The Greek citystates were democratic by our modern American definition

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The Greek citystates were democratic by our modern American definition
The Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’ by our
modern American definition.
PRO Cenap Çakmak
CON John Lee
Whether the polis, city–state regime of ancient Greece may be viewed as a clear
precedent and example of democratic evolution and development is a question
that attracts a great deal of attention from analysts and political scientists.
Opponents argue that the polis order cannot be taken as a precedent for the current understanding of democracy and its practices because of some of its visible
defects and antidemocratic characters. They make particular references to
the institution of slavery, which was widely practiced and keenly preserved in
the city–states, the polis, implying that it is not proper to speak of a presence of
democratic order in a place that relies on such an immorality.
There are other serious objections to accepting the polis regime as the initial
form of democratic governance in the modern world. A commonly held objection
stresses that this regime may not be seen as democratic simply because it denied
equal status to all inhabitants in the cities, recalling that only a small group of people were entitled to cast their votes in the election process. Exclusion of women—
and other disadvantaged groups—from the right to vote as well as recognition of
wealthy people as true citizens with full entitlements stand out as other major
objections. Skeptics, therefore, argue that the methods of legislative action and
mode of governance employed in the ancient Greece were not truly democratic.
However, while these objections are valid and address part of the actual
picture, a more thorough review and evaluation will reveal that the polis may
be in fact seen as a major precursor for the current democratic practice and
institutions. To this end, the above objections only refer to some deficiencies of
the polis regime and do not constitute sufficient evidence for ruling out its ability to serve as the initial form and first example of democratic rule.
Above all, it should be noted that the opponents fail to consider the definition
of the term democracy when staging their objections; they are instead focused on
the defective elements of the polis order. But we have to keep in mind that a regime will always be flawed regardless of its achievements and the progress made
over time. Who could point to a current democratic regime as the perfect rule
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22 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
today? Take the U.S. system; despite novel arrangements and visible accomplishments, only one of the two major parties is likely to win the presidential elections. Or consider a number of political systems that introduce election
thresholds to attain stability in government and legislation. How is it possible to
reconcile the basic premises of democracy in light of the obstacles faced by small
parties that are unable to win seats in the parliament because they receive less
popular support? Yet we still call the regimes fulfilling the basic requirements a
democracy and democratic despite grave flaws and serious defects. Therefore,
we must investigate whether the polis fulfills the basic requirements of a democratic rule instead of focusing on its defects.
There are at least three major reasons for regarding the political regime and
design as implemented in ancient Greek cities, where direct participation was
allowed in the rule of their respective nations, as the forerunner of the modern
understanding of democracy. Above all, in order to appraise whether the political regime implemented in the polis of ancient Greece was democratic and the
initial form of current democratic regime, we have to rely on an objective and
authoritative definition of the term democracy. In addition, we must also identify some basic requirements for such a definition. And if the regime in the
polis fits in the framework defined by these requirements and definition, then
there should be no objection as to whether that regime was truly democratic.
In this case, the set of requirements identified to determine whether a regime is democratic or not should be employed objectively; in other words, the
defects and immoral aspects of the polis democracy should not mislead us to
conclude that it is not as democratic, despite meeting the criteria and preconditions for being a democracy. If, in its simplest sense, democracy is government
by the people and ruled by the majority, we must look at the political regime in
the polis to determine whether these two basic criteria are met.
Second, unfair elements and immoral practices in city–state democracies
should not discourage us from seeing this regime as the initial example of modern democracy. Criticizing a regime or mode of governance because of its
defects and flaws is different from defining the same regime as undemocratic.
Whether a regime is democracy is determined via the basic criteria employed
for defining the term, and once it is concluded that a given regime is a democracy, its flaws should not lead us to conclude otherwise.
In fact, modern democracies have suffered from serious flaws with respect
to fair representation, greater participation, and equality before the law. But
they have remained as democracies despite these flaws and shortcomings. It
should also be noted that current democracies—even the most advanced ones—
have to deal with similar problems to a certain degree. Despite novel arrangements
and progress over time, women’s participation in government and legislative
bodies is still meager in many countries. To deal with this problem, some advanced
democracies rely on policies of affirmative action. Low voter turnout rate—for
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PRO | 23
instance in the United States—is a big problem that needs to be addressed for fairer
representation and a more legitimate rule. These are all real and serious problems;
however, we still define these regimes as democratic simply because they meet the
basic criteria for being a democracy.
The same should also be true for the city–states of ancient Greece. It is true
that not all citizens were entitled to cast a vote in a polis; it is also true that
slaves were leading a miserable life, and we acknowledge that views of ordinary people who have a right to vote were easily won over by eloquent speakers. But we still observe the same problems in different forms and degrees. Yet
we regard the current regimes as democracy despite these problems. Why
should we not do the same with the poleis of ancient Greece?
Third, whether the democratic experience in the ancient Greek cities has
influenced emergence of democratic regimes in the following centuries is a
matter of controversy that needs extensive scholarly inquiry. Regardless of
whether it has served as a source of inspiration, this experience represents the
forerunner of the modern understanding of democratic practice. In other words,
we still have to rely on the basic requirements employed to define the term democracy when attempting to determine whether the experience in the polis is
actually democratic, even if we conclude that subsequent regimes and modes of
governance did not follow the path and precedent set by that experience.
History needs to be progressive and linear; and for this reason, developments following the experience in the polis of the ancient Greeks are not necessarily affected by that experience. After all, people might not have liked it and
may have wanted to replace it with another form of rule, perhaps an alternative
means of rule could have replaced democracy as experienced by the ancient
Greeks. Therefore, even if a historical survey concludes that the practices in
poleis did not set a precedent for the subsequent generations, this will not necessarily mean they were not governed by some form of democracy.
Defining the Term Democracy
In his famous Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as ‘‘government of the People, by the People and for the People.’’ Since
then, this definition has gained wide acceptance by thinkers, pundits, and scholars. Lincoln’s seminal definition refers to three key elements of democracy: that
democracy derives its legitimacy from the people’s commitment to it; that
the people extensively participate in governmental affairs and processes; and
that democracy actually seeks to realize the common welfare and safeguard the
rights and freedoms of individuals.
Obviously the key in this definition is the ‘‘people.’’ It is known that the
term democracy literally means people’s government and that it was created by
combination of demos, meaning ‘‘people’’ and kratia, meaning ‘‘government.’’
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24 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
The Acropolis of Athens as viewed from the Hill of Philopappus (also known as the Hill
of the Muses). The Acropolis contained both the civic and religious buildings of the
Athenian city-state. Its position on a high limestone outcrop provided defense from
neighboring city-states. (iStockphoto)
It is also evident that the current usage of the notion of democracy has evolved
from its Greek original demokratia. This implies that the current usage of the
notion of democracy may be etymologically linked to the democratic regime as
practiced in ancient Greece’s city-states.
This practice represents the most direct form of democracy; in this system,
all citizens met periodically to elect their rulers and other state officials, enact
legislation, and discuss governmental issues. Of course it was far from being
perfect; slaves, women, and foreigners were not entitled to cast a vote and
express their views in assembly meetings.
Despite the flaws, this direct democracy fulfilled the fundamental criteria
referred to above. Especially Athens displayed the great achievements in creating a more fair and just regime that ensured greater popular participation in government and legislation. The Athenian democracy, backed by additional reforms
in 460 BCE, heavily depended on the popular assembly as the primary sovereign
authority. All governmental decisions were made by this institution or required
its approval.
More important, there were no restrictions imposed upon those who wanted
to participate in the process of government or legislation; basically, anybody
was entitled to debate or propose in assembly meetings. Of course there were
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PRO | 25
downsides associated with this practice. The assembly was convening frequently;
therefore, ordinary citizens were rarely able to attend every meeting; as a result
of this, a few leading eloquent speakers who were able to articulate their cause
dominated the entire process of legislation and rule-making. Yet, popular participation was so extensive and visible that every citizen entitled to participation in
the process attended such meetings and held legislative or administrative positions at least once in their lifetime.
The citizens were also allowed to serve in the military and the judicial system. Every judicial decision could be appealed to a citizens’ board. Some officers who held key positions were elected by popular vote, and they—generals
and treasurers, for example—could be removed from the office by the assembly. Office terms of the elected actors were brief so that others would have the
opportunity to serve in governmental posts. Only a few positions in the military
were subject to appointment rather than election.
The idea of direct democracy was perfect in theory; but there were serious
flaws in practice. Women were excluded from political rights despite being considered full citizens by law. Men slaves and foreigners were also disallowed to
participate in the political process. Most important, despite the novel arrangements, aristocrats were still influential in the government and legislation bodies.
However, it is fair to argue that democracy was at work at least in principle
because all of the basic requirements were being met. Political leaders and
thinkers, in addition, clearly articulated the general rules for application of democracy. The Athenian democracy paid utmost attention to public devotion and
the ability and competence of those who were recognized as citizens.
To this end, it will be useful to recall a definition provided by Pericles, a famous ruler in Athens who consolidated democracy in this polis, for the notion
of democracy:
The administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while
the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of
excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is any way distinguished
he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege but as the
reward of merit. Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country
whenever be the obscurity of the condition. (Fisher, 1901: 99)
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the actual practice of democracy in
poleis has met these criteria and expectations in full. Nonetheless, popular participation in political processes was extensive and fulfilling; popular choice and the
decision by the majority were so crucial in decision making that as famous political scientist Stephen D. Tansey recalls, in ancient Greek city–states, ‘‘because the
majority of citizens had to be convinced if the community were to act, it seems a
very high standard of information and debate was often obtained alongside great
commitment and loyalty to the state’’ (Tansey, 2004: 171).
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26 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
Direct democracy as exercised in poleis was not ideal or perfect; but it was
operational and involved all necessary components for greater popular participation in legislation and decision making. Ecclesia, the legislative body that also
checks the executive body, was open to males over 18 years old. It was subsequently authorized with a practice of ostrakismos, under which citizens may
convene once a year to determine who has the tendency to become a tyrant. If
at least 6,000 citizens declare someone to be implementing this practice, he
would be expelled from the community. This was a mechanism envisaged to
protect the democratic character of the polis; undoubtedly, it has been abused,
and innocent people were unjustly driven away from their domiciles. But malpractice or abuse does not necessarily mean that the idea or the system as a
whole was wrong and undemocratic. We all know that judicial errors are still
commonplace despite advanced technology and interrogation techniques.
In addition to Ecclesia, Athens also had a larger popular assembly, which
solely dealt with law making. It consisted of 500 members; 50 being from each
deme, smaller geographic districts in the city created for better representation.
This arrangement was conceived to ensure fair and equal representation of 10
demes in the assembly. The demes were actually designed as electoral districts;
special attention was paid to make sure that aristocrats would constitute a minority in every deme so that democracy would be consolidated further.
Representatives from each deme were entitled to chair the assembly for onetenth of the entire year—or 36 days. Chairing the assembly was made possible
via a board formed by these representatives. An Athenian citizen was elected
randomly to chair this board every day; therefore, it was quite possible for any
Athenian citizen to become chairman of the board and the entire assembly.
The Athenian people also elected the chief commander of the city–state, the
polemarkhos. Ten additional commanders, strategos, each being one deme, were
appointed to serve as assistants to him. All these arrangements were introduced
for a better and fairer representation in the political institutions of the city–state.
Whether these measures have worked is a different story; what really matters is
to determine if these measures and arrangements are strong enough for us to
conclude that these create a democratic regime. The answer must be yes.
Pericles introduced further safeguards for extensive and greater popular participation; under graphe para nomon, every citizen was vested with the authority
to protect the fundamental laws and file a lawsuit in request of annulment of a
law on the grounds of unconstitutionality. In consideration of reluctance of poor
citizens to seek governmental posts and jobs because of lack of financial resources, Pericles also introduced legislation under which those who attend sessions
of legislative bodies were entitled to a certain amount of remuneration and
allowance. Every member in the Ecclesia had the right to speak and make statements, propose a draft bill, and ask for a secret session. The plenary sessions
were inaugurated with a call asking who would like to take the stage for a word.
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PRO | 27
Pericles’ Funeral Oration
If there is one individual who is best remembered for reforming the government
of Athens, it is Pericles. He transformed the city–state from an aristocracy to an
empire in the brief span of his 40 years in office. First as a soldier and then as a
statesman, Pericles built Athens into a place of prominence on the Greek peninsula, turning the city’s former allies into subject cities, which paid tribute to Athens
for protection from the Persian Empire. Although technically still a democracy,
debate has raged through the ages as to how much Pericles was led by the citizenry and how much he led them.
Near the end of his time in office, he led Athens into the Peloponnesian War,
which would result in the destruction of the city some 25 years after his death. It
was after the first year of the war that Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration, attributed to him by Thucydides, which comments on how the Athenian form
of government sets them apart from their rivals.
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a
pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many
instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they
afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing,
advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations
not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if
a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do
not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or
even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive,
although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations
does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard,
teaching us to obey the magistrate and the laws, particularly such as regard the
protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or
belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without
acknowledged disgrace. (Thucydides 1914: 121–22)
Source: Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, Done into English by Richard
Crawley. New York: Dutton, 1914.
In addition to such mechanisms, Pericles also wanted to equip the direct democracy with noble arrangements, including isonomia and isegoria. Isonomia
referred to equal treatment of all before the law; according to Pericles, laws
provide the same equality for all in personal affairs. In addition, the laws give
equal rights for all citizens regardless of their status or rank to participation in
political processes. Only merit shall be considered in appointment to governmental posts or other political positions.
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28 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
Pericles’ isegoria seeks to ensure freedom of expression for all citizens.
Pericles holds that citizens act based on a unique thinking and reasoning; for
this reason, he further believes that the citizens should not only participate in
state affairs but also do so in accordance with their views. According to him,
democracy is based on pluralism and decisions are taken after lengthy deliberations and discussions over diverse views and approaches.
Do the Flaws of Polis Make It Undemocratic?
Polis democracy is mostly criticized for its flaws; critics make particular references to its failure to attract participation of large groups, including women,
slaves, and foreigners, in political processes, with there being domination of a
small and privileged group in administration, despite novel arrangements and
its impracticality.
Problem of Restricted Political Participation in Poleis
It is argued that polis democracy fails to maintain a democratic rule because it
excludes women, slaves, and foreigners from inclusion in political processes.
This is a very accurate and legitimate criticism; however, polis democracy may
not be declared as undemocratic just because it is a defected system and fails to
ensure greater popular participation. It should be recalled that not only polis democracy but also most modern democracies suffer from this problem.
Only males were entitled to participation in political decision making in
Athenian democracy; Pericles went even further requiring males be born to citizen parents for such entitlement. The elite members were more prone to marriages with foreigners, while the poor mostly married locals; because of the rule,
therefore, a substantial number of elites lost citizenship, thus being excluded
from political process. Likewise, women had a lower status in Athens; as a consequence of this status, they were denied participation in political processes.
That said, it should be recalled that a number of modern democracies have
experienced similar problems. Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading founders of
American democracy, owned some 400 slaves. Blacks were not entitled to cast
a vote or participate in political processes in a number of modern democratic
countries even as late as 20th century. Likewise, extension of suffrage to
women is a fairly recent phenomenon; there were still some European countries
where women were not allowed to run in the elections in 1970s.
Despite measures taken to address such problems, a number of significant
flaws still remain visible in several modern advanced democracies. Above all,
women are not fairly represented in many countries. Interest by women in governmental posts is fairly weak; and even if they develop a keen interest, male
domination in administrations and legislations is still prevalent and influential.
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PRO | 29
With the exception of a few countries that have introduced legislations under
which a certain percentage of the legislative posts must be filled by women,
most modern democracies fail to ensure fair representation of women in government and parliament.
Another problem with respect to poor popular participation in political
processes of modern democracies is the visibly low turnout rate. This is a common problem especially in less politicized societies and some advanced democratic states. For instance, turnout rate is around 40 percent in the United States
and 60 percent in many European countries. So this suggests that poor political
participation is still a problem in modern democracies, despite measures taken
to address this problem. This problem notwithstanding, we never consider calling these regimes undemocratic; the same should be the case with the polis.
It is also true that despite measures taken to ensure participation of citizens
from all backgrounds and classes in political decision-making processes, eventually only a small number of people gain access to governmental posts and executive positions. Eloquent speakers as well as wealthy citizens eventually
established control over the poor and ordinary citizens. For this reason, direct
democracy as practiced in poleis was referred to as some sort of aristocracy.
Because the votes of the citizens were crucial in decision making, convincing
holders of the right to vote was also important. Citizens uninformed about the
matter under review and discussion had to make up their minds based on what
had been said on the stage by the speakers who often relied on a strong rhetoric
to get what they wanted. This was often the case because most of the citizens
holding the right to vote did not get sufficient information because of time constraints and infrequent attendance in the meetings. This made them rely on the
arguments by eloquent speakers. It is upheld that citizens were mostly deceived
or misinformed by a small number of eloquent speakers who were specialized in
convincing ambivalent crowds. Critics, therefore, argue that a regime where the
influence of a small number of people is visible and extensive cannot be regarded
as a democracy, suggesting that the polis democracy was not a real democracy.
These criticisms are certainly relevant; but the same flaws are frequently
observed in many advanced democracies as well. With a few exceptions, politics is something that only wealthy people would participate in within developed or developing countries considered to be democratic. Even though every
citizen is entitled to make political decisions and express interest in governmental posts in democratic countries, this is not always possible because of de facto
obstructions and barriers.
The case in the United States is especially illustrative; election campaigns often require large sums of money in this country; for this reason, presidential candidates are focused on attracting more funds to finance their campaign. It is also
commonplace to observe that presidential candidates are often well-educated and
often rich individuals; this implies that although common and ordinary citizens
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30 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
may run for presidency, theoretically the presidential post is actually reserved for
some privileged political actors. It should be recalled that despite its long democratic experience, the United States first elected a black president as late as 2008.
Or consider the impact of media in the elections held in modern democracies; media effect is strongly criticized because of its determinative influence
over the election results. People are misinformed or misled by propaganda or
media publications; voters may cast their votes based on false or inaccurate information in modern democracies. This implies that modern democracies are
actually no different from the polis democracy, in that governmental and administrative positions are sometimes occupied by advantaged groups, including the
wealthy, the well educated, or elites.
It is certainly true that there were inherent problems with the direct democracy in the polis that lead in some degree to impracticality. For one thing, the
polis democracy was missing a strong and working institutional setting. The
composition of the existing institutions was often volatile, making the decisionmaking process unstable and fragile. A substantial number of citizens virtually
did not have time to attend every session; and even when they did, they were
uninformed about what was being discussed and reviewed.
Efficiency of the deliberations held in large areas, agora, was also controversial. It was pretty likely for the attendants to get distracted because of the
large audience and untidy setting. In such an environment, rhetorical approaches
and eloquent speeches were pretty influential in shaping the opinions and views
of the delegates present at the meetings.
However, it should be recalled that this sort of direct democracy is still
being practiced in the modern world. Even though there is no widespread application of it, some small towns in the United States and districts in Switzerland
are ruled by such a system where all residents who are entitled to participate in
the decision-making process convene to discuss their problems and take the
proper measures accordingly. Besides, to make a decision on whether direct democracy is really democratic is not relevant to whether it is practical. In other
words, a system does not need to be practical in order to be defined as democratic. Thus, we have to admit that polis democracy is actually the initial form
of modern democracy if it meets the basic requirements to be considered so,
even if it involves some impractical arrangements.
Did Direct Democracy in Greek Poleis Inspire and Influence Other
Communities in Coming Ages?
Whether the regime in ancient Greek cities has influenced other societies and
nations in the coming ages matters for the sake of locating a deterministic linkage between the democratic character of this order and the modern understanding of democracy. In other words, if modern democracy is an outcome and
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PRO | 31
culmination of progress made throughout a process initially started by the Greek
democracy, then this would mean that Greek democracy is a true inspirer of
modern ages.
We are not so sure as to whether the mode of governance in Greek poleis
did actually have such an impact over the nations in subsequent ages. However,
the practice of direct democracy—just as it was exercised in Greek city–
states—in at least some parts of the modern world must be somewhat of an inspiration. This should suggest that people actually like this form of participation
because of its directness and ability to ensure fairer representation.
But the crucial question is of course whether representative democracy, the
modern practice prevalent all around the world, is an evolved and tailored version of direct democracy in Greek city–states. This is a challenging question
that requires a great deal of scholarly effort and extensive research.
However, even if we assume that there is no link whatsoever between the
modern development of democratic order and the primitive form of government
in Greek city–states that lacked a strong institutional setting, this would not necessarily mean Greek poleis were not truly democratic.
Above all, it should be recalled that democracy was only limitedly practiced
in ancient Greece. Not all city–states relied on direct democracy as a form of government; Athens appeared to be a leading example of direct democracy. It is generally held that some of its rulers—Solon and Pericles—played the greatest role
in the consolidation of direct democracy in this city–state. Their reforms helped a
democratic form of governance to emerge; however, they met with serious opposition and reaction from circles with aristocratic tendencies and ambitions.
It is also worth recalling that democracy was only briefly experienced and
practiced in ancient Greece. There are some obvious reasons for the collapse of
the democratic order in the poleis. The primary reason appears to be the opposition by some philosophers and thinkers because they upheld that it was simply
too dangerous and illogical to leave the task of government to the hands of ordinary people.
What is more, defeats in the wars led to a conclusion that suggests democracy was to blame and that if the city had been ruled under an aristocratic regime, they would not have had to deal with the dire consequences of these
defeats. All these factors eliminated democratic regimes in ancient Greece,
leaving no model for near future generations.
References and Further Reading
Fisher, George Park. Outlines of Universal History. New York: American Book
Company, 1904.
Hansen, M. H. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
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32 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
Hignett, Charles. A History of the Athenian Constitution. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1962.
Ober, Josiah. The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy
and Political Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Ober, Josiah. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology and the
Power of the People. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Ober, Josiah, and C. Hendrick, eds. Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Robinson, Eric W., ed. Ancient Greek Democracy: Readings and Sources.
Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
Sinclair, R. K. Democracy and Participation in Athens. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1988.
Tansey, Stephen D. Politics: The Basics, 3rd edition. New York: Routledge,
The history of the Greeks was one of ascendancy to heights of intellectual and
scientific achievement that was rivaled by no other ancient world civilization.
During the Golden Age of Athens, the Greeks were well known for their philosophical, scientific, and cultural achievements. The source of this achievement
may never be known completely. Some historians believe that the source of
Greek achievement was due to their subjugation of slaves as workers for their
glorious civilizations, the enslavement of women, and the promotion of Greek
militarism as well as Greek elitism as the forces for their glorious cultural
achievements. The purpose of this section is to show that the Greek achievement was founded on the use of slaves, the enslavement of women, or the promotion of militarism and elitism in the Greek society.
Slavery’s Role in the Greek Society
As a factor in the rise of Greek culture, slavery has been presented as crucial
to the development of leisure and comfortable living that allowed Greek men
to cultivate the intellectual life of the Golden Age of Greece. The slaves
worked hard to mine the silver in the earth to produce the wealth that allowed
for the comfortable conditions for intellectual pursuits of the scholars of the
Greek revolution. The historical origin of slavery cannot be ascertained readily, because of the lack of written materials. Furthermore, the existent materials such as written plays and Greek literature only describe them in commonly
accepted stereotypes and do not give detailed description of the true state of
slaves in Greek society. Historians believe that there is a mention of slavery
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CON | 33
in Homeric writings in 1200 BCE. At
this time, there is a description of
slavery as a form of private property
ownership. So, a chieftain could
own about 50 slaves per household
in a typical Greek family. In the
same Homeric writings, there are
stories of slave-raiding parties, with
their war enemies taken as treasure
or reward of their war exertions. But
the Homeric writings make no mention of a slave trade or slave dealers.
It seems that we may have concluded that slave trafficking was not
even existent at the time. In the Greek capital with slaves, Corinth, Greece.
Homeric time, slavery seems to be a (Scala/Art Resource, NY)
limited institution and not very
widespread. We also observe that masters were kind and treated slaves well
and slaves were trustworthy and loyal to the master (Lloyd 1988).
Later, slavery became an institution in Greece as well as a way of life.
Slaves usually originated from various sources, such as one being in debt to
someone and working the debt off for a period of time to the master; as those
the various Greek societies captured during their war campaigns against one
another’s cities; or those who were born into this status as children of slaves.
Furthermore, some slaves were orphaned or left to die as babies, but then were
rescued and later turned into slaves for the people who had raised them. In addition, when a family needed money, they would sell their daughters into slavery
in order to survive off the price for their children; sometimes children were kidnapped and placed into slavery for the support of Greek living.
The Greek slaves played an important role in Greek society and their status
was dependent on how much labor they contributed to the society. For example,
Greek slaves could work in the house being managed by the women of the house.
They could participate in the family rituals and sacrifices, but they were limited
in their political participations in the government. These household slaves were
considered higher-class slaves. However, they could not enter the gymnasiums
(schools) or the public assembly where the political discussions took place. Moreover, they were not considered citizens of the city because they were the property
of the master. These Greek slaves were also part of the treasury and Athenian
police force. The lower classes of slaves were consigned to menial labor, such as
a mineworker in the silver mines, where the life expectancy was very short.
It was after the Dark Ages that the trading of slavery begins as a monetary
transaction where a slave could be sold for 10 minae ($180 US), if he was
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34 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
healthy and strong. A weaker or older slave could be sold for 1/2 minae ($9
US). The price of slavery was subject to market pressures in the economy. If
there were a war or battle, the price would usually go down, because the supply
was plentiful, and the price would go up if the supply were low. Thus, the slaves
were treated as an economic property subjected to the flow of the marketplace.
Among the general slave population, female slaves were usually the lowest
status slaves, because of the bias against females in general. They would usually take care of the house: shopping, child care, wool working, and cooking.
They also served as wet nurses for the newborn children or as cooks. They also
served unofficially as confidants of their mistresses or their masters. At times,
the limits could be taken advantage off by the masters. Sexual abuse and rape
were not uncommon. The masters usually destroyed the babies of these unions.
The female slaves were not treated very well in some families.
In the period from 800 to 600 BCE, the role of slavery expanded because of
the expansion of the Greek city–states in their exploration of the Mediterranean
world. The Greek city–states began to urbanize their cities, utilized coinage,
and started to focus on handicrafts as a manufacturing process. In ca. 600 BCE,
there was a strong impetus to use slaves in these handicraft industries and take
them away from agricultural use.
The city–states started to employ them legally in jobs as checking for counterfeit coinage and as temple slaves. They were public slaves, who had more independence than privately-owned slaves. Thus, the slaves were used to help in
manufacturing handicrafts and industrial production in the Greek cities, which
helped the Greek economy to prosper and supported the city–states.
Some historians believe that slavery was not that important to the overall
survival of the Greek society. There were some societies such as the Spartans
that allowed a modicum of freedom from slavery as well as rights for the slaves.
Some historians have claimed that the Greeks had so much free time because
they enslaved many people. These historians stated that slaves were important
for family life, business life, and political life of the city–state. Slavery allowed
the Greeks to become urbanized and free to pursue other occupations not
attached to the land. They allowed the urbanization of the city–state and freed
the Greeks to pursue more intellectual pursuits. These historians have claimed
that the ancient Greeks might have been unable to pursue their individual interests and achievements without these slaves. As a result, the city–states depended
on the enslavement of many people to support their manufacture and handicraft
industries and allowed them to survive in the ancient world. In addition, those
who had slaves had more free time to participate in direct democracy, because
they could take days off from work to take part in the election process. Furthermore, they could participate in the 40 or so assembly elections during the year.
Thus, the slaves indirectly allowed the Greeks to participate in their government
and produce democracy as well as to govern the city–state.
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CON | 35
The Subjugation of Women Supported the City–State
Greek society was male centric both in status and perception of the role men, but
the dependency on the subjugation of women was relative. In some Greek city–
states, the women were considered lower class citizens. Men had the right to
vote, to take legal action, and to own property in Athens. Women were considered vehicles for the procreation of the species and were needed for intercourse
for men. The females were raised and nurtured until they could be used for marriage to another male. Women were then required to manage the household and
the children that came through their pregnancies. They were assisted by their
women slaves in the raising of families and their husbands in the working world.
Women usually received their education in their homes, consisting of domestic
duties and chores as well as managing their husbands’ slaves or economics.
In the Athenian democracy (475 BCE), men had written several stereotypes of
Greek women into their acceptable literature. The men were responsible to control and maintain their women’s sexual appetite, because in the Greek psychology
and philosophy, women were lustful and could not restrain their appetites. Greek
men were by nature controlled by reason and were more able to master themselves with this natural ability. Aristophanes noted in Lysistrata that men should
satisfy and control their women’s sexual desire in order to preserve their reputation and also to procreate an heir for the man’s property. Aristotle also noted that
young women needed to avoid masturbating, because they could not control their
temptations as well as young boys could. Such were the prevailing stereotypes of
women as inferior and uncontrollable animals during Athenian times.
Even in their living spaces, women were confined and limited in order to
prevent illegitimate intercourse between the two sexes, because the males had
to make sure their property went to rich and intelligent sons or grandsons. The
living quarters of women were separated from the male quarters in the houses.
The women were often escorted to places, because women were deemed necessary for men’s survival. Many men believed that women could not protect
themselves from other men. Furthermore, women were separated from men into
separate quarters during their social engagements. The social spaces were very
much limited for the women of Athens.
The ideal Athenian women was as such an obedient servant of the husband
or father whose major responsibility was to procreate and train children, manage
the house, spin wool, weave cloth, and prepare the food. They were as such
domestic servants of the husband and showed a continual social role that was on
the surface subjugating and demeaning in the modern context. Their role was to
allow men the freedom to pursue their democratic and civic responsibility.
The Athenian women had many different positions in the society. Some
women were prostitutes, who plied their trade through the streets of Athens.
They lived in places that would be the equivalent of today’s brothels, and the
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36 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
law limited the amount that they could charge the client. They were supposed
to weave and cook for the brothel owners. Other women were courtesans or
party girls that entertained the men with instruments or intelligent conversations. They went to parties or symposiums where they entertained the male
guest at these parties. Some of them owned their own homes where they would
entertain men. Concubines became mistresses to men and sometimes would be
the outlet for men in a social or relationship manner.
Despite the relative dependence on the low status of women, there were
some communities, such as those of the Spartans, that allowed their women
higher status, as well as some women who attempted to compete with men in
the male-dominated society. The Spartans allowed their women to compete and
train with the men in their military exercises. They allowed them to wrestle naked as well as compete in the sports competition and the physical exercises.
Some of the Spartan women could own property with the men as well as help to
manage the finances during their marriage to Spartan men. Women were encouraged to develop their intellect, own more than a third of the land, and they could
marry at a later age than their sisters in Athens. Husbands were usually away at
military exercises, but this allowed their wives greater authority in the homes.
Other areas of dominance of women were as priestesses in religious ceremonies and cults. In John Breton Connelly’s (2007) Portrait of a Priestess:
Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, the author gathered several epic, lyric
poems, speeches, and epigrams to support the function of the priestess in the religious life of the Greeks. Priestesses were either nominated, purchased the
position, or were elected to the position of priestess. They were bedecked with
white linen cloth and performed animal sacrifices for the goddesses. Priestesses
had legal and financial benefits as well as social respect. They could own property, had freedom from taxation, and were given priority to hear from the Delphic oracle. Their personal safety was ensured, and they could have front row
seats at competitions. They could put their seal on documents and sanctuary
law. They could charge a fee for their services from the initiate. The priestesses
performed 145 religious ceremonies and ruled over 40 cults during the history
of the Athens. In this book, women were as much of equal status as the men
because of their religious importance and administration of the temple rituals.
In other religious areas, the women had outlets where they could express
their lives and emotions freely in religious exercise. The women, who worshiped
Dionysus, were known as Bacchants or Maenads. They would leave their husbands and families to dance with Dionysius and honor the wine god during their
festivals. They would even suckle wild beasts, even if they had newborn children, if they were not hunting and ripping apart the beasts. Female slaves could
participate in religious rituals such as the Eleusinian mysteries. These were limited outlets for the Greek women to express their freedom and individual energies outside the domestic sphere.
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CON | 37
There is evidence that some women could read and write as well as discuss
the current issues of the day. Vase paintings suggested that women could gather
and discuss various issues. Women, however, did not socialize with the men if
they were considered respectable women. Women could participate in various
cults that allowed socialization and dominance of women such as the Maenads
of the Bacchus cults of Greece. There was some advantage for women to manage their property and estates, but women could not sell or dispense of the property without permission of their husbands (or fathers). They were also allowed
to receive gifts from others and to inherit property if there was no male heir, but
this was discouraged. Finally, women could receive a dowry from their fathers,
which guaranteed the marriage if the husband did not want to lose the dowry.
In conclusion, some women were relatively independent and well regarded
by men in the society. They also held equal status in the religious rituals of the
40 major religious cults in Greece and could influence the men in their ideas toward life and philosophy. Despite the few examples of women’s independence,
the subjugation of women allowed men the freedom to participate in political
life, and left the other outlets (religious and philosophical) on which the women
could spend their energies. The men were able to have freedom to pursue their
intellectual quests as well as make civic contributions in the government.
The Intellectual Environment Created by Militarism
Militarism is the doctrinal view of politicians and the military that society
should be dominated by ideas embodied in a military culture and heritage centered on the ideals of war. Militarists believe that discipline is the highest social
policy and that the social order should support the military. National policy is
focused on preparing for military strategy and maintaining war operations. Usually, social oppression follows the enforcement of military order on civilian society. Militarism justifies the use of force in diplomatic and international
relations and believes that the civilian people are dependent on the goals of the
military, which militarists believe is more important than social welfare. Therefore, militarism is undemocratic and antidemocratic in its outlook and respect
of civilian welfare. The entire society’s economy and culture are utilized to support the goals and objectives of the military in the society. The national budgets
and economy are centered on the realization of military goals and attacking
other opponents. Politically, the military will hold two offices: military officers
and civilian leaders. Usually, in the democratic government, there would be
limitations on the holding of two offices at the same time. Militarism is founded
on the premise that freedom of speech and association will be limited, because
the society will support military services goals, concepts, policies, and war.
The Athenian army and the Spartan helots pursued a militarily dominant policy of society and political diplomacy. The Spartans were known for their physical
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38 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
The Plague and the Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta lasted nearly 30 years, and
during the first year, Athenian spirits were running high. According to the Athenian
historian, Thucydides, the following summer the city was struck by a plague that
had been spreading throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Athenians,
crowded together inside the city, were easy prey for the plague, which spread rapidly. As a result, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the Athenian population perished, including the city–state’s inspirational leader Pericles. Thucydides
also caught the plague, but he recovered, and his account is the main historical
description of what happened. According to his History of the Peloponnesian War,
the plague caused a general despair that led Athenians to turn their backs on the
gods, which might be argued to be a contributing factor to the city’s destruction
by the conclusion of the war.
training of their male and female youth in sports and military contests. The entire
society was focused on training the soldier and the use of armies as part of the militarism of the Spartan society. The Greek society was focused on maintaining the
war department of the city–state. They had to defend themselves from the
onslaught of foreign enemies as well as take over. As a result, the society was
focused on preparing, maintaining, and supplying the defense of the city–state.
Militarism became the central policy of the state, because it had to defend
itself through maintaining high amounts of the army and navy. The Greek society
invented catapults, fortifications, phalanxes, and the trireme battleship to aid their
conquest of land and territory. The Athenians focused on developing their navy by
building trireme ships and training sailors to transport their soldiers to war. They
built and maintained one of the strongest navies in the Greek world. This
navy was used in several wars, such as the Peloponnesian war with the Hellenes.
The Spartans utilized their civilian army as their choice of military tactics in producing the phalanxes. The Spartans used helots or militarily trained slaves to man
their armies. These helots were Messinian soldiers who had been captured and
made military slaves. They would take the children of the helots and raised them
in communal camps where the boys and women were trained in tactics of war and
hand-to-hand combat. They would eat together, train together, and be educated together so that they would become a united armed force. These helots became
hardened under Spartan-like conditions of challenge and combat. They were like
the special forces of the army who were specifically trained for battle and combat.
Some historians say that the training was so tough that it made the marines look
like weaklings. These Spartans were well known for their fierceness and toughness
in battle, and they had a reputation of being a militarily oriented society.
These two military societies came into conflict during the Peloponnesian war
(431–404 BCE) where they attacked each other during several years of battles and
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CON | 39
military struggle. It was fought between Athens and Sparta and their respective
allies from the Greek world from Sicily to Istanbul to Crete. The war originated
because the Spartans were afraid of Athenian power over the Peloponnesian
coast. It continued until Lysander, the Spartan general, defeated the Athenian
fleet in the battle at Aeogospotomi in 405 BCE, where it was starved to death by
cutting off its supplies. The power of the Athenians collapsed. The war was a
struggle between sea power and land power, with Athens dominating the Aegean
coast and Sparta dominating the land of the Peloponnesian in the Greek peninsula. It was a struggle because Sparta could not dominate Attica or the territory
around Athens, and because Athenians would withdraw into their forts in Athens
while being supplied by sea power. On the other hand, the Athenians could not
establish bases on the Peloponnesian coast because of the strength of Spartan land
power until the war ended at Dellium in 424 BCE. Between the years of 423 and
421 BCE, the Athenian alliance weakened and rallied behind Sparta, because of
the defeat at Mantinea in 428 BCE. Finally, in 405 BCE Lysander was able to defeat
Athens in a battle at Aeogospotami and surround Athens so it could not get
Athens continued to flourish during the age of Pericles because of the military might of Athens. Military magistrates who managed the struggle between
the two powers ruled the society. However, they were limited in their power by
the civilian assembly, which both checked and balanced their power. In fact, it
was probably the civilian assembly that sued for peace after the Spartan defeat
of 403 BCE. They wanted to rest from the continual warfare and depletion of
their prosperity. The building projects of the Athenians were contributed from
the rich property owners or aristocrats. However, the poor also had a say in the
decision over which building to construct and who to hire for their construction.
However, the peace maintained by the militarism of Athenian battles created
the peace necessary for the survival of the city–states.
Greek Elitism and Pursuit of Excellence of Greek Culture
The idea of Greek elitism is based on the belief or philosophy that the views of
those members of an elite or select group—with outstanding personal abilities,
intellect, wealth, specialized training, or distinctive traits—must dominate society even if their policies may not support the society as a whole. Elitism also
means that the power is concentrated in the hands of the elite or a special class
of people. Elitism has the special characteristics of long-term training or study
in a particular discipline or practice; a long track record of skill in a particular
art or profession; a history or background in a discipline such as military or
martial arts; and having great wisdom in a particular field or discipline.
The Greek elitism can be found in the emphasis toward excellence and virtue in their philosophy and worldview. This elitism is founded on the striving
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40 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
after excellence and training in the arts, military, and political culture of the
Greeks. They call this concept ar^
ete or civil excellence as a person or society.
Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics discuss that the ideal attitude toward life
is to strive for outstanding qualities in its leaders and civilian population. An oligarchy ruled some of the city–states, where the power rested in a small segment of elite and educated families. Many argued that wealthy Greeks ruled
behind the Greek government, controlling policy with their wealth and influence. They were an exclusively powerful segment of society that ruled the rest
of the society with their power over the economy of the state.
Even in Spartan government, this view of elitism was supported by the enactment of a constitution that gave representation to an upper class of Spartans, but
also eliminated a life of luxury for the society. Lycurgus, the Spartan founder,
created a system of government that had two kings, five ephors or executives, a
council of 30 elders, and a general assembly comprising all male citizens. Full
citizenship was given to an elite known as Spartiates who fought wars for the society. The Spartans also limited luxurious imports from foreigners and discouraged the ownership of private property as well as democratic ideas, but this
created equality among Spartans because all had life and status in common to support the state. As a result, an elite could not develop to rule Spartan society,
because the citizens supported the state completely, and not any elitist social class.
According to some historians, the Athenians lived modestly and did not
have many luxuries. The economy was dependent on maritime trade and agriculture, but most of the food was imported from outside. The cultural achievements were supported from money from the Delian league, which was
maintained by diplomacy and Athenian naval power.
Athens gave equal status for the poor through their first government created
by Solon in 594 BCE. Solon created a new constitution that attempted to mediate
social conflict between the poor and rich in the sixth century BCE. The reforms
he enacted were intended to relieve financial burdens by cancelling the debts of
the poor and destroying the law of mortgages for the rich. He also allowed
access to political participation for the poor, which had depended on the amount
of property and the birth status of the candidate for office. The lowest class was
called thetes (laborers), who could take part in the general assembly, but not
run for office. Solon also banned the export of agricultural products except for
olive oil. He also offered to abolish their system of weights and measures for a
universal system adopted by the other countries in Mediterranean. Solon constructed a supreme court manned by archons or magistrates elected from the
people in the assembly. These laws allowed the foundation for democracy of
the lower class to develop during Pericles’s times.
During Periclean times, the government was structured with 10 generals
who were elected by the citizens. In Athens, the government was run by 10
strategoi or generals who were elected by 10 clans to conduct military exploits,
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CON | 41
receive diplomats, and direct political affairs. The magistrates comprised the
next level of power; they were elected every year to do administration tasks for
the government functions, such as police. The Great Assembly was an assembly
of citizens who were elected to cast votes on various laws. There were about
6,000 elected citizens who were able to vote on various issues. They were able
to pass a law with legal immunity. Finally, there was a Council of the Boule,
which was managed by 500 representatives and ruled on legal procedures and
processes. They also ruled over decisions made in the General Assembly and
administrative details of the government. This form of government seems like it
was conducive to a ruling by oligarchy or the military in the society.
Greek Elites and Pericles’s Government
Despite this structure, when Pericles was made Strategos in 445 BCE, he initiated several reforms that would make the votes and the rights of the poor citizens heard in the assembly. One of the rules was the allowance of thetes, or
Athenians without wealth, to occupy public office. He also had a special salary
or misthophoria that was paid to citizens who attended the assembly so they did
not need to be employed elsewhere and could just focus on the political life.
With these two reforms, he enabled the assembly to function effectively, gave
his people public service rights, and created the first polis or city–state in
Greece. However, it was the emphasis on civic virtue and civic participation
that allowed the elite of Greece to participate in these democratic assemblies.
The government established the principle of equality in its policy of supporting the poor and giving them equal say in Athenian government, but it was balanced with wise leaders and an elitist class in the government. This could have
been exploited because the poor were extremely poor or they had no knowledge
of the laws. So the Athenian democracy enacted three policies: (1) give an
income to public civil servants; (2) seek and supply work to the poor; (3) give
land to property-less villagers; public assistance for invalids, orphans, and indigents; and other social assistance. It was the first ancient welfare systems for the
poor that also allowed them to participate in civilian life. Thus, even the poor
Athenian civilians could participate in Greek public life regardless of income or
wealth, but they were led by wise political leaders in the strategoi or military
leaders in their participation in government.
In conclusion, the Greek city–states depended for their survival upon their
domination of slaves, subjugation of women, the expansive role of the military,
and the guidance of an elite leadership. The Greek city–states depended on the
labor of slaves to increase the leisure and free time necessary for the pursuit of
democratic activities of the Greeks. In addition, the Greek city–states’ subjugation of women allowed men the freedom and space to guide and govern the
city–states. It also disenfranchised a majority of the population in order to allow
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42 | Greek city-states were ‘‘democratic’’
the men to guide the city-states. Furthermore, the Greek city–states needed the
military to protect and expand natural resources to support the economy of the
city–states. Finally, the Greek city–states were guided by an elite class of educated and wise leaders, despite the spread of the vote to the poorer classes.
References and Further Reading
Canterella, Eva. Pandora’s Daughter. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1986.
Connelly, John Breton. Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient
Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Finley, M. I. Slavery in Classical Antiquity: Views and Controversies. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons, 1960.
Lloyd, Janet. Slavery in Ancient Greece. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
Murnagham, S. Women and Slaves in Greco-Roman Culture: Differential Equations. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Rich, John. War and Society in Greek World. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Westerman, W. L. The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia:
American Philosophical Society, 1955.
Wiederman, Thomas. Greek and Roman Slavery. New York: Routledge, 2001.
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