Development of Democracy in Athens Essay

This essay has a total of 2365 words and 10 pages.

Development of Democracy in Athens

Development of Democracy in Athens
Democracy comes from two Greek words: a noun demos which means, “people” and a
verb, kratein, which means “to rule” (Ober 120). Democracy first appeared in
Athens towards the beginning of the fifth century B.C. The biggest difference between
Athenian democracy and almost all other democracies is that the Athenian version was a
direct democracy rather than being representative. Democracy came about in Athens as a
result of the growing navel power and the reforms made by leaders such as Cleisthenes and

The city-state of Athens, 5th century Athens to be precise, is the inventor and first
practitioner of democracy. So for 4,000 years men and women lived under forms of
government other than democratic. For some 2,500 years now democracy has existed, with
varying degrees of consistency of theory and practice. But it all began in the 5th century
before Christ in Athens. The development of democracy can be attributed to the development
of Athens as naval power. With the growing navel so grew the political voice of the lowest
property classes who provided the crews for the ships (Demand 222). To some extent the
Athenian reliance on sea power helped the course of democracy.

The biggest difference between Athenian democracy and all other democracies is that the
Athenian version was a direct democracy rather than representative. It would seem the kind
of direct democracy that Athens had might lead to anarchy at the worst and arbitrary
decisions or unstable policies at the least. Both ancient and modern democratic
experiments have shown that the will of the people sometimes is undeceive, changing to and
fro with every rhetorical wind that blows. Yet, as surprising as it may seem, Athenian
democracy worked fairly well. The main reason for its success was the quality of the
citizens. From the days of Solon the Athenians like the rest of the Greeks had a deep
respect for what they called “the golden mean”, which meant that they avoided
extremes in politics (Ober 97).

The laws for Athens began with Solon, but perhaps the most influential leader for
democracy in Athens was Cleisthenes. In 510 Cleisthenes had managed to get the sons of
Peisistratus kicked out of Athens with Spartan help (Demand 157). But now the old internal
divisions, which had plagued Athens since Solon’s time, reasserted themselves.
Herodotus says in his history of Greece that Cleisthenes decided to turn to the people
(Herodotus 302). Perhaps he did so solely out of practical political reasons: he needed a
powerful force on his side now that the Spartans had turned against him. Although, his
major motivation may have been to produce a government that would unify Athenians by all,
rich and poor alike. Unity, perhaps, rather democracy, was his immediate goal. But it was
democracy that he would prove to be the means to the unification of the people of Athens.

Cleisthenes began his reforms with the reorganization of the tribes. Athens, like most
Greek cities, had been divided into tribes based on descent. This gave aristocratic
families a natural way of securing influence, because relatives tended to stick together.
The people of Attica had also often clumped in regional groupings, as in the day of
Peisistratus, and this had lead to dangerous internal disorder. Cleisthenes completely
reorganized the Athenian State into a new, artificial, and rather complicated system. In
his system the basic unit was the deme, the village in which one lived. These demes were
then put together into thirty somewhat larger units called trittyes. Cleisthenes then
formed his ten new tribes by combining one trittyes from different parts of Attica, one
from the coastal region, one from the city, and one from the inland (Demand 159). These
tribes would form the units in the Athenian army, and the Athenian Council.

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 eighteen years of age and who were willing to attend the sessions. The
most important body in Athens was the popular Assembly. The Assembly would meet a number
of times each month and the first 6,000 Athenians to arrive participated in the
proceedings. Cleisthenes increased the power of the Assembly largely by making use of it
to push through his reforms. By this precedent he ensured that all-important laws had to
be passed by a vote of the people as a whole.

There were also a variety of constitutional safeguards built into the system. Any law
passed by the Assembly had to be proposed by some one, whose name appeared at the
beginning of the statue. If the citizens later thought they had made a mistake they could
attack the law in court on a “writ of unconstitutionality”, that is the law
was contrary to Athenian principles (Ober 34). If the law was challenged within a year
after its passage and found unconstitutional, its proposer was fined a sum that would have
bankrupt almost any citizen. This arrangement had a tendency to discourage frivolous ideas
and glory seekers. It encouraged serious thinking and political responsibility.

Another safeguard to the Assembly was the institution of the Council of 500 by
Cleisthenes. It would consist of 50 members chosen by lot from each of the 10 tribes
(Demand 159). The Council would thus be a geographically balanced body, one of whose
functions was to tie Athenians together regardless of where they lived or who they were
related to. The Council’s main task was to prepare legislation for Athenian
Assembly. Each tribe’s group of fifty would be on duty for one tenth of the year to
oversea any business that needed immediate attention. The fifty candidates serving on the
Council were chosen by lot (Ober 36). The final choice by lot was one of the most
democratic devices imaginable and reduced the danger of political corruption. There was
little danger that the Council could turn into a private preserve for the wealthy or
influential because members served only one year: no man could a member two years in a
row; and no one could serve more than twice in his lifetime (Ober 38). The Council of 500
prepared the agenda for each session of the Assembly. According to regular rules the
Assembly would take up no issue not already investigated by the Council. Normally the
Council made a recommendation to the Assembly as to the best solution of each problem.

The two political bodies of Athens, the Assembly and the Council had rather different
roles: the Council made proposals, which the Assembly could vote upon and amend. They also
may have had somewhat different memberships. To get to the Assembly meeting one would have
to come to Athens. Many Athenians lived fifteen or twenty miles out in the countryside
(Demand 224). This would have presented quite a burden for those in the countryside. So,
it is possible that those who lived in the city were over represented. The Council,
though, was automatically geographically diversified. Cleisthenes’s reform, which
ensured that people from the countryside, at least had some say at that stage of

Cleisthenes may also have been responsible for the Athenian practice known as ostracism.
Under this procedure the Athenians would vote once a year in a sort of negative election.
The unlucky winner, assuming a minimum of 6000 votes had been cast, was sent into exile
for ten years. The ostracized citizen’s property was not confiscated and he was not
convicted of any crime (Demand 161). When the ten years was up he was free to return to
Athens. The procedure was designed to prevent any one man from becoming too powerful. This
could of course be abused and sometimes-good men were sent into exile, but it seemed to
work well in the democracy of Athens.
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