The political system known as "Athenian Democracy" was the single greatest influence on the later development of democracy in Rome, and arguably the most important historical influence upon our modern Democratic states.
Ancient Athens is credited with having developed one of the first democracies on this earth. The city-state’s democracy, which was known as a direct or radical democracy, was at its peak under the rule of Pericles (circa 495- 430 BC). Prior to the development of what was an extremely active democracy, the Athenians were under various forms of government, including monarchy, oligarchy and tyranny.
The city-states in Greece were established some time around the 9th century BC. From around the 9th into the 8th centuries, a king, or “basileus,” ruled the city-state with a group of nobles under him. However, the Athenian monarchy did not last very long.
Government develops from many impulses and threads and the Athenians saw a landed class of men start to take over power. Overall, Athens was free from foreign invasion, rich in farmland and located perfectly to trade with the innumerable islands that dot the Aegean Sea. The primary exports generated by the landed class, the nobles, were wine and olive oil.
As the nobles grew rich, they developed into a powerful body that was called the Areopagus. The Areopagus was the name of the hill on which these men met. It was from this group that the oligarchy would develop.
The oligarchy, which was composed of men who came from and were elected by the Areopagus, was made up of nine archons or “rulers.” The monarchy transformed into an oligarchy sometime in the 8th century BC.
In this form of government, you can see the seeds of Athens’ democracy. The archons made decisions regarding the rule of the city-state but they had to submit their decisions to the entire Areopagus, which would either accept or reject their rulings.
Overall, it was this group of nobles, the Areopagus, whose numbers varied from time to time, that ruled Athens up until the middle of the 7th century BCE. However, at that time, due to a division between the classes and economic problems, Athens was in an unstable state.
Although the nobles, who owned estates throughout the city-state and successfully made and sold primarily olive oil and wine, were in good stead, the common famer of Athens, who grew wheat, suffered from economic hardship. The wheat farmers saw their crop suffer as their fields became ineffective due to the fact that they did not rotate their crops.
As wheat production fell off, the price of the crop plummeted and the farmers plunged into debt. To survive, they sold their children, wives and even themselves into slavery. Often this was done for a limited amount of time. Debt, servitude and hopelessness defined the Athenian farmer’s existence, while those who ruled the city-state were wealthy, free and optimistic.
Unrest, rioting by the lower classes and overall disapproval splintered the city-state. By the middle of the 7th century, in an attempt to right the government, a series of tyrants ruled Athens. To the Greeks the term tyrant did not have the negative connotation it does today.
A tyrant was someone who controlled the state not through bloodlines, as a monarch did, but by taking power. Sometimes this was done by force and other times it was by the will of the people. Three rulers from that era were highly influential—Solon, Peisistratus and Cleisthenes.
In 594 BC, the people of Athens agreed that Solon, whose name we still use today when speaking of “lawmakers,” should rule the city. Solon invoked massive reforms. He created new laws in Athens designed to ease the suffering of its inhabitants. He forgave the debts of those who were in distress, freed those who went into slavery due to debt and forbid loans that were secured through a promise of slavery.
He divided the people of Athens into four classes, which were determined primarily through financial status. The first two classes, the wealthiest, were members of the Areopagus. The third class was given power by being allowed to serve on the elected Council of 400, which was composed of 100 citizens from each of four Athenian tribes.
He also gave power to a fourth class of people, those who were the poorest citizens. Known as the Ecclesia of Demos, or the assembly of citizens, they were allowed to vote on important measures that the Council of 400 brought to them and they also elected local magistrates.
Under Solon, this class also participated in the IIiaia, which was the expansive people’s court. The court, which in the past had been controlled by the Areopagus, decided important civil and military cases.
With his numerous reforms, Solon, who was not your typical tyrant, sowed the seeds of democracy. Although Solon’s reforms were revolutionary, farsighted and far-reaching, he was unable to solve the city-state’s economic woes.
With Athens in anarchy, Peisistratus, who was a military leader, ruled Athens from 560 to 510. Although he used his mercenary army to keep control, Peisistratus also helped cultivate Athenian democracy. Along with encouraging and supporting cultural endeavors, he gave more power to the Ecclesia of Demos and lessened the impact of the noble classes.
He also redistributed land, encouraged foreign trade and farming and established or expanded various cultural and religious events, including the City of Dionysia. Although in many ways Peisistratus helped further the development of democracy, he was not interested in relinquishing his power as much as redistributing and lessening the power of the wealthiest classes.
After Peisistratus, Athens went through various rulers, including those who were instituted by Sparta. But in 508, Cleisthenes was swept into power by the people. His rule and reforms, which lasted until 502, would create Athenian democracy.
First, he gave all free men living in Athens and Attica, the area around the city, the power of citizenship. That meant they could participate in all parts of the government. He established a council that would hold administrative and executive power in the city-state. If a citizen was over 30 years old, he could be a member of the council. Selection to the council, which occurred every year, was by lot.
Although the council had the power to rule, the Assembly, which was comprised of all male citizens, could veto any decisions made by the council. The Assembly was also the only body that could declare war. This massive distribution of power was the essence of Athens’ direct democracy.
Unlike modern day democracies, in which citizens elect lawmakers who represent their interests, the Athenian government was run and influenced by the votes of each and every citizen. Like the New England Town Meetings of today, democracy in Ancient Athens was contentious, unruly and litigious. It was truly government of the people by the people.