In his Histories, Herodotus has a Persian named Otanes urge that his country adopt democracy (dęmos = "people" and kratos = "power") (3.80):
Otanes' analysis of democracy is obviously drawn from the model of the Athenian democracy, which Herodotus had
visited in his travels. This small passage beautifully sums up the essence of the Athenian democracy.
The Athenians were especially worried about the power of magistrates becoming a threat to the democracy. This was
especially true of the archonship, which was one of the most distinguished offices in Athens. There were
nine2 archons: the eponymous
archon,3 the archon king,4 the
polemarch,5 and the six
thesmothetai.6 In order to restrict their power, the
archons, like almost all other Athenian officials, were chosen by lot from citizens who put themselves forward, rather
than elected. The use of the lot cut down on political rivalry, which always threatened to turn into civil strife in the
super-competitive Athenian society, and also eliminated the possibility of corruption (bribery of voters). Magistrates
were also held accountable to all citizens for their acts in office. Abuses of power were sure to bring prosecution when
the official underwent his examination (euthyna) after he left office.7 Since magistracies at Athens were annual, with very
few exceptions, punishment for the guilty was not far off.
The Assembly was the supreme decision-making body in Athens, which met in an open area on a hill called the
Technically every male citizen over the age of 18 could attend every meeting of the Assembly with the right to speak and
vote on all matters of domestic and foreign policy. Space and other practical considerations, however, would not allow
every citizen to attend every meeting. For example, it is estimated that by the end of the Peloponnesian War the male
citizen population numbered around 30,000. The area on the Pnyx at most could hold a little over 6,000
(the quorum for a meeting). Moreover, not all citizens wanted to attend. In the fifth century, to get a quorum, public slaves would
proceed through the Agora carrying a long rope coated with fresh red paint. Any citizen who was marked with this paint
and was caught not attending the Assembly was subject to a penalty of some kind. It should be noted that when pay was
instituted for attendance at the Assembly in the late fifth century, there was no longer need to force citizens to attend.
Note that the meeting is scheduled to begin just after dawn and that it is only delayed by the irresponsibility of the citizens and the 'presiding officials of the Council' (prytaneis). A citizen did not have to hold any office to speak at a meeting of the Assembly, but, as one might expect, the great majority of attendees had no desire to speak. There were men like Pericles and Cleon, who were influential and willing to advise citizens on matters before the Assembly. The rest of the citizens, however, were not required to be passive; they could either show their support or displeasure during and after a speech. No doubt, a meeting of the Assembly could be a fairly rowdy affair. After the speeches were done, the final decision was made by the whole Assembly, when they voted with a show of hands.
The Council consisted of 500 members selected annually by lot, 50 from each of the ten Athenian tribes.9 All male citizens over the age of 30 were eligible to serve in the Council, but service in this body was not compulsory. In the various demes (local municipalities) that make up each tribe, citizens volunteered and were selected by lot for service on the Council. Larger demes were represented by more councilors than smaller ones. The minimum age was 30 years. In contrast with the magistracies, a citizen could serve twice as a councilor in his lifetime.
The Council met everyday, except for festival days and certain other forbidden days, in the Bouleuterion in the Agora. When the Assembly met, the Council would meet in the afternoon since most Assembly meetings lasted only till noon. The primary responsibilities of this body were the preparation of an agenda for the Assembly and the supervision of the magistrates, especially in their scrutiny (dokimasia) and the examination (euthyna). The Council itself had to answer to the Assembly at end of its year of service.10
Just as the Assembly required a smaller body (the Council) to prepare business for it, the Council needed a group much smaller than 500 to supervise its activities. This supervision was performed by each contingent of 50 Council members from one tribe, serving in turn (decided by lot) as prytaneis or "presiding officers" for 1/10 of the year (called a "prytany"). Every day one of the prytaneis was selected by lot to serve for a night and a day as chairman (epistatęs), who was entrusted with the keys to the temples where the state funds and records were stored, and the state seal. Thus the reins of Athenian government were in the hands of a different Athenian citizen every day of the year. No doubt some of these citizens had more political expertise than others, but there must have been many citizens like Socrates who were politically inept (Plato, Gorgias 473 e 6):
The chairman was also required to be on duty for twenty-four hours with 1/3 of his prytaneis in a building adjacent to the Bouleuterion, called the Tholos or "Round House," where they slept and took their meals. The purpose of this requirement was to be sure that some part of the government always be available to deal with emergencies. During the fifth century, the chairman (epistatęs) of the prytaneis also presided over meetings of the Assembly.
The courts were another crucial part of the Athenian democracy. No citizen was above the law, so as in America everyone, both rich and poor, had to submit to the judgment of their fellow citizens, who made up the juries. Every year from citizens, who had voluntarily put themselves forward,11 6000 jurors were selected by lot and were sworn in. Every day the courts were in session, a varying portion of this panel of 6000 would show up early in the morning, attracted by the prospect of getting paid for their jury duty. The juries needed for that day were selected by a very complicated procedure involving an ingenious allotment machine. There were two steps in this procedure of allotment: the first to select all the jurors needed that day and the second to assign them to a specific court room. No juror could know ahead of time whether he was going to serve that day and, if selected, which case he would be involved in. The reason for the complex process was to prevent bribery. The size of jury panels varied from 201 to 401 in private lawsuits and from 501 (as in Socrates' trial) to as high as 2501 in more important cases).12 The large size of these panels also militated against the possibility of bribery. A secret ballot also protected the jurors from improper outside influence.
Just as with the magistracies, the court system was run by non-professionals. There were no professionally trained judges and lawyers. A law attributed to the sixth century BC lawgiver, Solon, stipulated that a prosecution could be undertaken by "anyone who wanted to."13 For public prosecutions, the state had no district attorney to serve as prosecutor and no lawyer acted on behalf of the defendant. In private cases, both parties represented themselves. When a citizen observed or learned of some action by another citizen against the interests of the state, along with one or two witnesses he found the offender and, after stating the charge, summoned him to appear before the appropriate magistrate14 on a specific day. At the hearing the accuser made a formal charge before the magistrate, which was written on a whitened board attached to the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes in the Agora.
At the trial the presiding magistrate merely kept order in the courtroom, but did not act as a modern judge might. He did not rule on points of procedure and gave no instructions to the jury. Although the defendant was required defend himself, he could hire a professional speechwriter to write a speech for him and also could bring along a friend to help him. A public prosecution took about 9 1/2 hours while private suits lasted about one to two hours, depending on the amount of money involved. Both the prosecutor and defendant had the same amount of time to speak, measured by a water clock.15 When the speeches were over, the jury voted without discussing the case. In a public prosecution, if the jury decided against the defendant, both the prosecutor and the defendant proposed a penalty. The jury then voted again, again without discussion, to choose one or the other.16
The Athenians saw the jury courts, working hand-in-hand with the law and the concerned citizen prosecuting wrongdoers, as essential to the workings of democracy and the welfare of the city (Lycurgus, Against Leocrates 3.7-5.1):
On the whole the democracy served the Athenians well for over one hundred and eighty years (with two brief interruptions). Of course, one could complain that the democracy excluded the majority of the population of Athens. Indeed women, resident aliens,17 and slaves could not participate in the democratic process, but one must remember that the United States only abolished slavery during its Civil War and women only got the right to vote early in the 20th century. On the other hand, Athenian democracy allowed and fostered a degree of direct participation in the democratic process unknown in modern democracies. In modern America, involvement in the political process is quite limited. An American citizen may or may not vote once a year and occasionally does jury duty. A very small percentage of the American population gets more politically involved than that. In comparison, an estimated 39 to 40% of Athenian male citizen population was directly involved on a more or less regular basis in Athenian government (as a magistrate or a member of the Council of 500 or of the Assembly18 or of the jury panel of 6000 selected annually). Moreover, the system of pay19 for service as magistrates,20 Councilors, for attendance at Assembly meetings,21 and for jury service allowed the poor to participate in the political process and their exercise of real political power in these various capacities was a great source of annoyance to richer, more conservative Athenians.
The individual citizen, willing to throw himself into the political
fray22 had an impressive array of powers. He could
propose a law, which, if it found enough support, could be formulated by the Council of 500, put on the agenda of a later
Assembly meeting, discussed and voted upon at that meeting. He could act as a defender of the Constitution (like our
Supreme Court) by bringing a graphę paranomôn, a prosecution for proposal of a law that was either illegal or not in the
best interests of the state. Citizens who initiated this process sought to repeal the law and punish the
he could bring a public prosecution against any other citizen whether a private person or a magistrate (in the process of
examination). Not even the most influential politician could escape the power of the Athenian citizenry, if he had lost
their support. In the fifth century, the process of ostracism through secret ballot23 was available to the citizens. When
citizens in the Assembly had decided that they wanted an ostracism, voting took place two months later, not on the
Pnyx (the regular meeting place of the Assembly), but in the Agora. Citizens voted by tribes in an enclosure. If 6000
citizens (the quorum of the Assembly) voted, then the person with the most votes was sent into exile for a ten year
1. For example, the laws of Solon were displayed in the
Royal Stoa (Stoa Basileios).
Return to text.
8. No doubt public slaves who worked as clerks in various offices advised newly appointed magistrates and helped them
perform their duties correctly. Return to text.
14. When Meletus accused Socrates of impiety (asebeia), the defendant had to appear before the king archon, who was in
charge of religious affairs. The headquarters of this official was in the Royal Stoa (Stoa Basileios) (Plato,
Euthyphro 2 a-b). Return to text.