Athenian Democracy Explained
Classical Athens had a type of Direct Democracy that included direct voting on laws and election by lottery, but participation was limited to adult male citizens who owned land. Thus, Athens can be described as a type of Democracy (a Demarchy or a Democracy by Sortition), but is better described as a Republic with a Democratic subsystem and Oligarchical class system. This system is called “Athenian Democracy.”
Below we will give a short history of Athens and back up our claims about Athenian Democracy based on the Athenian Constitution and their culture in practice.
What did democracy really mean in Athens? – Melissa Schwartzberg. To clarify Athenians had to put their name in a drawing to get a position outside of the general assemblies and tribunals. It isn’t like the election by lottery randomly chose just any citizen (like say Jury duty does today). It was customary for only the best and brightest to put their name in the lottery.
“Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. … Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. … everyone is equal before the law …” – See Hobbes’s Thucydides, II. 37-43., this this translation of Thucydides is from “The Athenian Constitution” by Libertarian philosopher Roderick T. Long (that work also explains Athenian democracy).
In What Ways Was Athens a Democracy?
Speaking only of the non-slave land owning Athenians male, we can say Athen’s form of government, for most of the history of classical Athens, from Solon until the Rise of the Roman Republic, was a type of Direct Democracy (where everyone votes on laws directly; as defined by the Athenians Plato and Aristotle).
To translate Aristotle’s Forms of Government into modern terms it looks like this:
|Correct (lawful)||Deviant (corrupt)|
|Many Rulers||Direct Democracy||Anarchy|
BOTTOM LINE: Athens had “a mixed-republic”, with a Constitution that had many aspects of direct democracy, and a class structure that was oligarchical. We can call this “mixed” system Athenian Democracy.
TIP: As with any nation, Athens went through ups and downs, so when discussing it we have to account for the more oligarchical periods before Solon and during the Peloponnesian War, and for the decline during the rise of the Roman Republic. With that said, the 4th century Constitution below is very representative of the system people are referring to when they say “Athenian Democracy.”
The Athenian Constitution and Athenian Democracy
A look at the 4th century BC Athenian Constitution below shows us that elected officials did not create the laws (as they do in America today). Instead, any qualifying citizen could submit a decree or law to the Council of 500, which was the executive branch. The Council of 500 were elected by lottery, and any qualifying citizen could sit, speak, vote in the Popular Assembly. It was like a mix between Congress and a ballot box. They could also participate in the popular tribunal, which was their judicial and ballot box where they voted on laws.
In fact, it was frowned upon not to dedicate one’s life to philosophy, politics, military arts, and other respectable intellectual pursuits as was the case in Sparta. If an Athenian tried to trade, work the land, or even create art he would have been looked down on.
In these ways, when only considering qualifying citizens, we can stand in awe of Athens as the pinnacle of Direct Democracy, but only for male landowning Athenians.
In What Ways Wasn’t Athens a Direct Democracy?
Many elected positions were chosen by lottery and election via the popular assembly. The culture and constitution divided Athens into classes.
The delegation of power had a Republican nature, while the hierarchy based on class, sex, race, and wealth had a very oligarchical nature.
Thus, Athens had aspects of both forms of aristocracy sitting alongside her Direct Democracy.
Slaves, women, children, and lower classes enjoyed fewer privileges in politics and societal status, and so it is hard to call Athens a Pure Direct Democracy. If it were a pure Democracy, EVERYONE would vote. The class structure is oligarchical.
- Athens used a type of democracy called demarchy for many positions (an election by lot or sortition where people submit their name, and it is chosen by lottery).
- Those who got in positions of power ruled in executive positions and were not equals to the other citizens of their same class in this respect.
- Lastly, and importantly, Athens was a “trading republic” because they had a free-market system, currency, and were focused on trade unlike, in most respects, their neighbor Sparta which was a socialist republic.
Why Did Athens Call Itself a Democracy?
Athenians were very proud of their Democracy. Often speaking of it as a Pure Democracy, explaining away their class system and the Republican nature of their government.
This makes sense when we think about their history.
Athens once suffered from a long period of oligarchy where landowners had enslaved most people by debt. Many sold their children into slavery or indentured servitude. See the story here.
Finally, in 594 BC, Solon liberated Athens by removing all credits and debts; the Seisachtheia [= removal of burdens].
After having a “constitution that was oligarchical in every respect” where “the poorer classes, men, women, and children, were the serfs of the rich” a constitution which focused much more on democracy was a thing of national pride especially if you, unlike Plato, didn’t see the irony in failing to notice those on the lower rungs of the class system.
While the exclusion of lowest class, women, and children from the participating in government was eerily similar to pre-Solon times, the spirit of the constitution and laws was benevolent enough to give us Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great. We must admit that their pride was somewhat justified.