Democratic Beginnings | Athenian Democracy | Governmental Structure | Political Development | Economic Development
A Theory | Seven Nations | Governments and Empires | Geological Past

The Athenian Democracy

Was Athens really a democracy?

Athens has become the "undisputed" model for democracy, notwithstanding the fact that she maintained a large slave population and democratic privileges were reserved for a few individuals. Some would challenge her democratic credentials on those grounds alone. Those who would make that argument have a point. While they concede that Athenian citizens had a voice in governmental decisions, citizenship was enjoyed by a relatively small number of people. The existence of slavery in any society, they claim, is a clear contradiction of democratic principles, warranting automatic disqualification. Yet, the accusation that political and economic benefits are limited to a small group, can be made against nearly every society in history. All societies have divided themselves into classes and the upper classes in all societies have reserved certain privileges for themselves. That being the case, true democracy may never have been achieved, even in Athens. The problem with that line of argument is that governments can be categorized only with difficulty. Democracy becomes indistinguishable from dictatorship, if all societies are unjust and democracy becomes just another variation on a sliding scale of injustices. Whether Athens can be considered a "true" democracy because wealth was unequally distributed is really the subject of a "definitional" debate.

A more crucial question may be why a society such as Athens was able to avoid the more blatant abuses of governmental power. It did not maintain a secret police force or, at least its reputation did not rise to the level of the Spartan Krypteia. There are hints that Athens did use informers and was not quite as open a society as its ideal would suggest.

When and for how long?

Despite the fact that Athens is held up as the democratic ideal, our notions about her democracy are somewhat vague. If she was the first democracy, when did her democratic period begin? - and how long did it last?

When it was over...

It is easier to determine when the end came for Athenian democracy than it is to decide on its beginning, although the ending is somewhat up in the air. The reason is that the ending can be assigned to two dates. In 411, Athens' political calm was destroyed by a war between two political factions. One side managed to replace the democratic assembly with a Council of Four Hundred. The Four Hundred would remain in power only four months and democratic government would be restored. The return to democracy was only temporary. Following Athens' surrender in 404, a new government headed by a body of Thirty was created. If the Thirty made a good start at organizing governmental administration, they began to disregard democratic safeguards. Political enemies were identified and either executed or forced into exile. The Thirty however, made too many enemies, and in 403, the opposition forces became large enough to remove them. The warring factions were able to decide on a workable government.

Exactly when democracy began for Athens is open to question. In 510 the Athenians had forced the dictator, Hippias, to leave Athens. In 508 Cleisthenes would try to overhaul the governmental structure. His reforms were not received well by his chief opponent, Isagoras who appealed to the Spartans. They sent a small military force and expelled 700 families identified by Isagoras. After the Spartans (and Isagoras) were expelled, Athens implemented Cleisthenes' reforms. While the reforms expanded democratic representation, the lower classes would be excluded from the archonship, the principle leadership position, until 458. Pinpointing the exact time when democracy began is confused by the association of Athenian democracy with Athenian prosperity.

Athens negotiated a peace with Persia in 449. With Persia agreeing to peace, there was no longer any real justification for the Confederacy of Delos. Yet Athens continued to exact tribute from the members of the League. Although there was some building beginning around 450, Pericles used these funds to embark on a massive public construction project in 447. Construction of the Parthenon, which would not be completed until 432, was started at this time. Democracy is associated with this period, not so much for any revolutionary changes in the Athenian governmental structure - that structure had been in place for a half-century - but rather for the political calm and economic prosperity Athens enjoyed.