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date: 23 January 2018

democracy, Athenian

Athenian democracy from 508/7 to 322/1 bce is the best known example in history of a ‘direct’ democracy as opposed to a ‘representative’ or ‘parliamentary’ form of democracy.

1. Ideology

Today democracy is invariably a positive concept, almost a buzz-word, whereas dēmokratia in ancient Greece was a hotly debated form of constitution, often criticized by oligarchs and philosophers alike. The Athenian democrats themselves, however, connected dēmokratia with the rule of law (Aeschin. 1. 4–5) and, like modern democrats, they believed that democracy was inseparably bound up with the ideals of liberty and equality (Thuc. 2. 37). Democracy was even deified, and in the 4th cent. bce offerings were made to the goddess Demokratia (Inscriptiones Graecae 22. 1496. 131–41).

Dēmokratia was what the word means: the rule (kratos) of the people (dēmos), and decisions of the assembly were introduced with the formula edoxe tō dēmō (Inscriptiones Graecae 22. 28). When an Athenian democrat said dēmos he meant the whole body of citizens, irrespective of the fact that only a minority turned up to meetings of the assembly (Aeschin. 3. 224; Thuc. 8. 72). Critics of democracy, on the other hand, especially the philosophers, tended to regard the dēmos as a class, i.e. the ‘ordinary people’ (Arist.Pol. 1291b17–29; Ath. pol. 41. 2) or the ‘city poor’ who by their majority could outvote the minority of countrymen and major property-owners (Pl.Resp. 565a).

The fundamental democratic ideal was liberty (eleutheria, see freedom), which had two aspects: political liberty to participate in the democratic institutions, and private liberty to live as one pleased (zēn hōs bouletai tis) (Arist. Pol. 1317a40–b17; Thuc. 7. 69. 2). The most important aspect of liberty was freedom of speech (parrhēsia) which in the public sphere was every citizen's right to address his fellow citizens in the political assemblies, and in the private sphere was every person's right to speak his mind (Dem. 9. 3). The critics of democracy, especially the philosophers, took democratic eleutheria to be a mistaken ideal that led to a deplorable pluralism and prevented people from understanding the true purpose in life (Pl. Resp. 557b–558c).

The democrats' concept of equality was not based on the view that all are equal (although the philosophers wanted to impute this view to the democrats, Arist. Pol. 1301a28–35). The equality advocated by the democrats was that all should have an equal opportunity to participate in politics (isonomia, Hdt. 3. 80. 6; Eur.Supp. 353, 408, 441), especially an equal opportunity to speak in the political assemblies (isēgoria, Hdt. 5. 78; Dem. 15. 18) and that all must be equal before the law (kata tous nomous pasi to ison, Thuc. 2. 37. 2). The concept of equality was purely political and did not spread to the social and economic sphere of society.

2. Institutions

A description of the political system must focus on the 4th cent. bce, especially on the age of Demosthenes (2) (355–322) where the sources are plentiful enough to allow a reconstruction of the democratic organs of government.

Political rights were restricted to adult male Athenians. Women, foreigners, and slaves were excluded (Dem. 9. 3). An Athenian came of age at 18 when he became a member of his father's deme and was enrolled in the deme's roster (the lēxiarchikon grammateion, Aeschin. 1. 103); but, as ephēboi, most young Athenians were liable for military service for two years (Ath. pol.42) before, at the age of 20, they could be enrolled in the roster of citizens who had access to the assembly or ekklēsia (the pinax ekklēsiastikos, Dem. 44. 35). And full political rights were only obtained at the age of 30 when a citizen was allowed to present himself as a candidate at the annual sortition of magistrates (Xen.Mem. 1. 2. 35) and jurors (Respublica Atheniensium 63. 3) (who served as both legislators and judges).

The citizen population totalled some 30,000 adult males over 18, of whom some 20,000 were over 30 and thus in possession of full political rights. The population of Attica—citizens, foreigners, and slaves of both sexes and all ages—may have amounted to some 300,000 persons. (See population, Greek.)

Any citizen over 20 had the right to speak and vote in the people's assembly (ekklēsia) (Xenophon Memorabilia 3. 6. 1). The people met 40 times a year (Respublica Atheniensium 43. 3), mostly on the Pnyx (Aeschines 3. 34); a meeting was normally attended by at least 6,000 citizens, the quorum required for (among other things) ratification of citizenship decrees (Demosthenes 59. 89), and a session lasted a couple of hours only (Aeschines 1. 112). The assembly was summoned by the 50 prytaneis and chaired by the nine proedroi (Ath. pol. 44. 2–3). The debate consisted of a number of speeches made by the politically active citizens, and all votes were taken by a show of hands (cheirotonia), assessed by the proedroi without any exact count of the hands (ibid. 44. 3) (see elections and voting). The Athenians distinguished between laws (general and permanent rules, called nomoi) and decrees (temporary and/or individual rules, called psēphismata, Andoc. 1. 87); see law and procedure, Athenian. The assembly was not allowed to pass nomoi but did, by decree, make decisions on foreign policy and on major issues of domestic policy (Ath. pol. 43. 6). Furthermore, the people in assembly were empowered

  1. (a) to elect the military and financial magistrates (ibid. 43. 1, 44. 4);

  2. (b) to initiate legislation (nomothesia) by appointing a panel of legislators (nomothetai, Dem. 3. 10–3); and

  3. (c) to initiate a political trial (eisangeliaeis ton dēmon) by appointing a panel of judges (a dikastērion, Ath. pol. 43. 4).

Citizens over 30 were eligible to participate in the annual sortition of a panel of 6,000 jurors (hoi omomōkotes, Ar. Vesp. 662) who for one year served both as legislators (Dem. 24. 21) and as judges (ibid. 148–51). When a nomos was to be enacted, the assembly decreed the appointment, for one day only, of a board of e.g. 1,000 legislators (nomothetai) selected by lot from the 6,000 jurors (Dem. 24. 20–38; Aeschin. 3. 38–40). Having listened to a debate the nomothetai decided by a show of hands all amendments to ‘Solon's laws’, i.e. the Solonian law code of 594/3 as revised and codified in 403/2 (Andoc. 1. 82–5). Boards of nomothetai were appointed only infrequently, and to legislate once in a month was considered excessive (Dem. 24. 142).

Jurisdiction was much more time-consuming. The popular courts (dikastēria) met on roughly 200 days in a year. On a court day members of the panel of 6,000 jurors showed up in the morning in the agora, and a number of courts were appointed by sortition from among those who presented themselves. These courts consisted of 201 or 401 judges each in private actions and 501 or more in public actions. Each court was presided over by a magistrate and in a session of some eight hours the judges had to hear and decide either one public action or a number of private actions (Ath. pol. 63–9). The two most important types of political trial were

  1. (i) the public action against unconstitutional proposals (graphē paranomōn), brought against proposers of decrees (Aeschin. 3. 3–8), and

  2. (ii) denunciation to the people in assembly (eisangelia eis ton dēmon, Hyp. 3. 7–8), used most frequently against generals charged with treason and corruption (Dem. 13. 5).

In addition to the decision-making organs of government (ekklēsia, nomothetai, dikastēria) Athens had about 1,200 magistrates (archai), elected from among citizens over 30 who presented themselves as candidates (Lys. 6. 4). About 100 were elected by the ekklēsia (Aeschin. 3. 14) whereas the other 1,100 were chosen by lot (Dem. 39. 10), viz. 500 councillors and c.600 other magistrates, often organized in boards of ten with one representative from each tribe (IG 22. 1388. 1–12). The period of office was restricted to one year and a magistrate selected by lot could only hold the same office once whereas elected magistrates could be re-elected (Ath. pol. 62. 3). Before entering office magistrates had to undergo an examination (dokimasia) before a dikastērion (ibid. 55. 2–5) and, on the expiration of their term of office, to render accounts (euthynai) before another dikastērion (ibid. 54. 2; 48. 4–5).

The magistrates' principal tasks were to summon and preside over the decision-making bodies, and to see to the execution of the decisions made (Arist. Pol. 1322b12–17). Apart from routine matters, the magistrates could not decide anything but only prepare the decisions (ibid. 1298a28–32). The council of five hundred prepared business for the ekklēsia (Ath. pol. 45. 4) and the nomothetai (Dem. 24. 48), the other magistrates for the dikastēria (Aeschin. 3. 29).

By far the most important board of magistrates was the council of five hundred (boulēhoi pentakosioi). It was composed of 50 persons from each of the ten tribes who for a tenth of the year (a prytany of 36 or 35 days) served as prytaneis, i.e. as executive committee of the council, which again served as executive committee of the assembly. The council met every day except holidays in the bouleutērion on the Agora to run the financial administration of Athens and to consider in advance every matter to be put before the people (Ath. pol. 43. 2–49. 5).

Of the other boards of magistrates the most important were the ten generals (stratēgoi) who commanded the Athenian army and navy (ibid. 61. 1–2), the board for the Theoric Fund (hoi epi totheōrikon) who in the 350s under Eubulus (1) supervised the Athenian financial administration (Aeschin. 3. 24–5), and the nine archons (see archontes), who in most public and private actions had to summon and preside over the popular courts and supervised the major festivals, e.g. the Panathenaea and the Dionysia (Ath. pol. 55–9).

In all matters the initiative was left to the individual citizen, in this capacity called tōn Athenaiōn ho boulomenos hois exestin (SEG 26. 72. 34). At any time about 1,000 citizens must have been active as speakers and proposers of nomoi and psēphismata or as prosecutors and synēgoroi before the people's court. But it was always a small group of about twenty citizens who more or less professionally initiated Athenian policy. They were called rhētores (Hyp. 3. 4, 8) or politeuomenoi (Dem. 3. 29–31), whereas the ordinary politically active citizen is referred to as an idiōtēs (Dem. prooemium 13). There were no political parties and the people did not just vote according to the crack of their leaders' whip. But by persuasion and charisma major political leaders sometimes succeeded in dominating the political assemblies for a longer period, as did Pericles (1) from 443 until his death in 429 (Thuc. 2. 65. 10), and Dem. (2) in the period 341–338 (Dem. 18. 320).

The ordinary citizens were reimbursed for their political activity as ekklēsiastai, or nomothetai or dikastai or bouleutai (Ath. pol. 62. 2; Dem. 24. 21). Very few of the magistrates were paid on a regular basis, but many obtained perquisites instead (Isoc. 7. 24–7). Speakers and proposers in the political assemblies were unpaid, and those who attempted to make a profit out of politics were regarded as sycophants and liable to punishment (Dem. 59. 43).

The council of the Areopagus was a survival of the Archaic period and in the period 461–404 mainly a court for cases of homicide (Philoch.FGrH 328 F 64). In the 4th cent., however, the activity of the Areopagus was again progressively enlarged in connection with the attempts to revive the ‘ancestral’ or ‘Solonian’ democracy (Din. 1. 62–3; Lycurg. 1. 52).

3. History

In 510 bce the Pisistratid tyrants (see pisistratus; hippias (1)) were expelled from Athens, but the revolution ended in a power struggle between the returning aristocrats led by Cleisthenes (2) and those who had stayed behind led by Isagoras. With the help of the ordinary people (the dēmos) Cleisthenes successfully opposed Isagoras (Hdt. 5. 66–73) and, reforming the Solonian institutions of 594 bce, he introduced a new form of popular government which was in fact arising in several Greek city-states at the time. The term dēmokratia can be traced back to c.470 (SEG 34. 199; Aesch. Supp. 604) and may go back to Cleisthenes' reforms of 508/7 (Hdt. 6. 131. 1). Cleisthenes' major reforms were to divide Attica into 139 municipalities (demes or dēmoi) which, in turn, were distributed among ten tribes (phylai). Citizen rights were linked to membership of a deme, and a council of 500 (boulē) was introduced, with 50 representatives from each of the ten tribes, and a fixed number of seats assigned to each of the demes (Ath. pol. 21. 2–6). Finally, to avoid a repeat of the power struggle of 510–507 Cleisthenes introduced ostracism (ibid. 22. 1, 3–4).

During the next century the new democracy was buttressed by other reforms: in 501 command of the army and navy was transferred from the polemarch to a board of ten popularly elected generals (stratēgoi) (Ath. pol. 22. 2). In 487/6 the method of selection of the nine archons was changed from election to selection by lot from an elected short list (ibid. 22. 5). Ephialtes (4)'s reforms of 462 deprived the council of the Areopagus of its political powers which were divided between the assembly, the council of five hundred, and the popular courts (ibid. 25. 2). Shortly afterwards, on the initiative of Pericles, political pay was introduced for the popular courts (Arist. Pol. 1274a8–9) and the council or boulē (Inscriptiones Graecae 13. 82. 20), so that even poor citizens could exercise their political rights. Athenian citizenship became a much-coveted privilege, and in 451 Pericles had a law passed confining citizenship to the legitimate sons of an Athenian mother as well as father (Ath. pol. 26. 4).

The defeats in the Peloponnesian War resulted in a growing opposition to democracy and twice the antidemocratic factions succeeded for some months in establishing an oligarchy, in 411 a moderate oligarchy led by the council of Four Hundred (Thuc. 8. 47–98, Ath. pol. 29–33) and in 404–3 a radical oligarchy under a junta which fully earned the name ‘the Thirty Tyrants’ (Xen. Hell. 2. 2–4; Ath. pol. 35–8; Diod. Sic. 14. 3. 7). In 403/2 democracy was restored in a modified form. Legislation (in 403) and all jurisdiction in political trials (in c.355) were transferred from the people in assembly to the panel of 6,000 jurors acting both as legislators (nomothetai) and judges (dikastai). In the 330s a kind of minister of finance was introduced (ho epi tē dioikēsei) (SEG 19. 119). He was elected for a four-year period and could be re-elected, and for twelve consecutive years the administration of Athens was entrusted to Lycurgus (3) (Hyp. fr. 139 Sauppe). These and other reforms were allegedly a return to the ‘ancestral’ or ‘Solonian’ democracy (Andoc. 1. 83; Aeschin. 3. 257), but the gradual and moderate transformation of the democratic institutions came to an abrupt end in 322/1 when the Macedonians after their victory in the Lamian War abolished the democracy and had it replaced by a ‘Solonian’ oligarchy (Diod. Sic. 18. 18. 4–5). During the Hellenistic age democracy in some form was restored several times i.e. in 318/7, 307–298(?), 287–103, and 88–85.

4. Tradition

Between 322 bce and c. ce 1850 Athenian democracy was almost forgotten, and, if mentioned, the focus was on the mythical ‘Solonian democracy’ known from Plutarch's Life of Solon and Aristotle's Politics (1273b35– 1274a21). It was not until c.1800, when history began to emerge as a scholarly discipline, that the Athenian democratic institutions were studied seriously and reconstructed, e.g. by August Böckh, from sources such as Thucydides (2), Demosthenes, and inscriptions. And it was only from c.1850 that the new understanding of Classical Athenian democracy was connected, principally by George Grote, with a budding interest in democracy as a form of government, though now in the form of a ‘representative’ or ‘parliamentary’ democracy and no longer as an ‘assembly’ democracy in which power was exercised directly by the people.


Systematic account: M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (1991).Find this resource:

Historical account: C. Hignett, A History of the Athenian Constitution to the End of the Fifth Century BC (1952).Find this resource:

Historical and systematic account combined: G. Busolt and H. Swoboda, Griechische Staatskunde 2 (1926), 758–1239.Find this resource:

Socio-political approach: J. Ober, Mass and Élite in Democratic Athens (1989).Find this resource:

Political Organization of Attica: J. S. Traill, Demos and Trittys: Epigraphical and Topographical Studies in the Organization of Attica (1986).Find this resource:

Demes: D. Whitehead, The Demes of Attica 508/7–ca. 250 BC (1986).Find this resource:

Assembly: M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Assembly (1987).Find this resource:

Council of five hundred: P. J. Rhodes, The Athenian Boule (1972).Find this resource:

Lawcourts: S. C. Todd, The Shape of Athenian Law (1993).Find this resource:

Magistrates: R. Develin, Athenian Officials 684–21 BC (1989).Find this resource:

Council of the Areopagus: R. W. Wallace, The Areopagos Council, to 307 BC (1989).Find this resource:

Ideology: K. Raaflaub and M. H. Hansen, in J. Rufus Fears (ed.), Aspects of Athenian Democracy (1990), 33–99.Find this resource:


J. T. Roberts, Athens on Trial (1995).Find this resource:

M. H. Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy (2005).Find this resource:

State of research: J. Bleicken, Die athenische Demokratie, 2nd edn. (1994), 437–584.Find this resource:

Democracy personified (female) in art: Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 3/1 (1986), 372–4.Find this resource:

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