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The mighty Acropolis provided the firmest of foundations for Athenian people-power

“Democracy,” as Winston Churchill famously observed, “is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” And if any city can lay claim to being the cradle of this ‘least imperfect’ method of ordering society, then it is surely Athens.

The Greek capital is, after all, where a form of democracy worthy of the name was first invented, where it was taken furthest, and where it lasted longest in the ancient world.

And that democracy was very much the product of Athens’ location. Two-and-a-half millennia ago, Athens was the largest town in a region known as Attica, a pocket of south-east Greece that was roughly the size of modern-day Luxembourg. Attica was blessed with two extraordinary natural resources: silver-bearing lead deposits (a “treasure of the earth”, as the playwright Aeschylus called them) and good harbours.

But towering over all those – literally as well as metaphorically – was the sacred Acropolis or ‘High-City’, bang dead centre in the main town of Athens. If you’re going to build a democracy, build it on and around such a mighty rock. The needs of defence as well as sanctity and religious worship were well served at this 150-metre-high citadel.

Alongside, and within eyeshot, was the Pnyx Hill. This was where the democratic Assembly met, in the open air, in almost all weathers (rain and snow did stop play), and where statesmen such as Pericles and Demosthenes addressed the masses.

But the Pnyx was not the Athenians’ original place of civic assembly: that was the Agora at the foot of the Acropolis, a place of private commerce and public politics. Here was where the offices of all the city’s main officials were located, but also where you could buy perfume – or a slave. And, finally, into the slopes of the Acropolis was built the Theatre of Dionysus, a political as well as a religious and dramatic space.

Choose your people

To survive, Athenian democracy had to walk a tightrope between the elite and the masses

‘Democracy’ is a loan word, borrowed from ancient Greek demokratia. This is a portmanteau term, composed of two parts: demos and kratos. Kratos is unambiguous: meaning ‘power’. But the meaning of demos is less certain. On the one hand, it means ‘the people’, as in all the people who went to make up the polis or citizen-state of the Athenians. On the other hand, demos could also be used to mean ‘masses’, the poor majority of the Athenian citizen body. If you were not a democrat, you perhaps didn’t mind the first meaning of demos. But the chances are you hated the second – to you, that could mean mob rule.

In Athens, all free men over the age of 18 were entitled to vote – that included rich and poor. At its maximum, the Athenian citizen body may have numbered as many as 50,000–60,000, but 30,000 was more usual. To us that’s minuscule, but most citizen-bodies in the ancient Greek world numbered between 500 and 2,000 people, making Athens a giant outlier.

The great political analyst Aristotle opined that democracy was always, by definition, the rule of the poor, whereas oligarchy was essentially the rule of the rich. Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, said that a city governed by an oligarchy was really two cities: the city of the rich set in dead opposition to the city of the poor. (By the way, neither Aristotle nor Plato was a democrat.)

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For the most part, the Athenians cleverly avoided outright class warfare in their democracy. But the system wasn’t fail-safe: democracy was overthrown twice in periods of extreme tension caused by failure in war.

Be lucky in your founder

In Cleisthenes, Athens had a statesman with the foresight and courage to institute a radical new political system

The Athenians were greedy in this respect: they claimed not one, but three founders, each contributing something different, each foresighted and far-sighted. One of them, Theseus, was mythical: to him Athenians attributed the political unification of Attica under Athens as capital. The second founder, the lawyer, statesman and poet Solon (c630–c560 BC), was a real human being – one who dominated Athenian politics in the early sixth century (see step 4). But only the third, Cleisthenes (c570–c508 BC), can be called the true founder of the first democracy.

Cleisthenes was born an aristocrat, and his maternal grandfather was a foreign tyrant, but he threw in his lot with far-reaching, democratic political reform. His path to power was far from smooth – he twice went into exile, the second time after being forced out of Athens by the Spartan king Cleomenes. But he soon returned at the invitation of the people and, in c508 BC, implemented a reform package that would introduce democracy to the city-state.

Cleisthenes’ reforms saw Athens’ political map being redrawn, with the deme – village, parish, ward, of which there were about 140 scattered through Attica – at its centre. It was by being registered in your local deme at the age of 18 that you became an Athenian citizen in the first place. (Women were also citizens, but politically disempowered, as were minors, foreigners and slaves.)

By a complex system of cross-regional division and addition, Athenians found themselves grouped into 10 ‘tribes’. These new tribal groupings were the basis of the Council of 500, which consisted of 50 men from each of the 10 tribes, who served for one year. The Council could issue decrees on its own but its main function was to prepare the agenda for meetings of the Assembly (for more on this, see step 6).

Cleisthenes rather strangely disappears from the scene straightaway; perhaps he died. But the fruits of his reforms were soon borne, in both political and cultural change at home, and military success abroad.

A bust of Cleisthenes
A bust of Cleisthenes. (Photo by CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

Seize your moment

The threat of invasion supercharged Cleisthenes' democratic reforms

For Cleisthenes, timing was everything. And that time arrived in the late sixth century BC, when long-term background conditions and more immediate events coalesced fruitfully. The favourable background conditions were provided by a raft of economic and social reforms pushed through by Solon at the start of the century. These made wealth rather than birth the principal foundation of political entitlement. They also improved the lot of many of Attica’s poorest people and, in doing so, headed off the threat of revolution.

Following Solon, the tyrant Peisistratus and his son Hippias gave Athens political stability and economic prosperity over a 35-year period, partly by seeing that Solon’s reforms were put into effect. But precisely because they ruled as tyrants, Peisistratus and Hippias also outlived their utility and acceptability. When Athens became a democracy, thanks to the reforms sponsored by Cleisthenes, its ideological glue was a hostility to one-man, autocratic rule, and a privileging of freedom and equality for citizens.

But it was more immediate threats to Athenian security that gave Cleisthenes the red alert his democratic programme needed. The first threat came from the anti-democratic city-state of Sparta, which intervened twice in Athens’ internal affairs: once to overthrow Hippias, the second time to try to install a different, pro-Spartan tyrant. A further contributing factor was the rising menace of the Persian empire to the east. When Hippias was forced into exile, where did he turn to try to secure his restoration? Persia, the ultimate autocracy. Persia and Sparta were thus bogeymen for the democratic Athenians, and so they remained for many years to come.

Pick your battles

Democracy brought the best out of Athens' warriors – as Persia discovered to its cost

The fledging democracy’s very existence was threatened first by Sparta, then by its immediate Greek neighbours to the west (the Boeotians) and the east (the Euboeans). Those were easily dealt with. But Persia soon posed an even greater existential challenge. Admittedly, this was partly of the Athenians’ own making. Early in the 490s, Athens had sent help to the Greeks and non-Greeks of the Asiatic mainland who had risen in revolt against their Persian overlords. That revolt was crushed in 494, and four years later Athens had to face an invasion by sea launched by King Darius I of Persia.

The resulting battle of Marathon was a huge victory for the Athenians, ideologically, as well as militarily. As the historian Herodotus put it, it was the Athenians’ devotion to political equality that had enabled them to punch militarily above their weight – by bringing the most able statesmen and generals to the fore. The Athenians made a huge song-and-dance of their Marathon result. But even that was to be overshadowed by another victory, at sea this time, 10 years later.

To punish the Athenians, and turn mainland Greece into a European province of the Persian empire, Darius’s son and successor, Xerxes, launched a massive amphibious expedition in 480 BC. Athens, including its Acropolis citadel, was laid waste twice. But a crushing Greek victory in the naval battle off the islet of Salamis in September 480 more than made up for that, forcing Xerxes to withdraw to Asia with much of his army.

Moreover, the triumph at Salamis gave extra political power to the elbows of the Athenian masses. These were the poor citizens who had rowed the trireme warships to victory over the Persian fleet. Now the masses could demand – and receive – extra democratic powers (see step 8).

Let the citizens speak

Athenians could vote on anything from the price of grain to the war on tyranny

The wheels of Athenian democracy often started turning as soon as the sun rose. The day might start with a summons by a herald to a meeting of the Assembly on Pnyx Hill. All male citizens who wished to attend made sure they got there early enough to receive their modest allowance, compensating them for time away from their workplaces.

Proceedings would begin with a ritual purification of the space, involving the sacrifice of piglets and the scattering of their blood. Then the herald would start by inviting “anyone who wished to speak” on Item 1 of the prearranged Agenda to come up on to the bema (podium) and address what could be as many as 6,000 citizens seated before him. At the conclusion of the speeches, a vote would be registered by the raising of right hands. If the majority was clear, that was that. If not, then votes would be counted individually. This was direct, in-your-face democracy.

A piglet is sacrificed in a sixth-century BC vase-painting
A piglet is sacrificed in a sixth-century BC vase-painting. (Photo By DEA/G. Dagli Orti/De Agostini via Getty Images)

Such meetings were held as frequently as every 10 or so days, and routinely addressed matters such as religion, defence and the grain supply. An Assembly might also be called in response to more urgent developments, such as a debate over a law against tyranny, or how best to resist the threat of a Persian invasion.

There was no ‘second chamber’ and no ‘supreme court’, but issues voted on in the Assembly might be reopened in the courts before a popular jury of hundreds. Sometimes the trial of an individual – Socrates, for example, on charges of impiety – might involve matters of great social, political and moral concern.

As Cleisthenes exemplifies, putting yourself forward as a policymaking politician could be an enormously rewarding undertaking. However after his trial, Socrates, who’d repeatedly criticised his fellow Athenians, was put to death – proof that entering Athens’ political arena was far from a risk-free enterprise.

Allow artists to flourish

Political freedom breathed new life into Athenian theatre and architecture

Athenian democracy was a matter not only of formal political institutions but also of culture, including what we today call high culture. Tragic theatre and public architecture both flourished, and in peculiarly democratic forms. Within 75 years or so of democracy’s foundation, Aeschylus had produced his Persians (a celebration of democracy as well as of the Salamis victory) and Oresteia trilogy; Sophocles had written his Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus; and Euripides his Medea. All challenged the Athenian audiences to think deeply about the ideological as well as pragmatic basis of their democratic political institutions.

In the 440s and 430s the Athenians also constructed the architectural miracle that is the Parthenon. Athens was a city of gods and goddesses as well as humans, and the divine patroness was indomitably warlike, pro-arts Athena. The Parthenon honoured her as an untamed virgin, one who was widely portrayed in a breastplate and helmet, carrying a spear. As such, she made for a suitable role model for citizen men struggling on two fronts against Sparta and Persia.

The Parthenon was the St Paul’s Cathedral of an empire that the Athenians had, by now, constructed as a bulwark against Persian expansion. This multi-state Aegean alliance was a paltry affair by Persian standards, but it kept many Greek cities free, and offered a framework for widespread advances in democratic self-government.

Don’t be afraid of reform

Athens' democracy moved in a progressive direction, as autocracies prepared to pounce

Following the trauma of the Graeco-Persian Wars of 480–479, it was time for further internal reform, in a progressive, democratising direction. The men of the hour were Ephialtes and his junior adjutant, Pericles. Their key move was to strip any old, originally aristocratic institutions of their last vestiges of power and transfer that to the masses – to the people in both senses of demos. This was done by establishing people’s jury courts, and staffing them with jurors selected by the democratic process of the random lottery. Such jurors were also judges, not only of criminality but of the law too, and they were paid from public funds to perform this public duty.

This system flourished until the Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431–404, when Athens was defeated by its perennial foes Sparta and Persia. That wasn’t the end of the story, however. A revived, if modified, Athenian democracy was destined for a further 80 or so years’ existence, until that too was crushed by a foreign imperial power, Macedon.

This time defeat was terminal. With successive autocracies casting a long shadow over Greece, full-blown citizen people-power would not return to ancient Athens. But its legacy lives on in the 21st century. This extraordinary experiment did more than any other system to inspire our own western idea of democratic government – for good or ill.


This article was first published in the December 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine


Professor Paul Cartledge is A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture emeritus at the University of Cambridge. His books include Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, now available in paperback (Picador, 2021)