Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Athenian democracy (2): the radical democracy

A changing political culture

The decades after the Persian defeat saw a new dynamism in Athens. This was the period of the great dramas, such as Aeschylus' The Persians, performed in 472.  It was also a time of a new polarization in politics. In the 480s comic dramas became part of the political festivals and Cleisthenes’ device of ostracism began to be used by the people against prominent nobles, sometimes for reasons that can seem frivolous.  The ostracisms were signs of a changing political culture in which traditional aristocrats found their assumptions challenged by the advocates of democracy. 

In 462-1 the radical democracy was established by a coup led by Ephialtes.  
  1. The Areopagus Council, the governing body, lost its powers, and the rulers (the arkhontes) became democratically elected. Decision-making now rested with the Assembly. 
  2. The Areopagus continued as a court but after a first hearing they had to pass on cases to one of the panels of public jurors (see below).

The Assembly and the Council

The two principal bodies were the boulÄ“ (Council of 500) and the ecclesia (Assembly) 
A nineteenth-century print of the Pnyx,
showing the speaker's steps.

The Assembly

The word 'ecclesia' means 'a body that is called out'. It was the law-making and decision-making body of the polis. It met on the Pnyx hill to the south-west of the agora. It was made up of citizens over 18 who were enrolled on their deme register. 

In practice most citizens would not have attended meetings; the citizen body numbered between 20,000 and 50,000 but the Pnyx could not accommodate more than 5,000.  Citizens in the outlying rural areas were often reluctant to make the journey to Athens. Even urban dwellers often had to be whipped into the assembly by slaves wielding red-dyed ropes.

Business began when the herald read out the agenda and people voted whether to discuss the items. Votes were only counted if the decision was close. Most voting was by show of hands, though under certain circumstances, voting was by ballot, using a psephos (stone).  In theory anyone could address the Assembly. However, in practice only a limited number of Athenians responded regularly to the invitation. They became known as the rhetores (orators). Those who were regarded as simply flashy speakers, appealing to the lowest motives of the assembly were known as 'demagogues'.

The Council

The most basic function of the Council of Five Hundred was to draw up the agenda for the Assembly. Its members, who had to be citizens, aged thirty or over, were chosen by lot at deme level. They served for a year at a time and could not serve more than twice. They sat in the council house in the agora and the public could observe their proceedings. Some time before 411, pay was introduced for service in the Council.

The Council consisted of fifty men from each of the ten ‘tribes’. The civil calendar was divided into ten months and each tribe took it in turns to preside over business. It was known as the tribe ‘in prytany’ and it met in a circular building known as the tholos on the west side of the agora. Each day the chairman was selected by lot and could only serve once. This meant that there was a high statistical chance that a member of the Council could be head of state for a day. 

Jury service

In the fifth century the panels of public jurors were selected from an annual role of 6,000.  Later in the century Pericles adopted the principal of paying jurors for every day they sat so that no-one was debarred from jury service by poverty. The citizens placed on the juryman’s roll for the year swore to abide by the laws and each received a ticket (pinakion) with his name on entitling him to serve. 

Jurors for a particular trial were chosen at the last minute by a randomised device known as a kleroterion.  This was a piece of wood or stone, possibly several feet tall, incised with horizontal slots, with an attached funnel and a crank at the bottom.  The juror (dikast) would hand his token to a presiding official. Based on the citizen’s tribe, the token would be placed into one of the columns. When the matrix was full, the randomness came into play.  A series of white and black balls were put into a funnel and allowed to percolate down its length. One ball was inserted for each row of slots on the kleroterion. A turn of the crank at the bottom produced a single ball for each row of slots. The people whose tokens appeared in a horizontal row of the appropriate colour (probably white) were selected for jury service. The others were sent away. 

Bronze juror's ticket (pinakion), 4th century B.C.
It carries the juror's name, Demophanes,
the first letters of his father's name, and his deme, Kephesia


There was no direct tax on income. Instead the state imposed a form of taxation on the rich known as ‘liturgies’. These fell into two main categories. A triearchy assigned a trireme to a man for a year. He had to keep it in good order and provide a crew. A festival liturgy involved the selection, financing and training of teams competing in athletic dramas or musical contests.


By the middle of the fifth century, Athens had set up the world’s first democracy. It was much more radical than subsequent democracies. It depended on the concept of active citizenship. The citizen body was small and excluded the majority of the population of Athens and Attica. However, the citizens played a far greater role in political life than is possible in modern delegated democracies.

Mary Beard has written: 
‘The inescapable fact is that the Athenian democracy delivered political equality only to a privileged cadre of the city's inhabitants, and one which was ethnically and culturally homogeneous. Seen in this light, it seems an unpromising model for today's open, ethnically diverse and multicultural attempts at democratic government.' The Parthenon (Profile Books, 2007), pp.120-1.

How fair is this as a criticism? Would we expect Athenian democracy to be a model for much later culture? Whatever its failings, the democracy introduced by Cleisthenes and Ephialtes established the principle that governments are accountable to their citizens and that their power is based on consent.