Athenian democracy

democratic regime in 5th- and 4th-century-BCE Athens

Athenian democracy developed around the 6th century BC in the Greek city-state (known as a polis) of Athens, comprising the city of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica. Although Athens is the most famous ancient Greek democratic city-state, it was not the only one, nor was it the first; multiple other city-states adopted similar democratic constitutions before Athens. Athens practiced a political system of legislation and executive bills.

Constitution of the Athenians, 4th century BC

Quotes edit

  • Our party was that of the whole people, our creed being to do our part in preserving the form of government under which the city enjoyed the utmost greatness and freedom, and which we had found existing. As for democracy, the men of sense among us knew what it was, and I perhaps as well as any, as I have the more cause to complain of it; but there is nothing new to be said of a patent absurdity — meanwhile we did not think it safe to alter it under the pressure of your hostility.
    • Alcibiades, Speech to the Spartans, as recorded by Thucydides (VI, 89), History of the Peloponnesian War
  • Greek democracy was not, in fact, Greek democracy; it was Athenian, or Corinthian. Although the city-state mentality may seem quaintly parochial today, the same issue is still with us.
  • Despite the extraordinary influence of classical Greece on the development of democracy, modern democratic ideas and institutions have also been shaped by many other factors, of which three are particularly important: a republican tradition, the development of representative governments, and certain conclusions that tend to follow from a belief in political equality.
    • Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Ch. 2 : Toward the Second Transformation: Republicanism, Representation. And the Logic of Equality
  • There is such a thing as fighting the battle of democracy in the front rank too long. It is ever the Aristides experience over again. Everybody remembers Aristides— the sturdy citizen of the Athenian democracy, who was one of the generals at Marathon, one of the victorious captains at Salamis, the conqueror at Plataea, who put through with a punch a very much needed programme of civic reform in Athens, and helped organize the Delian League with the purpose of making Greece a real nation at the time when she was able to be one. He pushed the Athenian democracy to the point of diminishing returns; the people had an attack of fatigue, escorted Aristides to the city gate, and bowed him into the ostracism of silence. That has been the way with democracies. They get over their blue funk after a while. Everbody in Greece is for Aristides now. But he is dead. And it is too late. It is yet a question whether the American democracy has learned its lesson from history so that it knows how to value its Aristides citizens, little and big.
    • Frederick M. Davenport, "The Use and Abuse of Direct Democracy—The State of Oregon," (July 21, 1915) The Outlook: With Illustrations (1915) p. 680
  • The other old democracy... the one I teach about... was in Athens. Now Aristotle said democracy means "to rule and to be ruled in turns"... because the system the Athenians set up was designed to ensure that nobody would... cease power. So they took people and... forced them to be political units composed of multiple clans... so different clans had to be together. They couldn't be segregated, and they had a 10 month calendar and every month a different group was in charge. Hence to rule and to be ruled in turns. ...[I]t worked for 200 years. [Much of] our Constitution is based... on the experience of Ancient Athens, of Attica. All of the Founders of this country... were well steeped in the history of the ancient world.
    • David Cay Johnston, "The Tyrant Next Time (November 7, 2019)" a presentation for the Network for Responsible Public Policy, 11:26.
  • The Athenian practice had been, even before Plato’s birth, precisely the opposite: the people, the demos, should rule. All important. political decisions—such as war and peace—were made by the assembly of all full citizens. This is now called “direct democracy”; but we must never forget that the citizens formed a minority of the inhabitants—even of the natives. From the point of view here adopted, the important thing is that, in practice, the Athenian democrats regarded their democracy as the alternative to tyranny—to arbitrary rule: in fact, they knew well that a popular leader might be invested with tyrannical powers by a popular vote.
    So they knew that a popular vote may be wrongheaded, even in the most important matters. (The institution of ostracism recognised this: the ostracised person was banned as a matter of precaution only; he was neither tried nor regarded as guilty.)The Athenians were right: decisions arrived at democratically, and even the powers conveyed upon a government by a democratic vote, may be wrong. It is hard, if not impossible, to construct a constitution that safeguards against mistakes. This is one of the strongest reasons for founding the idea of democracy upon the practical principle of avoiding tyranny rather than upon a divine, or a morally legitimate, right of the people to rule.
  • The contrast between the Persian state—and by the same token the late Imperial Roman, Bismarckian, or modern European state—and the Greek polis is far from the only theme that dominates this story. A familiar contrast is between Athenian and Roman notions of freedom and citizenship. The Athenians practiced a form of unfiltered direct democracy that the Romans thought a recipe for chaos; the Romans gave ordinary free and male persons a role in politics, but a carefully structured and controlled one.
    • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), Introduction: Thinking about Politics
  • Although the Romans disavowed Athenian democracy, there are many “Roman” arguments for involving the citizenry in political life as deeply as possible. Machiavelli had no taste for Athenian democracy, but preferred citizen armies to mercenary troops, and like Roman writers before him and innumerable writers after him thought that, given the right arrangements, the uncorrupted ordinary people could check the tendency of the rich to subvert republican institutions. That was a commonplace of antiaristocratic republican thinking in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe; it is a standing theme of American populism.
    • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), Introduction: Thinking about Politics
  • The key to Athenian democracy was the Assembly, or ecclesia. It was in modern terms legislature, judiciary, and executive, and there was no appeal against its decisions except to a later meeting of itself, or a court that was part of itself. Although its potential membership was 40,000, it operated through many smaller bodies, through courts of 500 members, and in particular through the 500 members of the governing council, or boule, whose members formed the Athenian administration for a year, and the prytany, the 30-strong body whose members formed the managing committee of the boule for a month at a time.
    • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), Ch. 1 : Why Herodotus?
  • To the extent that they drew on classical governments for inspiration or illustration, the Founders much preferred republican Rome (or even timocratic Sparta) to Athenian democracy. They used the terms republic and democratic republic, or sometimes representative democracy, to describe early American state governments and the new national system.
    • Loren J. Samons II, What's Wrong with Democracy? (2004) University of California Press

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