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 The Evolution of Athenian Democracy

Taisia Karaseva

Athens, one of the most advanced city-states to arise in ancient Greece, was the first society in the world to develop a democracy, and even today it is an example and a basis for governments around the world. However, Athens had a lengthy struggle to achieve democracy. From the 9th to 6th centuries BCE, the well-known city state went through the cycle of monarchy, aristocracy, timocracy, and tyranny. Only in the end did the city complete the cycle by evolving into the democracy now associate with Athens.

During the 9th century BCE, Athens sported a hereditary monarchy. A monarch ruled the polis, and he had all the power to make decisions. A council of important aristocrats advised the king, but the common people had no say at all in the government. This system was strong because the ruler had a quite effortless time making decisions without having to agree on every move with a large group of people. It was also efficient because there was an unquestionable transition between rulers; the dynasty just made the son the next monarch. However, the system also had weaknesses. If the king was weak, the entire polis could fall. The king and his few nobles only favored a few, and the commoners did not fit into those few. Because of dissatisfaction, the government continued evolving.

By the 8th century BCE, the monarchy had disintegrated completely. The monarch was replaced by the council of archons, or wealthy and influential families who had at first taken over civil, military, and religious duties of the king. The government of Athens became an aristocracy. The nine archons were advised by former archons, called the Council of Areopagus. In short, wealthy aristocrats controlled the polis and poor commoners had no say. This system had a few advantages. A group of people is more than one person, so a weak leader cannot corrupt the entire system. But an aristocracy favors only a few and tends to exploit the poor. Soon dissatisfaction and increasing trade would alter the government once more.

In the 7th century BCE, Athens, as well as the rest of Greece, had evolved into a trading power. Athens had also incorporated the districts of Attica into its polis, and the population increased immensely. Some Athenians gained wealth through trade, and it was now these people, wealthy from trade, not from land possession as in an aristocracy, who ruled the city in a fashion similar to aristocrats. Athens was now a timocracy. Because the council of Athens chose the archons, who could vote in the council was a capital issue. Because Greece adapted a new style of combat, with hoplites and the phalanx, aristocratic battle heroes no longer existed. Instead, it was decided that all people who could afford to arm themselves could be in the council. This included the wealthy, but poor farmers, as well as the majority of the population, were excluded once again. As before, dissatisfaction lead to yet another leap towards democracy.

During Athens's periods of rule by the aristocrats, poor farmers fell in debt and their discontent rose greatly. Soon the nine archons were forced to elect lawgivers in order to avert civil war. Two of the lawgivers were Draco and Solon. Draco was a harsh ruler who established laws on homicide and gave the family of the victim more say in court. Solon helped the poor of Athens by canceling their debts and enslavement for debts. He also created a system where more people could vote. Although the nobles thought he went too far and the poor thought he didn't go far enough, he laid a basic foundation for a fairer government and made a step towards democracy.

When the 6th century rolled around, the poor farmers were still discontent. Some people used this dissatisfaction to gain control. These men were called tyrants. By appealing to the poor, they were able to gain control and stay in control, even thought they came to power illegally. Pisistratus was a powerful tyrant who beautified the city and made it more of a power in the Greek world. By taking away from the nobles, he gave to the poor so they would protect him from the nobles who wanted to revolt. The wealthy were losing their privileges but dared not kill Pisistratus because of fear of a civil war with the poor, who greatly outnumbered the wealthy. The advantage of a tyranny was that the common people had control of the government, even if indirectly. However, tyranny is also illegal and corrupt, and the tyrant has limited power. Unlike the solo monarch, a tyrant must appeal to the majority or he will be thrown off by the majority. Some tyrants also caused unrest so the polis would need a leader, thus securing their position more strongly. As unlikely as it seems, it was a tyrant who created the ultimate democracy.

Cleisthenes was a tyrant who came to power in the 5th century BCE. Hoping to develop a unified state, he formed the Athenian democracy. By dividing Athens into ten tribes and forming the law court, boule, board of generals, and altering the assembly to include all free Athenian males 18 and older as voting citizens, the democracy was created. However, it was not without the entire cycle of monarchy, aristocracy, timocracy, and tyranny that a democracy could be born.

Contrary to popular belief, only Athens developed a democracy in ancient Greece. There are some possible answers to this phenomenon. It might be that Athens was more open culturally, unlike Sparta which focused to defending itself militarily and culturally. Athens valued quality of life, art, music, science, and literature. It would be very likely that the striving to improve life and the disbelief in a promising afterlife lead to popular representation. Also, the sheer size of Athens, it being an extremely large city-state, might also have been a factor. With so many people with different problems and opinions, it could have been a recipe for a democracy. As large a society as Athens might have collapsed if the majority of commoners was ignored. Because of many factors, Athens came into the spotlight as the first democracy in the world.

Although more democratic than before, the government of Athens during the 6th century, during the rise of tyrants, was not the democracy we think of today. Unlike earlier times, when nobles had the most power, during the 6th century it were the commoners who held indirect power while the nobles lost their privileges and most of their voice in government. The tyrants were kept in power by the happiness of the majority, so they tried their best to appeal to the majority. The democracy of the 6th century gave no say to many, including women, slaves, and nobles. There were no councils or assemblies for citizens to come and vote; instead, the voting' was done by the tyrant listening to what the commoners yelled out or their emotions about the tyrant's actions. Even so, tyrants sometimes caused conflicts for the sole purpose of the people needing a ruler, or they started out as commoner-aiding rulers and turned to monarchs when they destroyed their enemies and had nothing more to fear. This is not democratic because in a true democracy people do not have an all-mighty ruler; instead, it is the councils and the assemblies that rule and make decisions. The more influential members of government are chosen by lot so one person cannot gain too much power like a tyrant or a monarch. Although a step closer to a democracy, the tyranny of the 6th century was not quite the form of government Athens became admired for centuries later.

From the 9th to 6th centuries BCE of Athenian history, the famous city-state went through monarch, aristocracy, timocrasy, and finally tyranny to reach the ultimate citizen-representing government: democracy. Because of numerous factors, it was this one city that went through the entire cycle to reach democracy, and although it had not reached a true democracy in the 6th century, it was a step forward for Athenians from the previous government forms. Developing a democracy took time and many obstacles, including no former model, resistance from nobles, questions about workability and fairness, and difficulty in establishing democratic laws, but Athens did reach a democratic state and even today it is still remembered and looked back upon by nations as the basic model for government. Almost 3,000 years later, Athens is still in the spotlight for its amazing journey through government forms and its astounding accomplishment of the citizen-ruled government.

About the Author: Taisia Karaseva is journalist and editor at Pegas Planet http://www.pegasplanet.com , help@albaspectrum.com. She is author of travel, history, international life articles.

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