Imagine that your school is voting on some new rules. However, the only people that get to vote are the three individual students with the highest grades in each class. The vast majority of the school, yourself included, has absolutely no say whatsoever. Have you ever been in a situation like this, where only a few people get to make decisions, and the rest are excluded?
This was the situation the Greek city-state of Athens found itself in at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. Over the next two centuries, the government of Athens developed into a direct democracy, meaning citizens participated directly in making laws and decisions to govern their city, instead of the wealthy making all the decisions. The primary governing body of Athenian democracy was the Assembly.
The Athenian Assembly
The Athenian Assembly, or Ekklesia, was the sovereign governing body of democratic Athens, and it was open to all male Athenian citizens. At meetings of the Ekklesia, citizens had the opportunity to address the Assembly, hear fellow citizens speak on various matters, and vote on proposed decrees. The wide range of topics discussed at meetings included war, public festivals, religion, foreign policy, and more.
The Ekklesia existed long before the establishment of democracy at Athens, but it did not always resemble the institution that became synonymous with Athenian democracy. In 594 B.C., a man named Solon enacted a series of reforms aimed at quelling social unrest. As part of these reforms, Solon maintained that all male Athenian citizens, regardless of social class, were allowed to participate in meetings of the Ekklesia. This set the stage for the direct democracy that would develop over the following centuries. However, at this time, the authority to create new laws belonged to an aristocratic council. It was not until 462 B.C. that a man named Ephialtes introduced a reform to transfer some of this power to the Assembly. After this turning point, the Ekklesia became the cornerstone of Athenian democracy.
The primary function of the Athenian Assembly was legislative. Citizens assembled to discuss and vote upon decrees to govern all aspects of the city. Before the Assembly met, the agenda was determined by a council of five hundred, composed of fifty men chosen randomly from each of the ten tribes of Athens. Only matters on this agenda could be voted upon during meetings.
The Ekklesia regularly met forty times every year at an auditorium on a hill in Athens called the Pnyx. At the start of a meeting, a herald would stand up and say, “Who wishes to address the assembly?” At that point, any citizen, no matter his wealth, occupation, or social standing, was allowed to speak his mind to the six thousand citizens on average who attended regular meetings of the Ekklesia. However, there certainly were individuals who addressed the Assembly more often than most, and some even exercised considerable influence due to their popularity. Throughout the history of Athenian democracy, politicians like Pericles were able to gain serious power through their rhetoric. Another democratic aspect of the Ekklesia was the voting process. Important decisions regarding public festivals, war, and everything in between were reached by a simple majority vote.
The question of who attended meetings of the Ekklesia is an important one to consider. A substantial portion of the population, including all women, children, slaves, foreigners, and citizen men convicted of certain crimes, were barred from participating. Still, there were approximately forty thousand men eligible to participate at the height of Athenian democracy. So why was attendance at meetings only five or six thousand citizens? The answer is up for debate, but geography certainly played a role. Many Athenian citizens were poor farmers living in the countryside, so it would have been a serious time commitment, as well as a financial burden, to regularly walk to the city to attend meetings of the Ekklesia. Therefore, it is extremely likely that the majority of the people speaking and voting at the Assembly lived within the city of Athens itself. Nevertheless, the mere fact that all citizens were eligible to vote and speak in the Assembly and that upwards of ten percent of them regularly participated made the system extraordinarily democratic.
One noteworthy power possessed by the Ekklesia was that of ostracism. Ostracism in Athens was the expulsion of a citizen from the city for ten years. This practice developed as a safeguard against tyranny since it allowed the Assembly to effectively silence any individual who was gaining too much power. For an ostracism to be held, first, the Ekklesia would vote to have an ostracism. Then, citizens would write the name of the individual whom they wanted to be ostracized on a clay shard. Finally, the shards would be counted, and as long as at least six thousand people voted, the individual with the most votes would be ostracized and forced to leave Athens for ten years.
The fundamental premise of the Ekklesia was that the ultimate authority to govern belonged to the People. The Ekklesia relied on the belief in an inherent equality and ability to rule that was common to all Athenian citizens. However, it was not perfect. The majority of the population of Athens was excluded. Sometimes the people voted based on the popularity of a speaker rather than the rationality of his policies. Sometimes the citizens were incredibly volatile and acted impulsively, disregarding wise advice and bringing disaster upon the city. Furthermore, was the Ekklesia beneficial to all citizens, or was it really just a tyranny of the majority, whereby majority interests suppressed individuals in the minority? In any case, the principles of self-government and equality that were so integral to the Athenian Assembly live on in numerous governments around the world that feature popular or representative assemblies, including the United States.