Athenian Democracy: Information, Functions and Characteristics

We explain what Athenian democracy was, its origin and how it worked. Also, what are its characteristics and importance?

What was Athenian democracy?

Athenian democracy is known as the form of government established in the city-state of Athens , in Ancient Greece , around the 6th century BC. C. It is the first known democracy in the history of mankind: it began in 508 BC. C. and culminated in 322 a. C. with the Macedonian hegemony.

This is a fundamental antecedent of modern democracies , which the West reached in the Modern Age (from the 18th century). Other ancient cities undertook similar systems, but none were as stable and powerful as the Athenian democracy, or as well documented.

It is considered a direct democracy , one of the few in all of history. In it, the legislative and executive powers were exercised directly by the people, instead of electing representatives to do so on their behalf.

The Athenians

the athenians During its democracy, Athens reached 300,000 inhabitants.

The Athenians were the inhabitants of the city-state of Athens , one of the most important in Ancient Greece.

It is estimated that during its democratic period (4th century BC) they reached the number of 300,000 inhabitants . Of these, approximately 60,000 were barely citizens , that is, people with full rights and able to vote. Such a definition used to be restrictive of origin (Athenian), age (adult), and sex (male).

The rest of society did not participate politically : neither the 100,000 people who made up the families of the citizens, nor the resident foreigners (called metics ), much less the slaves, who would have been the largest segment of the population of Attica.

Origin of Athenian democracy

Democracy as a system emerged in Athens during a period of economic stabilization and reforms in the internal organization of Greek society . Among other things, these changes allowed farmers and peasants a greater role in social leadership.

These social groups were incorporated into the military world and the defense of cities . Thus , the traditional dominance of aristocratic elites was broken .

To this must be added the presence of slavery , which sustained the productive apparatus constituting an immovable lower class. His work allowed Greek citizens to indulge in political debate among equals.

History of Athenian democracy

History of Athenian democracy Athenian democracy reached its splendor under the guidance of Pericles.

The work of the political thinkers of Athens at the time are key to understanding the history of Athenian democracy. Among them stand out Solon (594 BC), Cleisthenes (509 BC) , Pericles (495 BC) and Ephialtes of Athens (462 BC).

Solon was an archon or magistrate who laid the foundations for what has since come to be called dëmokratias (union of demos , “people”, and kratos , “power”). However, this system was fully established with the Cleisthenes reforms.

Athenian democracy reached its peak under the guidance of Pericles , who was an active lawyer and politician. It was he who introduced the institutions (point 7) in this form of government .

It should be noted that this democracy was interrupted around the year 411 BC. C. by the emergence of an oligarchy that later led to the tyranny of Critias. Paradoxically, he was also a noted philosopher and poet. In 403 BC C. Athenian democracy was restored, in time for the famous trial of Socrates .

Conditions for citizenship

In Athens, only men born in the city over 20 years of age were considered citizens and endowed with political participation, after finishing their military training as ephebes. No economic or any other distinction was taken into consideration in this regard.

Instead, women, foreigners, and slaves were excluded . So were citizens who had not paid any debt to Athenian society ( atimia ) and in some cases such suspension could be permanent and even hereditary.

How did Athenian democracy work?

How did Athenian democracy work? The Assembly met on Pnyx Hill and the speaker occupied the platform.

Athenian democracy counted on the mandatory participation of all citizens in decision-making and composition of the laws that governed society. They had equal political rights, freedom of expression and opportunity for political participation.

In addition, these citizens were part of the very institutions that watched over these laws . This is how they were always in control of all parts of the political process.

For example, to propose a new law, a citizen had to write his proposal on a tablet that was deposited in the agora, in front of the monument to the Eponymous Heroes. Then, a Council made up of 500 members in monthly commissions of 50 citizens debated the proposal.

That debate resulted in a bill that was then taken to the Citizens’ Assembly. This Assembly met on the hill of Pnyx, near the Acropolis. There a piglet was sacrificed and the debate began , which could last around 6 hours.

The debates had fixed rules : first those over 50 years of age spoke and then the rest, to finally vote by a show of hands (first in favor, then against). This is how laws and decisions of all kinds were approved or rejected.

Public charges

Athenian democracy worked on the basis of elected public officials in two different ways:

  • Positions elected by lottery. This was the most common method for appointing public officials, since it was considered the most democratic possible: all citizens should govern and be governed in turns. Thus, no type of advantage or merit was taken into account, but mere citizenship, when choosing.
  • Elected positions by vote. About a hundred officials out of a thousand were elected by public vote: the treasurers and those in charge of handling large amounts of public money and the strategoi , generals elected from among the leading members of the polis. They were requisitioned before and after holding office, to avoid corruption crimes.

Government institutions

government institutions The council of 500 was made up of men over the age of 30.

There were three governmental institutions in democratic Athens, in which citizens participated by the hundreds or even thousands. These were:

  • The Citizens Assembly. Composed of up to 6,000 citizens, who were not elected but could attend as they pleased, although it was considered a duty to do so. This Assembly made the most important decisions, such as legislating, appointing officials, judging crimes and misdemeanors, or carrying out executive decisions (such as going to war or granting citizenship to a foreigner). The assembly met regularly (at first once a month) and as the democratic model became more complex, it appointed courts of justice , to which judicial and legislative functions were delegated.
  • The Council of 500. Also called the Boulé , this was a restricted assembly whose citizens were in charge of the current affairs of the city. Created by Solon, it was initially made up of 100 citizens, but Cleisthenes’ reforms expanded it to 500. These citizens were randomly chosen from the Assembly among those over 30 years of age, and received special pay, in exchange for exercising deliberative, administrative functions. and judicial, serving as surveillance for the other institutions and guaranteeing the functioning of the system .
  • The courts. Also called dikasteria (“those who swear”) or heliast , it was formed by lottery among 6,000 citizens over 30 years of age, to form a court of up to 1,500 citizens. Those chosen were required to take the oath and take charge of the decisions in public ( graphe ) and private ( diké ) trials. They had greater authority than the Assembly, and could not be censored like the magistrates.

End of Athenian democracy

Athenian democracy meant the greatest historical splendor of Athens, and ended around 322 BC. C. with Sparta’s victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War. In addition, a plague that later ravaged the city, claiming lives like Pericles. Subsequently, the Macedonian supremacy ended the democratic institutions.

Importance of Athenian democracy

The Athenian democracy represents a fundamental milestone in the political history of the world , for being the first democracy of which there is a wide record. It is the source of ancient legal texts, which later served as the basis for legal legislators of the Roman Republic. Its influence reached later Western civilizations, such as the French.

Difference with current democracy

Compared to the Athenian democracy, today’s democracies function indirectly, since they are representative and not direct democracies.

  • Representative democracy (current).  We elect officials who represent us politically, who make decisions for us based on partisan political guidelines.
  • Direct democracy (Athenian).  Athenian citizens participated directly, that is, they made decisions themselves and voted for or against, without representatives.

The above content published at Collaborative Research Group is for informational and educational purposes only and has been developed by referring to reliable sources and recommendations from technology experts. We do not have any contact with official entities nor do we intend to replace the information that they emit.

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