Athenian Agora Democracy, where it all started. I recently got a chance to visit square one, where the journey began.
I have always been fascinated by the birth and history of democracy. This fall, we visited Greece. There’s a picture of me above, standing at the Athenian Acropolis, with the historical Agora over my right shoulder. The Agora was the center of Athenian commercial, social and political life.
Although short lived (508 to 322 BC) Athenian Agora democracy had a huge impact over millennia. In fact, if you look at the structures of most western democracies today, you will see the similarities.
Democracy in Athens was comprised of three features: popular assemblies, senatorial oversight, and juries.
When you think of Greek Democracy, you are really thinking about the popular assemblies or Ecclesia. Assemblies were held 40 times a year and comprised of adult male citizens, about 30% of the adult population. Six thousand Athenians would gather together and vote directly on policy and legislation.
Today, we call this direct democracy. Back then, this group met on a hill called Pnyx and made decisions by simple majority vote. You will find this “people power” made decisions about war, foreign policy and even fired public officials.
Athenian Agora Democracy
The Senate, or Boule, was a council of 500, with fifty members from each of ten tribes chosen by lottery. They met daily and did most of the work of government, as we find no trace of a professional civil service. The Senate also decided on what matters were put to the popular assembly.
Finally, Athenian juries were comprised of 200 to 2000 members, selected by lots every day. This was a popular tribunal where citizens brought cases and paid for proceedings.
I sometimes wonder if our modern technologies would enable us to experiment with direct democracy again. But perhaps our use of social media demonstrates that would not be a good idea. On the other hand, I wonder if things would be much worse than we see through our so-called representative democracy.
Anyway, we had a good visit to Greece.