Origins of Democracy and the Citizenship of Athens c. 440 BC – 430 BC


The word “democracy” (Greek: δημοκρατια) combines the elements demos (δημος, which means “people”) and kratos (κρατος, which means “force” or “power”).

In the words “monarchy” and “oligarchy”, the second element arche means rule, leading, or being first.

It is not possible that the term “democracy” was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of, so to speak, a valid “demarchy“, as long as the word “demarchy” already existed and had the meaning of mayor or municipal. That is why a new term was invented, and adopted wholeheartedly by Athenian democrats.

The word is attested in Herodotus, who wrote some of the earliest Greek prose to survive, but even this may not have been before 440 or 430 BC. It is not at all certain that the word goes back to the beginning of the democracy, but from around 460 BC at any rate an individual is known whose parents had decided to name him ‘Democrates’, a name which may have been manufactured as a gesture of democratic loyalty; the name can also be found in Aeolian Temnus, not a particularly democratic state.


Participation and exclusion

Size and make-up of the Athenian population

Estimates of the population of ancient Athens vary. During the 4th century BC, there may well have been some 250,000–300,000 people in Attica. Citizen families may have amounted to 100,000 people and out of these some 30,000 will have been the adult male citizens entitled to vote in the assembly.

In the mid-5th century the number of adult male citizens was perhaps as high as 60,000, but this number fell precipitously during the Peloponnesian War. This slump was permanent due to the introduction of a stricter definition of citizen described below.

From a modern perspective these figures may seem small, but in the world of Greek city-states Athens was huge: most of the thousand or so Greek cities could only muster 1000–1500 adult male citizens and Corinth, a major power, had at most 15,000.

The non-citizen component of the population was divided between resident foreigners (metics) and slaves, with the latter perhaps somewhat more numerous.

Around 338 BC the orator Hyperides claimed that there were 150,000 slaves in Attica, but this figure is probably not more than an impression: slaves outnumbered those of citizen stock but did not swamp them.


Citizenship in Athens

Only adult male Athenian citizens who had completed their military training as ephebes had the right to vote in Athens.

This excluded a majority of the population, namely slaves, freed slaves, children, women and metics. Also disallowed were citizens whose rights were under suspension (typically for failure to pay a debt to the city: see atimia); for some Athenians this amounted to permanent (and in fact inheritable) disqualification. Still, in contrast with oligarchical societies, there were no real property requirements limiting access (The property classes of Solon’s constitution remained on the books, but they were obsolete).

Given the exclusionary and ancestral conception of citizenship held by Greek city-states, a relatively large portion of the population took part in the government of Athens and of other radical democracies like it. At Athens some citizens were far more active than others, but the vast numbers required just for the system to work testify to a breadth of participation among those eligible. This greatly exceeded by proportion any present day democracy.

Athenian citizens had to be descended from citizens—after the reforms of Pericles and Cimon in 450 BC on both sides of the family, excluding the children of Athenian men and foreign women. Although the legislation was not retrospective, five years later the Athenians removed 5000 from the citizen registers when a free gift of grain arrived for all citizens from an Egyptian king. Citizenship could be granted by the assembly and was sometimes given to large groups (Plateans in 427 BC, Samians in 405 BC) but, by the 4th century, only to individuals and by a special vote with a quorum of 6000. This was generally done as a reward for some service to the state. In the course of a century, the numbers involved were in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Athens was one of the very first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most but not all following an Athenian model, but none were as powerful, stable, or as well-documented as that of Athens.

It remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Participation was by no means open, but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a scale that was truly phenomenal.

The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres.

Solon (594 BC), Cleisthenes (509 BC), and Ephialtes (462 BC) all contributed to the development of Athenian Democracy. Historians differ on which of them was responsible for which institution, and which of them most represented a truly democratic movement. It is most usual to date Athenian Democracy from Cleisthenes, since Solon’s constitution fell and was replaced by the tyranny of Peisistratus, whereas Ephialtes revised Cleisthenes‘ constitution relatively peacefully. Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, was killed by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were subsequently honored by the Athenians for their alleged restoration of Athenian freedom.

The greatest and longest lasting democratic leader was Pericles; after his death, Athenian Democracy was twice briefly interrupted by oligarchic revolution towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts are of this fourth-century modification rather than the Periclean System. It was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 BC. The Athenian institutions were later revived, but the extent to which it was a real democracy is debatable.

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