How Ancient Greek Democracy Worked

It is not difficult to describe how ancient Greek democracy worked. Actually, it is different from our present-day form of democracy, but still pretty straight forward and easy to understand. Ancient Greek democracy found its origins in the city if Athens, Greece. Our current system of ‘democracy’, although different than the Athenian version, owes its existence to this form of governing. As the scholar, Marvin Perry, pointed out, “Athenian democracy embodied the principle of the legal state – a government based not on force but on laws debated, devised, altered, and obeyed by free citizens.” In this brief article we will briefly outline the workings of Greek democracy, and what differs between it and the form of democracy which we enjoy today.

Prof. John Keane, of Westminster University, states in the video series, “In Search of Democracy”, “Democracy means self governing through the assembly.” (Part 2) This self governance manifested itself through six main institutions. Each part was integral in the operations of the whole system. Comprising the main institutions were the Assembly, the Council of 500, the People’s Court, the Archons, the Council of the Areopagus, and finally, the Generals.

The ‘how’ of the ancient Greek democracy is quite simple. Basically, everything flowed interdependently through these six institutions. Legislation was introduced and passed by the will of the people. The law was enforced by the military and crime was judged and punished by the people themselves. As we shed some light on the individual institutions, themselves, we’ll see the synergy upon which the ancient Greeks’ democracy was built and the society was governed.

This early Greek democracy had as its foundation the idea of the Assembly, Ekklesia, in Greek. Historian, Christopher W. Blackwell, writes in “Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview”, the Assembly was “the regular gathering of male Athenian citizens to listen to, discuss, and vote on decrees that affected every aspect of Athenian life, both public and private… ” Notice, the assembly consisted of male citizens only. While women enjoyed citizen status, they, as well as foreigners and slaves were denied a place among the assembly. Assembly members met frequently to propose, debate, and vote on legislation and other matters of the state. This was undoubtedly a lengthy process, as each member was permitted to speak and participate in an orderly fashion.

The Council of 500 (originally 400) consisted of 500 members, each serving a one year term. Each member of the council was taken from among the Assembly. The Council was responsible for managing the ports, the military installations, and other state property. Most importantly, they prepared the agenda for the Assembly. As we see, each component of ancient Greek democracy was vital to its smooth operation.

In Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution, we read, “There was also to be a Council, consisting of four hundred and one members, elected by lot from among those who possessed the franchise. Both for this and for the other magistracies the lot was cast among those who were over thirty years of age; and no one might hold office twice until everyone else had had his turn, after which they were to cast the lot afresh.” (Aristotle Part 4)

History tells us that these council members were paid. The inclination towards a career in professional politics was curbed by the imposed term limit of one year, and the opportunity to only serve two terms in one’s lifetime. However, the pay was substantial enough to afford one a year of absence from his chief trade to tend to the affairs of the state.

The People’s Court formed what essentially was the primary judicial arm of ancient Greek democracy. These were known as ‘jury courts’, consisting of the citizens, themselves. In such courts, the jurors would hear cases brought before them, and decide the fates of those on trial. Again, turning to Aristotle, we see that “There are three points in the constitution of Solon which appear to be its most democratic features: first and most important, the prohibition of loans on the security of the debtor’s person; secondly, the right of every person who so willed to claim redress on behalf of any one to whom wrong was being done; thirdly, the institution of the appeal to the jurycourts; and it is to this last, they say, that the masses have owed their strength most of all, since, when the democracy is master of the voting-power, it is master of the constitution. Moreover, since the laws were not drawn up in simple and explicit terms (but like the one concerning inheritances and wards of state), disputes inevitably occurred, and the courts had to decide in every matter, whether public or private.” (Aristotle Part 9)

Next in Greek democracy were the Archons. This was a group of nine men who were essentially the chief leaders of the city of Athens. They were highly educated and honored individuals, originally responsible for making various judgments regarding public, military and religious affairs.

The fifth vital piece of ancient Greek democracy was the Areopagus, or Council of the Areopagus. This was a council of men who had served as judges with jurisdiction over cases of murder and other serious crimes. The court was comprised of former Archons, and its members served for life. Citing the ancient writer, Demosthenes, we learn that “You are all of course aware that in the Areopagus, where the law both permits and enjoins the trial of homicide, first, every man who brings accusation of such a crime must make oath by invoking destruction upon himself, his kindred, and his household; secondly, that he must not treat this oath as an ordinary oath, but as one which no man swears for any other purpose; for he stands over the entrails of a boar, a ram, and a bull, and they must have been slaughtered by the necessary officers and on the days appointed, so that in respect both of the time and of the functionaries every requirement of solemnity has been satisfied. Even then the person who has sworn this tremendous oath does not gain immediate credence; and if any falsehood is brought home to him, he will carry away with him to his children and his kindred the stain of perjury-but gain nothing. If, on the other hand, he is believed to be laying a just charge, and if he proves the accused guilty of murder, even then he has no power over the convicted criminal; only the laws and the appointed officers have power over the man for punishment.” (Dem. 23.67-69).

Lastly, were the generals. The generals were entrusted with the military welfare and affairs of the state. Again, Aristotle informs us, “Four year after the establishment of this system, in the archonship of Hermocreon, they first imposed upon the Council of Five Hundred the oath which they take to the present day. Next they began to elect the generals by tribes, one from each tribe, while the Polemarch was the commander of the whole army.” (Aristotle Part 22)

As has been demonstrated, these six facets of ancient Greek democracy each contributed to the proper functioning of the whole. The Assembly, the Council of 500, the People’s Court, the Archons, the Council of the Areopagus, and the Generals were the people, themselves. Most of the familiar trappings of politics were avoided because of the intentionally short term limits. The people performed the will of the people.

As has been shown, this early Greek democracy was an intensely participatory form of government, as opposed to our modern representative form of government. Today the United States has what is traditionally been labeled a democracy, when in fact, it is a Republic. The main difference between our government and theirs is the cyclical election of public officials who go to the various state offices and to Washington to represent their constituents. Our voices do count, but not in the direct, everyday inner workings of legislating, ruling and judging the citizenry.

Additionally, today’s political figures are well paid, and most (if not all) pursue politics as a career. This differs greatly from the model of classical Greek democracy. It has also led to an endless string of scandals, too numerous to cite here. Public officials are not readily trusted by the governed masses under our system, and are

This cynicism has evolved into a general distrust of government and a desire by the citizens to be protected from the constant intrusions of ‘Big Brother’. Our text affirms this sentiment, “We are concerned with protecting the individual from the state, which we often see as a threat to personal freedom and a hindrance to the pursuit of our personal lives… the Greeks were not concerned with erecting safeguards against the state; they did not view the state as an alien force, to be feared or to be protected against.” (Perry 63)

Many of the original ideas from ancient Greek democracy have been preserved in our present Republic. Ours is a more refined system, perhaps. Our brand of democracy serves as a model of justice and freedom throughout the world in much the same way that the fledgling democracy of Greece once did. While far from perfect, the checks and balances in our system serve to balance the powers of government in very unique and ingenious ways.

Selected Works Cited:

Aristotle, “The Athenian Constitution,” Translated by Sir Frederic G.Kenyon. 350 B.C.E.

Demosthenes. Demosthenes with an English translation by A. T. Murray, Ph.D., LL.D. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1939.