Athenian Democracy

By: Alison Henderson

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In the year 507 B.C., the Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced a system of political reforms that he called demokratia, or “rule by the people.” This system was comprised of three separate institutions: the ekklesia, a sovereign governing body that wrote laws and dictated foreign policy; the boule, a council of representatives from the ten Athenian tribes; and the dikasteria, the popular courts in which citizens argued cases before a group of lottery-selected jurors
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However, the “equality” Herodotus described was limited to a small segment of the Athenian population. For example, in Athens in the middle of the 4th century there were about 100,000 citizens (Athenian citizenship was limited to men and women whose parents had also been Athenian citizens), about 10,000 metoikoi, or “resident foreigners” and 150,000 slaves. Out of all those people, only male citizens who were older than 18 were a part of the demos, meaning only about 40,000 people could participate in the democratic process
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Athenian democracy was made up of three important institutions. The first was the ekklesia, or Assembly, the sovereign governing body of Athens. Any member of the demos–any one of those 40,000 adult male citizens–was welcome to attend the meetings of the ekklesia, which were held 40 times per year in a hillside auditorium west of the Acropolis called the Pnyx. (Only about 5,000 men attended each session of the Assembly; the rest were serving in the army or navy or working to support their families.) At the meetings, the ekklesia made decisions about war and foreign policy, wrote and revised laws and approved or condemned the conduct of public officials
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The second important institution was the boule, or Council of Five Hundred. The boule was a group of 500 men, 50 from each of ten Athenian tribes, who served on the Council for one year. Unlike the ekklesia, the boule met every day and did most of the hands-on work of governance. Positions on the boule were chosen by lot and not by election. This was because, in theory, a random lottery was more democratic than an election: pure chance, after all, could not be influenced by things like money or popularity. The lottery system also prevented the establishment of a permanent class of civil servants who might be tempted to use the government to advance or enrich themselves. However, historians argue that selection to the boule was not always just a matter of chance. They note that wealthy and influential people–and their relatives–served on the Council much more frequently than would be likely in a truly random lottery.
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The third important institution was the popular courts, or dikasteria. Every day, more than 500 jurors were chosen by lot from a pool of male citizens older than 30. Of all the democratic institutions, Aristotle argued that the dikasteria “contributed most to the strength of democracy” because the jury had almost unlimited power. There were no police in Athens, so it was the demos themselves who brought court cases, argued for the prosecution and the defense, and delivered verdicts and sentences by majority rule
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Around 460 B.C., under the rule of the general Pericles (generals were among the only public officials who were elected, not appointed) Athenian democracy began to evolve into something that we would call an aristocracy: the rule of what Herodotus called “the one man, the best.” Though democratic ideals and processes did not survive in ancient Greece, they have been influencing politicians and governments ever since