Sunday 3 July 2016

The Birth Of Democracy

The oldest and most stable democracy in ancient Greece developed in Athens, evolving constitutionally through monarchy, aristocracy and tyranny before arriving at the principle of equality of all the citizens. However as in the other Greek polis , women, slaves and foreigners were excluded from participating.

After the destruction of Mycenaean civilization(whose stories, including the Odyssey, were recorded by Homer), ancient Greece entered a dark age, about which we know little. Increased trade in the 7th century BC in between the Greek city states began a political and military revolution.  The need to act collectively in warfare led to a new form of government shared on common interest.

Scene From "The Odyssey"

To encourage good governance(eunomia) in AthensSolon created a council(boule) to prepare the weekly business of the citizen's assembly(ecclesia) and a popular court of appeal(heliaia) for legal redress against abuses of power. Citizens were divided into four classes: aristocrat, "horseman", hoplite, and the poor(thetes), each of which elected 100 members to the council. 

Cleisthenes, an aristocrat of Athens, to neutralize faction feuding , redivided Athens into 139 voting districts(demes) arranged into 10 tribes(phylae) made up of citizens from each of the three regions- coast, interior and city- in an elaborate system if checks and balances. 


The kleroterion was used to select jurors in Athens. Slots in the device held volunteers names and black and white balls were dropped down a tube to select them. Klepshydra or water clocks were used to time the speeches in assembly. Citizens inscribed the names of overly ambitious politicians that they wished to ostracize(exclude) from the city on an ostrakon(voting table).

The 6000 strong citizens convened weekly on the Pnyx, a site near the Acropolis, to vote on the matters presented by the council leaders and elect 10 generals. These powerful officials who controlled the army and the navy could be re-elected.

Klepshydra(Water Clock)

Democracy, from the Ancient Greek words "demos", meaning "people", and "kratos", meanning "power".

Ostrakon(voting table)

After their victory over the Persians at Marathon in 480 BC and Salamis in 490 BC, Athens started investing in a powerful navy and gave more importance to their oarsmen. Setting up of the Delian League in 477 BC - an alliance with other city states to protect themselves from future Persian invasion made Athens dominant power in Greece.

A brilliant orator called Pericles in the golden age of Athens(451-429 BC) consolidated the democratic "constitution" by compensating the poorer citizens for their time on jury service and limiting citizenship to those with two Athenian parents. 


The Acropolis("high city") of Athens was it's spiritual center. The Parthenon(finished in 431 BC), the temple at the top of the Acropolis dedicated to the goddess Athena, was built by the Athenian general Pericles following the defeat of the Persians, with the money from the Delian league, as a symbol of city's glory.  

Acropolis("High City")

Democracy in Athens was suspended and quickly restored twice during the 5th century BC. It was finally extinguished during 2nd century BC by expanding Roman Empire. It took a long for the idea of democracy to become widely adopted, taking until the mid 20th century to become the most common form of government.

Roman voting
Republican government in ancient Rome was based on elected representatives rather than Athenian style direct democracy. Power was shared between two consuls , the Senate(aristocracy) and the Plebs(commoners). Overtime, the Plebeian Assembly became the dominant legislature.  

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