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Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece / Edition 1

Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece / Edition 1

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This book presents a state-of-the-art debate about the origins of Athenian democracy by five eminent scholars. The result is a stimulating, critical exploration and interpretation of the extant evidence on this intriguing and important topic. The authors address such questions as: Why was democracy first realized in ancient Greece? Was democracy “invented” or did it evolve over a long period of time? What were the conditions for democracy, the social and political foundations that made this development possible? And what factors turned the possibility of democracy into necessity and reality? The authors first examine the conditions in early Greek society that encouraged equality and “people’s power.” They then scrutinize, in their social and political contexts, three crucial points in the evolution of democracy: the reforms connected with the names of Solon, Cleisthenes, and Ephialtes in the early and late sixth and mid-fifth century. Finally, an ancient historian and a political scientist review the arguments presented in the previous chapters and add their own perspectives, asking what lessons we can draw today from the ancient democratic experience. Designed for a general readership as well as students and scholars, the book intends to provoke discussion by presenting side by side the evidence and arguments that support various explanations of the origins of democracy, thus enabling readers to join in the debate and draw their own conclusions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520258099
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/15/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Kurt Raaflaub is David Herlihy University Professor and Professor of Classics and History at Brown University. His most recent book is The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece. Josiah Ober is Constantine Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include Athenian Legacies: Essays on the Politics of Going on Together. Robert Wallace is Professor of Ancient History at Northwestern University and author of The Areopagus Council to 307 BC, among other books. Paul Cartledge is currently Professor of Greek History in the Faculty of Classics and Professorial Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge, and author of several volumes including Spartan Reflections (UC Press). Cynthia Farrar directs a project on deliberation and local governance at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) and teaches in the Political Science Department. She is the author of The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The Invention of Politics in Classical Athens.

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Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece

By Kurt A. Raaflaub Josiah Ober Robert W. Wallace

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24562-4

Chapter One


Kurt A. Raaflaub


Over the past thirty years or so, work on Athenian democracy has intensified and yielded most impressive results. The development and functioning of democratic institutions and of the democratic system as a whole, as well as individual aspects, such as the roles of the elite, leaders, and the masses, and democratic terminology, have been analyzed and reconstructed in detail. The sources relevant to the study of democracy have received new editions and valuable commentaries. Democracy's relation to its opponents, on the individual and collective, political and intellectual levels, its impact on religion, law, warfare, ideology, and culture, and the reactions it provoked from antiquity to our modern age have been reexamined thoroughly and comprehensively. As a result, we are now able to understand Athenian democracy much better and to interpret and discuss it with more sophistication than was ever the case.

Moreover, this democracy is no longer mainly the property of specialists among classicists: it has become a matter of public interest. The year 1993 marked the 2,500th anniversary of a comprehensive set of reforms enacted in ancient Athens in 508/7 B.C.E. The manwhose leadership Athenian memory credited with the realization of these reforms was Cleisthenes, a member of the prominent Alcmaeonid family. Some seventy years later, Herodotus stated as a matter of fact that Cleisthenes "had instituted for the Athenians the tribes (phulai) and the democracy" (6.131.1). Unfortunately, the historian did not think it necessary to explain why and how tribal reform and the establishment of democracy were connected. By the late fifth and fourth centuries the Athenians sought the origins of their democracy even earlier, with Solon (a lawgiver of the early sixth century) or even Theseus (one of their founder heroes: Ruschenbusch 1958; Hansen 1989d). Few scholars today are ready to take the latter seriously. But together with Solon and Ephialtes (an Athenian leader in the 460s), Cleisthenes, who was rediscovered after more than two millennia of obscurity by George Grote and thrust into great prominence by the publication of Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians (Athenaion Politeia or Ath. Pol.) in 1891 (Hansen 1994: 25-27), remains a prime candidate for the title "founder of Athenian democracy"-even if some near contemporaries perceived Ephialtes rather as its corruptor, and if the value of this title itself will be questioned vigorously by some of this volume's authors.

At any rate, the anniversary of Cleisthenes' reforms prompted a further increase of scholarly and popular activity focused on Athenian democracy, especially since it fell in a period that witnessed a surge of democracy around the world (represented most dramatically by the fall of the Iron Curtain in Germany and the failed push for democracy in Beijing, followed soon afterward by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communist rule in Eastern Europe). In 1992 an exhibition on fifth-century Greek sculpture opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with the flashy title "The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy." The exhibition's sponsors emphasized the connection between Athenian democracy and the "explosive" development of the arts, and that between ancient and modern democracy. Critics did not wait long to assault both connections, and an intensive debate ensued (Buitron-Oliver 1992; see Morris and Raaflaub 1998: 1-2). Independently, from 1988, supported by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick spearheaded the development of a series of public programs, known as the "Democracy 2500 Project," that resulted, among other activities, in the conference "Democracy Ancient and Modern" and the exhibition "The Birth of Democracy," both of which took place in Washington, D.C., in 1993 (Ober and Hedrick 1993, 1996). Whether inspired by the same event or not, other collected volumes on democracy appeared around the same time (e.g., Eder 1995b; Sakellariou 1996). In particular, a volume Ian Morris and I edited in 1998, based on discussions in 1993 titled "Democracy 2500? Questions and Challenges," dealt critically with some of the issues brought up by democracy's anniversary. Another volume (Boedeker and Raaflaub 1998) focused on a different set of questions that had been raised not least by the "Greek Miracle" exhibition: the connection between democracy, imperial power and wealth, and the evolution of the arts in fifth-century Athens. All these activities brought Athenian democracy and the work of classical scholars studying and interpreting its many facets to the attention of a broad public and firmly entrenched ancient democracy in wider discussions of democratic theory (see, for example, recently Urbinati 2002, Rhodes 2003a, and Farrar, chapter 7 below).

By now the intensity of debates about "Democracy 2500" has calmed down, and we have gained critical distance that makes a synthesis of arguments possible and valuable. The time seems ripe to revisit some of the issues discussed ten years ago. Both because of its intrinsic importance and the progress achieved in more than thirty years of intensive research, this volume focuses on the question of how democracy really originated, where it came from. In chapter 2, Robert Wallace and I collect and discuss the evidence that illustrates the roots of egalitarianism and "people's power" in archaic Greece, attesting to an elementary disposition that facilitated a development toward democracy, without, of course, making democracy necessary or inevitable. In chapters 3-5, Wallace, Josiah Ober, and I present, in critical interaction with each other, the arguments that speak for an origin of democracy in the early sixth century (prompted by the reforms of Solon), in the late sixth century (as a consequence of popular revolt and reforms attributed to Cleisthenes), and in the mid-fifth century (connected with reforms introduced by Ephialtes and Pericles). In chapters 6 and 7, Paul Cartledge and Cynthia Farrar comment on our arguments and add their own thoughts from the perspective of ancient history and political science, respectively, thus opening the door for a more general discussion among the readers of this volume. This, ultimately, is our purpose: we hope this volume will stimulate thinking and debate in a wider public and in classrooms throughout this and other countries where people place a high value on democracy and wonder about its origins. As published here, these seven chapters represent the result of much discussion among the authors, conducted in a spirit of mutual respect and constructive criticism that truly invigorates thinking, advances understanding, and stimulates the development of new ideas.


The democracy that existed in Athens roughly from the middle of the fifth century was a remarkable system, unprecedented, "unparalleled in world history" (Hansen 1999: 313), exhilarating, capable of mobilizing extraordinary citizen involvement, enthusiasm, and achievement, enormously productive and at the same time potentially greatly destructive. We know this democracy best in the shape it took in the fourth century, after a comprehensive revision of laws between 410 and 399 (Hansen 1999: 162-65). By then it could be understood as a system of rather clearly defined institutions that operated according to legally determined rules, which to some extent approached a "constitution." Parts of this system (analyzed in much detail by Bleicken 1994; Hansen 1999; see also Samons 2004) are described in the second half of the Aristotelian Ath. Pol. (42-69). To mention only the most obvious elements, the assembly (ekklesia) met at least forty times a year. For some of these meetings, items on the agenda were prescribed (44-46). The presidents of the assembly and council were selected by lot and essentially could not serve for more than one day (44). The democratic "council of 500" (boule)-to be distinguished from the Areopagus council composed of former magistrates (archons) who were life-long members-was selected by lot; its five hundred members, limited to two (nonsuccessive) years of service, represented, according to a sophisticated formula, the population of numerous districts in Attica (demoi, demes, consisting of villages and sections of towns and of the city of Athens: Traill 1975, 1986). This council broadly supervised the administrative apparatus (Ath. Pol. 45-49), dealt with foreign policy issues, heard reports of officials, and deliberated the agenda and prepared motions for the assembly (Rhodes 1972). The latter was free to accept such motions, with or without amendment, to refer them back to the council for further deliberation, or to reject and replace them with different ones altogether (Hansen 1987). The assembly passed decrees (psephismata) on specific policy issues, while laws with general validity (nomoi) were formulated by a board of "lawgivers" (nomothetai), passed in a trial-like procedure, and, if challenged, scrutinized in the people's court (Hansen 1999: chap. 7).

The assembly, assisted by the boule and the law courts (dikasteria), decided upon policies, supervised every step of their execution, and held a tight control over the officials who were in charge of realizing them. Professional personnel (whether in administration, religion, or the maintenance of public order) was minimal, mostly consisting of a few hundred state-owned slaves who served in specific functions at the disposal of various officials or as a rudimentary police force (Hunter 1994: 3). Virtually all administrative business was in the hands of numerous committees of various sizes (totalling about seven hundred members), who assisted, and in turn were supervised by, the boule and various officials (Hansen 1980). (In the fifth century, hundreds of other officials served in various functions throughout the empire; Ath. Pol. 24.3 with Rhodes 1981: 305; Balcer 1976.) A small minority of these officials, primarily those holding major financial and military responsibility, were elected (Ath. Pol. 43.1, 44.4); all others were selected by lot (43.1, 47-48, 50-55.1), as were the chief magistrates (archons, in a double sortition procedure, 8.1), and the thousands of citizen judges (in modern scholarship usually called jurors), who on every court day staffed variously large juries (or, more precisely, assemblies of judges) that tried several cases simultaneously in various locations. These jurors were chosen in a sophisticated mechanical procedure (by an allotment machine, kleroterion) that eliminated tampering and made bribery virtually impossible (63-66; Boegehold 1995: 58, 230-34; Hansen 1999: chap. 8; Demont 2003). The law courts themselves were an important part of democratic life and procedures: much political business was conducted there, one might say, in a continuation of politics by different means (Hansen 1990).

Several thousand citizens thus were politically active every year and many of them quite regularly for years on end-out of a population of adult male citizens that in the fourth century comprised hardly more than 30,000 (Hansen 1999: 90-94, 313, 350). Most impressively, "over a third of all citizens over eighteen, and about two thirds of all citizens over forty" served at some point in their lives at least one year-long term in the council of 500, a very time-consuming office (249). It is thus clear that this democracy was not only "direct" in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but the "directest" imaginable in the sense that the people through assembly, council, and law courts controlled the entire political process and that a fantastically large proportion of citizens was involved constantly in public business. Moreover, the system of rotation of offices (Aristotle Politics 1317b2-7; see already Euripides Suppliants 406-7) made sure that those who were not involved at a given time would be at another (if they wished to) and that the citizens through their engagement in various offices and functions achieved a high level of familiarity with the administration of their community and its policies. On top of all this, these same citizens also regularly served in their polis's infantry army or helped row its fleet, even if mercenaries played a more significant role in fourth-century warfare than they did earlier (Burckhardt 1996).

We cannot know exactly how much of all this was realized already in the fifth century. Precisely the categories of sources that in the fourth century offer by far the most information on the technical or "constitutional" details of how democracy operated are almost entirely lacking in the fifth: in particular, we do not have a fifth-century predecessor to the Aristotelian Ath. Pol., and court or assembly speeches were not published until toward the end of that century. Some offices or committees did not yet exist, others had different functions, the number of assembly meetings was perhaps not yet fixed at forty per year, and before the Peloponnesian War the number of adult male citizens was much larger, reaching perhaps 60,000 or more (Hansen 1988). Despite all this, however, and despite much debate about the differences between fifth- and fourth-century democracy (see the end of this chapter), there do not seem to be good reasons to assume that in the fifth century the citizens were substantially less involved in running their democracy than in the fourth. By contrast, if the reforms at the turn of the century achieved the goal of making the political process somewhat more objective, transparent, and subject to the law (see note 5), we should assume, and elite complaints would seem to confirm, that before then citizen control over this process had been even more immediate and intense.

With modifications, then, the political system described above was in place by about the mid-fifth century. When we are asking about the origins of Greek democracy, we are ultimately asking about the origins of this system. Before we pursue this question further, we need to take a brief look at the evidence on which our inquiry is based and to become aware of the opportunities it offers and the problems it poses.


The late fifth century (from the time of the Peloponnesian War) and especially the fourth are exceptionally well documented. For all earlier periods, evidence is much more scarce, scattered, and, with few exceptions, late. I already mentioned the lack of a fifth-century Ath. Pol. and corpus of orators. With the exception of Aeschylus's and a few of Sophocles' plays, extant tragedies and comedies were performed in the last three decades of the fifth century and even later. Thucydides, an active Athenian politician, spent most of the Peloponnesian War (the subject of his History) in exile, apparently revising and perhaps even writing at least parts of the extant version after the war. He focused thoroughly on power politics, foreign relations, and military history and paid attention to economic, social, or religious issues and to domestic politics or constitutional or institutional developments only when they had immediate significance for the war (Gomme et al. 1945-81: 1. 1-28; Hornblower 1987). This is true even for the "Fifty Years' History" (pentekontaëtia, 1.89-117), which traces the buildup of Athenian power after the Persian Wars and almost entirely ignores domestic events.

Herodotus, Thucydides' older contemporary, is our most important literary and historical source for archaic Greek history. Most likely, he wrote his Histories in the 430s and 420s, certainly under the influence of contemporary ideas and events, but not about these; his topic was another great war, half a century earlier, between Greeks and Persians, and earlier developments both on the Persian and the Greek side that had culminated in this war (Lateiner 1989; Bakker et al. 2002). His "cut-off date" is 479; although he provides occasional comments on later events, he certainly does not pay systematic attention to them. He talks about persons and events that are important in our present context but does so again in the framework of his overarching theme and-no less importantly-with his own interpretive purpose in mind. Moreover, the oral tradition on which he was mostly relying preserved from the seventh and sixth centuries anecdotal memory of outstanding persons and sensational events but rarely of matters of everyday life or constitutional developments (Raaflaub 1988a). Thus Herodotus knows Solon as a statesman but is interested in him as one of the archaic sages rather than as a political reformer. He describes, anecdotally, the period of Peisistratid tyranny because it explains why Athens at the time was weak and oppressed. He elaborates on Cleisthenes because he reunited Athens after a period of tyranny and factional strife and thus was responsible for Athens' rise in self-confidence and power, documented impressively in its victories of 506 and a condition for its role in the Persian Wars. Hence the fact and result, not the details, of Cleisthenes' reforms are important to Herodotus.


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Table of Contents

About the Authors
Chronology of Events
List of Abbreviations

1. Introduction
Kurt A. Raaflaub
2. "People’s Power" and Egalitarian Trends in Archaic Greece
Kurt A. Raaflaub and Robert W. Wallace
3. Revolutions and a New Order in Solonian Athens
and Archaic Greece
Robert W. Wallace
4. "I Besieged That Man": Democracy’s Revolutionary Start
Josiah Ober
5. The Breakthrough of Demokratia in Mid-Fifth-Century Athens
Kurt A. Raaflaub
6. Democracy, Origins of: Contribution to a Debate
Paul Cartledge
7. Power to the People
Cynthia Farrar

Index of primary sources
general Index

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