Because the Athenians of Pericles’s day lived in a democracy, it is easy to assume that their political life was like our own. In fact, the Athenian democracy was very different. The emphasis was on rotating offices annually, so that no person could accumulate power. As well, power was divided between members of various groups: Nine archons served as magistrates, not one. Similarly, the Council of Five Hundred actually served as 10 tribal units of 50 men in succession, not 500 all at once. To spread power even more
effectively, many key officials were selected by lot from a list of candidates, rather than elected. The effect was to keep any one individual from accruing enough power to become a potential tyrant. The fear of tyranny meant that the Athenians emphasized participation in government by as many people as possible. In the Assembly, any person could respond to the herald’s summons, “Who wishes to speak?” In many ways, Pericles was the exception to this pattern. As general, he was eligible for election as often as he wished. His reelection over the course of 15 years allowed him to influence policy in a way that few of his contemporaries could ever hope to match.
Modern democracies are much closer to the Roman republican system, in which power tended to be exercised by a political elite, the Senate. The voting system of the Roman Republic meant that, in practice, ordinary men had little say in the running of the state. Similarly, the framers of the American Constitution instituted checks and balances to weaken the prospect of direct power being exercised by the people. The democracy enjoyed by Pericles and his contemporaries, however, did not elect representatives. They
voted directly on matters ranging from taxes and finance to foreign policy.
Athenian democracy was, in some ways, unusual even in the Greek world. The region of Attica was large by the standards of the Greek city-states, but it was dominated by the city, Athens, that grew to become a mercantile and cultural center in the century before Pericles. The growth of democracy was helped not only by Athens’s important contributions to the defense of Greece in the Persian Wars, but also by a series of constitutional changes associated with leading men in the 6th century. Around 594 B.C., Solon, the lawgiver, settled disputes between the wealthy and the poor farmers who were lapsing into debt-bondage. The cancellation of this system, which had led to the enslavement of the poor, coincided with the creation of census categories that subtly shifted the emphasis from birth to wealth as the basis for preeminence in Athenian life. Peisistratus the tyrant and his sons ruled Athens throughout the second half of the 6th century and encouraged the rule of law, moderate taxation, regular elections, and the expansion of Athenian trade overseas. By the end of the 6th century, when Cleisthenes championed democracy, he did so as Athens was threatened by civil war between aristocratic factions. The people (or demos) rallied to his support, and overnight, the Athenians created a new system that remained the basis of the Athenian democracy for hundreds of years.
The basic elements of the Athenian democratic system can be divided into these categories: institutions, procedures, and principles. The institutions of the democracy included a popular assembly, open to all adult male citizens, that met 40 times per year. Another key institution was the Council of Five Hundred, which functioned as a senate but was drawn from 500 Athenians chosen by the 10 tribes that made up the citizen body. Also important were the law courts, with juries numbering in the hundreds. Magistracies included three archons, or rulers, who handled civil and religious law, as well as warfare, and six judges in charge of the various courts of the city.
The procedures that underpinned the democracy included registration on the citizen rolls through the demes, or local municipalities, of Athens; service in the Athenian army; the widespread use of secret ballots; and in the case of many elections, the use of sortition, or election by lot, drawing on a preselected list of candidates.The underlying principles were that power should be distributed across as many offices and institutions as possible and among as many men as possible. Accordingly, most magistrates served on boards with colleagues so that no one individual would dominate. Similarly, magistrates and council members rotated out of office after one year to ensure that no one would remain in office long enough to accumulate power. What lay behind the principles of rotation, annuality, and collegiality was a fear of tyranny, the emergence of a single powerful man who could simply override the laws and rule arbitrarily. It is a supreme irony that Pericles, as a general, was able to serve for 15 years consecutively and that he amassed enormous personal power and prestige.Thucydides remarked that in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of oneman. Pericles was as close as Athens came to having an elected tyrant.
We take it for granted that democracy is the best form of government, but in Athens, democracy had fierce critics. It was often claimed that the democracy was little better than mob rule, that it depended on maintaining a costly fleet, and that it encouraged every ordinary man to regard himself as an expert on important issues of policy. Critics claimed that the Athenians were so egalitarian that you couldn’t tell slave from freeman in Athens. They all dressed the same way. Many of the first philosophers to write about political science were conservative and oligarchical in their outlook, and their works tend to reflect the intellectual tradition that was hostile to democracy. Plato records Socrates’s opinion that the democracy had replaced temperance and justice with fortifications and ship sheds, a dig at the public cost of maintaining the Athenian Empire.
A host of pamphlet writers produced a steady stream of invectives aimed at discrediting the democracy. The hostile tradition can even be glimpsed in Thucydides, although he revered Pericles and was himself an Athenian general. When Thucydides discusses a revolution that temporarily replaced the democracy with an oligarchic regime in 411–410, he remarks that at this time, Athens was better ruled than at any other time under the democracy. It is likely that this opposition to the democracy came from those farmers who constituted the backbone of the Athenian hoplite class, the heavily armed infantry who were generally more conservative than the rowers of the navy.
[Courtesy Professor Jeremy McInerney]