Evolution of Democracy and the Athenian Constitution

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Kasem Iqbal

Evolution of Democracy and the Athenian Constitution

Democracy is defined in modern times as government by the people. To put that in perspective and better understand all that democracy entails we must consider its origins. It is surprising indeed that even today tyrannies and dictatorships exist in the world when more than two and a half thousand years ago the ancient Athenians had developed a functional and direct form of democracy.  What contributed to this remarkable achievement and how it changed the socio-political scene in Athens is what will be considered in this paper.

  The paper will have three sections, each detailing the various stages of political development from the kings of Attica to the time of Pericles when, in its golden age, Athens was at the height of its imperial power.

  The historical sources used are “On Democracy and Oligarchy” attributed to Aristotle and Xenophon, “The Rise and Fall of Athens” by Plutarch and “History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides. 


 The first stage in Athenian history was the time of the monarchs of Attica. Most of this period is shrouded in myth and legend. The ancient kings had absolute authority and sovereignty. In those times the king was the head of the state, chief priest, general and judge. The obvious qualifications for this post were birth, wealth and military power. The king may have been considered semi-divine [due to his link with religious ceremony and hence the gods (Trumbach)] and this is why even in the later times his successor, the King Archon, was entrusted with the performance of the most sacred religious rites as his chief responsibility.            

 The question then arises that what caused a change in this state of affairs?

For the answer we have to take a broader look at the Hellenic world. Honor was a competitive concept in Greek society. This held true not only for individuals but also for the highly competitive city states or poleis. Hence they were constantly at war with each other whether to add to their holdings or on issues of politics with the losing side ending up enslaved (for example the Messenians who were defeated and enslaved by the Spartans). This constant internal military pressure was the very catalyst that caused gradual changes over hundreds of years. Since kings were hereditary therefore it was always not possible to find a capable general as well as administrator in one person. The inevitable result was that the ancient warrior class--the aristocrats who formed the bulk of the army as the cavalry by virtue of owning horses—took the power of the general for themselves. This was the beginning of the second stage in the development of the constitution. Thus the office of Polemarch (leader in war) was instituted due to incompetence in war of some kings (Aristotle and Xenophon, p: 148).            

 Consequently the office of Archon was established to manage the administration of the state and now the king, who was called King Archon, was left with only the vestigial religious functions. According to Aristotle, for the early offices the tenure was initially for life and then for ten years. Though his descriptions are at times vague we can gather that the Thesmotetai (Archons) were instituted last and had the responsibility of the codification and preservation of the law. By this time all the offices were annual with the nine Archons selected from the aristocracy only on the basis of birth and wealth qualifications. We can speculate that at that time a citizen was in actuality a free adult male of Athenian origin who could hold office and so was part of the aristocracy. The major part of the population was living in serfdom or slavery.

 There is some dispute as to whether the Council of the Areopagus had existed before the time of Solon or if he set it up. But as Plutarch argues (Plutarch, Solon; p: 61), Solon’s own laws drafted by himself about disenfranchisement of citizens hint that it probably existed before his time. In any case it consisted of ex-Archons--with tenure for life--who supervised the laws and had punitive/judicial authority. Thus we can observe that the mass of the people (peasants) were buried under the economic inequities and overwhelming clout of the traditional aristocracy.

  Now we come to the time of Cylon (636 B.C.) and Draco (last quarter of 6th century B.C.) and the third stage. Cylon was significant in that the Olympic champion had tried to install himself as tyrant of Athens by armed force (the way that tyrants achieved power) but had failed and got himself and most of his supporters brutally murdered by the Archons at that time who were led by Megacles, an aristocrat of the powerful Alcmeonid family.  

 Since the conspirators had taken sanctuary in Athena’s temple and were lured out for trial and then killed unjustly the Archons and particularly the Alcmeonid family were considered accursed by the people. The two factions formed as a consequence of this caused great disruption in the life of state later on. This is the prime example of one of the most potent forces in the early political maneuverings of the aristocrats, the blood feud.

 In Draco’s time the changes in the military, fighting techniques and external threats caused further change in the socio-political structure. An ancient Greek poet describing a battle scene mentions how an organized column of armed and armored men stopped the charge of the cavalry. Now these men who were not quite aristocrats but had wealth enough (they were most likely rich peasants) to provide their own armor and weapons came to the political forefront (Trumbach). These “hoplites” as they were called demanded, by virtue of the contribution they made to the defence and honor of Athens, a share in the political authority of the aristocrats. Thus Draco drew up a set of laws (Aristotle, p:149) in which these rich peasants, while still denied the higher offices, were allowed the right to sit on the boule of 401 members and hold any of the lower offices. The members and officials were selected by lot from the citizen body and so now the hoplites or infantry too were members of the citizen body. The nine Archons and treasurers had to have a property qualification of minimum ten minae while the generals (strategoi and cavalry commanders) had to have at least a hundred minae of unencumbered property for their posts. Thus military prowess and ability to arm oneself became the criteria for enfranchisement.

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 However the peasant class was still oppressed and enslaved having no rights better than slaves. They were impoverished, either tilling the land of the aristocrats and paying them a sixth of the produce (sharecroppers) or farming their own land. Those who farmed their own land were the worst off. They owned very little as the few aristocrats owned most of the fertile land of the plains. We can infer this from the fact the when during the constitutional crises in Solon’s time Plutarch in his book (p: 54, Rise and Fall of Athens) describes the various factions contending for power ...

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