Your guide to the history of democracy

When and where was the first democracy formed, what was it like and what does democracy even mean? BBC History Revealed explores democracy's ancient foundations...

Solon, an Athenian statesman (left) laid the foundations for democracy

What does democracy actually mean?

The opposite to monarchy (‘rule of one’), democracy (from the Greek word demokratia) means government by the people, or the rule of the majority. In practice, this means power is held by elected representatives or by the people themselves.

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Who invented the concept?

Traditionally, the concept of democracy is believed to have originated in Athens in c508 BC, although there is evidence to suggest that democratic systems of government may have existed elsewhere in the world before then, albeit on a smaller scale.

In Athens, it was a noble named Solon who laid the foundations for democracy, and introduced a new constitution based on the ownership of property. According to this, Athenians were divided into four classes, with political power distributed among them. The highest offices went to those people whose land produced 730 bushels of grain, while the lowest class comprised labourers who could not hold office, but who could vote in the assembly. Importantly, under Solon’s constitution, native-born citizens could not be enslaved by their fellow citizens.

How did democracy develop in Athens?

Solon’s reforms eventually broke down as the ruling classes began fighting among themselves, taking Athens to the brink of civil war. Out of this rose a tyrant – Peisistratos – who seized power in 546 BC. After his death, Peisistratos’s sons took over as rulers until they were overthrown in 510 BC with help from Sparta.

As factional strife for power broke out once more between Athenian noble families, a man named Cleisthenes enlisted the support of the common people by proposing a new constitution. This new constitution included the establishment of sortation, which saw citizens selected at random to fill government positions, rather than attaining them through inheritance.

Ten new groups – or tribes – were created as a way of breaking up the existing power structure with political rights and privileges dependent on one’s tribe. What’s more, all Athenians had the right to attend and vote in the ekklesia, an assembly which met every ten days. To ensure that even the poorest could afford to attend and participate in the city’s political activities, payment was given for attendance from c400 BC.

A deliberative body known as the boule saw 500 randomly selected people (50 from each tribe) meet daily to discuss legislation, which would then be agreed by citizens at the ekklesia.

What role did women play in Athenian democracy?

Athenian democracy did not extend to women, and they played little role in the political life of the state and had no vote. Athenian girls were not formally educated and their rights were limited.

Was Athenian democracy always a good thing?

Possibly the most dramatic aspect of Athenian democracy was ostracism, which was common between 487-417 BC. If 6,000 voters were in favour, an Athenian citizen could be sent into exile for ten years, a tactic that was often used to rid the city of a powerful but perhaps unpopular figure.

A 16th-century painting of the Tower of Babel

What are the differences between ancient Greek democracy and democracy today?

According to historians, there are three differences between today’s system of democracy and that of the ancient Greeks: scale, participation and eligibility.

The population of fifth-century-BC Athens is thought to have been around 250,000, yet only about 30,000 were full Athenian citizens and therefore able to benefit from the new constitution. The remaining were slaves, women, children or foreigners. What’s more, only men could take part in a democratic government.

How did democracy continue after ancient Greece?

Despite surviving defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, the democratic experiment came to an end in 322 BC, with the failure of the Greek revolt against Macedonian rule following the death of Alexander the Great.

Elements of democracy after Athens can be seen in the Roman world in the third century, Scandinavia in the eighth century, and the Italian communes of the 11th-13th centuries. But full democracy as we know it today was a long time coming.

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This content first appeared in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed