Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens, comprising the central city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, around 500 BC. Athens was one of the very first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most but not all following an Athenian model, but none were as powerful or as stable (or as well-documented) as that of Athens. It remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Participation was by no means open, but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a scale that was truly phenomenal. The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theaters.
Solon (594 BC), Cleisthenes (509 BC), and Ephialtes of Athens (462 BC) all contributed to the development of Athenian democracy. Historians differ on which of them was responsible for which institutions, and which of them most represented a truly democratic movement. It is most usual to date Athenian democracy from Cleisthenes, since Solon's constitution fell and was replaced by the tyranny of Peisistratus, whereas Ephialtes revised Cleisthenes' constitution relatively peacefully. Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, was killed by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were subsequently honored by the Athenians for their alleged restoration of Athenian freedom.
The greatest and longest-lasting democratic leader was Pericles; after his death, Athenian democracy was twice briefly interrupted by oligarchic revolution towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts are of this fourth-century modification rather than the Periclean system. It was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 BC. The Athenian institutions were later revived, but the extent to which they were a real democracy is debatable.
The word is attested in Herodotus, who wrote some of the earliest Greek prose to survive, but even this may not have been before 440 or 430 BC. It is not at all certain that the word goes back to the beginning of the democracy, but from around 460 BC at any rate an individual is known whose parents had decided to name him 'Democrates', a name which may have been manufactured as a gesture of democratic loyalty; the name can also be found in Aeolian Temnus, not a particularly democratic state.
The non-citizen component of the population was divided between metics and slaves, with the latter perhaps somewhat more numerous. Around 338 BC the orator Hyperides (fragment 13) claimed that there were 150,000 slaves in Attica, but this figure is probably not more than an impression: slaves outnumbered those of citizen stock but did not swamp them.
Athenian citizens had to be legitimately descended from citizens—after the reforms of Pericles in 450 BC on both sides of the family, excluding the children of Athenian men and foreign women. Although the legislation was not retrospective, five years later the Athenians removed 5000 from the citizen registers when a free gift of grain arrived for all citizens from an Egyptian king. Citizenship could be granted by the assembly and was sometimes given to large groups (Plateans in 427 BC, Samians in 405 BC) but, by the 4th century, only to individuals and by a special vote with a quorum of 6000. This was generally done as a reward for some service to the state. In the course of a century the numbers involved were in the hundreds rather than thousands.
The ekklesia had at least four functions; it made executive pronouncements (decrees, such as deciding to go to war or granting citizenship to a foreigner); it elected some officials; it legislated; and it tried political crimes. As the system evolved these last two functions were shifted to the law courts. The standard format was that of speakers making speeches for and against a position followed by a general vote (usually by show of hands) of yes or no. Though there might be blocs of opinion, sometimes enduring, on crucial issues, there were no political parties and likewise no government or opposition (as in the Westminster system). In effect, the 'government' was whatever speaker(s) the assembly agreed with on a particular day. Voting was by simple majority. In the 5th century at least there were scarcely any limits on the power exercised by the assembly. If the assembly broke the law, the only thing that might happen is that they would punish those who had made the proposal that they had agreed to. If a mistake had been made, from their viewpoint it could only be because they had been 'misled'.
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 was usually by show of hands (cheirŏtonĭa, "arm stretching") with officials 'judging' the outcome by sight. With thousands of people attending, counting was impossible. For a small category of votes a quorum of 6000 was required, principally grants of citizenship, and here coloured balls were used, white for yes and black for no. Probably at the end of the session, each voter tossed one of these into a large clay jar which was afterwards cracked open for the counting of the ballots (Ostracism required the voters to scratch names onto pieces of broken pottery, though this did not occur within the assembly as such).
In the 5th century BC, there were 10 fixed assembly meetings per year, one in each of the ten state months, with other meetings called as needed. In the following century the meetings were set to forty a year, with four in each state month. (One of these was now called the main meeting, kyria ekklesia.) Additional meetings might still be called, especially as up until 355 BC there were still political trials that were conducted in the assembly rather than in court. The assembly meetings did not occur at fixed intervals, as they had to dodge the annual festivals that were differently placed in each of the twelve lunar months. There was also a tendency for the four meetings to bunch up toward the end of each state month.
Attendance at the assembly was not always voluntary. In the 5th century public slaves forming a cordon with a red-stained rope herded citizens from the agora into the assembly meeting place (pnyx), with a fine for those who got the red on their clothes. This, however, cannot compare with the compulsory voting schemes of some modern democracies. It was rather an immediate measure to get enough people rapidly in place, like an aggressive form of ushering. After the restoration of the democracy in 403 BC, pay for assembly attendance was introduced for the first time. At this there was a new enthusiasm for assembly meetings. Only the first 6000 to arrive were admitted and paid, with the red rope now used to keep latecomers at bay.
The reason the Council of 400/500 is referred to in such a way is dependent on which point in Athens' history is being referred to. The body of council was shaped due to two major reforms in Athens' development of her politeia (i.e. constitution). The first was due to the Reforms of Solon, c. 594/3BC; the boule had 400 members (100 citizens drawn from the four Ionian Tribes). After the Reforms of Cleisthenes, c. 508/7BC, ten Attik Tribes were created and 50 citizens were drawn from these tribes - hence the number 500. As such, the boule can be referred to as both, depending on which point in Athens' history you are talking about (i.e. pre-democratic or democratic Athens).
The council (boule) of 500, the largest board of officeholders, was responsible for drafting preparatory legislation for consideration by the assembly, overseeing the meetings of the assembly, and in certain cases executing legislation as directed by the assembly. The 500 were selected by a lottery (50 citizens each from the 10 Athenian tribes), held each year among the men over thirty years of age. A citizen could serve on the council twice in his lifetime.
The duty of drafting legislation for the assembly to consider was known as the "probouleumatic power", after the probouleuma, or agenda for a meeting of an assembly, that the council prepared. Ordinary citizens could suggest proposals to members of the boule, but to enter the assembly's agenda they had to be sponsored by a member; the assembly, on the other hand, could order the boule to prepare a probouleuma on a topic of its choosing. Technically it was forbidden for the assembly to make a final decision on any matter that had not been previously considered by the council. These might be concrete, worked-out proposals or 'open' proposals, that is, little more than items on the agenda. In early Athens (as in other Greek states) the assembly could only vote up or down on a probouleuma, but by the mid 5th century it had acquired the power to alter and rework the proposals as it saw fit; still, even in the heyday of radical democracy, complex proposals from the boule were known to pass through the assembly all but untouched, indicating the important role that the body played in shaping legislation.
The presidency of the boule rotated monthly amongst the ten prytanies, or delegations from the ten Cleisthenic tribes, of the Boule (there were ten months in the Hellenic calendar year). The epitastes, an official selected by lot for a single day from among the currently presiding prytany, chaired that day's meeting of the boule and, if there was one, that day's meeting of the assembly; he also held the keys to the treasury and the seal to the city, and welcomed foreign ambassadors. It has been calculated that one quarter of all citizens must at one time in their lives have held the post, which could be held only once in a lifetime.
The boule also served as an executive committee for the assembly, and oversaw the activities of certain other magistrates. The boule coordinated the activities of the various boards and magistrates that carried out the administrative functions of Athens and provided from its own membership randomly selected boards of ten responsible for areas ranging from naval affairs to religious observances. Altogether, the boule was responsible for a great portion of the administration of the state, but was granted relatively little latitude for initiative; the boule's control over policy was executed in its probouleutic, rather than its executive function; in the latter, it merely executed the wishes of the assembly.
Essentially there were two grades of suit, a smaller kind known as dike or private suit, and a larger kind known as graphe or public suit. For private suits the minimum jury size was 201 (increased to 401 if a sum of over 1000 drachmas was at issue), for public suits 501. The juries were selected by lot from a panel of 600 jurors, there being 600 jurors from each of the ten tribes of Athens, making a jury pool of 6000 in total. For particularly important public suits the jury could be increased by adding in extra allotments of 500. One thousand and 1500 are regularly encountered as jury sizes and on at least one occasion, the first time a new kind of case was brought to court (see graphe paranomon), all 6,000 members of the juror pool were put onto the one case.
The cases were put by the litigants themselves in the form of an exchange of single speeches timed by water clock, first prosecutor then defendant. In a public suit the litigants each had three hours to speak, much less in private suits (though here it was in proportion to the amount of money at stake). Decisions were made by voting without any time set aside for deliberation. Nothing, however, stopped jurors from talking informally amongst themselves during the voting procedure and juries could be rowdy shouting out their disapproval or disbelief of things said by the litigants. This may have had some role in building a consensus. The jury could only cast a 'yes' or 'no' vote as to the guilt and sentence of the defendant. For private suits only the victims or their families could prosecute, while for public suits anyone (ho boulomenos, 'whoever wants to' i.e. any citizen with full citizen rights) could bring a case since the issues in these major suits were regarded as affecting the community as a whole.
Justice was rapid: a case could last not longer than one day. Some convictions triggered an automatic penalty, but where this was not the case the two litigants each proposed a penalty for the convicted defendant and the jury chose between them in a further vote. No appeal was possible. There was however a mechanism for prosecuting the witnesses of a successful prosecutor, which it appears could lead to the undoing of the earlier verdict.
Payment for jurors was introduced around 462 BC and is ascribed to Pericles, a feature described by Aristotle as fundamental to radical democracy (Politics 1294a37). Pay was raised from 2 to 3 obols by Cleon early in the Peloponnesian war and there it stayed; the original amount is not known. Notably this was introduced more than fifty years before payment for attendance at assembly meetings. Running the courts was one of the major expenses of the Athenian state and there were moments of financial crisis in the 4th century when the courts, at least for private suits, had to be suspended.
The system shows a marked anti-professionalism. No judges presided over the courts nor was there anyone to give legal direction to the jurors, as the magistrates in charge of the courts had only an administrative function and were themselves in any case amateurs (most of the annual magistracies at Athens could only be held once in a lifetime). There were no lawyers as such, but the litigants acted solely in their capacity as citizens. Whatever professionalism there was tended to disguise itself: it was possible to pay for the services of a speechwriter (logographos) but this was not advertised in court (except as something your opponent in court has had to resort to), and even politically prominent litigants made some show of disowning special expertise.
These juries formed a second site for the expression of popular sovereignty: as in the assembly, citizens acting as jurors acted as the people and were immune from review or punishment. (Notably when the jurors are addressed by speakers as "you", they can be referred to as having committed any act ever committed by the 'Athenian people', such as battles fought before any of them were born or court decisions made by other juries whose membership may have had no overlap with those currently addressed.) Jurors however had a minimum age of 30 and they were under oath. From an Athenian perspective, where the young are rash and age brings wisdom and where an oath is a serious matter, both of these requirements gave jurors more weight than the citizens attending the assembly. Here only the legislative function of courts will be described, though this by no means exhausts the relevance of the courts to the workings of the democracy
In the 5th century there was in effect no procedural difference between an executive decree and a law: they were both simply passed by the assembly. But from 403 BC they were set sharply apart. Henceforth laws were made not in the assembly, but by special panels of 1000 citizens drawn from the annual jury pool of 6000. They were known as the nomothetai, the lawmakers. Here again it is not anything like a legislative commission sitting down to discuss the pros and cons and drafting proposals, but the format is that of a trial, voting yes or no after a clash of speeches and such.
The degree of participation among citizens varied greatly, along a spectrum from doing virtually nothing towards something like a fulltime committent. But for even the most active citizen the formal basis of his political activity was the invitation issued to everyone (every qualified free male Athenian citizen) by the phrase "whoever wishes". There are then three functions: the officeholders organized and saw to the complex protocols; Ho boulomenos was the initiator and the proposer of content; and finally the people, massed in assembly or court or convened as lawmakers, made the decisions, either yes or no, or choosing between alternatives.
Citizens active as office holders served in a quite different capacity from when they voted in the assembly or served as jurors. The assembly and the courts were regarded as the instantiation of the people of Athens: they were the people, no power was above them and they could not be reviewed, impeached or punished. However, when an Athenian took up an office, he was regarded as 'serving' the people. As such, he could be regarded as failing in his duty and be punished for it. There were two methods of selecting people as officeholders, lottery or election. Something like 1100 citizens (including the members of the council of 500) held office each year and about a 100 of these were elected.
Individuals who were interested in holding office had to nominate themselves as available for selection the year before. Officeholders were paid a stipend, but it was intended as a small sum to cover loss of income fixed at the lowest end of the scale. That is, virtually anyone able to work could earn more elsewhere. Payment is confirmed for the 5th century; was cancelled under the oligarchs in 404; may or may not have been restored after democracy was reinstituted.
The random assignment of responsibility to individuals who may or may not be competent has obvious risks, but the system included features meant to obviate possible problems. Athenians selected for office served as teams (boards, panels). In a group someone will know the right way to do things and those that do not may learn from those that do. During the period of holding a particular office everyone on the team is observing everybody else. There were however officials such as the nine archons, who while seemingly a board carried out very different functions from each other.
There were in fact some limitations on who could hold office. Age restrictions were in place with thirty (and in some cases forty) years as a minimum, rendering something like a third of the adult citizen body ineligible at any one time. An unknown proportion of citizens were also subject to disenfranchisement (atimia), excluding some of them permanently and others temporarily (depending on the type). Furthermore, all citizens selected were reviewed before taking up office (dokimasia) at which they might be disqualified. Competence does not seem to have been the main issue, but rather, at least in the 4th century BC, whether they were loyal democrats or had oligarchic tendencies. After leaving office they were subject to a scrutiny (euthunai, literally 'straightenings') to review their performance. Both of these processes were in most cases brief and formulaic, but they opened up in the possibility, if some citizen wanted to take some matter up, of a contest before a jury court. In the case of a scrutiny going to trial, there was the risk for the former officeholder of suffering severe penalties. Finally, even during his period of office, any officeholder could be impeached and removed from office by the assembly. In each of the ten "main meetings" (kuriai ekklesiai) a year, the question was explicitly raised in the assembly agenda: were the office holders carrying out their duties correctly?
No office appointed by lot could be held twice by the same individual. The only exception was the boule or council of 500. In this case, simply by demographic necessity, an individual could serve twice in a lifetime. This principle extended down to the secretaries and undersecretaries who served as assistants to magistrates such as the archons. To the Athenians it seems what had to be guarded against was not incompetence but any tendency to use office as a way of accumulating ongoing power.
The powers of officials were precisely defined and their capacity for initiative limited. They administered rather than governed. When it came to penal sanctions, no officeholder could impose a fine over fifty drachmas. Anything higher had to go before a court.
In Greece, rules were strict.
Generals were elected not only because their role required expert knowledge but also because they needed to be people with experience and contacts in the wider Greek world where wars were fought. In the 5th century BC, principally as seen through the figure of Pericles, the generals could be among the most powerful people in the polis. Yet in the case of Pericles, it is wrong to see his power as coming from his long series of annual generalships (each year along with nine others). His office holding was rather an expression and a result of the influence he wielded. That influence was based on his relation with the assembly, a relation that in the first instance lay simply in the right of any citizen to stand and speak before the people. Under the 4th century version of democracy the roles of general and of key political speaker in the assembly tended to be filled by different persons. In part this was a consequence of the increasingly specialised forms of warfare practiced in the later period.
Elected officials too were subject to review before holding office and scrutiny after office. And they too could be removed from office any time the assembly met. In one case from the 5th century BC the 10 treasurers of the Delian league (the Hellenotamiai) were accused at their scrutinies of misappropriation of funds. Put on trial, they were condemned and executed one by one until before the trial of the tenth and last an error of accounting was discovered, allowing him to go free. (Antiphon 5.69–70)Ά
To its ancient detractors the democracy was reckless and arbitrary. They had some signal instances to point to, especially from the long years of the Peloponnesian War.
Two coups briefly interrupted democratic rule during the Peloponnesian war, both named by the numbers in control: the Four Hundred in 411 BC and the Thirty in 404 BC. The focus on number speaks to the drive behind each of them: to reduce the size of the electorate by linking the franchise with property qualifications. Though both ended up as rogue governments and did not follow through on their constitutional promises, they began as responses from the Athenian elite to what they saw as the inherent arbitrariness of government by the masses (Plato in the Seventh Epistle does remark that the Thirty made the preceding democratic regime look like a Golden Age).
Whether the democratic failures should be seen as systematic, or as a product of the extreme conditions of the Peloponnesian war, there does seem to have been a move toward correction. A new version of democracy was established from 403 BC, but it can be linked with both earlier and subsequent reforms (graphe paranomon 416 BC; end of assembly trials 355 BC). For the first time a conceptual and procedural distinction was made between laws and decrees. Increasingly, responsibility was shifted from the assembly to the courts, with laws being made by jurors and all assembly decisions becoming reviewable by courts. That is to say, the mass meeting of all citizens lost some ground to smaller gatherings (of only a thousand or so!) which were under oath, free of men in their impetuous 20's and with more time to focus on just one matter (though never more than a day). One downside was that the new democracy was less capable of rapid response.
Another tack of criticism is to notice the disquieting links between democracy and a number of less than appealing features of Athenian life. Although it predated it by over thirty years, democracy is strongly bound up with Athenian imperialism. For much of the 5th century at least democracy fed off an empire of subject states. Thucydides the son of Milesias (not the historian), an aristocrat, stood in opposition to these policies, for which he was ostracised in 443 BC. At times the imperialist democracy acted with extreme brutality, as in the decision to execute the entire male population of Melos and sell off its woman and children simply for refusing to became subjects of Athens. The common people were numerically dominant in the navy, which they used to pursue their own interests in the form of work as rowers and in the hundreds of overseas administrative positions. Further they used the income from empire to fund payment for officeholding. This is the position set out by the anti-democratic pamphlet known whose anonymous author is often called the Old Oligarch. On the other hand the empire was, more or less, defunct in the 4th century BC so it cannot be said that it was democracy was not viable without it. Only then in fact was payment for assembly attendance, the central event of democracy (Similarly for the period before the Persian wars, but for the very early democracy the sources are very meagre and it can be thought of as being in an embryonic state).
A case can be made that discriminatory lines came to be drawn more sharply under Athenian democracy than before or elsewhere, in particular in relation to woman and slaves, as well as in the line between citizens and non-citizens. By so strongly validating one role, that of the male citizen, it has been argued that democracy compromised the status of those who did not share it.
Although metics had no direct political influence many were wealthy business owners who could, and sometimes did, influence policy by not allowing their citizen employees time off to attend the assembly, as well as having the simple expedient of wealth.
Contemporary opponents of majoritarianism (arguably the principle behind Athenian democracy) call it an illiberal regime (in contrast to liberal democracy) that allegedly leads to anomie, balkanization, and xenophobia. Proponents (especially of majoritarianism) deny these accusations, and argue that any faults in Athenian democracy were due to the fact that the franchise was quite limited (only male citizens could vote - women, slaves and non-citizens were excluded). Despite this limited franchise, Athenian democracy was certainly the first - and perhaps the best - example of a working direct democracy.