Athenian democracy

How well did Athenian democracy perform? Why did Athens' democratic political regime not survive?

Introduction to Politics GV 100

This essay examines the democracy which existed in Athens from 508 until 322 BCE and explains why it was a unique system of government; how well did it perform; and why this political regime did not survive. The Athenian democracy was the direct democracy with a voting system, main bodies of governance, rules and leaders. I think this political system performed well in Athens because of freedom of speech; equality of citizens; voting and participation in the bodies of governance. On the other hand, citizens were only adult male Athenians who had finished their military training. There were no constitution or clear laws. Jurors could dispute resolution under emotions. The decline of Athenian democracy was a long process with dramatic moments. The main reason for the decline of Athenian democracy was the instability of democracy. Absence of professional politicians, absence of constitution, unsolved economic problems made democracy weak. The second reason is a gap between poor and rich. Finally, the Macedonian War was the immediate cause of the end of Athenian democracy.


The word ‘demokratia' (democracy) came from Greece, compounded of demos (‘rule') and kratos (‘power'). The democracy existed in Athens for the two hundred years. Pericles claimed that this political regime is unique and called a ‘democracy', because it shows the interests not of privileged citizens but of the dēmos (people) (Stockton, 1990: 1). But, who were demos? A Word demo has several meanings. First is the village. Athenians called “deme” the smallest administrative unit. Young 18 year's old men presented to officials of their deme that their parents are Athenian, they were not slaves, and they were 18 years old, were added in the ‘Assembly List'. The second meaning is “people”. When a young man was enrolled in his “demos”, this man could participate in the Assembly of citizens. ‘So the Dēmos was the local village, the population generally, and the assembly of citizens that governed the state' (Blackwell, 2003: 1-4).

The numbers of classes and conditions of Attica's citizens varied with time and prosperity of Athens. The thousands of resident aliens or metics were free men but they did not have a right to vote. Only adult Athenian citizen who completed their military training could participate in the assembly. Slaves and women were not citizens. Athenians needed a lot of free time for participating in the main bodies of governance. A lot of citizens lived in countryside and it was difficult to attend the meetings because meetings began in the early morning (Stockton, 1990: 6-17, 72).

The Athenians had no constitution but had a body of laws that define the state. There were three important principles of legislation: the laws were to apply to all citizens equally; only written laws are valid; the laws had more authority than decrees. The laws were written on wood or stone and put in a public place to be available for all citizens.

The Athenian democracy had the three main institutions and few less important others were. The main bodies of governance were the Assembly of Dēmos, the Council of 500, and the People's Court (Blackwell, 2003: 4, 31).

Main bodies of governance


In Assembly the male Athenian citizens could discuss different problems of state with each other, listen and vote. They argued about different aspects of Athenian life: finance, religion, public festivals and even wars. Before 462 BCE the main power was controlled in hands of the Court of Areopagus but after the reforms the power of the Areopagus decreased and the power of the Assembly increased. This Assembly became synonymous with democracy. The orator Aeschines told that the Assembly would not exclude people who earn money by working at a trade or who are not the richest person. He invited people to join the Assembly. But the invitation was not for everyone. A person should be registered on the Assembly List, under 18 years old and completed his military training. The character Socrates in Plato's Protagoras claimed that when the Assembly discussed the constructions of ships, the craftsmen had the speech. But if a person, do not regard as a shipwright, wanted to advise them, no matter how wealthy and well-born he may be, nobody would accept his offers; people could laugh and shout him down. However, when people discussed the governance of Athens, the man who was poor or rich, a sea-captain or merchant, of good or bad family could tell his opinion without teasing him (Blackwell, 2003: 5-6).

It was a problem to participate in the Assembly for people, living in the countryside of Attica. In the 5th Century the number of the male Athenian population, who could participate in an Assembly was 40000- 60000 and in the 4th Century was 20000- 30000. The population considerably decreased. Thusydides claimed that during the Peloponnesian War there were about 5000 at the meeting. The freedom to speak was not absolute. For example, before the 5th century Athenians over 50 years could speak first, some discussions could be forbidden because the issues already settled in a court. The citizens could refuse to listen a speaker, who debated with unpopular proposal. Some people could lose the right to participate in the Assembly. It happened when a citizen had a debt to public treasury, have been stricken, who beat his parents, or failed to support them, convicted of prostituting, who threw away his shield in battle or squandered his inheritance. Citizens were paid for attending the Assembly. Even the poor could afford to take time to attend the Assembly. Aristotle told that only the most democratic state can pay their citizens for attending the Assembly, also include all citizens and freedom to speak (Blackwell, 2003: 6-10).

The meeting place was on top of the hill of the Pnyx. In the 4th century, there were 40 regularly meetings each year. Four meetings in a year called “prytany”. One of the “prytany” was the Sovereign Assembly. Citizens discussed the issues of food supply, to confiscate or not the private property and announcements of lawsuits regarding inheritance. Apart of the prytany there were three more assemblies. One was for all citizens who wanted to address his fellow Athenians about any public or private matters. In prytany citizens voted if hold or not a review of laws, hold or not an ostracism; they elected the military officers. In addition, there were Called-together Assemblies. It was an extra meeting or called for short notice. There were nine Proedroi who managed the conduct of the Assembly and decided when to put a question to the vote. In addition to Proedroi, the Assembly elected a clerk for reading documents aloud. People raised their hands to vote or voting system was conducted by secret ballot (Blackwell, 2003: 11-16).

The Council of 500

The Council of 500 consisted of 500 citizens from the ten tribes, who served for one year. The Council function was to prepare the agenda for the Assembly. Each member was a Councillor. Each citizen could serve on the Council twice in his life. Before being a Councillor, Athenians should have scrutiny. This scrutiny took both public and private aspects of citizen's life. After answering the questions, the Council voted. The Council divided into smaller groups, called a “prytany”. In each “prytany” was a “president” or prytanes. These prytanes organised and planned the meetings of the Council. A citizen must be 30 years to become a Councillor. The Council elected chairman, who controlled the state seal and the treasuries. They presided over the prytanes only for 24 hours. No one could serve as a chairman twice. In addition to the Council of 500, the Council of the Areopagus existed with jurisdiction over serious crimes and cases of homicide (Blackwell, 2003: 15-28, 40).


The Athenians divided into the groups for every courtroom. The Juror was selected. In the lawcourts were discussed the cases of criminal and civil matters. Also if citizens who were unsatisfied with rulings by the Council of the Assembly could come to the court and the juror should decide this problem. The plaintiff and the defendant had equal time to speak. The jury should swear that would give the verdict according to the laws. However, in the absence of written laws, jurors voted according to their own understanding of justice (Blackwell, 2003: 51-54).

Athenian democracy existed for 2 centuries while other states had a monarchy regime. I think that it performed well. Citizens could vote and participate in the bodies of governance. It was the freedom of speech and equality. The free bodies of government existed, where citizens, both poor and rich, could discuss the economic, military problems, trade, etc. The laws, which should be followed by citizens, defined the state.


On the other hand, this political regime is difficult to name a democracy. First, democracy means the rule of people by all people. In Athens only adult male Athenians who had military trainings were citizens with rights to vote and to participate in the Assembly. Second, there were no constitution and clear laws. Citizens in the Assembly could solve the problems under the emotions; jurors voted according to their prejudice or own understanding of justice. Third, in Athenian democracy was the discrimination of women and slaves, they have not been the citizens of Athens. In Athens the professional politicians, judges or lawyers did not exist. Athenians practised democracy during 2 centuries, but it was not the theoretical concept of democracy.

As Thucydides claimed that the lack of firm and capable leadership could bring out weaknesses in a democratic system. He claimed that the problem in the Athenian democracy is that most people have a right to say their opinion. ‘How can a low fellow like that discern what is good for him or for the demos as a whole?' He argued that only the best and cleverest citizens should say their opinion. Thucydides told if you want a good government, thus intelligent people should make the laws, will discipline the poor and decide state policy. Poor people cannot emulate the interests and cultural pursuits and activities of the rich citizens. It has been drawn a distinction between good and bad laws. Popular assemblies pass many pestilential decrees which truly cannot be laws. Thucydides gave example: ‘just as one refuses to give the medical advice to the prescriptions of ignorant quacks which kill rather than cure, so a low cannot be a true law, even if assembly has ratified it'. It means that citizens, solving problems of the state, could tell lie or opinion, which influenced badly for some citizens (Stockton, 1990: 167, 170).

The end of Athenian Democracy

The decline of Athenian democracy was a gradual process with some dramatic moments. One of the dramatic moments was the Peloponnesian War, which brought a financial crisis and a gap between poor and rich. After the failure of war, in Athens the financial crisis was a big problem and put pressure on the rich, alienating them from democracy. Landowners were no longer worried about their wealth and it linked up with rich and trading class. Some citizens lost their lands. So, population was divided into the rich and poor. The latter, deprived of a stable livelihood, stated payments for their income. These payments staved off the discontents. Rich and poor people had different interests, so the unity of purpose was lost. The power was concentrated increasingly in the hands of citizens, financial officials, who being voted inadequate. According to absence of the allegiance of the rich and the interest of the poor the democracy was run as a concern. Isocrates and a lot of Athenians thought that Athens under Macedonia monarchy is a solution to all Athenians problem. Some citizens hoped to gain new lands in Asia for poor people. Isocrates claimed that citizens were too concerned with their economic problems to bother about the Athens (Walbank, 1963: 317-319).

Secondly, political instability was a main reason for the decline of Athenian democracy. A gap between poor and rich made democracy more weak. Instability was influenced by no professional politicians, judges and lawyers. Mosse claimed that in the Assembly poor citizens worried very much about their own economic problems to bother about the state and its security problems (Walbank, 1963: 317-319). Absence of constitution and unclear laws made the political regime more weaken. Citizens in the Assembly could find a solution to the serious problems under the emotions, so the decisions could not be adequate (Blackwell, 2003: 51-54).

Finally, the end of Athenian democracy connected with the rise of Macedonia as a power in the Greek world under the leadership of Philip, and then Alexander. Philip formed the league of Corinth. After Philips' death Alexander used this league to start his invasion to Asia and his war with the Persian Empire. In 335 BCE the Athenians spent eleven years in an unsettled state. On the one hand, they were free from foreign interference; on the other hand, Macedonian soldiers have been waiting in ‘Northern Greece to put down any effort at resisting Macedonian will' (Blackwell, 2003: 54-55). In 324 BCE Alexander issued “Exiles Decree” for every Greek city to readmit any former citizens who had been disenfranchised; and he intended to return control of the Samos island to the Samians and to end Athenian governance over island. Athenians started make plans and collected a mercenary army to save their freedom as an independent polis. In 323 BCE Alexander died. The Athenians, leading by Leosthenes, attacked the Macedonian forces in the north. The first effort was successful but Leosthenes was killed and by summer the Athenians had lost both on the land and sea. Antipater, the Macedonian leader, imposed a settlement on Athens. It was the end of the city's autonomy and an end of Athenian democracy (Blackwell, 2003: 55-57).

I think that the main reason of the end of Athenian democracy is instability of political regime, connected with disagreements between poor and rich, absence of professional politicians and clear laws. In the Assembly citizens were worried about their own economic problems and didn't bother about the state. They could not find a solution to the economic problems. Therefore, citizens did not solve military problems and did not prepare very well for war, even some citizens wanted to live under Macedonia. Athenian democracy was unique, but far not the ideal. However, the Macedonian War put everything to the end.


The Athenian democracy was a unique political regime with their voting system, laws, bodies of governance and rules. Citizens had freedom of speech, were equal and could participate in the bodies of governance. However, to vote and participate in the Assembly could not all people; there were no clear laws and constitution; no professional politicians and economic problems made the instability of democracy, which led to the decline of political regime. A gap between poor and rich was a second reason for the decline of Athenian democracy. Finally, the Macedonian War was the immediate cause which led Athenian democracy to the end.


Christopher W. Blackwell (eds.) ‘Athenian Democracy an overview', 28 February 2003, <>, retrieved 25 January 2010

D. Stockton (1990) The classical Athenian democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

F.W. Walbank (1963) The end of Athenian democracy (Cambridge University Press)

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