In the ancient world, government by the people usually took one of two forms – an assembly of warriors or a senate of elders. In the first type, every man had both a duty to fight in the militia and an equal say in running the government. In the second type, a voice in the government had to be earned, perhaps by holding certain offices, maybe by becoming the oldest male in a prominent family, or merely by surviving to a fine old age in a dangerous world.
Greek political theory sorted the governments in their world into three types: monarchy (rule by one), oligarchy (rule by a few) and democracy (rule by everyone). The structure of the assembly often paralleled the fighting style of the community. In classical Greece, the army was manned by heavily armored foot soldiers (called hoplites) fighting in a tightly packed block (called a phalanx). Because the fighting style was cooperative and collective rather than hierarchical or heroic -- with all men fighting side-by-side protecting each other rather than champions plunging ahead to earn glory -- it encouraged a political structure in which all citizens counted equally. Since armor could be expensive, generally only citizens with some property could afford the equipment to serve as useful soldiers, and by extension, as voters in the assembly; however, in coastal trade cities, national security also relied on warships propelled by banks of oars to ram the enemy. These were owned by the state and rowed by crews of citizens, which meant that the poor in these city-states could contribute meaningfully to the nation’s defense and demand a place in the assembly without buying expensive armor. These city-states might become more democratic. Athens is the most famous of these.
After coming to power in 507 BCE with a promise to place the government in the hands of the people, Cleisthenes reshuffled and redivided the Athenian people into manageable new voting blocs, ten tribes of equal size, each containing six townships (demes) scattered around Attica (the region centered on Athens) in a representative mix of urban and rural, coastal and interior communities. The democratic constitution of Cleisthenes rested on the principles of isegoria, isonomia, isopoliteia – equality of debate, equality under the law, and an equal share of government.
The boule or Council of Five Hundred was made up of 50 randomly selected representatives from each of the ten tribes of Athens. The Council of 500 coordinated government operations by drawing up schedules, reports, dockets and checklists to keep everything flowing smoothly. Athenians were constantly rotated in and out of this council to divide the burden, keep the membership fresh and give everyone a shot at it; however, actual policy decisions were in the hands of the ekklesia or assembly, the noisy gathering of all citizens on a broad sloping hillside in the shadow of the Acropolis beside a rock called the Pnyx. They argued; they voted, and it became law. Actually pretty simple.
An assembly was called about once a month for all the people of Athens to decide on all the issues of the day. Every citizen (that is, every adult male non-slave non-foreigner) in Attica was not only allowed but required to participate in governing the city-state. To drive home the point, state slaves sometimes stretched a roped dipped in fresh red paint across the market and walked slowly toward the assembly, herding the citizens ahead of them. Any person who tried to escape would be visibly smeared with paint and fined for ducking his duty.
If the state needed someone to perform a specific task, individuals were chosen by random lot to serve short terms as magistrates. In general, there was no campaigning for public office because voters only decided policies and let the gods pick which individuals would carry these out. However, exceptions were made for jobs that were too important to leave to chance. Each year ten men were elected to the office of general to share command the army. Most of the Athenian statesmen you’ve heard of held this post at their peak of influence. Money-handling jobs were also elected because if the money ever came up short, the treasurer had to make it up out of his own pocket. This meant the voters wanted to see that a candidate’s personal finances were in order before they gave him the job.
Much of the governing process centered on the courts, where anywhere from 200 to 1500 citizens would be randomly chosen to hear and decide legal disputes. Unlike modern democracies, there was no separate, permanent judiciary for this. Cases were decided, as with any other policy dispute, by majority vote after public debate.
Former magistrates were called archons and they sat in a leadership council called the Areopagus, after the Rock of Ares where they met. Their authority varied throughout history. Sometimes, they governed Athens completely without much interference, but other times, their power waned until they did no more than try cases of homicide.
To keep anyone from aspiring to be king, the Athenians invented the sadly defunct practice of ostracism, in which the people would vote to temporarily exile any person who was becoming too powerful and dangerous. A man didn’t have to do anything specifically criminal to get ostracized. There were no charges, no prosecution and no defense; it was not considered a punishment or even a disgrace. But if at least 6,000 of his fellow citizens got worried enough to vote against him, he had to take a 10-year time-out.
The first life-or-death test of the system came with the Persian Wars, and Athenian democracy came close to being killed in the cradle for its own mistakes.
Across the Aegean Sea from Athens, the Greek city state of Miletus was run by Aristagoras, a native tyrant and vassal to the Persian emperor until he botched an important war of conquest on behalf of the emperor and decided it would be best to get out of the empire before the emperor found out. Aristagoras declared his city independent in 499 BCE, and then made it a democracy in order to win the people to his side. Aristagoras hurried to the mainland of Greece to recruit a larger army to fight off Persian retaliation. First he tried to convince Sparta to join him, explaining how easy it would be to smash the sissy Persians, who fought in loose trousers and turbans, carrying wicker shields like they had just looted an outlet mall of decorative household accessories, instead of like the manly Greeks, nearly nude and armored in bronze, steel and leather. In fact, with enough Greek warriors, Sparta and Miletus could conquer the Persian Empire and divide the vast riches of Asia among themselves. The Spartan king was intrigued, but then he asked how long it took to get to the Persian capital. Aristagoras foolishly told the truth for the first time in the interview -- three months of hard travel. The Spartan king gave Aristagoras until sundown to get the hell out of town with his crazy schemes.
Aristagoras then went to Athens, where he found that it was a lot easier to woo a mob than a king to his side. Most of the 30,000 voters of the Athenian Assembly liked the idea of looting Persia, but others didn’t want to commit to total war, so they compromised. They sent a small force to Miletus to help conquer Asia – not their whole army, just 20 ships – which in practice proved to be enough troops to anger the Persians without actually putting a dent in the enemy’s fighting ability. It didn’t go well at all and escalated quickly. Miletus was destroyed by the angry Persian Emperor; its people were killed or sold into slavery. Horrified by the outcome, Athens tried to lie low and pretend the war had never happened; however, the Athenian playwright Phrynichus, exercised his newfangled democratic freedom of expression. He wrote and staged a powerful tragedy, the Capture of Miletus, which left the audience weeping as they watched the devastation of their allies all over again. It was, as far as we know, the first theatrical entertainment ever ripped from the headlines and based on a current event rather than the mythic past. Phrynicus was fined by the government for upsetting everyone, and Miletus was declared off-limits as a theatrical subject after that.
Persian retaliation came to Athens’ doorstep in 490 BCE when the Persian fleet dropped off a large army at a nearby field of fennel (in Greek: marathon). With them came the exiled former tyrant of Athens, Hippias, ready to resume ruling on behalf of the Persians; however, after many worrisome delays and maneuvers, the outnumbered Athenians attacked and drove the Persian army back across the sea.
The Athenians now had several years to prepare for the next attack, which was expected to be bigger than the first and probably overwhelming. Fortunately, a major vein of silver was discovered in Athenian territory in the meantime. The city knew it should use the windfall to prepare to fight the Persians, but how? The Athenians were finally getting the hang of collective decision-making. Two rival voices rose in the Assembly. Aristides, who had strong support among the affluent landowners who could afford to equip themselves as hoplites, proposed expanding the army, while Themistocles, who was popular among the commoners who could build and row warships, suggested expanding the fleet.
The debate over how to spend the money eventually came down to a vote on ostracism, picking a side by sending the opponent into exile. When the ballots were counted, Aristides was ostracized, and Themistocles had his mandate to expand the navy. As it turned out, this was a good choice. When a gigantic new Persian army invaded in 480 BCE, it brushed aside the land forces sent to stop them at the Hot Gates (in Greek: Thermopylae) and occupied Athens after the residents fled to nearby islands. Only when the Athenian navy destroyed the Persian fleet off the coast at Salamis did the tide turn and save the Greeks from conquest. This meant, among other things, that the democratic experiment would last a little longer.
Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, ca. 350 BCE (Translated by Sir Frederic G. Kenyon) http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/athenian_const.html
Hansen, Mogens Herman, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Robinson, Eric W., Democracy Beyond Athens: Popular Government in the Greek Classical Age. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Copyright © August 2017 by Matthew White