By Ben Potter
Athens, July 514 BC. Two of Athens’ most disgruntled sons, Harmodius and Aristogeiton become forever known as ‘The Tyrannicides’. With their swords plunged into the Tyrant Hipparchus, these two soon-to-be martyrs become the symbol of Athenian democracy.
This is because these brave men’s actions paved the way for Athens to unfetter herself from oppression and tyranny. Her screaming infancy was at an end; it was finally time for the demos (people) to unleash their kratos (power).
So harmony and joy ensued in what was now the cradle of democracy?
Not at all.
Not even slightly.
Two issues rise starkly out of the noble intentions of our forefathers; the system… and the results.
But let’s deal with the latter first; to see if any means can justify such ends!
Athenian democracy, despite a couple of interruptions and renaissances, is generally agreed to have reigned supreme from 508-322 BC.
Those who know their important dates will see an instant red flag; didn’t KING Alexander the Great die in 323 BC? How could Athens remain an independent, democratic state while under the yoke of Macedonian imperialism? A very intelligent question; you should congratulate yourself for asking it.
Whilst Athens remained a functioning democracy during the reign of Alexander the Great, it could not in all earnest be called independent. In other words, it was a democratic client kingdom that could have easily had its powers removed should they have been used ‘irresponsibly’ (c.f. American involvement in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and even Greece itself).
Despite this technical independence, Athenian democracy did little to cover itself in glory… even when its self-determinism was tangible rather than merely theoretical.
For instance, the bloodthirsty rule of the people forced Athens to hubristically overstep her reach during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which resulted in the temporary suspension of the democratic experiment. Importantly, it also seemed suspicious of, and hostile towards, some of the greatest minds of that time.
Indeed, such was the poor judgement of the demos that it drove the city’s greatest commander (and lover), the legendary Alcibiades, to flee during the Peloponnesian War and take up residence with their antagonists, the Spartans.
It has been often speculated, and with much justification, that Alcibiades’ defection was the tipping point in the war.
However, national security was only one sphere in which the people strove to raise their own standing simply by reducing the mean quality of the demos as a whole. Art and philosophy were the chief victims of a short-sighted and covetous populace.
It’s thought that popular pressure and threat of persecution forced the tragedian Euripides to quit the city for a ‘retirement’ in Macedonia. Though some now dispute the veracity of such a story, the mere fact that it was popularly believed tells a tale in itself.
Aristotle, likewise, opted to jump before he was pushed into the next world. He was particularly concerned that the demos would condemn him to the same fate it bestowed upon Socrates.
Unlike the other three men mentioned above, Socrates was not merely chased out of town, but actually executed by a jury of 501 of his peers (greatly multiplying Herbert Spencer’s maxim that “A jury is composed of twelve men of average ignorance”).
It is this state-sanctioned murder of one of the first great minds of our culture that forever leaves Athenian democracy with an indelible stain.
But can the means do much to exonerate such rancorous ends? Well… you be the judge.
The Nuts and Bolts
Athenian democracy evolved as any ‘work in progress’ democracy should and as such the citizens contributing to the various bodies of state had sometimes more and sometimes less involvement/power at different times.
However, the really poignant thing about political participation is that it was a) assumed and b) direct.
It was taken for granted that men must not merely take an interest in or talk about politics, but perform actively within the political arena. Indeed, men who deliberately spurned politics were known as idiōtēs. While the world literally meant ‘one who minded his own business’, it was a term of the utmost disdain.
The idea that democracy was ‘direct’ meant that the votes in the Assembly (ekklêsia) were de facto referenda. Though minor votes seemed to be able to get through without much difficulty, major votes could only be passed if 6000 men were in attendance. Motions carried with a simple majority.
All free men over 18 could vote, but due to the two years of compulsory military service, political activity usually started at the age of 20. Women had to wait a bit longer… until 1952 in fact. However, this imbalance was slightly redressed by the fact that men had to be 30 in order to hold political office, sit on a jury or even table a motion!
Despite its selectively egalitarian nature, the referendum-style Assembly was by no means a political free-for-all. The business of the day was dictated by the Council (boule). This 500 strong body was the nearest thing that Athens had to an executive or cabinet.
Even if there was no guarantee that the Council would be selected judiciously, it was at least selected randomly. 50 members of each of the 10 Athenian tribes (demes) were appointed by lot to serve for a year with members from alternating tribes taking turns to lead the Council day-by-day.
The boule also had to maintain the fleet, liaise with the generals, entertain dignitaries, assess the competence of magistrates and handle the city purse. These last two responsibilities did, for a time at least, fall in part under the remit of other organs of state.
One of which was the courts. 6,000 judges were appointed a year and they would congregate in the agora to be assigned trials for the day.
Private cases were overseen by either 201 or 401 judges and public cases by 501. Trials were supposed to be concluded by sunset, making jury tampering and corruption not only extremely costly, but logistically impossible.
The most serious public cases seem to have been political in nature and were brought against those charged with treason, corruption, or those who proposed unconstitutional legislation in the Assembly.
N.B. it didn’t matter if the legislation had passed the vote, the individual could still be tried, condemned and even executed for misleading the demos. The demos was always immune from any form of accountability, if it acted incorrectly it was always because it had been ‘misled’.
The day-to-day running of the mundane affairs of state was in the hands of the 1,200 archai. 1,100 of these former-day civil servants were chosen by lot with a further 100 being voted for by the Assembly. Only those voted in could hold the same office twice (with the exception, by numerical necessity, of those who went into the boule).
The only offices not attainable by lot were the 10 associated with the armed forces. Consequently, these generals (strategoi) were the only people who could hope to carve out a political niche for themselves.
However, such an appointment was fraught with peril, as the demos was notoriously unforgiving of failure. The case in point being the 406 BC defeat at the battle of Arginusae. Six of the eight generals involved in this débâcle were tried en masse and executed, despite such a process being illegal.
The leader in charge of proceedings for the day of the vote was, amazingly (as it was random which citizen it could have been), Socrates. Despite refusing to allow an illegal vote to take place, the demos went ahead and committed collective treason against itself.
Some speculate that the enemies Socrates made on that day may have come back to haunt in him in 399 BC.
The democrats of Athens believed that demokratia was intrinsically bound to liberty and equality; they defined the terms thus:
Liberty = the ability to live as one pleased and the freedom to participate in politics.
Equality = the right to speak in the Assembly and the right to a fair trial.
There was not even a suggestion of attempting to provide men with an equal social or financial status; democratic Athens was actually extremely snobbish and elitist.
Free-speech (parrhesia) was thought to underpin both of these. Though many critics have pointed out exercising this was precisely what cost Socrates his life.
Critics have also claimed that, in order to financially sustain such a democracy, it was necessary for Athens to extend (and then overextend) her imperial reach. This included having a slave class whose ranks were swollen far beyond those of any of her close neighbours.
Additionally, as the demos could act with impunity, when mistakes were made – scapegoats needed to be found (e.g. the 6 generals or Socrates).
That said, this was a political system without entrenched parties. Indeed, it was with few factions of any sort, with minimal corruption and, most importantly, without any concept of lobbyists!
And we cannot deny that the democratic period gave us some of the most amazing tragedians, comedians, philosophers, architects, visionaries, historians and characters the ancient world ever produced.
Would we have had the Parthenon if not for Pericles and his building plan? Or Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes if theatrical festivals, competitions and prizes were not organised by the demos?
Also, perhaps that inevitable product of democracy, bureaucracy, is why this period of history is one with such relatively fine records. The importance of posterity was such that even the ignominy survives. Would a king or an oligarchy have been so transparent?
Ultimately the question must be one of self-determinism; were the ancient Athenians content to preside over the first functioning democracy the world has ever known?
Well, the fact that they made Democracy a goddess in the 4th century BC certainly suggests they had strong feelings towards its retention. As does the fact that they relinquished it so very reluctantly.
One can imagine that, when the Macedonians wrenched democracy away from the clawing grasp of the demos, tear-drops, much like the blood from the Tyrannicides’ blades would have salted and stained the terrain at the foot of the Acropolis.