Ancient Greece and the meaning of democracy


What is democracy?  Does democracy consist of free elections?  Is democracy based on inalienable human rights?  Is a democracy a government of laws and not of men?  Does democracy require political parties, checks and balances and separation of church and state?

The classicist Paul Cartledge pointed out in his new book, DEMOCRACY: A Life (2016), that ancient Athens and the other Greek city-states lacked all these things.   Yet, he argued, it was they who best represented the ideal of democracy and we Americans and British who have fallen away from it.

Democracy in ancient Greece had a complicated history.  Cartledge derived from the fragmentary historical record how the common people over time wrested power from kings, aristocrats and the rich.

At the high tide of democracy, the main governing bodies were Assemblies were chosen at random, by lot, as juries are today.

The Athenian Assembly had a membership of up to 5,000 to 6,000, chosen from a citizenry of about 30,000, and they all met for important decisions.

The Assembly met almost continuously; it passed laws, set policy, tried important legal cases and decided on whether to exile (ostracize) troublesome citizens and politicians.

The Assembly did elect an administrative Council of 500 as well as generals and treasurers.  Other governmental positions, including juries for minor cases, were chosen by lot.

There was no bright line dividing the legislative, executive and judicial function.   An Athenian citizen might propose a military action in the Assembly one day and be named to command the troops to carry out that action.

There was virtually no limit to the power of the Assembly.  You could call it a tyranny of the majority.  You could even call it a dictatorship of the proletariat.

But you couldn’t deny that the people of Athens and the other democratic Greek cities ruled themselves in a way that contemporary Americans and Britishers don’t come close to doing.

Aristotle defined democracy as the rule of the poor (meaning workers) and oligarchy as the rule of the rich (meaning property-owners who don’t do manual labor).   Any Athenian in the time of Pericles would call the modern USA and UK oligarchies, based on the influence of the rich on public policy and the lack of participation by the mass of the citizenry.

Greek citizenship required military service.   The ancient Greeks kept and bore arms, and served in well-regulated militias.

One theory is that the evolution of Athenian democracy paralleled the evolution of the Greek military—from cavalrymen, who owned and maintained war horses, to hoplites, foot soldiers who fought with spears and shields, to rowers on warships, who owned nothing but their strong backs.

That’s probably over-simplified, but it’s true that the Athenian navy was the backbone of its democracy.  Athenians in their great war with Sparta converted the cities they conquered into democracies; the Spartans, strong on land but not at sea, put oligarchies into power when they won.

Paul Cartledge

Paul Cartledge

Women were excluded from Athenian citizenship.  The ideal Athenian wife never left the house.

This was not just because they were excluded from military service.   Sparta, the main anti-democratic Greek city, was more militaristic than Athens, yet gave women more rights.

Ancient Greek citizens owned slaves.  Ancient Athens got much of its wealth from silver mines, which were worked by slaves under dehumanizing conditions resembling the Soviet Gulag or Cuban and Haitian sugar plantations.

So democracy is compatible with a great deal of injustice.  Democracy also is compatible with a great deal of folly, as when the Athenian Assembly decided the way to conquer Sparta was to send an expedition off to conquer Sicily.

Many of the best-known Greek thinkers—Plato, Thucydides, Aristophanes—were opponents of democracy.  But history shows that all forms of government—monarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, dictatorship—also are compatible with crime and folly.  As Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.

The era of Greek democracy ran roughly from 500 to 300 BCE.  Alexander the Great and his successors subjugated the independent Greek city-states. and the word “democracy” came to mean the struggle for independence.

The Roman Republic originated as a city-state, but it never was democratic.   The Senate was elected by land-owning patricians; the landless common people were theoretically represented by Tribunes of the People, who, according to Cartledge, were sometimes assassinated when they took their duties too seriously.

The main way the Roman poor influenced their government was through mob violence.   Most of the ancient Roman thinkers identified democracy with mob rule, a view which prevailed through the European middle ages and down to modern times.

Revolutionaries in 17th century England and 18th century France and America took ancient Rome, not ancient Greece, as their source of political wisdom.  It was left to the Philosophical Radicals in 19th century England to revive the Greek ideas of democracy.

No ancient Greek would consider the contemporary USA a democracy.   Except during brief eras of progressive reform, the government is more responsive to the rich few than to the majority.

Few Americans are active in politics.  Nearly half of us don’t even vote in Presidential elections.   For most of the rest of us, political participation is limited to choosing which of two pre-selected candidates will rule over us.

The power to vote out unsatisfactory rulers and legislators is no small thing.  It is more than most people have had during most periods of history.  It is government of the people, it may be government for the people, but it falls short of being government by the people.

Yet we have institutions that an ancient Greek would recognize as fully democratic—self-organized volunteer organizations, congregational churches, producer and consumer co-operatives, New England town meetings—and they reflect humanitarian values that the ancients largely lacked.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, before it was forcibly suppressed, attempted to go beyond democracy and base decision on consensus.  The big question is whether true democracy can ever be scaled up to the national and international level.


How student activism informed Paul Cartledge’s new history of democracy by Dr. Paul Cartledge for Oxford Today.

Democracy When? by Joanna Hanick for Eidolon.   A book review of Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life.

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3 Responses to “Ancient Greece and the meaning of democracy”

  1. electqualfiedmiddleclass Says:

    Your last paragraph, The Occupy Wall Street movement, before it was forcibly suppressed, attempted to go beyond democracy and base decision on consensus. The big question is whether true democracy can ever be scaled up to the national and international level.

    I do not think that boycotts and protesting like what the Wall St. Movement mostly did was a mind or decision toward consensus. I think they just wanted to make a huge statement in front of the cameras and hopefully change a few bankers’ and politicians’ minds minds and especially get lots of Americans on their side, with real change later on. I was always supporting them but never lived in a big city nor had the money to fly or stay in NYC. I do not remember that they were forcibly removed. I must have missed that in the news. I think that simple sign holding and protesting is the basic democracy in this country. It is the one core way to express freedom of speech. Maybe you describe it correctly, as a consensus. . It was huge movement with lots of participants who I think were so mad about the “bail-outs” of banking after the severe recession.

    As for your last sentence, the power of the middle class, statistically, with their high numbers can scale up to true democracy. I am hopeful. I found a site on facebook called the American Middle Class Party. He or she has 287 followers. We are beginning to talk about joining forces.


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