Demokratia: the Athenian Dream

Athenian politicians may have not been aware of the impact the new system they tried in Athens would have in the future world. Athenian democracy was different from our modern concept of democracy as an ideological, political and economic idea, but it set the basis for the system over which most European powers built their influence centuries later. I think something that is crucial to the development of democracy, is the fact that it keeps on revising, and revisiting itself, and improving so attempt to achieve a better system. Democracy was by no means fully achieved in ancient times, but it was a rather long process, which I believe is still ongoing as current political models based on democratic values are still challenged by political unrest, economic issues and unhappy civilians. But perhaps none of us will see this ideal fulfilled, just like the Greeks only saw its beginning.

So, why was democracy created? Well, for the same reasons than any other system is created. Greece was undergoing some deep cultural changes, both from the inside and the outside, resulting from social pressures which called for a change all throughout the 6th century BC. Admittedly, Athens was not the only polis to be ruled through democracy, but it is the best documented and perhaps the most stable of them all. In addition, the Athenians had real trouble with their governance, which was established by the archons who were elite aristocrat which ruled the city for their own benefit, stripping most Athenians of any power and keeping the citizens in a status that many considered close to slavery. The first man to start working on this issue was Solon (594 BC), who belonged with the archons but accepted that things needed to change. He reshaped certain concepts that allowed the Athenians to get back their rights and capacity to partake in the assembly meetings. Solon also created two new institutions: the ekklesia and the boule. The ekklesia made decisions upon warfare and foreign affairs, and was in charge of writing and passing law bills. Any adult male citizen was entitled to attend and vote in the group decisions elected by majority. The ekklesia also had the power to send people into ostracism. The second body of government, the boule of Solon was formed by 400 which worked more as counselors than anything else. Later on, with Cleisthenes reforms is was also known as the Council of the Five Hundred and was in charge of daily tasks and affairs. It was formed by 500 men, 50 of each of the 10 Athenian tribes who served the council for only a year. These men were also chosen not by vote but by a lot, so then it was pure chance that put them in charge rather than favoritism or popularity. The boule established the things that will be presented to the ekklesia for revision or discussion.

This ground work was further reformed by Cleisthenes between 508 and 507 BC. One of his main reforms, apart from the proper institutionalisation of the boule, was the introduction of equal rights, undermining the power the aristocracy had and bringing them to an equal level than the rest of the population. He also introduced the third institutional body, the dikasteria: popular courts run on a daily basis and presided by 500 jurors chosen at a lot amongst men aged 30 or more. This was also a paid job so this, once again, to power away from the wealthy and proved that everyone had equal rights, at least to a degree.

 

However, was by no means a perfect scheme and it still excluded many members of society. Woman and foreigners were not represented within this system, nor did they have the right to vote. In addition, the poor were excluded from much of the partaking and rather treated in a patronising or protective way, for their own good. The Athenian democracy kept on evolving and changing, up to the point of becoming a democracy only in name. When Pericles took charge as leader of Athens (c.461 BC), he certainly kept in essence the spirit of the demokratia but he effectively governed the city as its first citizen.

 

I guess what one can conclude from the genesis of democracy and any political system is that government and governance are not static, and humans will always try to find a way that suits them best to exercise power. Democracy evolves, and so do we…Perhaps to the point it will not be democracy anymore…

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