Dunn, J. 1979. Democratic Theory. Bristol: Western Printing Service.
Elliott, W. and McDonnald N. 1949. Westerm Political Heritage. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.
Field G. 1956. Political Theory. London: Methuen & Co
Hansen, M., The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demostehenes, Structures, Principles and Ideology. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.
Held, D. 1993. Models of Democracy. Oxford. Polity Press
Murray-Forsyth and Keens-Soper, 1992. The Political Classics – A Guide to External texts from Plato to Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford Printing Press.
Portis, E. 1994. Reconstructing the Classics. Political Theory from Plato Marx. New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers.
Sartori, G. 1958. Democratic Theory. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

About michelleclarke2015

Life event that changes all: Horse riding accident in Zimbabwe in 1993, a fractured skull et al including bipolar anxiety, chronic fatigue …. co-morbidities (Nietzche 'He who has the reason why can deal with any how' details my health history from 1993 to date). 17th 2017 August operation for breast cancer (no indications just an appointment came from BreastCheck through the Post). Trinity College Dublin Business Economics and Social Studies (but no degree) 1997-2003; UCD 1997/1998 night classes) essays, projects, writings. Trinity Horizon Programme 1997/98 (Centre for Women Studies Trinity College Dublin/St. Patrick's Foundation (Professor McKeon) EU Horizon funded: research study of 15 women (I was one of this group and it became the cornerstone of my journey to now 2017) over 9 mth period diagnosed with depression and their reintegration into society, with special emphasis on work, arts, further education; Notes from time at Trinity Horizon Project 1997/98; Articles written for 2003/2004; St Patricks Foundation monthly lecture notes for a specific period in time; Selection of Poetry including poems written by people I know; Quotations 1998-2017; other writings mainly with theme of social justice under the heading Citizen Journalism Ireland. Letters written to friends about life in Zimbabwe; Family history including Michael Comyn KC, my grandfather, my grandmother's family, the O'Donnellan ffrench Blake-Forsters; Moral wrong: An acrimonious divorce but the real injustice was the Catholic Church granting an annulment – you can read it and make your own judgment, I have mine. Topics I have written about include annual Brain Awareness week, Mashonaland Irish Associataion in Zimbabwe, Suicide (a life sentence to those left behind); Nostalgia: Tara Hill, Co. Meath.
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