The Nature of Athenian Democracy

Nick Ewbank, Dickson College 2009

Nick Ewbank has had a long career teaching History in ACT high schools and colleges. He was President of the History Teachers’ Association of Australia from 2005 to 2007, and is involved in the development of national History curriculum. His historical interests include: the late Roman Republic, the era of Constantine the Great, Alexander the Great, and medieval England.

Bust of Pericles
More than sixty per cent of the readers of this article would have stood no chance of playing a role in Athenian politics! Women, those born overseas (unless by special grant) and adult males with non-Athenian parents were all excluded from citizenship in this supposedly democratic ancient society. Slaves were merely ‘tools with hands’ (Aristotle); no-one in ancient Greece would have given a second thought to their disenfranchisement.

Athens operated on a franchise that today we would find unacceptably narrow. Of the estimated 150 000 residents of the city state of Attica, only about one fifth held the privilege of citizenship. Paradoxically, the segments of society that generated much of the wealth of the state – many of the traders and the laboring and agricultural workers – were excluded from participating in public affairs. Many of those involved in trades were metics (resident foreigners) and much of the laboring workforce was servile. It has been suggested that slaves did not wear distinguishing clothes or uniforms because otherwise it would be seen how they outnumbered the free residents.

The evolution of democracy in Athens

Ancient Athens was an oral society. While some people could certainly write and read, for most people oral/aural communication was the primary mode of transmitting information and opinion. In such a society, personal involvement in politics has a certain sense of urgency. Pericles, the famous Athenian statesman, commented in 431 that;

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people… everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses…

Even for Pericles’ own time, this is not an accurate evaluation of Athenian democracy; it was always subject to the limitations I outlined earlier.

Political ‘progress’ in Athens was more about attempts to limit the powers of particular great families than popular agitation for equality. One exception was the seisachtheia (‘easing of burdens’) introduced by the statesman Solon in the 590s BCE (largely a reform of the law of debt); this was the first notable easing of the inequality between rich and poor. As the sixth century progressed, there was some gradual improvement in the plight of the poor. Paradoxically, this came during the period of the domination of one family – the Peisistratids, who used popular support (or at least middle class support) as a counterbalance to their noble rivals.

In the sixth century the term ‘democracy’ was not used at all. The reforms of Kleisthenes, c510-507BCE, were described as isonomia ('equality of rights’) rather than demokratia (‘rule by the demos' which referred to ‘the whole people’, i.e. adult male citizens). Kleisthenes’ reforms were essentially about breaking the voting power of the rich. This was achieved by changing the composition of the ‘tribes’ (phylai) which were the organising groupings for the operation of the democracy. (By ensuring that each of the tribes was comprised of citizens from all over Attica, Kleisthenes broke the control of local baronial families over a particular tribe.)

Related Article: Slavery in Ancient Greece
Popular participation

The deme
There is a saying that ‘all politics is local’ – this was certainly the case for Athenian citizens. Each citizen belonged to a particular deme (‘neighbourhood’) – so important was this concept that a citizen’s full name was so-and-so of X, where X was his familial deme. Each deme had a local council and mayor. There were somewhere between 100 and 200 demes in Attica, so, if we accept the estimate of 30 000 citizens, each deme held between 150 and 300 voters. During a political lifespan of, say forty years (from eighteen onwards), the likelihood that a citizen would be called up to serve in his deme council was therefore extremely high. Therefore, almost every citizen would have some experience of at least local politics, if not service in local government, before the end of his life. Each individual deme also belonged to a particular tribe.

The ecclesia
The ecclesia (assembly of all citizens) seems to have had its origins as a court of appeal against the decisions of the state magistrates (archons, see below) as far back as the seventh century BCE. In addition to their participation in local politics, every citizen had the right to attend the ecclesia. The assembly passed all legislation (by simple majority of those present) and annually elected the ten generals (usually one from each tribe). Each undertook the role of polemarch (field marshall) for a month during the year (according to Herodotus) – although there is at least one example of a polemarch handing control to someone he felt to be a better leader (at the Battle of Marathon in 490). Being a strategos had the advantage that, unlike other office holders, they could be re-elected ad infinitum. The pre-eminence of Pericles in the 440s and 430s is shown by his almost unbroken holding of the office of strategos for the best part of two decades.

Ostraka prepared for the ostracism of Themistokles.
Voting in the ecclesia was originally by voice; then by ballot. Voting by ballot involved using a white or a black bean or stone (white for yes, black for no – hence the term ‘blackballed’). It’s not clear what the typical attendance at an assembly meeting was – some authorities put it as high as 6000, but it was probably (much) lower. We do know that when the ecclesia was in session, all citizens in the market place were expected to attend. In fact, state-owned slaves went out into the agora with ropes, to herd all the citizens into the meeting. (The irony of having the servile press the free into attendance was apparently lost on the Athenians!)

The most famous act of the assembly was the annual vote on the question of ostracism. (The name comes from the broken potsherds used as writing tablets in the process – ostraka). Citizens were allowed to nominate anyone to be banished from Attica for ten years. For the vote to be valid, at least 5000 citizens had to cast a ballot and a majority of people had to vote for a particular candidate’s banishment before such a banishment could be enforced. While the potential for factional rivalries is clear (indeed, this is evidenced by excavated caches of pre-prepared ostraka, with the same name etched onto the sherds), ostracism proved to be a useful ‘safety valve’ to stop one individual exerting too much sway over the state.

The courts

It is apparent from the writings of the Athenian playwright Aristophanes (c. 456-386) that jury service became an important aspect of the participation by citizens in their body politic. There were no mechanics of state prosecution - cases were the business of individual citizens to prosecute. Athenian juries were large – 501 in the case of Socrates – and it is clear that many saw jury service as another form of civic duty. However, just who formed the juries is an interesting question. Aristophanes (in The Wasps) clearly sees the juries as the province of the old – not least for the income it generated.

Selection for jury duty was also by lot. It is here that we encounter one of the most marvellous and weird inventions of the ancient world, the kleroterion. The kleroterion was an advanced form of lot machine, designed to insure the legal process against fraud. Its invention speaks volumes for both the ingenuity of the Athenians and their determination that bribery and corruption should not subvert the ‘popular’ will.

Other features

After c508 (the reforms of Kleisthenes) there were ten tribes (phylai); logic suggests that each tribe therefore had a full membership of about 3000. Of these tribal members, fifty served annually on the boule (state council of 500). In a lifetime, citizens could only serve twice on the boule. Additionally, the fifty to serve each year were by lot, not elected. Every citizen therefore had something like a two in three (sixty seven per cent) chance of serving on the boule if he lived to be sixty. Given their familiarity with local politics and government, these men were reasonably well prepared to serve.

The Athenian year consisted of ten months. For one month a year the fifty representatives of a particular tribe as a group took it in turn to run the Athenian government (the order in which this happened was decided by lot). These representatives were called the prytany, which acted as a form of Executive Council for the month. Even the presidency of the prytany rotated – a day at a time. The prytany’s most important duties were to prepare the agenda for the Assembly and to supervise the civil administration (including holding office-holders to account for their budgets and so on).

Each year, the tribes also nominated ten people from their tribe, again selected by lot, for the ‘top job’ – that of archon. There was, however, a property qualification – only the rich could be nominated. From the field of 100 candidates, nine (plus a secretary) were selected (by lot) – but in this case, there didn’t have to be a representative from each tribe.While the archons were originally the most important officials in the Athenian state, by the middle of the fifth century their power was in retreat. In monthly rotation, the archons presided over the ecclesia, and, upon completing their year in power, they became judges of the Areopagus – the murder court. The greatest honour fell to the archon selected (by lot) to be archon in the first month of the year – the so-called eponymous archon. To him fell the privilege of having the year known by his name (‘the year in which so-and-so was archon’).


Most Athenian citizens (free born adult males only) would have had some experience in government service, at least at the local level. A combination of selection by lot and rotation of offices formed a series of formidable ‘checks and balances’, to prevent domination by one individual or faction. The exception to the rule was the strategoi – the generals – who were elected annually by the Assembly and who could be re-elected year in, year out. (Presumably, the Athenians realized that when fighting, it’s best to have the most able men in charge!) The repeated use of selection by lot suggests that the Athenians saw civic participation as each man’s duty – not a right – and every citizen as being, almost by definition, capable of useful participation in civic life.

Subject Author Replies Views Last Message
Strategoi TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 4 727 Aug 4, 2011 by EllenACMiech EllenACMiech
The Tribes TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 2 428 Aug 4, 2011 by CaitSmith CaitSmith
The Assembly TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 6 483 Aug 4, 2011 by Skarlet-Pumpernickel Skarlet-Pumpernickel
Ostracism TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 1 408 Aug 4, 2011 by WalkerHannah WalkerHannah
The seisachtheia TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 2 660 Aug 4, 2011 by Skarlet-Pumpernickel Skarlet-Pumpernickel
The Deme TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 1 345 Aug 4, 2011 by tomhermes1 tomhermes1
The Franchise TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 1 287 Aug 4, 2011 by EllenACMiech EllenACMiech
Selection by Lot TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 0 306 Aug 3, 2011 by TomGreenwell TomGreenwell
Archons TomGreenwell TomGreenwell 0 288 Aug 3, 2011 by TomGreenwell TomGreenwell

Annotated Bibliography

Bradley, Pamela, Ancient Greece: Using Evidence (Caulfield: Edward Arnold, 1988).
School textbook: the best explanation of the reforms of Kleisthenes; clearly written with side comments; usable with Year 10 upwards.

Dibble, Julian, Info Tech of Ancient Democracy. Accessed 9 May 2008.
A practical rather than scholarly account of the kleroterion and the mechanics of voting.

Finley, M. I., Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Clearly written; usable with senior secondary students with reasonable literacy skills.

Hansen, Mogens Herman, ‘Kleisthenes and the Icons of Democracy’, History Today 44(1) (January 1994).
Clearly written and accessible; could be used with Year 10 upwards.

Koutsoukis, A. J., Ancient Greece (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1989).
Simply written; usable with Year 9 upwards.

Staveley, E. S., Greek and Roman Voting and Elections (Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1972).
Dense and scholarly; detailed but not accessible.

Unknown, The Trial of Socrates. Accessed 9 May 2008.
A useful and reflective summary.