“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Is this a realistic description of Athenian democracy?

When Abraham Lincoln first pronounced these words at the Gettysburg address in 1863, he was not describing what the Ancient Greeks would call a democracy, in fact he wasn’t describing democracy at all. But let us put this fact aside when considering the question at hand and that is whether or not the Athenian version of democracy actually fits this description. When talking about Athenian democracy, the period of time which is being considered within this essay is between the reforms made by Cleisthenes at the end of the sixth century BC to the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, a period of time spanning roughly one hundred years. It can be considered a time period from the true beginning to democracy in Athens, with the changes made by the so called ‘father of democracy’ to the temporary dismantling  of the democracy which came with Athens’ defeat at the hands of the Spartans and instalment of an oligarchic regime. It is also necessary to break down the quote itself. When speaking “of the people” this essay will mean the actual Athenians who made up government such as the assemblies and courts; with regards to “by the people” it will examine the process of forming government by election or otherwise; finally by “for the people” this essay will discuss the scope and actions that the government was allowed and was sanctioned to take on behalf of the people.

The first aspect that must be looked is whether or not the Athenian democracy during the century concerned can be considered one “of the people”. When looking at government in broader terms, it is possible to see that it was not what one might call representative. One basic rule of being eligible to serve in office was to be a male Athenian citizen over the age of 30. This immediately suggests that the government could not have been construed as being made of the people, at least by modern standards. Rhodes asks an important question when considering the demography of the different branches of government, that is “how could a man with no inherited advantages rise to lead?”[1].  This is an important question considering that Athens prided itself on being a democracy which “involves the… baser folk”[2]. Rhodes himself answers the question because he shows how, similarly to Rome, an individual could start distinguishing himself through military service and attendance of deme assemblies before eventually being able to be put forward as a candidate for greater assemblies such as the Council of the Five Hundred.

While this may seem a very neat and logical solution to the problem which Rhodes brings up, it is not as feasible as it may initially appear. On turning 18, the young man was available for two years of compulsory military training, where he would spend his time moving from one outpost in Attica to another. While it is true that Greek city-states were almost constantly fighting one another, the possibility of true distinction or merit in battle was not always present. Even if the man did achieve some greatness in battle, after two years, he still had twenty years before he could ascend into office. This time, unless you were wealthy, would be spent rather idle, making a name for yourself as an outstanding citizen among your own tribe for your trade, rather than being groomed for public office. This would imply, that less important government positions, assigned by lot, such as the members of the Assembly were formed by the ‘normal’ citizens as it were whereas high office, and elected, positions like the Commissioners for Public Contracts (poletae) were, as Finley accentuates, “exclusively from the elite”[3]. This is corroborated by Aristotle who writes about how there was always a “leader of the people” and contemporaneously a “leader of the wealthier class”[4]. This may point towards a dichotomy in government which should not have been present in theory but was a stark fact in practice. Again, it goes to show how Athenian democracy was not as inclusive within government itself as it often attempts to portray itself.

However, when one considers the changes that occurred with time to certain more exclusive parts of government, one may argue that it was one of the people after all. The Aeropagus for centuries had most executive power within Athens, Cleisthenes reforms removed much of it and redistributed it to the courts and the Council of the Five Hundred. By the year 462BC, it had become a relic of Athens past. The reason for this was because it was made up completely of former Archons, the highest public office a man could hold, and its membership was for life. This sounds very similar to the modern system of the House of Lords in the UK, which the Athenians identified as a possible threat to stability in their city. The step of devolution was an important which did include more people in government due to the expansion of the courts and therefore of the juries which would be sitting on them, all chosen by lot.

When one considers whether or not Athenian democracy was one “of the people” or not, it is inevitable that they will come to look at the high turnover for magistracies. This principle of rotation (sortition will come under the discussion of “by the people”), is possibly one of the most important aspects of Athenian democracy and one which strengthens the argument that the democracy was one “of the people”. One of the purposes of this method was to limit the power of individuals within government and therefore prevent a hoarding of power or the playing to certain parts of society by electoral promises to be fulfilled when a certain office was achieved. Hignett explains that the curtailment of individual power and “prestige of magistracies” was the “triumph of radical democracy”[5]. This, taken at face value may seem entirely hyperbolic, but when considered alongside the independence of magistracies of Rome, and the corruption that they led to, Hignett seems to be making a very clear and important point. Staveleis is of a similar opinion because he argues how rotation allowed for the prevention of an “emergence of a governing class”[6]. While in most societies, the wealthy are the governing class, something which, as demonstrated above with Aristotle’s insight into the Athenian constitution, is not completely untrue, a clear and distinct governing class is not present in the century which is being examined in this essay.

Furthermore, the rotation principle would in theory mean that a large part of the citizenry was able to participate every year in the Athenian democracy. It is estimated that between 25% and 30% of citizens every year [7] participated in the Assembly. Furthermore, there were countless juries and trials during the course of the year which anyone could, quite literally, put their names into the hat for, this is on top of the various high offices that one could obtain throughout their lifetime. All this, especially the last point about the possibility of high office is a theory. The reality was that people had to put their names forward to be selected in lots and for elections, many of which you could run for again and again others you could only hold once. Therefore, it is likely that not everyone attempted to run for a post at some point in their lives if they had no desire to. It would have been likely to be more prominent families who ran for office as demonstrated by Cleisthenes and Pericles, both of whom came from very well off and important families in the city. Therefore, while it is clear that in some aspects of government and democracy, the Athenian method was one “of the people”, in the majority of cases, only a very select number and class of people ever rose to truly high places in government. The poorer classes did take part in government but only in great proportion in the Assembly and the law courts, while the prominent and well paid magistracies were the stomping ground of the wealthier classes, not dissimilar to the Civil Service in Great Britain during the 1800s.

The next question that must be answered is whether or not the Athenian democracy can be realistically described as being “by the people”. As mentioned in the introduction, this part of the essay shall look at how the people chose how to form their government, through elections or other methods. The first step to evaluating this to look at the enfranchisement that existed within Athens, during the period in question. Aristotle writes that to be eligible to vote in Athens, must be “citizen birth by both parents”[8] meaning that anyone show was born with only one parent being an Athenian citizen could not vote. This is a relatively good way of maintaining a steady level of citizenship during peacetime, however, the century that is being looked at now was wrought with ongoing war. Therefore the number of citizens who could actually vote in Athens varied considerably depending on what year one looked at, the estimates of total Athenian citizenry was between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand people, which compared to the total population of Attica or Athens itself, is very small. In fact it directly contradicts what Thucydides claims Pericles said in his Funeral Oration that “We… never by  alien acts exclude foreigners”[9].  This may seem like a lie but considering there would have been metics there, willing to fight for their country, it would be understandable as to why he might have said this. As a result, it points towards the conclusion that rather than being by the people, Athenian democracy was much more by ‘some’ people.

Additionally, there were some vital members of the polis, without whom it could not function nor continue to exist, that were denied suffrage: women, proxenoi, metroxenoi and isoteleis.[10] These not only represented the physical future of the city with women bearing children, but the financial future as well because these metics would have owned many businesses and workshops in Athens. Their exclusion is concrete proof that Athenian democracy cannot be considered totally one by the people, as it seems the electorate is far too exclusive for it to be even representative. Therefore it seems an exaggeration when Aristotle mentions “giving the franchise to the masses”[11] because whom he is referring to is quite a select minority. In addition to the electorate itself, one must give thought to the elections themselves because their procedure can give an insight into the total participation of the minimalist electorate. Democracy can be seen most clearly when there is a turnout when the case for an ostracism has been put to a vote and people are asked to cast their votes as to whether or not a certain person is to be cast out of the city for 10 years.  A tally of six thousand votes[12] had to be counted for that person to be ostracised which would imply that at such proceedings there would be a considerable turnout, especially if the proposal of ostracism proved popular. Nonetheless, only citizens could vote in an ostracism therefore a vote of six thousand of 25000 was necessary. While six thousand may seem like quite a large figure, it was arbitrary, not a majority as would be expected in a democracy and was the practice when voting on any other motion in the assembly or in the courts. This figure could possibly be an estimate of what the majority of the  electorate turnout would be, however, there is no evidence to suggest such electoral maths.

The remaining aspect of ‘by the people’ is one of influencing elections. As has been previously discussed, one had to put forward their own names for elections and lot selection alike, therefore one could repetitively put in their name, whereas another might never wish to contribute. On the other hand there are very few actual examples of bribery and election fraud, but as Staveleis mentions, “that doesn’t mean it did not happen”[13]. However, as there is no actual evidence or data for such occurrences, it makes it impossible to expatiate on its effect on politics. However, given the size of the electorate in each tribe, it would have been incredibly difficult to put up enough money to noticeably sway the direction of the election.  Furthermore, when tribes were concerned, one from each was elected but they worked as a board, meaning that personal and individual influence was extremely limited. On juries it was even harder as they were chosen the day of the trial, possibly to purposefully to avoid such practices. However, a minor point which may be considered to be an incentive to accept a bribe is that, during this century, the daily pay of jury duty was half of that of an artisan[14], which would suggest the possibility of bribes, but yet again the size of the jury is prohibitive.  Overall then, while electoral procedure was relative free from external or coercive influence, the real participation numbers both legal and apathetical are too low for the Athenian democracy to be considered as completely “by the people”.

The final aspect of Athenian democracy to be put under the microscope is to what extent was it “for the people”, meaning, in what respect did the Athenian government act in the interests of the majority. One immediate strange aspect of the government was that  some issues which Athenians recognised to be important were completely ignored by the Assembly, of which Hansen highlights as very important “education, trade and agriculture”[15]. These would have definitely been in the people’s interest as it encompassed almost all, if not all of the members of the state, citizens or not, but citizens definitely.  It is possible to infer from this that the government was not always acting for the people but in order to control them. They discussed and organised religion, which in Greece was definitely more belief than ritual, and more of an opt out and in system.  Rhodes alludes to an alternative motivation behind the government when he states that the Athenian government was used in order to ensure “outgroups remained outgroups”[16]. This goes to explain their lack of franchise but also accentuates the alternate agenda that the democratic machine in Athens had other than deliberating what was best of the citizens of Athens. It occupied itself with maintaining the status quo and this was a feature present throughout the length of time that is being looked at presently. However, one must remember that in Athens, in theory at least, nothing was outside the political spectrum which Hansen also alludes to. Moreover, there is evidence which suggests that the democracy did work more universally because Aristotle surmises that the “Archon does for citizens, what the Polemarch does for aliens”.[17] This implies that the government worked for everyone, not just the citizen body. Finally, the introduction by Cleisthenes of the ostracism supports both sides of the argument regarding the action for the people. While it did prevent one person from becoming too powerful, it was first used to cast out “the friends of tyrants”[18]  alone, which can be considered to be proteting the people from experiencing such fear and terror ever again, but it seems to align more with Stockton’s view that there was a “deep-seated mistrust of the individual”[19] which is in line with arguments previously made in this essay. So even this, possibly the most democratic of processes was not always in the best interest of the majority. As a result, while it does seem to be acting greatly in favour for the people, the government had greater agendas.

Overall, when considering the scope of Athenian democracy by modern standards, it is in no way a government of the people, by the people, for the people. However, if we use the standards of the time and look carefully at what democracy entailed during the century in question,  it becomes clear that their version of democracy seemed much more like government of the people, by the people, for the people. This is because only citizens were people, mainly the wealthy were worthy to hold office and religion and war were the most consistently pertinent issues that the government should occupy itself with. Thus, depending through which looking glass one peeks, Lincoln’s description of Athenian democracy is more or less a realistic description.

[1] Rhodes, Athenian Democracy, Chapter7

[2] Pseudo-Xenophon, the Old Oligarch, Athenaion Politeia 1

[3] Finley, Politics in the Ancient World, Chapter 4

[4] Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 28

[5] Hignett, History of the Athenian Constitution

[6] Staveleis, Greek and Roman Voting and Elections

[7] Finley, Politics in the Ancient World, Chapter 4

[8] Athenian Democracy, Rhodes, Chapter7

[9] Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia

[10] Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Chapter 80

[11] Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia

[12] Stockton, The Classical Athenian Democracy

[13] Staveleis, Greek and Roman Voting and Elections

[14] Rhodes, Athenian Democracy, Chapter 6 (Finley)

[15] Hansen, Was Athens a Democracy?

[16] Rhodes, Athenian Democracy, Chapter 3 (Danis)

[17] Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 58

[18] Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 22

[19] Stockton, The Classical Athenian Democracy

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