How democratic was Athens ?

According to the Athenians, the source of constitutional power rested in the hands of all the citizens. Ideas were expressed directly through the Assembly, which consisted of all male citizens over 18 years of age and who were willing to attend the sessions held about every 10 days. Anyone who had powerful enough lungs to make himself heard by 6000 or more voters could speak to the Assembly. Of course, if you were a well-known and respected leader your chances of being listened to were greater. Whatever this Assembly decided by vote was the law of the land.

Democracy at works

From the days of Solon, its first lawgiver, the Athenians had a deep respect for the law. There were for instance a variety of constitutional safeguards built into the system. It encouraged serious thinking and political responsibility. There was also a way of ridding Athens of overly ambitious politicians. This was the famous unpopularity contest known as « ostracism. » A special date was set at which citizens wrote on clay shards (ostraka) the name of the man they most disliked Anyone who got a majority (if more than 6000 votes had been cast) was sent into exile for 10 years.

Perhaps, the most important institution which helped the Assembly to function smoothly was the Council of 500. Athens, both the city and its surrounding countryside was divided into 10 electoral districts called  »tribes. » These districts were further divided into precincts or  »demes » which had some limited self- government in the rural areas.The Council of 500 prepared the published agenda for each session of the Assembly Once the Assembly had passed a resolution, the executive branch carried it out on behalf of the people and the Council of 500 supervised its execution. Almost all the administrative officials were chosen by lot for one year. All officials chosen by lot were examined by the Council before entering office to eliminate the physically or mentally incompetent. Any official handling public funds was subject to repeated inspections. The Athenians also had an interesting way of dispensing justice. The courts of law were really committees of the people. Each year a panel of 6000 jurors over 30 years of age was drawn up from those who volunteered to serve.

Democracy in debate

In the second half of the 5th century Athens permanently gave its support to the mighty Pericles’ He was an aristocrat who rose to power by helping to reduce the power of the conservative council of the Areopagus. He introduced state pay for service on the Council of 500 and the jury. In this way even poor citizens could take part in public life. One of his more popular measures was the introduction of a law limiting Athenian citizenship to children both of whose parents were Athenians. Many aristocrats then and now simply do not accept the equality of man, the ability of all men to make rational and reasonable political judgments. The educated and wealthy have always felt that they are better, more capable and more worthy of political power. Many Greek notable were horrified by the freedom of speech in Athens, which permitted the comic poets to make attacks on public figures. Others assailed democracy more insidiously by pointing out its weaknesses in practice. Pericles was accused of being a democratic tyrant who gained general favor for himself by spending public funds on the populace.

But there is criticism of the Athenian system also from the radical democratic side. They insist that Athenian weakness stems from the fact that it was not democratic enough. For Athens did not allow foreigners, slaves and women to vote. The great Greek writer of comedies, Aristophanes wrote a play called Lysistrata. It was first produced in 4ll BC, at a moment when Athens’ fortunes were at their lowest point. Most of the men were away on the battle fields; the strongest allies had revolted; the Spartans were about to control the Aegean Sea with Persian aid; internally the city was on the verge of revolution. In the midst of this situation Aristophanes produced his last and best plea for peace. The plot of his comedy is extremely simple. The women of Greece–remember they did not have the right to vote–led by the Athenian Lysistrata, unite and agree on a sex-strike to force their husbands to make a just and reasonable peace, and the plan succeeds admirably.

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