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Athenian democracy

The Athenian democracy was a democratic government in the city-state Athens and its surrounding lands in Attica, Greece; usually considered to have lasted from the early-6th to the mid-4th century BC. During the 5th century BC, the population of Athens comprised some 300,000 people. Athens provides the example of the first democracy, and of one of the most important in ancient times. Actually the word "Democracy" is a Greek word, invented by Athenians in order to define their regime.

Athenian Democracy's principle was majority rule. The assembly of all male citizens in Athens voted on decisions directly (compare direct democracy). Elected officials did not determine decisions—the ancients did not consider such a system a democracy but an oligarchy. Democracy had (and for some people still has) the meaning of equality in decisions and of elections in decisions, not the election of persons charged to decide (see representative democracy). Few checks on or limits to the power of the assembly existed, with the notable exception of the Graphe Paranomon (also voted by the assembly), which made it illegal to pass a law that was contrary to another.

Pejoratively, opponents of this early democracy called the system ohlocratia (from o ohlos—"the mob"). Contemporary opponents of majoritarianism (arguably the principle behind Athenian democracy) call it an illiberal regime (in contrast to liberal democracy) that leads to anomie, Balkanization and xenophobia. Proponents (especially of majoritarianism) deny these conclusions, and claim that accurate majoritarianism has never been tried.



As usual in ancient democracies, one had to physically attend a gathering in order to vote. Military service or simple distance prevented the exercise of citizenship. Voting took place in public, sometimes by physical division ("Everybody for Plan A go to the right....") and sometimes by written ballot. Ostracism took place only by written ballot (voters scratched a name on a potsherd or ostracon).

Athenian Democracy is not recognizable as "modern democracy" is known today, since voting rights were limited strictly to male adult members of the society. Women, children, douloi, foreigners, resident aliens—groups that together made up a majority of the city's population—had no voting rights at all. On the other hand, modern democracy has its own limitations in comparison to the ancient model, as the right of voting is usually limited to once every several years, and voters merely get to choose their representatives in the legislative or executive branches (with the exception of occasional referenda).


Lot or random choice of a citizen from a pre-determined group filled a number of positions in the Athenian democracy (see sortition). For instance, the Chairman of the Prytany or Council of 50 was chosen by lot from the 50. Having served once that man could never serve again in his life. The significance of such positions generally originated primarily in religious functions, so the choosing fell to the gods instead of to the people. Following the reforms of Pericles, all Athenian positions except the chief of military officials, the strategos, gained selection by lottery and received payment so that any Athenian citizen could take part in office. The role of the strategos, the one and only elected representative in later Athenian democracy, remained a very difficult and dangerous position to achieve. Candidates required both wealth and popularity to fill the office. Also, in the case that he did not manage to fulfill his mission, the strategos often faced ostracism or (if he was lucky) sentencing on other charges.

Citizenship in Athens

Only adult (above eighteen) male Athenian citizens had the right to vote in Athens. This excluded douloi, women and resident foreigners (metics) but nevertheless meant that a very large portion of the population took part in the government of Athens and of other radical democracies like it. Participation greatly exceeded that of any contemporary states, and functioned more directly than in any subsequent democracies.

Athenian citizens had to claim descent from citizens—after the reforms of Pericles from both parents, excluding children of Athenian men and foreign women (450 BC)—or had to gain approval through an elaborate procedure, in which any citizen had a veto, which was very rarely carried through. This reflected the general conception of the polis as a community, somewhat like an extended family, rather than as a territorial state.

Slaves and democracy

It is often written that the Athenian democracy came into existence thanks to the use of slaves (douloi) that allowed citizens the free time to participate in politics (including courts of justice, while the administration was left mostly to slaves) without worrying about life's necessities. This view is considered historically uninformed and inaccurate, as Cornelius Castoriadis explains, since almost all people used slaves long before, during and after the first democracy but did not create democracy, consequently the use of slaves or the exclusion of women were neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for the emergence of democracy and not helpful in understanding it.

Individualism in Athenian democracy

Another interesting insight from the Athenian democracy comes from the law that excluded from decisions of war those citizens that had property close to the city's wall on the basis that they had a personal interest in the outcome of such debates because the practice of an invading army was at the time to destroy the land outside the walls. Clearly, the first democrats understood politics as a process in the interests of the entire demos where private interests had no place. This contrasts with current understanding that the pursuit of private or sector/professional/financial interests are an integral part of the political process. A good example of the contempt the first democrats felt for those who did not participate in politics can be found in the modern word 'idiot' that finds its origins in the ancient Hellenic word 'ιδιωτης' ('idiotis') meaning a private person, a person who is not actively interested in politics; such characters were talked about with contempt and the word acquired eventually its modern meaning.

To this day, opponents of majoritarianism look to the Athenian example as a warning, citing the death of Socrates, the expulsion of Protagoras and other incidents of the enforcement of conformism as evidence of the way in which unconstrained majorities can act as tyrants.

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