Greek Democracy – Was it a Myth?


The unique phenomenon of Athenian democracy, and its development as an viable institution during the fifth century BC, is a fascinating field for study, essential for our understanding of the emergence of our own modern political systems. In fact it may well be said to be the true yardstick against which all subsequent so-called “free systems” of governance should be gauged. The current task is to examine how the structures of state worked in practice and to what extent were these structures subject to manipulation or influence by powerful groups.

The measure of success of any political system cannot realistically be assessed purely in terms of the technical skill with which checks and balances have been carefully crafted into a constitution to prevent excesses and to avoid abuse by one section of the polity over another. Nor even, can this success be solely defined in terms of the implicit “fairness”, of the social contract between the governors and the governed. No mere academic exercise of political philosophy can circumscribe a successful practical system and explain its viability and vitality. The system has to be right for its times, suitable for the society that will use it and more attractive than any conceivable alternative. Ultimately the only true measure of a success for a political system is the proven ability to survive through good times or bad, with essential institutions and vitality intact. The robustness with which a particular system normally functions in the course of ordinary daily business will be an accurate reflection of the strength of resources that it will able to marshal in to own defense when faced with a threat to the continuing survival of its institutions. In order to examine the machinery of the every day government we must first examine the structure of its constitution and how it came to be.

Regrettably, the contemporaneous fifth and fourth century literary sources that are still available to us, are somewhat limited for providing an understanding of the relative importance of the various elements of the political structures. Even less information is available for explaining the manner of the day to day implementation of democracy as a working system. Most ancient writers concerned themselves, almost exclusively, with dramatic events and the actions of the mighty on the main stage and were little interested in providing detail of the hum-drum workings of the system that sustained everything. Invariably the most relevant detail is usually omitted or glossed over. We have to read between the lines. Strangely enough, we probably owe more to the critics of democracy, than to its protagonists, for the surviving record of its achievements. This is a very relevant point to consider when investigating our topic regarding the supposed domination of politics by a few influential men. The oligarchic sentiments expressed, so frequently, by almost all of these writers, conveys the common thread of a great sense of frustration at the actuality of a heavy-handed practice of democracy, which they claim was often poorly led by inadequate leaders, or demagogues. The writer of The Athenian Constitution, the pseudo Xenophon, or Old Oligarch, typifies this attitude. In his opening words he sets the climate of criticism. “And as for the fact that the Athenians have chosen the kind of constitution that they have, I do not think well of their doing this inasmuch as in making their choice they have chosen to let the worst people be better off than the good”. His sentiments are echoed by almost all of the other writers, who were generally members of the aristocratic or affluent class, who had the leisure time available to write. This often-expressed frustration is clear evidence that the direction of state policy cannot usually have been as amenable to successful oligarchic manipulation as many modern analysts would have us think. If it were so there could hardly be any cause for this frustration. However this conclusion is only relevant for the second half of our period, as the writers were closer to this point in time and still emotionally involved in the issue. Moreover circumstances had undoubtedly changed, following the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles in mid-century.

As always for the second half of the fifth century our principle literary source is Thucydides, though not a true democrat himself, nevertheless was the keenest observer of the system in action. Xenophon, writing in the early fourth century also supplies important detail. In this context he is best described as a disillusioned democrat, who turned his sympathies towards the Spartan constitution, after witnessing the excesses of the demagogues and military defeat of Athens. His younger contemporary, the sophist and historian Isocrates, although otherwise enlightened and cosmopolitan in outlook, seems in his treatise Areopagiticus (355-4 BC) to have preferred an archaic form of semi-democracy closely regulated by censorship and by the, the Areopagus. This was anachronistic as Ephialtes, with Pericles’ backing, had in 462/1 B.C instituted radical reforms, stripping this heredity council of any realistic political power. Almost alone among the earlier sources, Herodotus writing in mid fifth century, is sympathetic towards democracy and attempts to explain the system (Ref III 80-82: The debate of the Persian nobles). However according to Ehrenberg (Origins of Democracy) there is a disquieting vagueness as to what actually constitutes democracy and especially regarding what should be the role of leadership in this system

A few extant inscriptions also provide documentary evidence, in the form of decrees and other official records dating from this period. Beside the textural information the style or format of these inscriptions gives an indication of the relative importance of such institutions as the Boule’ and of the Demos (assembly). Non-historiographic sources, such as the work of playwrights Aristophanes and Euripides and others cast light on how the system worked in practice and what were the attitudes of the general population towards these institutions. The various political and philosophical treatises of Aristotle Ath. Polit. and those of his mentor Plato (ca. 427-347 B.C), especially The Republic, written just outside this period, are very critical of democracy for encouraging bad rulers and excesses. Plato shows strong preference for a form of benign autocracy or rule by the enlightened. However he provides useful commentary and insight on the politics of democracy and its failures by way of contrast with other systems. Secondary sources, such as the first century AD biographer Plutarch (ca. AD 46 -120) and also the historian Polybius (ca. 202-120 B.C), add useful detail and sometimes clarify the picture with the advantage of greater perspective.

Although outside our time frame, the record of how democracy functioned in fourth century Athens is much better documented and could be used, with discretion, as a useful guide to the earlier period. By this time the institution of democracy was certainly more developed and apparently, more open and less subject to partisan manipulation from behind the scenes. mainly due to the near extinction of the aristocratic blood lines. The orations of Demosthenes and of his rival Aeschines are especially worthy of noteAccording to tradition Cleisthenes gave Athens the definitive form to her institutions in 508-7 BC. In a bold and revolutionary reorganization, he separated the political structures of the state from traditional clan or regional blood loyalties. He set up a purely artificial arrangement to replace traditional structures, consisting of a set of ten new electoral groupings (tribes) derived from a deliberate mix of thirty geographical areas (trittyes), each of which was made up of a few local sub groups (demes). Each tribe was structured, so as to diversify the social interests within the voting group, by selecting each of its three trittyes from one of three different geographical regions. These regions were defined as being the city, the coast and the hinterland of Attica. Both the tribes and the demes had a corporate structure of assemblies and officers, with duties such as maintaining citizen lists etc. The trittyes was, however, merely a sub grouping of demes, which needed to be retained purely to ensure diversity within the tribes and it had no function as a political unit. Membership of a deme was hereditary, irrespective of changes in domicile. Each of the tribes had to provide a regiment of heavy infantry (hoplites) and squadron of horse, led, in the field by an elected general (strategos). This office became increasingly politicized, in time becoming pre-eminent in political influence.

Cleisthenes disbanded the existing council and reconstructed a truly representative council of five hundred (the Boule’) consisting of fifty members from each tribe, appointed by lot. This council was the supreme administrative body of the state, with control over finance, responsibility for debating and preparing legislature, some judicial powers and the important right of review of the performance of the executive (archons and other magistrates). The Boule’ conducted business through rotating committees (prytaneis) with each tribe holding office for a tenth of a year (prytanies). The archonships or higher offices of the executive, as before, were reserved for members of the aristocratic families. The Areospagus was maintained as an aristocratic council of ex-archons with strong judicial powers. The Assembly of the people (Ecclesia) was the actual legislative authority, voting on motions, prepared by the council and on such issues as declaration of war and ostracism. Ostracism was Cleisthenes’ safeguard against the rebirth of tyranny. Ehrenberg refers to a similar provision in the oath of office for members of the Boule’, whereby they vowed to denounce a member who proposed unsuitable legislation (Aristotles Ath. Pol 22,2). The Ecclesia (periodic assembly of all adult male citizens) was the actual ultimate sovereign authority of the state and for this reason became the medium of democratization. However as it was merely a gathering, with no continuity between sessions, it was obviously subject to the opinions prevailing within the Boule’, as this council had had the leisure to debate issues, before putting them to the assembly for voting. As motions were “prepackaged” before reaching the Ecclesia the outcome was usually predictable though not always. Thus with a strong inflluence over the direction of political direction and also control over finances, it is indeed fair to say that the Boule’ was set up to be the senior partner in government. The corollary is obvious. Any attempt by powerful individuals to influence state policy had to be initiated in the Boule’.

Ehrenberg (Origins of Democracy) convincingly argues that Cleisthenes’ did not originally have any intention of setting up a democracy, although this developed, in time, as a result of the system that he had initiated. He quotes Herodotus (V 69) to show that Cleisthenes was caught up in a struggle with Isagoras, in the aftermath of the fall of the tyranny of the Pisistratid family. He used his reforms as a means to enlist the power of the people to help him defeat his rival oligarch and thereby ensure the predominance of his own “extended family” or genos, the Alcmaeonids. If we accept Ehrenberg’s premise, then right from the very outset, even as the fifth century came into being, the basis for the future democratic system was already flawed by oligarchic manipulation of the political structures. Arguably the system continued to evolve, steadily become more democratic in time. This trend was strengthened as a result of changing social influences, brought about by the acquisition of an empire, increasing wealth and especially as a result of the effects of the long drawn-out Peloponnesian war. However all these changes, towards a more progressive political climate, were essentially developed within the original framework that had already been set up. We know that on most occasions the system worked well for Athens, raising the city to her most glorious periods of brilliance and yet it was also responsible for paving the way to her most abject disasters. It is through examination of these two extreme outcomes that we can investigate how the boule’ was truly representative of the “will of the people” or merely a foil for the influence of dominant individuals or groups.

The miracle of Athenian democracy was that, as it evolved from the time of Cleisthenes, throughout more than a century and a half of turmoil, the vigor and robustness of the trend managed to continually regenerate and renew itself against all the odds. It survived an unending string of military defeats, loss of empire, plagues and several coup d’ etats. It even managed to survive the worst excesses of the demagogues who are the unfortunate corollary (or bastard offspring) of democracy in its rawest form. However these incredible setbacks in the fortunes of the state did sometimes promote a consequent regression in the mood of the populace causing swings away from the democratic movement towards oligarchy. For example the short-lived seizure of power in 411 B.C by the oligarchic “Council of Four Hundred”, which was in reaction to the excesses of an expansive foreign policy, promoted by unfit demagogues. These disastrous policies, which lacked coherence, had expanded the war and led to disaster at Syracuse in 413 B.C and revolts of the allies in 412-11 B.C. The oligarchic reaction had been sponsored amongst the politically active social clubs (hetaireia) that were a feature of the affluent or aristocratic portion of society. However Athens had become too used to the freedoms of democracy by this time and were not comfortable with the arrogance of the oligarchs and the more moderate council of five thousand was set up which paved the way to a return to the status quo.

In the end Athens lost her identity as a sovereign state, ultimately succumbing to the irresistible force of Macedonian imperialism after Chaeronea in 338 B.C. This in no way diminishes her crowning achievement – the tradition of her notable institution of democracy has long outlived the state that gave it birth. Regrettably, by the time of Philip and Alexander, the role of the city-state had passed on forever, giving way to consolidation and a trend of imperialism in the Meditteranean world that eventually led to Rome. This unstoppable evolution was to be the common fate of all Greek city states, irrespective of whatever political system was utilized locally.

Source by Steve Coe

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