The year is 510 B.C. in Athens, a Greek city-state. There is conflict between the rich and the poor, and the tyrant Hippias has just been expelled from the city, ending fifty years of oppression that began with his father Pisistratus. Something must change about the way the city is governed, but what?
Enter Cleisthenes, who earned the title “Father of Democracy” for his radical reforms to the Athenian government, which later Athenians saw as the beginning of their democracy. Building upon the earlier laws of Solon, Cleisthenes utterly transformed the political organization of Athens. Cleisthenes’ reorganization of the many villages of Athens into ten tribes was the basis for the democratic institutions which followed. From these tribes, citizens were chosen by lot to hold public office, serve on juries, set the agenda for the governing assembly, and more.
Democracy is derived from the Greek word demokratia, meaning “rule by the people.” It’s made up of the two roots demos, meaning “the people,” and kratos, meaning “power.”
One belief that was foundational to Greek democracy is the term isonomia, meaning “equality before the law.”
When we talk about Greek democracy, we really mean Athenian democracy. This is not because Athens was the only Greek city-state that ever had a democratic form of government, but because Athens was the most prominent and powerful, and an abundance of sources about Athens still exist today. There simply is not enough available information to talk about Greek democracy as anything outside of Athenian democracy.
The roots of Athenian democracy can be traced back at least to the 7th century B.C. when citizens were permitted to attend meetings of the ekklesia, or assembly. However, the government at the time was predominantly aristocratic. The first major shift toward democracy occurred in 594 B.C. when an Athenian named Solon was called upon to help mitigate social and economic discord that was threatening to tear Athens apart. As part of his reforms, Solon cancelled all debts, gave citizens the right to appeal the decision of a magistrate to the assembly of their fellow citizens, and made it illegal for an Athenian citizen to be sold into slavery to pay off a debt.
Solon’s reforms were significant not because they were completely democratic, but because they were democratizing. By making debt slavery illegal for Athenians, Solon implied that to be an Athenian citizen was inherently valuable. Athenian citizens were thus fundamentally equal. Furthermore, Solon’s elimination of the aristocratic political hierarchy and his creation of a wealth-based system resulted in social mobility. While Solon did not institute a democracy, nor necessarily intend to since most of his reforms only applied to wealthy citizens, his laws paved the way for future democratic institutions. The political situation that resulted from the laws of Solon was not quite democratic, but it was a step in the right direction.
Ninety years and a couple of tyrants later, Cleisthenes arrived on the scene and instituted some major changes, including the reorganization of Athens into the previously mentioned tribes. The Athenian government consisted of three major institutions: the ekklesia, the boule, and the dikasteria. The ekklesia, open to all citizens and regularly numbering at least 6,000, was the assembly of citizens that met to make decisions about proposed laws, military operations, foreign policy, etc. The ekklesia operated by a simple majority and was the ultimate authoritative body in Athens. The boule was the council of 500 that determined the agenda for the ekklesia. Only topics approved by the boule could be voted upon by the ekklesia. The boule was representative and democratic—its 500 members consisted of 50 members chosen by lot from each of the ten tribes. Finally, the most democratic of Athenian institutions was the dikasteria, or the popular law courts, where isonomia was put into practice. Here, ordinary citizens served as jurors and were randomly assigned to different courts. There were no judges, no lawyers, and no police officers—just Athenian citizens pleading their cases in front of their peers. Juries, which were made up of several hundred citizens and voted by a simple majority, held all the power. Jurors were even paid a modest wage to ensure that poorer Athenians could participate.
While Athens had some extremely democratic features, they applied only to its citizens. Athenian citizenship was limited to adult males born in Athens with at least one parent who was born in Athens (at one point, both parents needed to be Athenian-born). So the majority of the population, including all women, slaves, metics (Athenian residents that were not Athenian citizens), and disenfranchised men, were not allowed to participate in their government.
Athenian democracy was not implemented as a fully formed political system, but rather evolved incrementally over time. So while Cleisthenes is called the Father of Democracy, there isn’t one person responsible for the development of Athenian democracy. Rather, individuals such as Solon and Cleisthenes, as well as the people of Athens at large, were responsible for the creation of Athenian democracy as we know it.
Athens is commonly viewed as the birthplace of democracy, but that does not mean Athens itself was entirely democratic. Most people living in Athens were not allowed to participate in their government, slavery was widespread, and Athens possessed a huge empire. Athenians prided themselves on isonomia, but this was only the case for Athenian citizens. So, with Athens, or any society that claims to be democratic, it is necessary to consider who actually counts as a member of the democracy.
Despite all its inconsistencies, the most lasting contributions of Athenian democracy were its founding beliefs. First, the fact that the people who staffed most public offices, along with juries and the boule, were determined randomly shows that every citizen was believed to be capable of self-governance. Second, the supremacy of the people in the assembly and courts reveals the underlying principle that the government receives its authority from the governed. While Athenian democracy was far from perfect, it was foundational to the development of modern democracy because these two beliefs still affect us today.