Athenian democracy

We all know that democratic governance was first tried in the Classical Athens – in fact the term comes from the Greek words demos (people) kratos (rule). With this in mind it pays to look at what the outcome was for Athens and if there are lessons to be learnt from the first foray of humanity into the realm of popular rule. The Athenian democracy appeared in 6th century BC and lasted, with brief interruptions, until the defeat by Macedonians in year 338 BC. These days there is a tendency to put Athenian democracy on a pedestal as a blueprint for the governance system adopted in most modern Western countries but as you will soon find out the reality was much more ordinary.

Let us start by clarifying that the Athenian political system was not fully democratic in that the proportion of the population entitled to vote was actually quite small. In particular, the groups deprived of the privilege included women, minors, slaves, freed slaves, those owing debt to the state, those who have not completed military training and immigrants. This leaves only adult, male, fit, financial citizens entitled to vote – approximately 20% of the population. Citizenship was hereditary and it was very difficult for someone not born of Athenian parents to become a citizen. Also, democratic Athens fought for and controlled colonies. So, rather than an open, hippy, free-for-all political system the Athens ran a misogynistic, imperialist and discriminatory partial democracy. Great.

But how did this system actually perform? Was it really more caring and compassionate than brutal, autocratic state-cities like Sparta? To answer these questions let us have a look at some of the actual decisions produced by the democratic process in Athens (after Wiki):

The ten treasurers of the Delian league (Hellenotamiai) had been accused of embezzlement. They were tried and executed one after the other until, when only one was still alive, the accounting error was discovered and that last surviving treasurer was acquitted. This was perfectly legal in this case, but an example of the extreme severity with which the people could punish those who served them.

In 406 BC, after years of defeats in the wake of the annihilation of their vast invasion force in Sicily, the Athenians at last won a naval victory at Arginusae over the Spartans. After the battle a storm arose and the generals in command failed to collect survivors: the Athenians tried and sentenced six of the eight generals to death. Technically, it was illegal, as the generals were tried and sentenced together, rather than one by one as Athenian law required. Socrates happened to be the citizen presiding over the assembly that day and refused to cooperate (though to little effect) and stood against the idea that it was outrageous for the people to be unable to do whatever they wanted. Later they repented the executions, but made up for it by executing those who had accused the generals before them.

In 399 BC Socrates was put on trial and executed for ‘corrupting the young and believing in strange gods’. His death gave Europe one of the first intellectual martyrs still recorded, but guaranteed the democracy an eternity of bad press at the hands of his disciple and enemy to democracy Plato. In the Gorgias written years later Plato has Socrates contemplating the possibility of himself on trial before the Athenians: he says he would be like a doctor prosecuted by a pastry chef before a jury of children.

If you think this is ugly, you should also spare a thought to the two classes of citizens whose treatment in Athens was worse than in the neighbouring state-cities (again after Wiki):

Likewise the status of women seems lower in Athens than in many Greek cities. At Sparta women competed in public exercise — so in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata the Athenian women admire the tanned, muscular bodies of their Spartan counterparts — and women could own property in their own right, as they could not at Athens. Misogyny was by no means an Athenian invention, but it has been claimed that in regard to gender democracy generalised a harsher set of values derived, again, from the common people. Democracy may well have been impossible without the contribution of women’s labour.

Slavery was more widespread at Athens than in other Greek cities. Indeed the extensive use of imported non-Greeks (“barbarians”) as chattel slaves seems to have been an Athenian development. This triggers the paradoxical question: Was democracy “based on” slavery? It does seem clear that possession of slaves allowed even poorer Athenians — owning a few slaves was by no means equated with wealth — to devote more of their time to political life.

It keeps getting better –  the Athenian democracy was made possible by the exploitation of women and slaves. But how were the colonial subjects treated?

At times the imperialist democracy acted with extreme brutality, as in the decision to execute the entire male population of Melos and sell off its women and children simply for refusing to became subjects of Athens.

Let me stress here that all these decisions were made in a democratic manner, with the electorate voting to execute the treasurers, generals, Socrates and all males from Melos. This is the true face of democracy and the failing Western countries will soon be treated to a similar spectacle. When desperate masses have a go at “the rich” a new sorry chapter will be added to the history book of democracy. The end result will be the same as it was for the Classical Athens – a loss of sovereignty and domination by foreign powers.

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