Neil Faulkner looks at the radical participatory democracy which began in Athens between 510 and 506 BCE and spread to virtually every city-state in the Aegean.

Greek tragedy - the culture of a democracy

Iron technology made possible huge increases in the productivity of human labour and the size of the social surplus. Appropriation of the new wealth by centralised ruling classes allowed them to construct the Persian, Indian, and Chinese Empires.

But iron technology opened up an alternative. Because the raw material was abundant and the production process simple, iron tools and weapons were available to all. While bronze empowered only an aristocracy, iron had the potential to empower the masses.

Whether or not this happened depended on the outcome of the class struggle. In one small corner of the world, the masses triumphed. The landed aristocracy was overthrown by revolution from below, a radical experiment in participatory democracy was launched, and the conditions were laid down for one of the greatest explosions of cultural achievement in human history.

Pnyx Hill, Athens, where the Popular Assembly met - the seat of an ancient democracyThe epicentre of the democratic revolution was the city-state of Athens. Between 510 and 506 BCE (before the common era), revolutionary class struggles inside the city brought about a transition from dictatorship to democracy. The movement passed through three distinct stages.

First, a 30-year-old dictatorship was overthrown and replaced by an interim aristocratic government. Second, attempts by conservative aristocrats to block reform provoked a popular uprising and installed a government of democrats. Third, a Spartan military intervention in support of the aristocratic counter-revolution was defeated by a new popular uprising.

The Athenian democracy was to last for almost two centuries. It was copied in other city-states across the Greek world. By the mid 5th century BCE, virtually every city-state in the Aegean was a democracy.

Athenian democracy empowered the small farmers who made up the bulk of the citizen-body. During the 6th century BCE, big landowners had attempted to expand their estates through debt-bondage. This mechanism was so central to the class struggle in the ancient world it requires explanation.

Small farmers in a traditional society have no cushion against hard times. Sometimes, to survive, to tide themselves over a bad harvest, they must borrow from the rich. Their only security for a loan is their land and their labour.

The big landowners’ main incentive to lend is the prospect of acquiring more land. If debts can be repaid, so be it. If they cannot, so much the better. Small farms can then be taken over, and small farmers may become debt-bondsmen, forced to work for the big landowner as serfs.

The Athenian masses broke the chain of debt and debt-bondage through struggle. They emerged at the end of the 6th century BCE secure in possession of their property and their freedom. The basic building-blocks of Athenian society were not great estates but peasant oikoi (s. oikos). This Ancient Greek word implied a patriarchal household based on ownership of a small farm or workshop.

Greek hoplite phalanxes collide on the battlefieldThe small citizen-farmers formed a city-state militia. The rich peasants, perhaps a third of the total, fought as heavy infantry (‘hoplites’). The poorer peasants fought as light infantry or as rowers in warships.

War between the city-states was endemic. Athens was at war three years out of every four during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Success in land warfare depended on the size and resilience of the city’s hoplite ‘phalanx’ (a dense block of spearmen). Success at sea depended on the number, speed, and manoeuvrability of the trireme fleet.

Land ownership and militia service made the small citizen-farmers of Athens into a revolutionary force. The democratic revolution of 510-506 BCE was, on the one hand, a revolution of farmers, artisans, and petty-traders, and on the other, a revolution of citizen-soldiers and citizen-rowers.

Ancient Athenian democracy was both more limited and more profound than our own. Women, foreigners, and slaves had no political rights. Only adult male citizens could vote. But a majority of these were working people. And the power they wielded was very real.

The ten leading city officials (strategoi) were up for election every year. The Council of Four Hundred (boule), the main deliberative body, was selected by lot. The Popular Assembly (ekklesia), a mass open-air meeting of all citizens, was the sovereign decision-making body of the state. Justice was administered by jury-courts of up to 2,500 ordinary citizens. Ostracism was an election in reverse: if anyone secured 6,000 negative votes, they were expelled from the city for ten years.

The democratic constitution meant that small property was secure, only the rich paid taxes, and any decision to go to war was made by those who would have to fight it. Anyone who has any doubts about the reality of Ancient Greek democracy should read the vitriolic opinions of its aristocratic enemies.

The Greek world was bitterly divided between ‘oligarchs’ and ‘democrats’ (both are Greek words) – that is, those who favoured the rule of ‘the few’ (oligoi) and those who favoured the rule of the ‘citizen-body’ (demos). Hatred of democracy inspired much of Greek philosophy, history, and the arts. Right-wing intellectuals like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the ideologues of an anti-democratic crusade.

In most ancient societies, education and culture were restricted to a tiny minority. That minority was preoccupied with defending its wealth and power. In Ancient Athens, 30,000 men shared political power. This created a huge mass base for education and culture. The result was an explosion of creativity.

There were great architectural monuments like the Parthenon, and superb naturalistic representations of the human form in sculpture and painting. There was the history of Thucydides, the philosophy of Socrates, and the tragic drama of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Not least, there was a working out in theory and practice of democratic politics. This is how Pericles, the greatest of Athens’ democratic leaders, described the government of the city.

Pericles‘Our constitution is called a democracy, because power is in the hands not of a minority, but of the whole people … everyone is equal before the law … what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses … No-one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty … We give our allegiance to those whom we put in positions of authority …’

Equally impressive were the democracy’s military achievements. Twice, the mighty Persian Empire attempted to subjugate Greece. Twice, the Athenians led the Greek resistance, first on land at Marathon in 490 BCE, then at sea at Salamis in 480 BCE. Though heavily outnumbered, though farmer-amateurs fighting military professionals, on each occasion the Athenians were victorious.

In the Persian Wars, an army of free men, representing the most advanced political order the world had ever seen, triumphed over the crude militarism of a traditional empire.

Yet, as we shall see, Greek democracy proved to be an historical cul-de-sac.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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