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date: 23 October 2019


The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

Vincent Farenga


For the contemporary world no other achievement of Greek civilization overshadows the development of democracy. Greek democracy's reputation now shines brighter among historians and political theorists than at any other time in the modern age, no doubt because the late twentieth century saw democracy triumph as the sole legitimate and universal form of political organization. Its emergence in late Archaic (600–500 bce) and Classical (500–323) Greece therefore looks like the archetype for modern political development and for just societies on a global scale.

Principles, Goals, and Beginnings.

A few core principles of equality, freedom, and majority rule link democracies ancient and modern: (1) all citizens are theoretically equal before the law, (2) the law guarantees all citizens individual and collective freedoms from coercion in political and social life, (3) in exercising political self-rule, the will of ordinary citizens prevails. Even though Greek citizens practiced these principles through direct participation in government instead of through the modern alternative of representative government, in a nutshell both ancient and modern democracies achieve two goals: they empower typical citizens with popular sovereignty over the state's destiny, and they protect this privilege from encroachment by elite citizens with superior resources.

The dynamic link between the three principles and the two goals helps explain why the study of Greek democracy is today fluid and controversial, about more than just defining a set of governmental procedures guaranteeing equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty. Democracy is seen as a broad cultural enactment of the principles: a way of waging war, worshiping divinities, composing poetry and history, practicing philosophy, erecting civic monuments and adorning them with sculpture and paintings, and so on. “Democratic” also names a kind of ancient theory about society and human nature, both an ideology and a type of social identity for citizens. And because the Greek experience serves as an avatar for modern democracies, contemporary political thinkers use it as a touchstone when they debate democratic ideals and practices.

Recent controversies and disagreements raise questions about Greek democracy's origins, how widespread it was, and its life span. Did it appear as a revolutionary break with pre-democratic culture and politics? Or did it develop slowly and cumulatively without discontinuities between tradition and innovation? Its development seems to have occurred in two steps, each achieving one of its two goals. The first step secured popular sovereignty for the collective agent that is all the “people” (dēmos), but especially the poor (also called the dēmos), empowering typical members to act freely in self-interest and take responsibility for their political future. The second step used the sovereignty of law to cultivate institutions and procedures guaranteeing this agency in perpetuity, including low property qualifications and use of a lottery to fill state offices, public scrutiny of officeholders, and pay for the poor to serve on juries and councils or to attend the citizen assembly.

Aristocratic values may have dominated in Archaic Greece, but a noticeable egalitarian current surfaced in the earliest works of Greek literature, Homer's Iliad (c.750) and Odyssey (c.700) and Hesiod's Works and Days (c.700). As city-states and federated states emerged after 770 in the Aegean, southern Italy, Sicily, and the Black Sea region, most acknowledged the theoretical equality of all male citizens. Increasing reliance on hoplite warfare in the seventh century also strengthened the need for solidarity among citizens of diverse resources; Sparta's growth during this century into a hoplite state enshrined similar values in the form of institutions like the “Great Rhetra,” a written constitution guaranteeing some degree of popular control over decision making. When written statute laws appeared in many states after 650, they curtailed the abuse of weak or average citizens by their elite neighbors. From fragmentary writings, inscriptions, and other archaeological evidence, it is therefore reasonable to claim that the principles and goals of democracy emerged during the sixth century in a few states and spread slowly to a handful of others (Achaea, Elis, Metapontum, Chios, Megara, Samos) until it proliferated as a familiar form of government in the fifth century.

Athenian Democracy.

Most modern historians, however, equate the history of Greek democracy with that of only one city-state, Athens, from 508 to 322 bce. This Athenian bias results not only from the wealth of documentation in ancient sources on Athens, much of it contemporary to that democracy's flourishing, but also because historians can use these rich details to elaborate their competing models of democracy's origin as a revolutionary break versus a cumulative process, their explanations of just how the three principles worked and the two goals were secured, and their descriptions of democracy as an array of cultural practices.

The debate about how democracy emerged in Athens deserves particular attention. Three unpredictable events during the sixth century are pivotal for the model based on a revolutionary break, whereas institutional developments in the fifth and fourth centuries point to slow development without discontinuity. The first event occurred in 594 when Solon arbitrated a crisis provoked by elites who used debt to inflict a serflike status on poor citizens, requiring them to surrender one-sixth of their annual produce. Some debtors were even enslaved and sold abroad to repay debt. Solon averted civil war with a surprising series of reforms that jump-started the collective agency of ordinary citizens as a sovereign people and created institutions preserving that sovereignty through the force of law. He abolished existing debts, prohibited seizure of a debtor to repay debt, restored to the “one-sixthers” the full use of their land, and at state expense purchased back citizens sold as slaves. In one stroke this guaranteed the economic self-sufficiency of poorer citizens and also served as the precondition for their participation in a citizen assembly. Though this assembly's exact powers are unknown, Solon's written laws and constitutional reforms protected its deliberations.

The assembly's sovereignty was conditioned by two councils. The elite Council of the Areopagus, numbering in the hundreds, which probably existed before Solon, held a “guardianship of the laws” that may have permitted a veto power over the assembly's “excessive” decisions and the right to monitor the performance of state officials. The Council of Four Hundred, which Solon either created or reformed, was more popularly based and set the assembly's agenda free from elite control. It, too, may have scrutinized state officials, but it also functioned as a people's court where any citizen could bring suit against any other.

In 508/7 a second surprising event makes a stronger case for democracy's emergence. Despite Solon's efforts, resistance from elites and decades of tyrannical control by Pisistratus and his sons (c.560–510) prevented ordinary citizens from assuming mastery of state decision making. When the last Pisistratid had been expelled and two elite factions squared off for control, Athens faced two possible outcomes that were politically and militarily problematic. Either the faction of the conservative Isagoras would prevail, but with the assistance of a Spartan military force intent on imposing an oligarchic constitution, or the faction of Cleisthenes would prevail, but only if its unofficial membership expanded to include the mass of ordinary citizens. For reasons that remain unclear, the elite Cleisthenes rewrote the rules of political rivalry by inviting ordinary citizens to join his men in controlling the state. When the Spartans seized the Acropolis on behalf of Isagoras’ faction and tried to install an oligarchy, a spontaneous uprising of the masses besieged and ousted them.

If this act of resistance led to popular sovereignty, it was because Cleisthenes had planned carefully to align the masses with elites politically as well as militarily. He implemented three institutional reforms to prevent any elite faction from counteracting the will of the numerical majority:

  • 1. All citizens now entered political life locally, in formal village units (“demes”) in which neighbors approved their citizenship and engaged them in local governance; citizens entered state politics through ten new tribes whose membership mixed them into a balanced geographical and sociological cross-section of the state.

  • 2. This tribal membership determined military service and participation in state politics, especially membership on a new Council of Five Hundred (replacing the old Council of Four Hundred), whose deliberations set the agenda for voting on decrees (laws) in the citizen assembly. Fifty members were chosen in their demes by lot each year to represent each tribe, and no citizen could serve more than twice in a lifetime, guaranteeing a high rate of participation.

  • 3. To squelch the leadership that led to a dangerous faction or the return of a tyrant, the assembly could determine each year whether one citizen posed a threat to state welfare. Whoever's name appeared scratched on the majority of pottery shards (ostraka) found himself “ostracized,” or banished from the territory of Athens for ten years.

It looks as though “democracy” as the “rule of the dēmos” (or “with the help of the dēmos”) emerged here as an unpredictable mass military initiative but also as a plan for its long-term political extension through the sovereignty of law.

The third surprising event concerned the poorest citizens, the thētes, who were unable to fulfill their promised role of full participation in Cleisthenes’ plan until after the Persian invasion of 480–479: then the poor, who provided most of the rowers in the Athenian fleet, enabled Athens to become “the savior of Greece.” Athens’ growing commitment in the 470s–460s to constructing an empire likewise strengthened the social prestige of those who manned the fleet. However, the Council of the Areopagus, with its broad powers of intervention, veto, and scrutiny of officials, had long provided elites a trump card over popular sovereignty. In 462/1, Ephialtes unexpectedly pushed through a decree depriving the council of all its powers except for the right to try certain homicide cases—and transferring the lost privileges to the assembly, the Council of Five Hundred, and law courts. Despite Ephialtes’ assassination, Pericles continued paving the way for the poor to participate in government through including pay for jury service and (perhaps) for the Council of Five Hundred and through introducing a law restricting citizenship to sons of typical marriages between an Athenian father and mother.

Around 450 bce, Athenians began exercising popular sovereignty radically and rapidly, and at this point the core democratic principles of equality and freedom began transforming the Athenians’ culture as well as politics. This Periclean golden age looked to tragedy and comedy as expressions of both elite and popular values; the humanistic philosophy and rhetoric of Sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias, as well as the response of Socrates, transformed inquiry and deliberation; experiments in architecture, sculpture, and painting turned the Acropolis into a religious expression of a civic power and pride rooted in democracy and imperialism. Athens’ egalitarian domestic administration and its expansionist, imperialist foreign policy did, however, coexist in an uneasy symbiosis. Not only did the democracy rely on revenue from the maritime empire to pay its bills, but the daily use of radical popular sovereignty to produce decrees generated a volatile formula for policies that veered from clear-sighted and prudent to deluded and reckless. This heady mix resulted in the protracted Peloponnesian War with Sparta and its allies (431–404) and ultimately to defeat by the Spartans.

Radical popular sovereignty ended up costing the Athenians their empire but not their democracy, which tottered briefly in the oligarchic coups of 411 and 403 only to reemerge stronger through persistent efforts in the fourth century to make democratic procedures and institutions more organized, regulated, and efficient. The resulting stability lends force to the argument that democracy truly developed in this age, not through a break or rupture with the past but through a cumulative, consistent commitment to the principles of equality, freedom, and majority rule. These efforts looked to the sovereignty of the law itself and included (1) overhauling lawmaking and the law code to eliminate contradictions and to distinguish permanent statutes from temporary decrees, (2) paying citizens to attend the assembly and to serve as specialized lawmakers and as arbitrators in private lawsuits, (3) increased use of written documents to render legislative and judicial actions more detailed and consistent, (4) streamlining the state's financial administration, and (5) restoring to the Council of the Areopagus some of its lost privileges.

Difficult as it is to pinpoint Athenian democracy's origins, it is even more difficult to mark its demise. Philip II of Macedon's victory at Chaeronea in 338 over Athens and other Greek powers, along with the victories of his son Alexander against the Persian Empire (336–323), cast long shadows over Greek freedom in the Aegean, but Athens nevertheless maintained much of its autonomy. Arguably Macedon's threat ignited the most vigorous displays of leadership in the democracy's history as statesmen and orators like Demosthenes, Aeschines, Lycurgus, Hyperides, and Demades fought bitterly over policies of opposition or accommodation to Philip and Alexander. In one sense 323–322, the year after Alexander's death, marks the democracy's terminus, when Athens rose in revolt with other Greek states in the Lamian War to throw off Macedon's yoke. This spirited defense of freedom failed, and a Macedonian garrison occupied Athens’ port, the Piraeus. But in another sense the defeat only temporarily ended the democracy by imposing an oligarchic constitution for several years and stripping Athens of its fleet.

The democracy showed remarkable vitality, returning in 318 and persisting in compromised forms for the remainder of the Hellenistic Age (up to 31 bce), still capable of governing the state and conducting relations with other states. And the brilliant democratic culture of the fifth and fourth centuries continued to prosper. The New Comedy of Menander (342–292) and his contemporaries invented new character types and plots reflecting the city's altered democratic realities, and Athens secured its position as the philosophical center of the Greek world when the schools and movements that emerged earlier in fourth century—Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, the Cynics—were joined by the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Skeptics.

The great exception to life in a genuinely democratic society was the Athenians’ inability to act as masters of their own fate in the most vital international relations, for Macedon regularly handpicked a governor for Athens. Some of these men were vigorous leaders who maintained democratic traditions, like Demetrius of Phaleron (governor 317–307) and Demetrius I Poliorcetes (“the Besieger”; governor 307–301), but their leadership had to remain in line with Macedonian policies. Interludes of freedom did occur in 287–262 and 229–200, when Athenians exploited power struggles among the Hellenistic kingdoms to throw off a Macedonian governor or even (in 229) to oust the Macedonian military from the Piraeus (with assistance from the Ptolemies in Egypt). But Rome's growing intervention in Greek and Macedonian affairs after 216 proved decisive when Athens needed to ally itself with the Romans against Philip V of Macedon. The city escaped the worst outcomes of these struggles and continued to govern itself, but by the first century bce its democratic institutions had waned. The victory in 31 bce of Octavian (later Augustus) in the Roman civil wars ended recognition of the unique constitution and political rights of Athens as a democratic state unlike any other.

Democracy in Syracuse.

To counterbalance the bias toward Athens in understanding Greek democracy, it helps to remember that the Athenians neither invented democracy nor monopolized its practice. Their leadership in defeating Persia (480–479) enhanced democracy's prestige among Greeks, and the Athenians regularly imposed democratic regimes on subject states in their empire, but other states developed or restored democratic constitutions on their own. The most brilliant of these was Syracuse, which threw off two decades of tyranny in 466 and established (or reestablished) a democracy that lasted until 405.

As the wealthiest and most populous Greek state in Sicily, Syracuse under its tyrants had vigorously defended Greek interests against barbarians (Carthaginians and Etruscans), and this energetic championing of Hellenism continued under the democracy, making Syracuse a double of Athens among the western Greeks. Its democracy may at first have catered to aristocratic interests, but the dēmos took increasing control, meting out harsh punishment to unsuccessful generals, responding to the popular rhetoric of demagogues, making laws and sometimes rash decisions, and vigorously suppressing would-be tyrants. After Syracuse crushed the Athenian invasion of 415–413, the democracy became even more radical, introducing the lot for office holding. Like the Athenians, the Syracusans under democracy sustained the remarkable cultural life they knew under their tyrants: they continued to develop a strong theatrical tradition of comedy and mime and created their own tradition of historiography, and it was in Syracuse that (according to some) the art of rhetoric originated and flourished under the clever orators Corax and Tisias. But in 406–405 a powerful Carthaginian offensive against Sicilian Greeks saw Syracuse's democracy yield to the tyranny of Dionysius I.

Greek Democracy in Contemporary Political Theory.

Most contemporary political theorists endorse Greek democratic practices, some enthusiastically and others with qualified appreciation, but a few outright condemn it for basic flaws. Enthusiasts see in the common values and identity shared by democratic citizens a communitarian remedy for the splintering effects of identity politics in today's liberal, multicultural societies. They also see in citizen deliberation and collective reasoning a precursor to the ideals of deliberative democracy. And they find in the Greek citizen's commitment to participation in civic life an antidote to ways that contemporary democracies rely on elite cadres of experts and specialists to deliberate, form policy, and run their governments. As a first incarnation of Robert Dahl's “strong principal of equality,” they point to the trust that Athenians had in ordinary citizens to make decisions and administer state office.

Those who qualify their appreciation look less to Greek democracy as a political constitution with its institutions and more toward the democratic culture and ideology that enabled ordinary citizens to share collective political knowledge in a unique communication network worthy of emulation today. Voices that condemn democratic practices particular to Athens call for a more objective, dispassionate assessment of the failures and civic disasters caused by its radical popular sovereignty, the poor demagogic leadership that this sovereignty at times encouraged, and the subsequent mismanagement of empire. Others disparage the historical methods used by many contemporary historians and theorists because these scholars sometimes project modern ideologies and self-interested goals onto ancient democratic realities that continue to resist clear understanding.


Boedeker, Deborah, and Kurt A. Raaflaub, eds. Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Discussion of Greek (Athenian) democracy in a broad spectrum of cultural practices. For democracy, Sophists, rhetoric, and Socrates, see the essays by R. Wallace, H. Yunis, and C. Rowe.Find this resource:

Euben, J. Peter, John Wallach, and Josiah Ober, eds. Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy. Ithaca. N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. The introduction discusses the participation of ordinary citizens in decision making.Find this resource:

Farenga, Vincent. Citizen and Self in Ancient Greece: Individuals Performing Justice and the Law. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Farrar, Cynthia. The Origins of Democratic Thinking. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Habicht, Christian. Athens from Alexander to Antony. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Athenian democracy from 338 to 31 bce.Find this resource:

Hansen, Mogens Herman. Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology. Rev. ed. Translated by J. A. Crook. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. The institutional and procedural changes in Athenian democracy after 403.Find this resource:

Lape, Susan. Reproducing Athens: Menander's Comedy, Democratic Culture, and the Hellenistic City. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Ober, Josiah. The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Ober, Josiah, and Charles Hedrick, eds. Dēmokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Phillips, Derek L. Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Raaflaub, Kurt A., Josiah Ober, and Robert A. Wallace, eds. Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. For the origin of Athenian democracy in Solon's reforms, in events surrounding Cleisthenes’ reforms, and in reforms by Ephialtes and Pericles, see the essays by Robert A. Wallace, Josiah Ober, and Kurt Raaflaub.Find this resource:

Rhodes, P. J. Athenian Democracy and Modern Ideology. London: Duckworth, 2003.Find this resource:

Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert. Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Robinson, Eric W. The First Democracies: Early Popular Government outside Athens. Stuttgart, Germany: F. Steiner, 1997.Find this resource:

Robinson, Eric W., ed. Ancient Greek Democracy: Readings and Sources. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.Find this resource:

Samons, Loren J., II. What's Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Discusses Athenian democracy's civic disasters and poor leadership.Find this resource:

Winkler, John J., and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds. Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Woodruff, Paul. First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Comparison of Greek with American democracy.Find this resource:

Vincent Farenga