Athens was where the first democratic practice emerged in history, a millennium before any other occurrences. Democracy in Athens lasted about 200 years, and was held as one of the best practice in history. How had democracy managed to emerge in Athens? There are many records of the workings of Athenian democracy, including the governing system and the public assemblies. On the other hand, the available information on how Athenian democracy came to be is limited, since the democratic era was preceded by the Dark Age of Greece, when little historical evidence is found, if not at all. But with the little information we have, this was how the Athenian democracy came to be.
Around 700 B.C, the population of Athens was divided into two groups – the farmers and the landowners. This was quite similar to feudalism, where farmers paid their landowners with their products. But soon, the subsistence (produced just enough for food) farmers became unable to pay their debt the landowners. The debt bondage forced the farmers to become possessions, or slaves, of the landowners. And as Aristotle commented 200 years later, “the many became the slaves of the few”.
At that time, Athens was governed by the noble families, rotating and sharing power among them. Three leaders, the archons, were chosen by their fellow nobles to govern the city. The archons would serve ten years in office and then sit on the Areopagus (the parliament) for life. But the system was replaced about one century later, when a prominent citizen named Solon was asked by nobles to write up the new governing system for their city. Solon was not of any noble ancestry. However the nobles felt that Athens had fallen behind other wealthier cities and needed a change from the stagnant rule of the nobles. Solon divided the citizens of Athens into four classes – the wealthiest and the nobles (the pentacosiomedimni), two classes of those who own large properties (the hippies and the zeugitae), and finally, the common citizens (the thetes). The first three classes were allowed participation in the government, and the common citizens were allowed to sit in the citizens’ assembly, or ekklesia.
Every citizen of Athens was allowed to join the ekklesia, be they farmers, blacksmiths, or merchants. On the day of the assembly, which was every ten days, the Athenians would pause in their work and gather together in a vast amphitheater, large enough to contain thousands of citizens. In the front of the clearing sat the Council of 500, a group of citizen-elected leaders, while were also citizens themselves, who oversaw city operations and led the ekklesia. Before the ekklesia began, a sacrifice would be made to the gods, as the Greeks believed their democratic process to be a divine gift. After that, the ekklesia began. The topics of discussion had been prepared ahead of time by the Council of 500. And in the assembly, the members would express their opinions through discussions and debates. All members would be allowed turns to speak their minds, and the debates were often very passionately. While the conservations mostly remained respectful, they could occasionally get rowdy and chaotic. Then, to find the resolution to the discussion, all members of the ekklesia would vote either by hand-raising or dropping pebbles into designated boxes. The results would later be recorded in the city archives. The discussions would continue until all topics were talked about and resolutions found, then the ekklesia would conclude and the citizens returned home to resume their lives.
The ekklesia was without a doubt the symbol of Athenian democracy, seeing that it represented almost every ideal of the ideology. Freedom of speech and opinion was not only allowed, but rather encouraged among the members. The participation was much more opened than other assemblies during the era, as not only the higher-class could participate, but the lower class as well. Wealth and social status mattered little within the ekklesia. Furthermore, the ekklesia had perhaps the fairest voting procedure out of all democratic governments, even better than the parliaments of today. The ban on political parties meant that the voters would truly look out for his and only his interests, without outside pressure from his peers or leaders. In conclusion, the citizen assembly created an honest and fair atmosphere in which every citizen had a voice and the power to speak it, regardless of their positions within the societies. Within the assembly, they were all Athenians citizens seek to protect their rights and interests. The ekklesia also united the people together, seeing that they were involved in the city governance together, no matter who they were, or what job they held, and Athens was stronger for it.
But the ekklesia was not only the indicator of the Athenian democracy, as Council of 500 also stood for many democratic ideals. The Council of 500 was a group of citizen-elected leaders who managed and oversaw the city operations (as stated before). City operation included infrastructure, sanitation, festivals, etc. The council members also served as judges, juries, and civil/military leaders. With such power in their hands, the Council of 500 was surprisingly uncorrupted, Why? Because they were checked constantly! The council membership lasted only one year and the members’ performance were evaluated directly by the people after the term’s end. One citizen could also only serve two terms at most on the council. Both of this meant that the overly ambitious men would not get their hands on the seats of power.
Openness was truly a key to the effective Athenian government. Public matters and decisions were discussed in public forums, not behind private doors unlike governments’ today. Even in trials, every citizen had the right to face his accusers and be tried in public. The concept of transparency made the Athenian government much more than a group of leaders, but the opportunity for citizens to involve themselves in the affairs of their city.
The only point against the Athenian democracy lied with the definition of the word “citizen”. Women and slaves were not registered as citizens, thus had little rights in Athens. Universal suffrage (right to vote) is the final step toward a true democracy, where participation is opened to everyone in the society. Even in the system as transparent and open as Athens, a major portion of people were still excluded from the political meetings and their voices went unheard. Without complete representation, democracy could never be whole. However, the Athenians still had come further than most other civilizations would ever manage (with perhaps the exception of the U.S), and creating a right mix between democracy and transparency is a major achievement even today.
The Athenians believed democracy to be a gift from heaven. And undoubtedly, they had made the best use of it.