Political ideology and political realities in athenian democracy
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Political Ideology and Political Realities in Athenian Democracy. Demokratia (“People Power”). Chios (Aegean sea) Megara (Greek mainland) Heraclea Pontica (Black Sea) Cyrene (north African coast) Ambracia (northwestern Greece) Athens and “Imperial Democracy”.

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Demokratia people power
Demokratia (“People Power”)

  • Chios (Aegean sea)

  • Megara (Greek mainland)

  • Heraclea Pontica (Black Sea)

  • Cyrene (north African coast)

  • Ambracia (northwestern Greece)

  • Athens and “Imperial Democracy”

Aristotle politics 1326b ancient greek democracy face to face polity
Aristotle, Politics 1326bAncient Greek Democracy“Face-to-Face” Polity

  • “The activities of the state are those of the rulers and those of the people ruled, and the work of a ruler is to direct the administration of and to judge law-suits; but in order to decide questions of justice and in order to distribute the offices according to merit it is necessary for the citizens to know each other’s personal characters.”

Aristotle politics 1290a arithmetical political equality
Aristotle, Politics 1290a “Arithmetical” Political Equality

  • “It is a democracy when the free [and poor] are sovereign and an oligarchy [the rule of the few] when the rich are, but it comes about that the sovereign class in a democracy is numerous and that in an oligarchy small because there are many [poor] men of free birth and few rich.”

Aristotle politics 1317b arithmetical political equality
Aristotle, Politics 1317b “Arithmetical” Political Equality

  • “[T]he popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is the principle of justice prevailing, the multitude must of necessity be sovereign and the decision of the majority must be final and must constitute justice, for they say that each of the citizens ought to have an equal share; so that it results that in democracies the poor are more powerful than the rich, because there are more of them and whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign. This then is one mark of liberty which all democrats set down as a principle of the constitution.”

Athens as imperial state an abnormal greek democracy
Athens as Imperial State:An Abnormal Greek Democracy?

Structure of athenian democracy
Structure of Athenian Democracy

  • Boule of 500 prepares business for Assembly (Ekklesia)

  • Ekklesia sovereign power in foreign policy decisions (war and peace)

  • Ekklesia exercises judicial and legislative powers

  • Sovereignty of Decree by Assembly (Aristotle, Politics, 1292a-1293a)

  • Dokimasia and Euthynae of Generals (Strategoi)

  • Ostracism

D mos people as jury
Dēmos (People) as Jury

Ostraka cast against kimon aristides and themistocles
Ostraka Cast AgainstKimon, Aristides, and Themistocles

Moses finley on the sovereignty of the demos
Moses Finley on the Sovereignty of theDemos

  • Variability of composition of Assembly

  • Vulnerability of speakers of Assembly

  • Direct, Face-to-Face Democracy? (cf. Aristotle, Politics, 1326b3-7)

  • Pericles’ Deposition from the Board of 10 Generals and Fine (Plutarch, Life of Pericles, ch. 35)

Workings of athenian democracy
Workings of Athenian Democracy

  • Approximately 40,000 adult male citizens with full political privileges (out of a total population of some 300,000)

  • Approximately 6,000 adult males assemble on the hill of the Pnyx for any given meeting of the Ekklesia (Assembly)

  • Spokesmen of the demos or people (prostates tou demou)

The locus of power conflicting views

The Locus of Power?Conflicting Views

“It was he who led them, rather than they who led him, and, since he never sought power from any wrong motive, he was under no necessity of flattering them: in fact he was so highly respected that he was able to speak angrily to them and to contradict them. Certainly when he saw that they were going too far in a mood of over-confidence, he would bring back to them a sense of their dangers; and when they were discouraged for no good reason he would restore their confidence. So, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.”

Thucydides, 2.65 (on Pericles)

Robert Michels, “Iron Law of Oligarchy”(Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies)

  • Obstacles to Direct Popular Government

    • Incompetence of the Masses

    • Lack of Time which would be required for Direct Government

  • Indispensability of Elite Leaders

    • Economic Superiority

    • Historical Superiority

    • Intellectual Superiority

Democracy s bad press
Democracy’s Bad Press

  • Ancient Greek Sources (Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, “Old Oligarch”)

  • Roman Suspicions

    • Cicero’s pro Flacco

    • Roman actions in Greece (Dyme in Achaea)

  • Modern Political Theorists

    • Renaissance scholars and the ‘mixed constitution”

    • The Federalist

Aristotle politics 1292a

Aristotle, Politics, 1292a

“Another kind of democracy is where all the other regulations are the same, but the multitude is sovereign and not the law; and this comes about when the decrees of the assembly over-ride the law. This state of things is brought about by the demagogues; in the states under democratic government guided by law a demagogue does not arise, but the best class of citizens are in the prominent position; but where laws are not sovereign, then demagogues arise; for the common people become a single composite monarch, since the many are sovereign not as individuals but collectively.”

Old oligarch pseudo xenophon constitution of the athenians 1 2

“Old Oligarch”Pseudo-Xenophon, Constitution of the Athenians, 1.2

“First I want to say this: there the poor and the people generally are right to have more than the high-born and wealthy for the reason that it is the people who man the ships and impart strength to the city; the steersmen, the boatswains, the sub-boatswains, the look-out officers, and the shipwrights—these are the ones who impart strength to the city more than the hoplites, the high-born, and the good men.”

Herodotus histories 3 81 constitutional debate megabyzos speaking

Herodotus, Histories, 3.81“Constitutional Debate”Megabyzos speaking)

“Nothing is more violent and foolish than a useless mob; for men fleeing the insolence of a tyrant to fall victim to the insolence of an unguided populace is by no means to be tolerated. Whatever the one does, he does with knowledge; but for the other knowledge is impossible; how can they have knowledge who have not learned to see for themselves what is best, but always rush headlong and drive blindly onward, like a river in flood.”

Old oligarch pseudo xenophon constitution of the athenians 1 1

“Old Oligarch”Pseudo-XenophonConstitution of the Athenians, 1.1

“And as for the fact that the Athenians have chosen the kind of constitution that they have, I do not think well of their doing this inasmuch as in making their choice they have chosen to let the worst people be better off than the good. Therefore, on this account, I do not think well of their constitution.”


  • Are anti-democratic writers, both ancient and modern, responding to historical realities in fifth-century imperial Athens or rather to a typology of the democratic state? In either case, how do we account for their nearly uniform hostility?