Democracy crowns the Dęmos 


In his Histories, Herodotus has a Persian named Otanes urge that his country adopt democracy (dęmos = "people" and kratos = "power") (3.80):

The rule of the majority has the most beautiful name of all: equality under the law (isonomię)…the holders of magistracies are selected by lot and are held accountable for their actions. All deliberations are in public. I predict that we will give up monarchy and replace it with democracy. For in democracy all things are possible. 

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.

Written laws, which were posted in the Agora1 for all Athenians to see, were the keys to equality. In Euripides' Suppliant Women, Theseus, a legendary king of Athens and in the minds of the Athenians, one of the founders of democracy, comments on the importance of written laws for equal justice (433-37): 

When laws are written down, both the weak and the wealthy have equal justice. It is possible for the weaker citizens to use the same language to a prosperous man, whenever he insults them. And having justice on his side, the lesser man wins in court.


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. 

Another restriction on power for magistrates that kept them from becoming too influential was the Athenian practice of rotating the various offices among the citizens. A citizen could hold an office only once in a lifetime. This was true of virtually all Athenian magistracies with one very important exception, the board of ten generals. There was no limitation on the number of times a citizen could be elected general; Pericles served as a general fifteen consecutive years. The method of selection for the generalship was also different. Generals were elected. The reason for these differences was that, although the machinery of the Athenian democracy could tolerate amateur government, in which inexperienced (and on some occasions no doubt incompetent) citizens had to learn the ropes of their office every year,8 it was of the essence that reliable men, expert in military science, serve as generals as often as possible. Athens was a militarily aggressive state and its empire depended on the effectiveness of its military leadership. During the fifth century, war was much more a normal condition than peace. 

The Athenians, however, recognized that a powerful general could be a very dangerous threat to the democracy. Thus one general was never appointed commander-in-chief of a given expedition. Military decisions required consultation among generals resulting in a consensus. But the measure that perhaps kept generals in line was the constant scrutiny and threat of prosecution. Ten times a year, the generals had to undergo a vote of confidence in the Assembly and they were also subject to prosecutions for crimes like bribery and treason. A negative decision in the Assembly or the courts could result in removal from their duties before their year of generalship was over and further penalties like exile. Even Pericles suffered the wrath of the Athenian courts when he was fined and deposed near the end of his career. A military failure caused Thucydides, the famous Athenian historian. to be removed from office and exiled. Of course, after their year of office, a general, like all other magistrates, had to undergo the standard examination (euthyna) of his official acts before a jury. One Athenian general felt so pressured by his examination that he committed suicide.

Assemby (Ekklęsia)

The Assembly was the supreme decision-making body in Athens, which met in an open area on a hill called the Pnyx.  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.  

The agenda was posted four days preceding the meeting and a sign was set up on the very day of the meeting. Here is a comic character from Aristophanes Archanians, who complains about a delay in beginning a meeting of the Assembly (17-26):

But never since I began to wash was I thus
bitten under the eyebrows by soap as now, when,
with the main Assembly supposed to begin
early in the morning, the Pnyx itself is deserted.
Those in the Agora are laughing and everywhere
escape the rope dripping with red paint.
Nor have the presiding officials of the Council
arrived, but when they finally arrive late, then
how do you think they, rushing in a crowd
will jostle each other for the first bench?

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.

Council (Boulę)

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):

My dear Polus, I am not a political person and last year having been chosen by lot to serve on the Council, when my tribe was presiding and [as chairman or epistatęs] I had to put a question to the vote, I provided everybody with a laugh because I did not know how to do so.

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.

Law Courts

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):

For there are three things which guard and preserve the democracy and the prosperity of the city: first, the system of law, second, the ballots of the jurors, and third, the trial which hands over crimes to them. For the law was created to prescribe what must not be done, the accuser to inform against those established as liable to the penalties of the law, and the juror to punish those revealed to him [as an offender] by these two [the law and the accuser) and so neither the law, nor the ballot of the jurors has any power without someone to hand wrongdoers over to them.


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 proposer. Finally, 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 period.24

Pericles' description of the Athenian democracy in his "Funeral Oration" is not empty rhetoric (Thuc. 2.37):

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility [magistracies], what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty (Warner's Penguin translation).


1. For example, the laws of Solon were displayed in the Royal Stoa (Stoa Basileios). Return to text.
2. Since all officials were organized into boards of ten (one from each of the ten Athenian tribes), a secretary was added to these nine archons to constitute the required ten. A less prestigious, but nonetheless important board of magistrates was the ten Sellers (pôlętai), who auctioned off property of citizens convicted of certain crimes and also leased the state-owned silver mines in SE Attica to individual citizens. It was silver from these mines that allowed the Athenians to build their dominant fleet in the early fifth century and also to issue their famous coins called “owls.” Return to text.
3. The Athenians did not use a number to designate a given year as we do, but referred to a year by the name of the man who was the eponymous archon in that twelve month period. For example, an official document issued in the year we refer to as 367 BC began: "The pôlętai in the archonship of Polyzelus…" Return to text.
4. His duties were primarily judicial in the area of religion (including homicide, for the Athenians a religious crime). Return to text.
5. Originally a commander of the army, he supervised court cases involving metics (resident aliens), who lacked full citizen rights. Return to text.
6. Their responsibilities were general supervision of the court. Return to text.
7. Magistrates also had to go through a process of scrutiny (dokimasia) before they took office, but it was not a test of competence. The scrutiny was mainly concerned with citizenship and performance of civic and family duties. Aristotle's The Athenian presents the questions asked of entering archons (55.3, Rhodes' translation):

Who is your father, and from which deme (local municipality in Attica)? Who is your father's father? Who is your mother? Who is your mother's father, and from which deme? Then the archons are asked whether they have a cult of Apollo of Ancestry and Zeus of the Courtyard, and where the sanctuaries of these are; whether they have family tombs, and where these are; whether they treat their parents well; whether they pay their taxes; whether they have performed their military service. 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.
9. The Council had entirely different membership each year. Although each citizen could serve twice in his lifetime as a councilor, two consecutive terms would be impossible, because the councilor would have to go through his examination after his year of service before he could serve again. By that time a new Council would be in place.  Return to text.
10. It should also be noted that the Athenian state used positive reinforcement in addition to these negative checks. For example, the Assembly voted honorary decrees to individual speakers (rhętores) in that body and to the committees of ten into which magistrates were organized. Moreover, valuable crowns of gold worth 1000 drachmas (equivalent to about three years annual pay to a skilled worker in the 5th century) were awarded to the best speaker (rhętor) of the year in the Assembly and to the best board of prytaneis. Cleon was awarded preferential seating in the first row of the theater (prohedria) for his victory as a general at Pylos (Aristophanes, Knights 702). Another reward for outstanding service was the privilege of dining at public expense in the state’s Town Hall (the Prytaneion, located on the north slope of the Acropolis (Pausanias 1.18.3), although its exact location has not been found). Return to text.
11. Mostly from the poorer citizens. Return to text.
12. These odd numbers are to prevent ties. Return to text.
13. This system of prosecution did lead to abuses. Some citizens, known as sycophants, brought irresponsible prosecutions against other citizens for various reasons: to be awarded part of defendant’s property, if prosecution was successful; to get blackmail money from citizens who wanted to avoid prosecution; to be paid to initiate and conduct the prosecution by another citizen who did not want to do it himself. The word sycophant, as used by the Greeks, has nothing to do with the modern meaning of the word ("flatterer"). 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.
15. In public prosecutions (like the graphę paranomôn) the prosecutor and defendant each speak once. In a private suit a reply and reply-to-reply were allowed in addition to the two main speeches. Return to text.
16. In his trial, Socrates proposed a fine, while his prosecutor recommended death. The jury chose the latter.  Return to text.
17. These resident aliens or metics included Greeks from other states and even “barbarians” (i.e., non-Greeks like Egpytians) who could not hold political office or speak and vote in the Assembly, but did pay taxes and served in the Athenian army and navy. Since some of them were quite rich because of their involvement in commerce and industry, they did take on liturgies (see note #22 below), which were financially burdensome, but a source of great honor.  Return to text.
18. Because of the limitation of space, only about 6000 could attend at a time and no doubt there were some Athenians who attended regularly and some, infrequently or not at all. Return to text.
19. Not only did the Athenian state subsidize those were willing to be engaged in political activity, it also provided welfare for disabled citizens who were unable to work (Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 49.4). Return to text.
20. At least in the fifth century. Return to text.
21. At least in the fourth century. Return to text.
22. There was other public service outside of politics, which was not paid for by the state and was reserved for those wealthy enough to undertake it. This service was called a liturgy, i.e., a compulsory duty on behalf of the state. Liturgies included paying for the outfitting and maintenance of a trireme (trięrarchia) or for the training and outfitting of a chorus in a dramatic festival (choręgia). The duty of a liturgy was burdensome, even for the wealthy, but it could not be refused.  But if a citizen was assigned a liturgy and thought there was someone richer who had not performed this duty yet, he could challenge that citizen either to accept the liturgy or to exchange properties. Return to text.
23. Each voter scratched the name of the person he wanted ostracized on a piece of of broken pottery or potsherd (ostrakon). Return to text.
24. Ostracism did not carry with it the stigma that conviction of a crime against the state did, but was just a device to tone down political rivalry that might evolve into civil strife. The ostracized person did not lose his political rights or have his property confiscated. Return to text.

Athenian Agora    Domestic Life    Religious Life    Warfare 1    Warfare 2

Education 1    Education 2    Bibliography


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