How Athenian Democracy Functioned

While the mists of time hide the exact origins of democracy (speculation ranges from Mesopotamia to Sparta), the earliest democracies documented in any detail by recorded history are the city-states of ancient Greece. And of these city-states, while Sparta or some unknown locale may have been the first, there is no question that the democratic state of ancient Athens was the largest and most influential of its time. Indeed, 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.

Yet, the Athenian system functioned very differently from the democracies of modern times. To begin with, it was an example of direct democracy, rather than our current representative democratic system. In a direct democracy, issues are decided not by elected legislators, but are subject to direct vote by all eligible adult citizens.

The Development of Athenian Democracy

Athens' first attempt at democracy began under Solon in 594 BC, but his effort at instituting a Constitutional democracy soon fell to the tyrant Peistratus, who replaced it with a repressive oligarchy. What we now think of as Athenian Democracy began in 508 BC and was instituted under the leadership of Cleithenes. At this point Athens began an uninterrupted period of democracy that lasted until 322 BC, making it the longest lasting and most stable of the early democracies.

In 462 BC, Ephialtes modified Cleisthenes' constitution into the form most historians discuss today, but the basic principles were already established. Cleithenes completely restructured the social-political landscape of Athens and the surrounding countryside. He divided the population, ranging from 250,000 to 300,000 at various times, into 10 tribes, within which existed 140 smaller municipalities. Out of this population, only adult (age 20 or older) male citizens who had completed military training possessed the right to vote.

The size of this group ranged from about 60,000 at its peak to about 30,0000 at the conclusion of the Greco-Persian wars. Women, children, slaves, freed slaves and other non-citizens were not eligible to participate in the democratic process, though some members of these groups managed to influence public opinion through the performance of plays, poetry and the like. While this may seem horribly uninclusive to modern readers, it is worth noting that most other governments of that era had the exact opposite reaction. To the elites of the time, the lack of property requirements for voting rights, allowing common men a say in their own affairs, seemed perilously close to mob rule.

The Governing Bodies

Three principle governing bodies ruled Athens. They were the Assembly, the Council of 500, and the Courts. While these pillars of Athenian democracy will be the primary focus of the current essay, their function was supplemented by the Archons, the Generals (led by the polemarch and the ten strategoi), and 1,100 bureaucratic officeholders, which included the Council of 500, another 100 officials elected by the Assembly, plus 500 citizens chosen by lot. The idea behind this latter method of choosing officials was to ensure that as many citizens as possible were involved in governance, both to present a diversity of viewpoints and to help educate the populace about matters of governance.

Archons chosen by the Areopagus, a council of former magistrates and respected elders, handled most of the day to day affairs of the city, investigated crimes, and looked after the welfare of widows, orphans and other local matters, in addition to making suggestions to the Council and Assembly. Actual legislation involved both the Assembly and the Council, while the assembly and courts made legal determinations. Meanwhile, it was left to the polemarch and strategoi to lead the military and wage war, and the 1,100 officeholders carried out the domestic determinations of the Assembly, Courts and Archons.

The Assembly

In Athens, the most important issues affecting the city as a whole were decided in the Assembly, or Ecclesia. The Assembly met forty times a year (four times a month under the ten month Athenian calender). Any citizen present was allowed to address the Assembly, but for the most part, only the most capable speakers possessed the courage to do so. Certainly, speakers lacking in oratory skill or expertise on the given topic were usually ignored or shouted down. Given that some of the most important decisions required a quorum of 6,000, and that the average attendance was estimated at over 5,000 citizens, these assemblies could become quite unruly, and it took great vocal talent or an already existing respect for one's knowledge to sway the populace. Issues ranging from war to infrastructure to citizenship to ostracism (wherein a citizen could be exiled for up to 10 years) were decided by simple majority rule, and the results were carved in stone and prominently placed in marketplaces and other common areas throughout the city. Another important function of the Assembly was to elect 100 key officeholders to help run the day-to-day affairs of the city for the term of one year. While the total number of Athenian bureaucrats numbered 1,100, the 100 elected officials possessed the most power and prestige.

The Council of 500

There was a representative element to Athenian Democracy, and it took the form of the Council of 500, or Boule. Each of the ten tribes of Athens chose 50 men, age 30 or over, by lot to represent their interests in the Council. The primary purpose of the Council was to set the agenda for the Assembly and propose legislation to be voted on, but its members also took part in the day-to-day running of Athens and its surrounding environs. These duties ranged from inspecting markets to tax collection. A Council member served for one year, after which he was not eligible to serve again until ten years had passed.

The Courts

The Athenians believed that justice in court trials was best served by ensuring that a large number of citizens determined the verdicts of individual cases. Private suits pitting one individual against another required a jury of 501 citizens. Cases involving one or more officials of the state were tried before a jury of 1001. The most serious charges, including crimes such as treason, necessitated a jury numbering 1501. Jurors were paid for their service, receiving approximately the same wages as day laborers.

All trials had to be completed in a single day. Cases were decided by secret ballot, and there was no appeal. In the event a miscarriage of justice was later discovered, new trials could overturn the verdicts of the old, which was of little consolation in cases involving execution. On the other hand, there was ample reason to avoid overzealous prosecution, because while jurors were immune from punishment for their decisions, this did not apply to those who initiated the prosecution. In one famous instance from 406 BC, six generals were executed. Upon reflection, it was concluded that this case had been decided wrongly, and the legislators who proposed the execution of the generals were themselves executed for misleading the jury.

Despite their flaws, however, these courts were almost certainly more likely to achieve an approximation of justice for the average citizen than any other legal proceedings of that era or any surrounding eras.