An Analysis of the Development of Democracy in Athens

Democracy comes from two Greek words: a noun demos which means, “people” and a verb, kratein, which means “to rule” (Ober 120). Democracy first appeared in Athens towards the beginning of the fifth century B.C. The biggest difference between Athenian democracy and almost all other democracies is that the Athenian version was a direct democracy rather than being representative. Democracy came about in Athens as a result of the growing navel power and the reforms made by leaders such as Cleisthenes and Pericles.

The city-state of Athens, 5th century Athens to be precise, is the inventor and first practitioner of democracy. So for 4,000 years men and women lived under forms of government other than democratic. For some 2,500 years now democracy has existed, with varying degrees of consistency of theory and practice. But it all began in the 5th century before Christ in Athens.

The development of democracy can be attributed to the development of Athens as naval power. With the growing navel so grew the political voice of the lowest property classes who provided the crews for the ships (Demand 222).

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To some extent the Athenian reliance on sea power helped the course of democracy. The biggest difference between Athenian democracy and all other democracies is that the Athenian version was a direct democracy rather than representative. It would seem the kind of direct democracy that Athens had might lead to anarchy at the worst and arbitrary decisions or unstable policies at the least. Both ancient and modern democratic experiments have shown that the will of the people sometimes is undeceive, changing to and fro with every rhetorical wind that blows.

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Yet, as surprising as it may seem, Athenian democracy worked fairly well. The main reason for its success was the quality of the citizens. From the days of Solon the Athenians like the rest of the Greeks had a deep respect for what they called “the golden mean”, which meant that they avoided extremes in politics (Ober 97). The laws for Athens began with Solon, but perhaps the most influential leader for democracy in Athens was Cleisthenes.

In 510 Cleisthenes had managed to get the sons of Peisistratus kicked out of Athens with Spartan help (Demand 157). But now the old internal divisions, which had plagued Athens since Solon’s time, reasserted themselves. Herodotus says in his history of Greece that Cleisthenes decided to turn to the people (Herodotus 302). Perhaps he did so solely out of practical political reasons: he needed a powerful force on his side now that the Spartans had turned against him. Although, his major motivation may have been to produce a government that would unify Athenians by all, rich and poor alike, Unity, perhaps, rather democracy, was his immediate goal. But it was democracy that he would prove to be the means to the unification of the people of Athens. Cleisthenes began his reforms with the reorganization of the tribes. Athens, like most Greek cities, had been divided into tribes based on descent.

This gave aristocratic families a natural way of securing influence, because relatives tended to stick together. The people of Attica had also often clumped in regional groupings, as in the day of Peisistratus, and this had lead to dangerous internal disorder. Cleisthenes completely reorganized the Athenian State into a new, artificial, and rather complicated system. In his system the basic unit was the deme, the village in which one lived. These demes were then put together into thirty somewhat larger units called trittyes. Cleisthenes then formed his ten new tribes by combining one trittyes from different parts of Attica, one from the coastal region, one from the city, and one from the inland (Demand 159). These tribes would form the units in the Athenian army, and the Athenian Council. According to the Athenians, the source of constitutional power rested in the hands of all the citizens.

Ideas were expressed directly through the Assembly, which consisted of all male citizens over eighteen years of age and who were willing to attend the sessions. The most important body in Athens was the popular Assembly. The Assembly would meet a number of times each month and the first 6,000 Athenians to arrive participated in the proceedings. Cleisthenes increased the power of the Assembly largely by making use of it to push through his reforms. By this precedent he ensured that all-important laws had to be passed by a vote of the people as a whole. There were also a variety of constitutional safeguards built into the system. Any law passed by the Assembly had to be proposed by some one, whose name appeared at the beginning of the statue. If the citizens later thought they had made a mistake they could attack the law in court on a “writ of unconstitutionality”, that is the law was contrary to Athenian principles (Ober 34).

If the law was challenged within a year after its passage and found unconstitutional, its proposer was fined a sum that would have bankrupted almost any citizen. This arrangement had a tendency to discourage frivolous ideas and glory seekers. It encouraged serious thinking and political responsibility. Another safeguard to the Assembly was the institution of the Council of 500 by Cleisthenes. It would consist of 50 members chosen by lot from each of the 10 tribes (Demand 159). The Council would thus be a geographically balanced body, one of whose functions was to tie Athenians together regardless of where they lived or who they were related to. The Council’s main task was to prepare legislation for Athenian Assembly. Each tribe’s group of fifty would be on duty for one tenth of the year to oversea any business that needed immediate attention. The fifty candidates serving on the Council were chosen by lot (Ober 36). The final choice by lot was one of the most democratic devices imaginable and reduced the danger of political corruption.

There was little danger that the Council could turn into a private preserve for the wealthy or influential because members served only one year: no man could a member two years in a row, and no one could serve more than twice in his lifetime (Ober 38). The Council of 500 prepared the agenda for each session of the Assembly. According to regular rules the Assembly would take up no issue not already investigated by the Council. Normally the Council made a recommendation to the Assembly as to the best solution of each problem. The two political bodies of Athens, the Assembly and the Council had rather different roles: the Council made proposals, which the Assembly could vote upon and amend. They also may have had somewhat different memberships. To get to the Assembly meeting one would have to come to Athens. Many Athenians lived fifteen or twenty miles out in the countryside (Demand 224).

This would have presented quite a burden for those in the countryside. So, it is possible that those who lived in the city were over represented. The Council, though, was automatically geographically diversified. Cleisthenes’s reform, which ensured that people from the countryside, at least had some say at that stage of deliberations. Cleisthenes may also have been responsible for the Athenian practice known as ostracism. Under this procedure the Athenians would vote once a year in a sort of negative election. The unlucky winner, assuming a minimum of 6000 votes had been cast, was sent into exile for ten years. The ostracized citizen’s property was not confiscated and he was not convicted of any crime (Demand 161). When the ten years was up he was free to return to Athens. The procedure was designed to prevent any one man from becoming too powerful. This could of course be abused and sometimes-good men were sent into exile, but it seemed to work well in the democracy of Athens. Once the Assembly had passed a resolution the executive branch carried it out on behalf of the people and the Council of 500 supervised its execution. Lots chose almost all the administrative officials for one year.

Usually they were selected in groups of ten to carry out one specific function such as policing the markets or caring for the streets (Ober 62). The Council examined all officials chosen by lot before entering office to eliminate the physically or mentally incompetent. Any official handling public money was subject to repeated inspections (Ober 63). The Athenians had great faith in democracy in theory but little trust in the corruptibility of any one individual. The Athenians also had an interesting way of dispensing justice. The courts of law were really committees of the people. Each year a panel of 6000 jurors over thirty years of age was drawn from those who volunteered to serve. For each trial a jury of 201 or more were drawn by a very complicated system of lots so bribery and influence could be limited (Ober 172). Each of the two parties in the lawsuit had to speak and act for himself, though one could hire a professional speechwriter to compose his speech. Undoubtedly one had to be very careful as to how one appealed to the jurors, who determined the verdict by majority.

There could be no appeal from this committee, but the people of Athens were judges their peers, which is a democratic ideal within itself. Democracies succeed only if the people are willing to choose and support able leaders. In the second half of the 5th century, Athens gave its support to the mighty Pericles (Kagan 3). He was an aristocrat who rose to power by helping to reduce the power of the conservative Council of Areopagus. In earlier times the main executive officials had been the nine archons, one of who supervised religious functions, another was “war-leader” and the rest were “law-keepers” in charge of justice (Demand 141-142). After their year of service an Archon became a lifetime member of the Council of the Areopagus. But after 487 B.C., the power of the Archons were reduced and Pericles than reduced the Council of the Areopagus’s power to the supervision of religious rites.

The only officials actually elected by public vote were the city architect and the Board of 10 Generals. The Board of 10 Generals became the real leaders of the people in the 5th century. Pericles was a major figure on this board during the 5th century. Pericles introduced state pay for service on the Council of 500 and the jury. In this way even poor citizens could take part in public life (Kagan 43). One of his more popular measures was the introduction of a law limiting Athenian citizenship to children both of whose parents were Athenians (Demand 212). This may seem like an unfair measure, but it had the effect of making citizenship a privilege and thus encouraging civic responsibility. Throughout the 440’s and 430’s Pericles was elected year after year to the Board of 10 generals. He was able to persuade the Assembly to support his policies of democracy at home and imperialism abroad. Along with his own personal ambition and his patriotic desire to Athens, Pericles also had lofty ideals for uplifting his fellow citizens culturally. He spent public money to beatify Athens. These public works gave employment to the citizens and the result was the embellishment of the Acropolis with the great buildings, which have made it famous ever since (Kagan 67).

Yet, strangely enough and not unlike other great democrats in history, Pericles did not mix with common citizens in his personal life, which remained private and simple. Pericles’ reforms were highly cost demanding. He was the leader who helped Athens development into a democracy and at the same time he was also the person who transformed Athens into a greedy imperialist state. In the long run the imperialism led to the downfall of both Athens and democracy. In order to lull the citizens at home he satisfied its demands by outward expressions of force. It was during his time that the once voluntary allies of Athens learnt that they were no longer partners of equal standing with Athens but rather colonies that were exploited. Pericles arbitrarily doubled their tribute; anyone who was insubordinate was being punished (Kagan 70). The most glorious years of Athenian democracy were thus directly linked to unjust foreign exploitation, a development that accelerated after Pericles’ death. This factor lead at length to revolt among the allied states and weakening the position of Athens.

During the Peloponnesian War, which was embarked on by Pericles, the democratic forces in Athens were engaged in a constant struggle for their livelihood of their ideals. Those who were for democratic ideals knew that a victory for Sparta that was idealized by the intellectuals against democracy would at the same time mean an end to their own popular power. Another reason the democracy fell in Athens was the rich never understood the complaints of the poor. The poor afford to adopt the prudence of the rich. Athens remained, despite its democracy, a class society. Athens developed a democracy with the reforms of Cleisthenes and Pericles. The democracy of Athens worked well until imperialism became a major focus as a way to gain money. How democratic was the Athenian government? It was democratic in the sense that participation by the people was mandatory in order to run the government. But the participation of the people excluded women and slaves. Later under Pericles this came to include men who were not born to parents who were natives of Athens. The democracy in Athens gave a stepping stone to what is seen today as democracy.


  1. Demand, Nancy. A History of Ancient Greece. McGraw Hill: New York. 1996.
  2. Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. Aubrey De Selincourt revised. Penguin Books: New York. 1996.
  3. Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. The Free Press: New York. 1991.
  4. Ober, Josiah. The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory. Princeton University Press: New Jersey. 1996.

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An Analysis of the Development of Democracy in Athens. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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