How Democracy Developed in Ancient Greece

How Democracy Developed in Ancient Greece: At the end of the 6th century BC. In AD, the Greek city-state of Athens began to lay the foundations for a new type of political system. This democracy, as has come to be known, was a direct democracy which gave political power to free Athenian citizens rather than an upper class or a ruling dictator, which was largely the norm in Athens for several hundred years. years ago.

The democracy of Athens, which lasted until 338 BC, is one of the earliest known examples of democracy; and although recent studies have complicated the Eurocentric view that it was the first democracy, this ancient political system was extremely influential in the Mediterranean region. It inspired similar political systems in other Greek city-states and influenced the ancient Roman Republic.

How Democracy Developed in Ancient Greece
How Democracy Developed in Ancient Greece

Athenian men join the Assembly

The last tyrannos, or tyrant, to rule Athens was Hippias, who fled the city when Sparta invaded in 510 BC Two or three years later, an Athenian aristocrat named Cleisthenes helped introduce democratic reforms. Over the following decades, subsequent reforms broadened this political system while reducing the definition of who counted as an Athenian citizen.

What was Cleisthenes’ motivation for initiating these changes? Unfortunately, “we don’t have good contemporary Athenian historical sources that tell us what’s going on,” says Paul Cartledge, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. After the assassination of Hippias’ brother in 514 BC.

“Cleisthenes, I think probably in part for his own personal promotion, presented himself as the champion of the majority point of view, which was that we have to have some form of popular and ‘people’ regime,” says Cartledge.

WATCH: Ancient Greece in HISTORY Vault

To participate in demokratia, a person had to be free, male and Athenian. At the beginning of the democratic period, Athenian men were to have an Athenian father and a free mother. In the middle of the 5th century BC, Athens changed the law so that only men with Athenian fathers and mothers could claim citizenship. Because there were no birth certificates (or DNA tests) to prove parentage, the political life of a young Athenian began when his father presented him to their demos, or political unit, by swearing he was his father and bringing witnesses to attest to it, says Cartledge.

HISTORY: Ancient Greek Democracy

A close-up of a marble relief showing the people of Athens crowned by democracy, inscribed with an anti-tyranny law passed by the people of Athens in 336 BC.

Leemage / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Athenian democracy was direct rather than representative, meaning that Athenian men themselves made up the Assembly. Because there was no census of the population, we don’t know exactly how many Athenian men there were in the 5th century BC, but historians have generally estimated the number to be around 30,000. Of these – Here, around 5,000 could attend Assembly meetings on a regular basis. In addition, Athenian men sat on juries and were selected annually by lot to sit on the Council of 500.

There were other government posts which were in theory open to all Athenian men, although wealth and location played an important role in a man’s ability to hold a full-time government post or even to go to the Meeting to vote first. Yet some positions were open only to the elites: treasurers were always rich (apparently because rich men knew how to manage finances), and the 10 generals who held the highest government office were still elite men. known.

Political citizenship has remained narrow

And then, of course, there were all the other people in Athens who were completely cut off from political participation.

Assuming that there were around 30,000 Athenian men when the city-state developed its democracy, historians estimate that there were probably around 90,000 other people living in Athens. A significant portion of these people would have been non-Athenians who were enslaved (by law, Athenians could not enslave other Athenians). Others were “resident aliens” who were free and living in Athens but did not qualify for Athenian citizenship. The rest were Athenian women and children, both of whom could not join the assembly.

Although these groups never got the same political rights as Athenian men, there has been some debate as to whether they should be able to, says Josiah Ober, professor of classics at Stanford University.

“We know that the question ‘could women be political beings? has been debated, ”he said. In 391 BC, the Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote a comedy, Women of the Assembly, in which women take over the government of Athens. “It’s supposed to be funny in some ways, but there’s some serious thought behind it,” he says. Although Aristotle believed that women were not psychologically fit for politics, Ober notes that Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, wrote in The Republic (c. 375 BC) that an ideal political system would include both women and men.

Aristophanes, ancient Greek dramatist

The Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote a comedy, Women of the Assembly, in which women take over the government of Athens.

Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Further, “there have been several times in the history of the Athenian crisis to … liberate large numbers of slaves to make them citizens, or at least make them resident aliens, on the argument that [Athens] needed more people who were full participants in the war effort, ”says Ober. However, “these tended to be defeated”.

Athens’ democratic period also coincided with the city-state’s tightening of control over what was originally a voluntary alliance of Greek city-states, but had now grown into an Athenian empire. The city-states had their own governments, some of which were influenced by the democratic system of Athens, but had no political power in the democracy of Athens.

Athens’ democracy officially ended in 338 BC, when Macedonia defeated the city-state in battle. One of the main legacies of Athenian democracy was its influence on the Roman Republic, which lasted until 27 BC. several centuries later.

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