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.