Peter Jones: The lesson of Athens

Peter Jones writes in The Spectator about the differences between the Athenian system the modern electoralist system. Unfortunately, while Jones makes some very valid points, his description of the Athenian system elides its most important democratic institute, sortition, and his reform proposals go down the standard mistaken route of emphasizing mass participation:

The lesson of Athens: to make people care about politics, give them real power

We don’t, as far as the Greeks are concerned, really do politics; we just elect people to do it for us

Voters explain their apathy about politics on the grounds that the politicians do not understand them. No surprise there, an ancient Greek would say, since the electorate does not actually do politics. It simply elects politicians who do, thereby cutting out the voters almost entirely.

But the contrast with 5th and 4th century bc Athens does not simply consist in the fact that all decisions, both political and legal, were made by the Athenian citizen body meeting every week in Assembly. As Pericles’ Funeral Speech (430 bc) famously demonstrates, what is so striking about Athens is that the nature of the world’s first (and last) genuine democracy and the importance of preserving it were the subject of constant public debate.

[W]ho is making the case for our system? If no one, why not? Is it because, like the EU, it needs reform? And if so, how? (Forget the Lords: only Parliament counts.) Consider, for example, the Scots’ referendum. People were actually doing politics then, because they made the decision. Hence the huge turnout. Is there a hint there? After all, every politician applauded. Or was it just crocodile applause? Is it the politicians at fault, not the system?

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32 Responses

  1. Athens may have been the first Democracy but it wasn’t the last, even in Hellas, where Democracies proliferated.

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  2. Did any of the democratic regimes in Greece survive longer than Athens? Weren’t all of them destroyed by Alexander more or less at the same time as Athens was?

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  3. There was no “war of extermination” against the Democracies. Larson in his study of the Greek leagues laments “Representative government, after its promising start in early Greece, received a setback in the fourth and third centuries. Instead, direct government with primary assemblies was adopted also in federal states.”

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  4. My understanding is that while Athens continued to exist after the Macedonian conquest, Athenian democracy was soon dismantled.

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  5. Athenian Democracy had already shriveled to a shadow of itself, with far fewer citizens and many more slaves than in the great age. However, the vestiges were not rooted out. The Athenians revolted after the death of Alexander and the remnant of their Democracy was ended. Democracies continued to exist though. The Roman general Mummius is said by Pausanias to have busily put down Greek Democracies in the middle of the second century bc

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  6. > Athenian Democracy had already shriveled to a shadow of itself, with far fewer citizens and many more slaves than in the great age.

    If by that you imply that the 4th century system (up to the Macedonian conquest) was less democratic than the 5th century system, then my general understanding is the opposite. It seems that the 5th century system was heavily influenced by aristocrats and capitalists (Pericles being the most notable example, of course), a phenomenon that was less dominant in the 4th century.

    Certainly the number of slaves is not a direct indication of the political equality between the citizens since it is accepted a-priori that the democracy was not extended to slaves (as well as other disenfranchised groups).

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  7. > The Roman general Mummius is said by Pausanias to have busily put down Greek Democracies in the middle of the second century bc

    This is interesting – do you have a citation?

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  8. Athenian Democracy had already shriveled to a shadow of itself, with far fewer citizens and many more slaves than in the great age.

    “If by that you imply that the 4th century system (up to the Macedonian conquest) was more democratic than the 5th century system,”

    I don’t see how you could extract that “implication” from what I said..
    The number of slaves is a general indicator of the deteriorated condition of the Democracy, and consistent with fewer and richer
    citizens.
    I’ll get a citation for you shortly.

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  9. Sorry, I meant to ask whether you implied that the 4th century system (up to the Macedonian conquest) was less democratic than the 5th century system. Was this your implication?

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  10. >The number of slaves is a general indicator of the deteriorated condition of the Democracy, and consistent with fewer and richer
    citizens.

    That’s certainly true from a modern normative perspective, but if democracy is a system which shares rule equally between citizens that’s not the case. Women, slaves and metics were never citizens in any ancient civilization. The shift of legislative power from the assembly to the courts would not necessarily indicate a decline in democracy if it were the case that an allotted sample of citizens could ensure effective power to the demos better than mass decisions in the assembly. Ditto if there was no significant increase in wealth inequality within the citizen body. We can’t really judge ancient civilizations by 21st century egalitarian norms.

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  11. “Sorry, I meant to ask whether you implied that the 4th century system (up to the Macedonian conquest) was less democratic than the 5th century system. Was this your implication?”

    No, I stated it outright. The citizen body was a fraction of what it had been at its 5th century peak.
    Pericles was indeed an aristocrat, as were many of the revolutionary figures of modern Europe. After his death, the obscure tanner’s son Cleon wielded influence. Cleon’s advice to the Democracy is not demonstrably superior to the aristocratic advice of Pericles.

    That noncitizens were not citizens is fairly obvious,
    Nothing could demonstrate a lessening of equality more clearly than a growth of slavery.
    No, power in the hands of the Few does not ensure power to the Many. .
    Indeed, we cannot judge Athenian Democracy by antidemocratic “norms.”

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  12. “This is interesting – do you have a citation?”

    Pausanias:

    [7.16.7] As soon as night fell, the Achaeans who had escaped to Corinth after the battle fled from the city, and there fled with them most of the Corinthians themselves. At first Mummius hesitated to enter Corinth, although the gates were open, as he suspected that an ambush had been laid within the walls. But on the third day after the battle he proceeded to storm Corinth and to set it on fire.

    [7.16.8] The majority of those found in it were put to the sword by the Romans, but the women and children Mummius sold into slavery. He also sold all the slaves who had been set free, had fought on the side of the Achaeans, and had not fallen at once on the field of battle. The most admired votive offerings and works of art were carried off by Mummius; those of less account he gave to Philopoemen, the general sent by Attalus; even in my day there were Corinthian spoils at Pergamus.

    [7.16.9] The walls of all the cities that had made war against Rome Mummius demolished, disarming the inhabitants, even before assistant commissioners were despatched from Rome, and when these did arrive, he proceeded to put down democracies and to establish governments based on a property qualification. Tribute was imposed on Greece, and those with property were forbidden to acquire possessions in a foreign country. Ethnicl confederacies, whether of Achaeans, or Phocians, or Boeotians, or of any other Greek people, were one and all put down.

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  13. >That noncitizens were not citizens is fairly obvious. Nothing could demonstrate a lessening of equality more clearly than a growth of slavery.

    The concern of this blog is the degree of equality within the citizen body, not the extent of the franchise. Yoram and myself claim that the transfer of legislative power from the assembly to randomly-selected legislative courts led to an effective increase in democratic equality. The Age of Pericles (when all key decisions were formally taken in the assembly) is often viewed as an effective dictatorship, and this is why we are questioning your claim that the 4th century was less democratic than the 5th., based on anachronistic modern criteria such as the number of slaves and the increased wealth of citizens. Epistemic considerations (such as the relative merits of the “advice” of Pericles and Cleon) are also orthogonal to this issue, which is not concerned with comparing the epistemic value of democracy with aristocratic systems of government, only the narrower issue of whether the demos (irrespective of its overall size) has kratos.

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  14. > Pericles was indeed an aristocrat, as were many of the revolutionary figures of modern Europe.

    Indeed. And indeed the modern European system, like any system that is dominated by a slowly changing group of people of prominent status, is oligarchical.

    > the obscure tanner’s son Cleon wielded influence

    According to Connor (The New Politicians of Fifth Century Athens, p. 151), that is actually untrue – Cleon’s father was a successful businessman. The rise of Cleon signaled the transition from a system dominated by aristocrats to a system dominated by the wealthy.

    In any case, the mere fact that a single person – whatever is his family background – is influential enough to dominate policy for a long while calls into question the democratic nature of the system.

    > Nothing could demonstrate a lessening of equality more clearly than a growth of slavery.

    I am not sure that indeed there was such a shift in the number or proportion of slaves, but, again, I don’t see this as relevant. The issue is not whether Athens was a democracy for all its inhabitants – it obviously was not. The question is whether is was a democracy for its citizens. It appears that political power was more equally distributed among the citizens during the 4th century than it was during the 5th century.

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  15. > Pausanias

    Thanks for that – quite interesting.

    It is interesting to see that for Pausanias the mark of democracy is having a government without an explicit property qualification. This is indeed a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition as the case of Sparta – or of any electoral system with universal franchise – demonstrates.

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  16. Indeed, the relative merits of leadership do not spring from aristocratic or democratic dna. If Pericles is “often viewed as a dictator,” the classicists I’ve known have not viewed through those remarkable spectacles.
    The demoi found Pericles and other aristocrats to be valuable to the Democracy and accepted or rejected their advice in the assembly. That decisions were “formally taken in the assembly” is certainly a formal fact, but meaningless apart from the discussions that led to the formality. That process began not in the Ecclesia but in the deme assemblies.
    The notion of Democracy did not rest upon equality among the Few but power shared among the Many, and “Democracy” carried the connotation of “rule by the poor.” That equality is more readily attained among a few oligarchs is demonstrated by Sparta.
    I had not realized that the site’s official doctrine is that the Many gain power by ceding it to the Few, and I’ll gladly butt out.

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  17. > I had not realized that the site’s official doctrine is that the Many gain power by ceding it to the Few

    Quite the contrary.

    First, obviously, this site doesn’t have an official doctrine. You are quite welcome to share your views and your knowledge.

    Second, as I see things, it is 5th century Athens in which (like in the modern Western electoralist system) the Many were nominally in power but were in fact largely controlled by the Few (Cimon, Pericles, Cleon, Nicias, Alcibiades and others).

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  18. I know of no evidence that the Athenian politicians “controlled” the citizens. Like any leaders, they organized their supporters, spoke in the assemblies and to the councils, and got themselves elected to the group of 10 strategoi for one year terms. In the early 5th century when the threat to Democracy was understood to be the emergence of a tyrant, the demoi used the power of ostracism against oversuccessful politicians. In the later 5th century, ostracism fell into disuse as the threat of tyranny was supplanted by that of the oligarchic putsch. .

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  19. > Like any leaders, they organized their supporters, spoke in the assemblies and to the councils, and got themselves elected

    We are largely in agreement on this, I think. The difference is that I view all those activities as being oligarchical – they imply that the “leaders” set policy while the “followers” are restricted to choosing from a short menu of policy options set by the “leaders”. Any system that is controlled by “leaders” is therefore oligarchical.

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  20. There is no indication that the leaders “controlled” or “restricted” the polis, and certainly no indication that either friend or enemy saw the Democracy as oligarchy. The assembly opened with the chairman (chosen by lot) asking “who wishes to advise the Athenian people?” The citizens looked to the “usual suspects.” It seems likely that preparatory organizing in the demes was requisite for a serious hearing in the Ecclesia, and that would require what moderns call a political organization, but the Eccleisia was open to proposals- for which Aristophanes lampoons the Democracy.

    SAUSAGE-SELLER: The oracles of the gods flatter me! Faith! I do not at all understand how I can be capable of governing the people.

    DEMOSTHENES: Nothing simpler. Continue your trade. Mix and knead together all the state business as you do for your sausages. To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them. Besides, you possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing. The oracles are in your favour, even including that of Delphi. Come, take a chaplet, offer a libation to the god of Stupidity and take care to fight vigorously.

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  21. > There is no indication that the leaders “controlled” or “restricted” the polis, and certainly no indication that either friend or enemy saw the Democracy as oligarchy.

    The same can be said about the modern electoralist system. It is almost universally described as “democratic”, despite being quite transparently oligarchical. Such a system – where power is exerted by those who can garner the support of the masses – cannot be anything other than controlled and restricted by “leaders”. They are the only ones that can set policy.

    > It seems likely that preparatory organizing in the demes was requisite for a serious hearing in the Ecclesia, and that would require what moderns call a political organization, but the Eccleisia was open to proposals

    Again, the analogy with the modern system is strong. Nowadays as well, the floor of public debate is nominally open to everybody. And yet now as then once the audience is large this nominal equal political footing is in reality a very tilted playing field where those with some privileged status – the famous, the rich, the aristocrats – are the ones to whom attention is paid.

    See some more on this here and here.

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  22. Democracy to the Greeks of the 5th century meant Democracy. The Romans applied it to their own constitution and it gradually lost all meaning. The term itself, however, carries an unmistakable meaning and once in a while some Revolutionary remind us of it
    Democracy did not devalue education or ability, but the Athenians were able to promote ambitious citizens to prominence and to demote them, bestowing fame and perhaps infamy. I don’t think Democracy or any other system can deny fame to its admired figures, and there’s something to be said for keeping them visible and their roles transparent.

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  23. >That process began not in the Ecclesia but in the deme assemblies.

    In my reading about Athenian history I have only come across a few discussions of the local demes, and I have never heard of any original sources describing their actual role. It seems reasonable to guess that some issues that were about all of Attika might be discussed at the neighborhood/village level, but it is also reasonable to assume they dealt exclusively with local matters. Does anyone know of any sources on this?

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  24. You will recall that, until Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens was found toward the end of the 19th century, we knew almost nothing about Athens. Aristotle helps, but studying the infrastructure of the polis brings us down to hard work, I’m afraid.
    The demes were an essential part of the Kleisthenic constitution.
    Considering that the demes were represented on the Boule, I find it unreasonable that they would ignore the affairs of the Polis.
    MH Hansen, who studied the sources 355-322 bc, calculated that Demosthenes might have moved hundreds of proposals in the Ecclesia, but thousand of proposals were moved and suggests that 700-1,400 citizens were active in the Ecclesia.

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  25. > I don’t think Democracy or any other system can deny fame to its admired figures

    Fame and admiration in reasonable measure are not a problem. However, a political system that is based on the action of prominent figures, whose public policy is determined by such figures, is not a democracy.

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  26. Democracy happens when the people have power, as at Athens and other self-governing Greek communities, where the people had power and determined policy to the dismay of the rich..

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  27. >Democracy happens when the people have power, as at Athens and other self-governing Greek communities, where the people had power and determined policy to the dismay of the rich.

    By this criterion, 4th century Athens was no less democratic than the 5th century. Hansen certainly denies that the second (4th century) demokratia was a poor substitute for the first (5th century) variant. In his view this was partly on account of the transfer of final legislative authority from the assembly to randomly-selected legislative courts. This was an improvement both espistemically (the up/down decision was taken after measured deliberation) and democratically (although the advocates tended to be from the political elite, it was a balanced debate and the secret vote ensured that final decision was not corrupted by exogenous interests). Some scholars describe the increased legislative stability that resulted from this as the establishment of the rule of law rather than the rule of men — if that is synonymous with anti-democratic then so be it. But I agree with Yoram that ancient democracies have to be judged by the equality between citizens, not by a comparison between the number of citizens and slaves/metics.

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  28. A citizen body of one would certainly achieve “equality among the citizens” but Democracies- and their oligarchic foes- judged themselves by the proportion of citizens and the power they exercised, and as Kipling said “thy people, Lord, is good enough for me.” Laws in fact do not rule: the rule of law is the rule of lawyers, and Athens had none. In any event, I realize that I don’t belong here and apologize for the intrusion.

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  29. We really appreciate your contribution to the debate! Correct me if I’m wrong but my understanding of ancient politics is that the democracy/oligarchy distinction depended on the wealth criterion — how many other ancient civilisations would have granted citizenship to slaves (a contradiction in terms) or metics? I don’t have the books in front of me at the moment that refer to the 4th century as the rule of law (will send details on when I get home), but there is an interesting unpublished paper by Kinch Hoekstra which refers to the 4th century as the tyranny of law (as opposed to the tyranny of the demos).

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  30. Yes, and the property qualification was of course a burning issue, and a Democracy could be measured by it. But there was also the understanding of a natural opposition between the Few and the Many

    The bracketing of slave and metic is a curious device. We have little information on the metics but they ranged from workers and artisans to merchants, all of whom were drawn to the Piraeus and some who were quite wealthy and hired citizens to represent their interests.

    The bracketing of “slave/metic” reminds us of the complaint of The Old Oligarch that Athenian slaves were “insolent” and indistinguishable from citizens. In Athens the cops were slaves. So were bank loan officers, and they sometimes inherited the bank. The richest man in Athens had been a slave and loan officer. Slaves sometimes owned their own slaves.

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  31. Perhaps it was Aristotle’s metic status that made him hostile to the Athenian demokratia. I believe that Japan operates a similar policy, but would we thereby claim that it is not a democracy? Here are the references for my claim that the 4th century can be characterised by the rule of law, rather than the rule of men:

    Eder, W. (1998). Aristocrats and the Coming of Athenian Democracy. In I. Morris & K. A. Raaflaub (Eds.), Democracy 2500 — Questions and Challenges (pp. 105-140). Deubuque, Iowa: Archaeological Institue of America.

    Hoekstra, K. (2013). Athenian democracy and popular tyranny. Paper presented at the Popular Sovereignty Network.

    Ostwald, M. (1986). From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

    Sealey, R. (1987). The Athenian Republic: Democracy or the Rule of Law? University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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  32. Thanks for the references. I hope to have time to hunt them up in the new future.
    The “”rule of law” is a term of art. Plato has his character Socrates addressed by the laws, but the laws have already spoken through the jury. Platonic fantasy notwithstanding , the laws do not act on their own but require men to interpret and administer them, and as Nietzsche says, “the will to interpret is also the will to power.” .

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