Ancient Greece’s most famous export to this day is arguably democracy. America, alongside many nations, recently celebrated the 2500th ‘anniversary’ of the invention of democracy in ancient Athens and its links with today’s democracies in America and around the globe. But was ancient Athenian democracy as alike to democracies of today as we may like to think?
The more you look at the facts, the more the ancient democracy of Athens and the democracies of today look different. Ancient Athens only allowed a very small group of men resident in Athens the vote. Women and foreigners were excluded.
Athens’ democracy also demanded a lot of time: adult male citizens who had the vote had to put a halt to their jobs and take up positions of authority within the democratic system on a rota system. They also had to go to the Athenian assembly (the Pnyx) on a regular basis to debate and vote on important issues like going to war.
This dedication of so much time to the democratic system was made easier because many of these citizens had a good number of slaves working for them, and Athens also eventually decided to encourage citizens further by paying them to come to the assembly and to undertake other democratic duties like acting as jurors in the law courts.
So, Athenian democracy was not our ideal of equal freedom and rights, but more like a select club, facilitated to some extent by a slave population and in addition only really made possible, many scholars argue, by Athens’ control over a large and profitable empire which kept money pouring into the city.
But at the same time we should not be too complacent as to think that we are more ‘democratic’ now. It is my bet that just as we may not want to recognize Athens’ democracy as properly democratic, so too an ancient Athenian would not recognize many of our democratic systems today as ‘true’ democracies.
Ancient Athenians participated in a direct democracy: every citizen went to the assembly and voted on the issues. Moreover, if they were voting on whether or not to go to war, the voters did not go home afterwards to put their feet up while professional soldiers carried out their orders, they went home to pick up their armour and go off to fight.
To a democrat of ancient Athens, today’s democracies, where the majority of voters elect representatives to make most of the decisions for them (and who then rely on professionals to carry out those decisions), wouldn’t merit the label of democracy either.