Was Athens guilty of corrupting the ideals of democracy?

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djrharrison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Athenians, and a few other Greek city-states, were the first ever to use a democratic form of government. In Athens, “any citizen could speak to the assembly and vote on decisions by simply holding up their hands. The majority won the day” (Athenian Democracy, the Ancient History Encyclopedia). Citizen participation was limited to males 18 years and older. Of course, that left women, foreigners and slaves without a voice. Though not all male citizens became actively involved in the politics of the day, the expectation was so extraordinarily high that the ancient historian Thucydides wrote: “We consider a citizen who does not participate in politics not only one who minds his own business but useless.” Rather than corrupt democracy, Athens, i.e., the Greeks, modeled it. 

The word democracy comes from the ancient Greek word demos (meaning the people, i.e., the whole citizen body) and katas (meaning rule). Thus, rule by, for and of the people can be attributed to the Greeks. Most references to Greek democratic rule rely on the Athenian model because it was the most advanced democracy of the Ancient Greek world, and sources describing democracy in other city-states are rare.

Freedom of speech allowed for debate on many issues concerning Ancient Athenian citizens, and all male citizens 18 and over were able to vote on 

military and financial magistracies, organizing and maintaining food supplies, initiating legislation and political trials, deciding to send envoys, deciding whether or not to sign treaties, voting to raise [tax] or spend funds, and debating military matters. The assembly could also vote to ostracize from Athens any citizen who had become too powerful and dangerous for the polis.  In this case there was a secret ballot where voters wrote a name on a piece of broken pottery (ostrakon from which the word ostracism comes).

Athenian democracy changed over time, even being replaced by an oligarchy to win Persia’s support against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Democracy did return to Athens after 409 B.C., but in a “slightly altered form.”  The legacy of Athen's unique democratic system are the world’s modern democracies. However, modern democratic systems have corrupted the kind of democracy practiced by the Ancient Athenians. One particular example, and there are many, of such modern corruption of democracy is the professional politician. The Athenians were not professional politicians as we see so many are today. Even though some of the wealthiest and best speakers were the most influential, profiting from participation in political life was not only frowned upon, but punished severely (see information on ostracism in the quotation above). Payment was not for services rendered, but to help cover travel expenses of citizens who lived far away. 

While pure, direct democracy is a great idea, it is unlikely direct democracy would work in today’s world. The number of male citizens in Athens ranged from 30,000 to 60,000 and their meeting place held only 6,000 people. The Athenian city-state was far smaller than many of the world’s cities today. Of the top 125 largest cities mentioned at the City Mayors Statistics website, #1 is Tokyo, Japan—33,200,000; #2 New York City, USA—17,800,000; #3 Sao Paulo, Brazil—17,000,000; and still larger than Athens at #125 Accra, Ghana— 1,500,000. 

Not all the 125 largest cities are within democratic countries, but to say modern democracies are a corruption of Athenian Democracy may be disingenuous. More appropriately, they are inspired from, molded after, and/or influenced by the unique form of government practiced by ancient Athens.

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