The his­tory of democ­racy, from Athens to today

It was only through blood­shed and tyranny that democ­racy evolved

History Revealed - - FROM THE EDITOR -

What does democ­racy ac­tu­ally mean?

The op­po­site to monar­chy (‘rule of one’), democ­racy (from the Greek word demokra­tia) means gov­ern­ment by the peo­ple, or the rule of the ma­jor­ity. In prac­tice, this means power is held by elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives or by the peo­ple them­selves.

Who in­vented the con­cept?

Tra­di­tion­ally, the con­cept of democ­racy is be­lieved to have orig­i­nated in Athens in c508 BC, although there is ev­i­dence to sug­gest that demo­cratic sys­tems of gov­ern­ment may have ex­isted else­where in the world be­fore then, al­beit on a smaller scale.

In Athens, it was a no­ble named Solon who laid the foun­da­tions for democ­racy, and in­tro­duced a new con­sti­tu­tion based on the own­er­ship of prop­erty. Ac­cord­ing to this, Athe­ni­ans were di­vided into four classes, with po­lit­i­cal power dis­trib­uted among them. The high­est of­fices went to those peo­ple whose land pro­duced 730 bushels of grain, while the low­est class com­prised labour­ers who could not hold of­fice, but who could vote in the assem­bly. Im­por­tantly, un­der Solon’s con­sti­tu­tion, na­tive-born cit­i­zens could not be en­slaved by their fel­low cit­i­zens.

How did democ­racy de­velop in the state?

Solon’s re­forms even­tu­ally broke down as the rul­ing classes be­gan fight­ing among them­selves, tak­ing Athens to the brink of civil war. Out of this rose a tyrant – Pei­sis­tratos – who seized power in 546 BC. Af­ter his death, Pei­sis­tratos’s sons took over as rulers un­til they were over­thrown in 510 BC with help from Sparta.

As fac­tional strife for power broke out once more be­tween Athe­nian no­ble fam­i­lies, a man named Cleis­thenes en­listed the sup­port of the com­mon peo­ple by propos­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion. This new con­sti­tu­tion in­cluded the es­tab­lish­ment of sor­ta­tion, which saw cit­i­zens se­lected at random to fill gov­ern­ment po­si­tions, rather than at­tain­ing them through in­her­i­tance. Ten new groups – or tribes – were cre­ated as a way of break­ing up the ex­ist­ing power struc­ture with po­lit­i­cal rights and priv­i­leges de­pen­dent on one’s tribe. What’s more, all Athe­ni­ans had the right to at­tend and vote in the ekkle­sia, an assem­bly which met every ten days. To en­sure that even the poor­est could af­ford to at­tend and par­tic­i­pate in the city’s po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, pay­ment was given for at­ten­dance from c400 BC.

A de­lib­er­a­tive body known as the boule saw 500 ran­domly se­lected peo­ple 50 from each tribe) meet daily to dis­cuss leg­is­la­tion, which would then be agreed by cit­i­zens at the ekkle­sia.

What about women?

Athe­nian democ­racy did not ex­tend to women, and they played lit­tle role in the po­lit­i­cal life of the state and had no vote. Athe­nian girls were not for­mally ed­u­cated and their rights were lim­ited.

Was Athe­nian democ­racy al­ways a good thing?

Pos­si­bly the most dra­matic as­pect of Athe­nian democ­racy was os­tracism, which was com­mon be­tween 487-417 BC. If 6,000 vot­ers were in favour, an Athe­nian cit­i­zen could be sent into ex­ile for ten years, a tac­tic that was of­ten used to rid the city of a pow­er­ful but per­haps un­pop­u­lar fig­ure.

What are the dif­fer­ences be­tween democ­racy today and An­cient Greek democ­racy?

Ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans, there are three dif­fer­ences be­tween today’s sys­tem of democ­racy and that of the An­cient Greeks: scale, par­tic­i­pa­tion and el­i­gi­bil­ity. The pop­u­la­tion of fifth-cen­tu­ryBC Athens is thought to have been around 250,000, yet only about 30,000 were full Athe­nian cit­i­zens and there­fore able to ben­e­fit from the new con­sti­tu­tion. The re­main­ing were slaves, women, chil­dren or for­eign­ers. What’s more, only men could take part in a demo­cratic gov­ern­ment.

Did democ­racy con­tinue?

De­spite sur­viv­ing de­feat in the Pelo­pon­nesian War in 404 BC, the demo­cratic ex­per­i­ment came to an end in 322 BC, with the fail­ure of the Greek re­volt against Mace­do­nian rule fol­low­ing the death of Alexan­der the Great. El­e­ments of democ­racy af­ter Athens can be seen in the Ro­man world in the third cen­tury, Scan­di­navia in the eighth cen­tury, and the Ital­ian com­munes of the 11th-13th centuries. But full democ­racy as we know it today was a long time com­ing.

“Democ­racy is when the in­di­gent, and not the men of prop­erty, are the rulers” Aris­to­tle

FAR LEFT: Solon, an Athe­nian statesman, laid the foun­da­tions for democ­racy LEFT: Democ­racy crowns Demos, per­son­i­fy­ing the peo­ple of Athens

Aris­tides wrote his own name on an os­tracism vot­ing shard af­ter he was ap­proached by an il­lit­er­ate Athe­nian

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.