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Was Athens – the first democracy – really a democracy?

HistoryWas Athens - the first democracy - really a democracy?

Image: The Parthenon, a temple to Athena constructed on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Athena was the patron god of Athens. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Athens was not a true democracy for one main reason: only twelve percent of the population was allowed to vote. There is a solid foundation for this claim, but in order to do a thorough excavation of this ancient foundation, it is first important to discuss the definition of democracy, because in this case, the exact definition makes all the difference between a finding of democraticness or un-democraticness. 

If democracy is defined as simple “government by the people,” as Merriam Webster so defines the term, whether or not the franchise is extended to every person is an important consideration. However, if democracy is defined as “government by the whole population or all the eligible members of the state,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term, the concept of a small number of eligible persons is incorporated into the very definition. Due to the fact that there exist many definitions, it is necessary for each person to create their own definition—one that they are happy with—in order to form their own opinion. 

Looking at the roots of the word “democracy”  is one way to do that. The Greek word “demos” means “the populace,” the common people, and “cracy” means “form of government” (Merriam Webster). Therefore, “democracy” should best be interpreted as government by the entire population. 

Of course, it can be argued that democracy is government by all the citizens, and in ancient Athens, only free Athenian-born men were citizens. However, the Athenian definition of “citizen” was just wrong, as there is absolutely no reason to exclude women from the franchise, and slavery is evil and morrally abhorrent.

The view from the Acropolis.

Athenian government was certainly not government by the whole populace. According to Wealthy Hellas by Professor Josiah Ober in 2010, only roughly twelve percent of the total Athenian population could vote. Of course, foreigners would not be expected to have a say in the government of Athens. But these foreigners, or Metics as they were called, were only eleven percent of the population. And children were only thirty-one percent. The remaining forty-six percent of people were completely disenfranchised. Thirty-four percent of those were slaves, and twelve percent were women, who were sometimes called citizens but were treated almost as badly as slaves. A large chunk of the population went completely unrepresented—even larger than forty-six percent as no women had the right to vote. 

Sources from classical times confirm that the majority of people in Athens were not allowed to vote. Aristotle wrote in “The Athenian Constitution” that “The franchise is open to all men who are of citizen birth by both parents”. This sentence may seem at first glance fairly innocuous, but it outlines two of the strict requirements that had to be met in order for a person to be allowed to vote: a voter must be a man and must be a valid Athenian born citizen. Aristotle then goes on to discuss the complicated process by which people were evaluated before they were allowed to vote. They had to of course be a man. Then, they had to prove that they were over eighteen, that they were born in Athens to two Athenian parents, and then, perhaps the most significant requirement: that they were not a slave. If it was decided that they were not free, a man could appeal to the law courts, but the penalty for appealing and being denied was severe: they would be sold as a slave by the government of Athens. 

And finally, as Professor Mogens Herman Hansen of the University of Copenhagen once clearly wrote, “Democracy is the rule of the whole of the people, excluding maniacs and minors only… Thus by our standards it [Greek Demokratia] was oligarchy, not democracy,” (“Was Athens a Democracy?”, 1989). Professor Hansen not only agrees with this previously derived definition of democracy, but he also clearly states that in his opinion Athens was an oligarchy—rule by a group of powerful people, rather than a democracy—rule by all the people.

A temple on the Acropolis of Athens.

So, Greece was not a democracy, at least by the definition in use today. The extremely narrow definition of who could vote meant that the majority of the population of Athens was not represented at all in government. And while Athens did have many of the right ideas—like direct democracy, holding politicians accountable, and not discriminating on the basis of wealth—these ideas were all outweighed by the fact that their system was rule by the few, not by the whole people. Democracies are meant to be free. That is the entire point of giving the reins of power to the people. And how is any nation that enslaves other human beings truly free?


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