Around 5th to 4th century BCE, Athens had an extraordinary system of government democracy and was superior to what most of the ancient world was living under. In the year 507 BCE., the Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced a system of political reforms that he called “demokratia” (rule by the people).Under this system, all male citizens had equal political rights, freedom of speech and were able to participate directly in the political arena.
Cleisthenes reorganized the social political landscape of Athens and Attica. At first there were 4 existing tribes and then they were replaced by 10 new tribes(phylae) and each split in to thirds(trittyes).
Each of these thirds were located in one of the 3 areas of Attica namely the center of the city, the coast and the area beyond the hills. Then these trittyes were broken up in 140 demes(municipalities) of varying sizes.
Cleisthenes’s system consists of 3 separate institutions.
- The Ekklesia
- The Boule
- The Dikasteria
The Ekklesia (Assembly)
The sovereign governing body that compose laws and dictate the foreign policies of Athens. Any male citizen cold participates in this main democratic body of Athens. In the 4th 5th centuries BCE the male citizen population of Athens range from 30,000 to 60,000 depending on the period.
The assembly meet at least once a month or more likely two or three times, which with ten months in the Athenian calendar. Important decisions on foreign policies and legislative issues were debated and the final decision was carved in stone and erected in prominent places in the city like the agora(marketplace). The decisions were made by the simple majority vote. The assembly was held in a hillside auditorium west of the Acropolis called the “pnyx”.
“Ostracism in which a citizen could be expelled from the Athenian city state for 10 years was among the powers of ekklesia.”
The Boule (Council)
he boule was a council of 500 men, selected by 50 men from each 10 Athenian tribes who served on the council for one year. They were the ones who had the authority of deciding what the assembly would discuss. The boule met every day and did most of the governance work. In this way 500 members of the boule dictated how the entire democracy of Athens would work. The positions of the boule weren’t chosen by election but from the lottery system as it was considered more democratic. An executive council of 9 with a chairman and a secretary made sure things ran smoothly.
The third important institution is the popular courts in which citizens argued cases before a group of lottery selected jurors.
More than 500 jurors were chosen from a pool of men, older than 30 every day. Athenian citizens frequently used the dikasteria to punish or embarrass their enemies. The jurors were paid a wage for their work, so it became accessible to everyone and not just a privileged few. There were also courts with 6 judges known as the “Thesmothete” who had little power since the Athenian believed that the trials should involve participation of masses.
Around 460 BCE, the Athenian democracy started to evolve in to aristocracy marking the beginning of the end of Athenian democracy which thrived in Greece’s Golden Age. When we look at the context of its time Athenian democracy stands out as an extraordinary achievement which introduced the concept of equal rights, the notion of accountability and the government for the people and still has its influence on modern times.
“Greek democracy was not, in fact, Greek democracy; it was Athenian, or Corinthian, or whatever. Although the city-state mentality may seem quaintly parochial today, the same issue is still with us.”
Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Introduction