After Pericles, or What Can We Learn about Democracy from the Athenians?

Marek Węcowski

In grateful memory of Peter J. Rhodes

Direct Democracy?

Our democracy owes its name to the democracy of Athens. But people living 2,500 years ago were governing themselves, arguing, and cooperating – in other words they were doing politics in a completely different way than people living in the 20th or 21st century. When we acknowledge that there are similarities between democracies in different ages, it is worth asking what it is that makes a state democratic. And what is it that a state has to be deprived of before we declare that its democracy is over? And how can we defend what democracy has achieved? During the last two centuries people have often looked back at Athenian democracy to ponder on the politics of their time,[1] on that which in our usual (and somewhat dull) parlance we call the “democratic values” and which turns out to be dramatically important, when it is gone.

It all seems clear enough: the Athenian constitution was a direct democracy in which the key state decisions were made through a personal vote by citizens in the so-called Popular Assembly, while in our democracies it is completely different. Due to the recent growth of populism and of one of its instruments – namely social media, which is so easily manipulated – we are less inclined today to put our trust in the possibility of online direct democracy. However, even without this naive hope, it is often emphasized that direct democracy has its value.[2] In such a constitution, there is allegedly no place for something which is deemed by many to be the greatest evil of contemporary democracy. This greatest evil which all the other problems are supposed to result from would be the alienation of the elites, that is, a growing gap between the increasingly isolated ruling caste on the one hand, and the ordinary citizens, on the other. Let us take a look at how it used to be in ancient Athens.

Bust of Pericles , Roman copy of a Greek original from c. 430 BC (Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City).

The Democratic Ideal

In the second book of the History of the Peloponnesian War written by the Athenian Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC), we can read a speech – somehow “reconstructed” by the author – that was delivered by Pericles (495–429) during a funeral of the soldiers who fell in the first year of the war (431–430). The speech is dedicated to the value of the Athenian constitution rather than to the glory of the war heroes, and it is full of so many beautiful statements about democracy that democrats from all subsequent periods, and especially the liberals of the last two centuries, frequently quote this speech. We can read there:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.37, tr. R. Crawley)[3]

And in the next chapter:

The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace. (ibid.)

It is hard to find a better manifesto promoting what is called today, rather imprecisely, liberal democracy. It is a majority rule, but it maintains respect towards the privacy and value of the individual, without compromising the authority of the administration. It aims for equality of opportunity, promoting talented individuals regardless of their social background, but with a great emphasis on the good of the whole community which should benefit from those talents. Lastly, it cultivates respect towards values which are not defined by any written legal statutes, but which are universally accepted ethical norms that protect the weaker members of society.

Pericles’ funeral oration, Philipp Foltz, 1852 (priv. coll.).

Criticism of Democracy

That is, of course, merely an ideal. One could look at the Athenian democracy in a completely different manner. And someone did, in fact. During the time of Pericles, an otherwise entirely unknown politician, sometimes called “the Old Oligarch” and once misattributed to the historian Xenophon, uses his bitter pamphlet The Constitution of the Athenians to depict democracy as a system serving the selfish interests of the common people. Not only that, but it serves those interests at the cost of every citizen who would be able to excel in terms of his social origin, status, or talent. He emphasizes envy on the part of the masses, directed towards the elites, but also the typical irresponsibility of the assembly of people, which always entrusts risky undertakings to the more talented and better prepared members of the elite, but then holds them accountable for their communal failures. Even if the whole Athenian people voted for war, the responsibility for defeat would always fall squarely on the politician who submitted the motion in the Assembly. It was so, because every citizen, as an indistinct part of the masses, could always deny the responsibility for group decisions:

It is possible for the demos to disown whatever agreements it makes, by referring the responsibility to the one man who proposed the motion and the one who put it to vote, and for the rest to say, by way of denial, that “I was not present, nor do I approve” of the things which they are told were agreed in a full assembly-meeting. ([Xen.], Ath. pol. 2.17; tr. J.L. Marr & P.J. Rhodes.)

Based on this pamphlet, one can see that the phenomenon of the alienation of the elites was also troubling the Athenian democracy, even though this problem was raised by a very peculiar, self-professed protector of those elites against the wilful self-harm of the majority. What is interesting is that the Old Oligarch – and this differs from our time, when the critics of democracy are usually convinced of its allegedly inherent weakness – concludes his pamphlet with a sad remark. Any rebellion against democracy is pointless, because it is an extremely resilient constitution and one which is diabolically efficient, as it serves the interests of the masses so well. Let us look more closely at how the Athenians achieved such resilience and efficacy.

View of the Athenian Acropolis and Mount Lycabettus from the Orator’s Bema (platform) on the Pnyx.

The People and its Elites

On the one hand, the Athenians for decades left the most difficult aspects of state activity, such as the military leadership of the generals (stratēgoi), to experts or, more precisely, to aristocratic dilletantes who inherited diverse familial and political connections, as well as important connections with foreign elites, from generation to generation. It made them excellent diplomats in the service of the Athenian democracy. Moreover, the elites taught their sons the ‘art of war’ and, as a result, in certain eminent families tactical war skills were transmitted directly from father to son, as in the case of Miltiades, the victor at Marathon in 490 BC, and his son Cimon, or in that of Xanthippus, victor at Mycale in 479, and his son Pericles. Unlike all other public offices to be held only once, military ones could be held repeatedly.

On the other hand, the Athenian civil masses were in control, though indirectly, of the current functioning of the state. In between the sessions of the Assembly (direct democracy!), Athens was ruled by the members of the so-called Council of Five Hundred (boulē), with its fifty-member “panels” changing every month, which were selected in a complex procedure beginning in the assemblies of the demes (local communities) in Attica, and culminating in a central process of drawing lots. Although not acting directly on their behalf, those members were representatives of local Athenian communities. Enforcing the laws and protecting good customs were the responsibility of the Athenian courts. As many as 6,000 out of some 30,000 adult male citizens were selected by lot every year to serve in those tribunals; critics of Athenian democracy even claimed that private and public lawsuits in Athens were conducted far more often than in “the whole of mankind” combined (Old Oligarch, 3.2).

Since the time of Pericles, Athenian citizens received small compensation for public service, such as jury pay, the compensation for which was perhaps enough to afford a modest living, fluctuating between half and a fifth of the pay of an artisan. As an anonymous writer (Pseudo-Aristotle) tells us in his Constitution of Athens, the state also supported disabled citizens unfit for work (Ath. pol. 49.4). From Thucydides, we learn of the public support of those orphaned by the death of those fallen in war (Thuc. 2.46.1). It was not a true “welfare state” yet, but the level of benefits for an ordinary citizen surpassed every constitution attested until the second half of the 20th century.

The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, written in the late 4th century (papyrus copy of c. AD 100, now preserved in the British Library, London).

The Athenian Democracy and its Enemies

To learn something from the Athenians, we should also ask ourselves what the greatest weaknesses of their democracy were. One of those weaknesses may seem paradoxical nowadays. Democratic Athens, unlike those political systems which developed in Europe and America from the end of the 18th century, did not have political parties. In our times we are used to complaining about partisan politics, polarized wars, and the complete submission of an administration to the particular interests of the ruling party. Let us imagine, though, a world without political parties and we will come to miss them pretty soon.

Although, Ancient Greece – not only Athens – knew many formal and ritual associations of citizens, there were no official political parties, which meant that the action of every group of people promoting a specific political agenda always had to exist informally. Such a group often operated in a clandestine, “behind the scenes” manner. To be more precise, such political action would take the form of conspiracy, aiming at bringing to power, by any means available, political friends who supported each other. The precise membership of such a political faction, its ambitions, interests, and exact political plans, that is, its political “program”, were to the majority of the populace a complete enigma. Scholars like to emphasize that the Greeks used the same word (stasis) to describe a political group of interest and an anti-government conspiracy or even a coup. The boundaries between legal politics and subversive conspiracy were often quite fluid. And it was precisely the latter that posed the biggest threat to democracy in Athens.

Towards the end of the 5th century there were two anti-democratic coups: in 411 and 404 BC. The first of those was a peaceful takeover and transformation of the constitution by a combination of blackmailing the masses (with the help of conspirators banding together into informal militias) and legal voting. The oligarchs claimed that they were not trying to destroy the Athenian democracy at all, only to enhance its efficacy. They said that the Athenian people had lost the ability to successfully defend themselves against the Spartan threat, because of the weakness of their democratic procedures.

The oligarchs of 411 BC maintained that they wanted to restore the long-lost Athenian greatness and the legendary, mythologized “ancestral constitution”, which was supposed to be entirely free of the radicalism and chaos of contemporary democratic politics. As a result, the “pure blood” Athenians were to regain their international status once more. The second of those coups, led by an eminent intellectual, Critias (c. 460–403 BC), who was in fact the uncle of Plato, prevailed against the backdrop of extreme turbulence at the end of the Peloponnesian War and in fact it was supported by Spartans who in the same year 404 were winning the war against Athens.

An important democratic innovation was ostracism, by which the Athenian demos had the opportunity to vote to exile for ten years a prominent citizen who they believed to be posing a future danger to the state. Here are example ‘ostraka’ (potsherds on which the Athenians made their choice) with the names of Aristides and Themistocles (Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens, Greece).

No Pain, No Gain

After overthrowing their oligarchic cliques, such as that of Critias, the Athenians of the 4th century learnt from their painful experience and tried to protect their constitution by means of complicated preventive mechanisms. Among those were consecutive “laws against tyranny”, which were to lead to a complete paralysis of the state, if power were to be taken by the enemies of democracy:

If anyone overthrows the democracy at Athens or holds any office after the democracy has been overthrown, he shall be an enemy of the Athenians and shall be killed with impunity, and his property shall be confiscated and a tenth part of it given to the Goddess; and he who kills the man who has done this or helps plan the killing will be pure and free from guilt. All Athenians are to swear over unblemished sacrifices and by demes to kill the man who has done this.[4]

Logically, a general strike of administration officials, judges, and members of the Council of Five Hundred was intended to save democracy if a coup was attempted. But the Athenians did something even more important, although less spectacular: they passed a law which made the process of changing laws much more complicated and formalized, especially the procedures which could lead to overthrowing the democratic constitution by legal or semi-legal means, which was exactly what happened in the year 411 BC.

For almost a century this system worked perfectly well. The Athenian democracy was destroyed only through the military intervention of a powerful, foreign enemy – the kingdom of Macedonia, ruled by Philip II (382–336) and his son Alexander the Great (356–323). Facing the enemy who was soon to wipe out the gigantic Persian Empire in a series of blitzkrieg campaigns, the Athenians did not stand a chance. The most important lesson for us is that the Athenian democracy, although it was never free from internal threats, managed to find a way to deal with that danger efficiently.

Marek Węcowski works at the Department of History in the University of Warsaw. He published a book on The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet (Oxford UP, 2014). His most recent book, on the original goals of the Athenian ostracism, originally published in Polish (University of Toruń Press, 2018), is forthcoming in English.

This piece was translated into English by Mateusz Stróżyński.

Further Reading

The following books are recommended on these themes: Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life, (Oxford UP, 2016); Mogens H. Hansen’s Athenian Democracy: Structure, Principles, and Ideology (2nd ed., Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1999); Peter J. Rhodes’s Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology (Duckworth, London, 2003); and Loren J. Simpson’s What is Wrong with Democracy? (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2004).


1 See, e.g., John Adams, the second US president, in his “Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, against the attack of M. Turgot, in his letter to Dr. Price, 22 March 1778,” vol. 1, chap. vii: ‘Ancient Democratical Republics’ 2: ‘Athens’ (in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams, vol. 4, Boston 1851). In general, see Peter J. Rhodes, Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology (London 2003) esp. 27–69.
2 See briefly Mogens H. Hansen, Athenian Democracy. Structure, Principles, and Ideology (2nd ed., Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1999) 1–3, with further bibliography.
3 The text can be explored in Greek and English here.
4 Andocides, On the mysteries, 96–7, tr. M. Edwards.