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Democracy In Athens

Updated April 29, 2019

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Democracy In Athens essay

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.. il met everyday, except for festival days and certain other forbidden days, in the Bouleuterion in the Agora. When the Assembly met, the Council would meet in the afternoon since most Assembly meetings lasted only till noon. The primary responsibilities of this body were the preparation of an agenda for the assembly and the supervision of the magistrates. Just as the Assembly required a smaller body (the Council) to prepare business for it, the Council needed a group much smaller than 500 to supervise its activities.

This supervision was performed by each contingent of 50 Council members from one tribe, serving in turn (decided by lot) as prytaneis or “presiding officers” for 1/10 of the year The law courts were another crucial part of the Athenian democracy. No citizen was above the law, so as in America everyone, both rich and poor, had to submit to the judgement of their fellow citizens, who made up the juries. Jury service allowed the poor to participate in the political process. Their exercise of real political power in these various capacities was a great source of annoyance to richer, more conservative Athenians.

Every year from citizens, who had volunteered, 6000 jurors were selected by lot and were sworn in. Every day the courts were in session, a varying portion of this panel of 6000 would show up early in the morning, attracted by the prospect of getting paid for their jury duty. No juror could know ahead of time whether he was going to serve that day and, if selected, which case he would be involved in. The reason for the complex process was to prevent bribery.

The size of jury panels varied from 201 to 401 in private lawsuits and from 501 to as high as 2501 in more important cases. The large size of these panels also prevented the possibility of bribery. A secret ballot also protected the jurors from outside influence. The court system was run by non-professionals.

There were no professionally trained judges and lawyers. A law attributed to the sixth century BC lawgiver, Solon, stipulated that a prosecution could be undertaken by “anyone who wanted to.¡¨ A comparison with contemporary functions of government is very revealing: h Non executive head of state ¡V The closest to this function was the epistates, chairman of the 50 prytaneis. The epistates was selected by drawn lot from the prytaneis, with a mandate of one day. Having once served as epistates, he was excluded from ever doing so again. The epistates summoned the prytaneis and the Council and was chairman of the Assmebly.

He held the key to the state treasury, together with the city seal. h Executive head of state ¡V This function did not exist in ancient Athens, for no one citizen ever held so much power. Closest, perhaps, was the poilitical practice, which conferred on Perikles a personal impact similar to that of a head of government. This did not derive, however, from his title of general, but ratehr from the ability to get continuously re-elected, and to influence his fellow citizens on matters of policy and courses of action pertaining to city affairs.

h Government, Ministers ¡V The Council (or Boule), was probably the closest body in the Athenian Democratic system to that of a contemporary government. The Council consisted of 500 citizens, selected by lot. Those, amongst them, entrusted with the supervision of policy implementation fulfilled a role which approximated to minister for that project. h Legislative body ¡V A Parliament, Congress or House of Representatives in the sense of a representative body empowered by the people to legislate on the people¡s behalf did not exist in classical Athens.

All citizens were legislators. h Political parties ¡V Athenian political leanings fell into two broad categories: the aristocrats (those supporting the prior political system where a selected few governed) and the democrats ( those who favored the prevailing democratic system). However, these two schools of thought never manifested themselves in the form of clearly defined, organized political parties. The development of modern democracy is linked fundamentally with the ideas of freedom and equality. In antiquity democracy was based exclusively on citizen rights, that is, on law shaped by man.

Athenian democracy lacked the basic moral principle that stood at the cradle of modern democracy: not to take into account, whether in theory or in political reality, the natural inequality of man. Modern democracy began by realizing the idea of political equality, then strove for social equality, and finally, at least in theory, claimed economic equality for all citizens. In sharp contrast, the evolution of ancient democracy stopped with the concept of political equality. Therefore, the definition of ancient democracy focuses primarily on institutions and numbers of active citizens. Democracy in the classical Greek sense signifies a particular type of society not a particular form of government. Athenian democracy meant the absence of a division between the state and society.

What this really meant was the absence of a professional state apparatus whose function was solely to administer the affairs of the citizens. The citizen body governed itself directly through active participation in administering its own affairs. Participation in government was a duty which fell upon every citizen. The current democratic model makes no such claims. It rejects citizen participation, or what has come to be termed direct democracy, on the grounds of impracticality.

More faithful proponents of elite theory want to protect it from “mass politics” and “mass opinion”. Current political practice in the liberal democratic state does not however necessarily meet the criterion posed by advocates of the model. Democracy as government of the representatives of the majority of the people is not easily attainable. Both in the United States and in Britain participation in the electoral process is relatively low. In Britain for example, it has been pointed out that no British government in the past forty years has been elected with even a bare majority of the votes cast.

In practice the government is elected by and so represents only the largest minority of those who vote. Thus the majority of the voting public are governed by a government not of their own choosing. On the whole, the democracy served the Athenians well for over one hundred and eighty years. Of course, one could complain that the democracy excluded the majority of the population of Athens. Indeed women, resident aliens, and slaves could not participate in the democratic process. On the other hand, Athenian democracy allowed and fostered a degree of direct participation in the democratic process unknown in modern democracies.

Bibliography Abbot, Evelyn. A History of Greece. New York, New York.: Putnam¡s Sono. 1985. Davies, J.K. Democracy and Classical Greece.

Granham, New Jersey.: Humanities Press. 1978. Finlay, Moses I. Democracy: Ancient and Modern.

New Brunswick, New Jersey.: Rutgers University Press. 1973. Hansen, Moses H. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Priciples and Ideology. Oxford, England.:Blackwell.

1991. Strantin, G.R. Athenian Politics c. 800-500 B.C.: A Sourcebook. New York, New York.

Routledge. 1990.

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