Democracy In Athens A Democracy is defined as a government of, by and for the people. Originally, democracy meant rule by the common people. In this sense, and even before the beginning of modern class society, it was very much a class affair. It meant that power should be in the hands of the largest class: the poorest, least educated and the propertyless. As a result, democracy was feared and rejected by the educated, the cultured, and the wealthy.
In classical Greece, democracy was seen by the enlightened and the educated as one of the worst types of government and society imaginable. The rule of the people was regarded as a threat to all the cherished values of a civilized and orderly society. It would curtail individual freedom and would lead to anarchy. The political system of ancient Athens was a Democracy, which involved all of its citizens and not only their representatives, by giving then daily access to civic affairs and political power. Both decision-making and decision-enforcing were the duty of every citizen, not just of those elected by them or by their leaders. The citizens of Athens were directly involved not only in government matters, but also in matters of justice, as there was no separation of powers in ancient Athens.
The Athenian Democracy is one of the more intriguing aspects of political history. It is a source for much of our modern conception of democracy, but it is also quite singular in many of its features. Athenian Democracy started developing at the beginning of the 6th century BC. This development began not by a revolution of simple people demanding political rights, but by the initiative of the ruling class of ancient Athens in slow evolutionary ways. By the middle of the 5th century BC, Athens had developed into a pure and absolute Democracy. In 594 BC, Solon was appointed into power. He took immediate measures to relieve the citizens from the burden of their debts and at the same time began an institutional effort to give everyday people a greater participation in city affairs.
Solon gave right to vote to all male citizens and established a new council of 400 (the Boule) to replace the Ecclesia. Members of the Boule were chosen randomly by lot. The term Solon is now often used to describe a wise lawmaker. In the year 560 BC, Pisitratus seized power after Solon. He was thought to be in the league with the Aristocrats, but soon proved to be an even greater reformer than Solon.
He abolished land ownership as a requirement for citizenship. He mandated total redistribution of the land and exiled all people who disagreed with him. Kleisthenes became a tyrant in 508 BC. He was an Aristocrat who was dedicated to Democracy. He divided Athens in to ten tribes based on geographical distribution and increased the Boule to 500 citizens.
Through his reforms common citizens acquired a new sense of power with which they could come to expect and eventually to demand that all matters of significance be submitted to their Assembly for discussion and then decision. This opened the way for the advanced form of Democracy. The result of tyrants and reformers was the creation of the most democratic government in world history. All officials were randomly chosen by lot. The revived Ecclesia had full and final authority of the making and execution of laws.
Juries were comprised of all citizens who chose to take part in the trial. In order to keep aristocrats from gaining control, Athenians adopted a policy of Ostracism, or exile, for those who would attempt to restore the Aristocracy. Although not all persons living in Athens had these political rights, no other Democracy in human history has provided such a magnificent level of participation. This political system, quite innovative for its times, shaped a society of a distinct character, of great sensibility and of unusual cultural achievements. The individual citizen, willing to throw himself into the political fray had an impressive array of powers. He could propose a law, which, if it found enough support, could be formulated by the Council of 500, put on the agenda of a later Assembly meeting, discussed and voted upon at that meeting. He could act as a defender of the Constitution (like our Supreme Court) by bringing a prosecution for proposal of a law that was either illegal or not in the best interests of the state.
Finally, he could bring a public prosecution against any other citizen whether a private person or a magistrate (in the process of examination). Not even the most influential politician could escape the power of the Athenian citizenry, if he had lost their support. While we say in our history books that the democracies of the Greek city-states were great accomplishments, they, nevertheless, had numerous problems. All the major Greek philosophers thought democracy was the worst form of government. Plato, in his critique of democracy in The Republic , claims that it allows people to follow all their passions and drives without order or control; Aristotle claimed that the competing interests in a democracy makes for chaos rather than purposive and deliberated action.
Democracy did not seem to work very democratically at all, in fact. In Athens, the democratic Assembly was usually dominated by a single powerful, charismatic individual; this individual often dominated the Assembly because of his presence or oratorical skill rather than his individual worth. As a result, the democratic governments could make some surprisingly foolish decisions. The position of these charismatic leaders, however, was always very unstable. The democratic Assemblies could change character overnight; they would often eagerly follow a particular leader, and then exile that leader often for no reason Government functions were assigned to two bodies: h The Assembly, which focused on policy decision-making.
h The Council, which concentrated on policy implementation and administrative matters. The Assembly was the supreme decision-making body in Athens, which met in an open area on a hill called the Pnyx. Technically every male citizen over the age of 18 could attend every meeting of the Assembly with the right to speak and vote on all matters of domestic and foreign policy. Space and other practical considerations, however, would not allow every citizen to attend every meeting. As well, not all citizens wanted to attend. In the fifth century, to get an assembling of people, public slaves would proceed through the Agora carrying a long rope coated with fresh red paint.
Any citizen who was marked with this paint and was caught not attending the Assembly was subject to a penalty of some kind. When pay was instituted for attendance at the Assembly in the late fifth century, there was no longer need to force citizens to attend. The Council consisted of 500 members selected annually by lot, 50 from each of the ten Athenian tribes. All male citizens over the age of 30 were eligible to serve in the Council, but service in this body was not compulsory. In the various demes (local municipalities) that make up each tribe, citizens volunteered and were selected by lot for service on the Council. Larger demes were represented by more councillors than smaller ones. The minimum age was 30 years.
A citizen could serve twice as a councillor in his lifetime. The Counc …