How Democratic was 5th Century Athens?

Athens has long been heralded as the first example of a democracy in Western history; a state within which its people are truly sovereign. The wealth of ancient writing from the city itself would certainly suggest that this was indeed the case. Unfortunately, the result of these abundant references to an authoritative demos has been the development of a misleading contemporary view of Athens. If Athens is to be realised as the birthplace of a system still highly prevalent in the Western world, it is essential to dispute the dogmatic theories upheld by those academics set on overstating the power and role of the demos. There were a great deal of undemocratic elements in Athens’ makeup, which once identified, should assist in the running of modern democracies.

Democracy is a controversial term, with many different interpretations. Aristotle’s analysis of democracies, with Athens likely predominant in his mind, provides us with his definition of a democratic state as one wherein the ‘free are sovereign’[1]. This has contributed to the facade of Athenian democracy since those classed as free did indeed have equal liberty to speak on political affairs at the Pnyx[2]. Etymologically, per contra, the definition provided is more apt. Demos (people) and kratia (rule) create an impression of a state within which all residents have a right to at least some political power en masse, regardless of class, gender or race, should they desire it. Freedom in this society is taken for granted. Instead, Athens’ demos was comprised of a select few worthy of Aristotle’s distinction of ‘the free’. Only adult male freemen were allowed to partake in matters of the ecclesia. Using figures from both Gomme[3] and Thorley[4], a fair estimate of the total population of Athenian land in the fifth century is 300,000, making those eligible to vote a relatively small sample of around ten percent, just 30,000 men with satisfactory Athenian ancestry[5]. It’s true that Athens can be labelled a democracy if the condition of ‘citizen participation in the political process’[6] is used, but it’s assumed on the grounds that citizens, exclusively being male freemen, have direct political input. Plato defines his democracy as an extreme society wherein ‘every individual is free to do as he likes’[7]. Athens still excluded women and metics from voting, and extensively used slaves. Furthermore, Aristophanes writes of Scythian slaves herding citizens from the agora into the Pnyx by cordoning off a path with red-stained rope, fining those touched by the dye[8]. This all mars a society which built itself on freedom and justice, and illuminates a great deal of undemocratic behaviour, even towards its voting demos.

It is also highly improbable that anywhere close to the entirety of this demos would vote. The size of the Pnyx has been calculated by Hansen to have held at most 6000 voters[9] and Carter goes on to say “The Athenians never saw a full meeting of the citizen body”[10], further reducing the active portion of the demos and population as a whole. Moreover the size of Athenian land meant that property owners in rural areas, particularly poorer ones, could not afford the time required to frequently attend meetings at the Pnyx, creating an inevitable urban majority partaking in political affairs; a view upheld by Finley[11]. Though compared to the tyrannies and oligarchies of other Greek city states at the time the politically active population of Athens was relatively large, the notion of democracy here is discredited substantially when this population is revealed to be less than ten percent of the total, and not always voluntarily at that.

It may still be plausible to suggest a degree of democracy in Athens if this voting body were to hold most of the political power. Wolin upholds the view that the state was ruled by the vicissitudes of public opinion by interpreting both Thucydides and Plato as describing the driving force of Athenian politics as the turbulent ‘passions of the multitudes’[12].  However, there were champions of the political arena throughout the fifth century[13], and it is more than likely they held sway over these ‘passions’. There are several justifications for this. Sophistry was rife in the second half of the century, providing tutorage in rhetoric for citizens who could afford it. Blackwell notes a correlation between increased sophist activity and Athens growing more democratic at this time[14], but as a minority become more proficient in persuasive oratory, they already possess a tool with which to influence those untrained in argument. ‘The ability to create accounts of communal possibilities through persuasive speech’[15], whilst likely integral to Athens achieving its Golden Age, was not the product of a full ecclesia, but instead of an educated few putting forward sophist-bred ideas. Protagoras was even a close friend of Pericles, likely providing some assistance in leadership[16]. The gullibility of the demos was another, closely linked, factor in putting more true power in the hands of skilled rhetōrs. Thucydides’ Cleon stated ‘any novelty in an argument deceives you at once’[17] and that the voters were ‘more like an audience… than a parliament discussing matters of state’[18]. P. J. Rhodes also claims an Athenian citizen was more likely to have gone to a meeting intending to make up his mind as a result of the debate than a modern MP[19]. This stresses the susceptibility of the demos to take well-spoken arguments for granted, giving the speaker the power to influence their vote through mere showmanship, upsetting the balance of power, and detracting from the democracy. The frequency of war in fifth century Athens also contributed to the emergence of ‘democratic leaders’ such as Themistocles, Cimon and Pericles. As military men, the largely inexperienced voting body would naturally look to them for guidance and the safety of their city. Themistocles gained the prestigious office of eponymous archon with ease simply by wooing the poor, who as Holland puts it, were ‘not used to being courted’[20]. Though the people were technically responsible for this ascension by voting, Themistocles’ populist behaviour and inclusion of numerous thetes on the payroll of his large naval expansion as rowers[21] ensured the passions and votes of the demos were in his pocket throughout the war. It is to Themistocles that Athenian victory at Salamis is attributed[22] and the power during 493-472 BCE[23] was firmly in his hands as leader.  

The history of Athens from Solon to Pericles suggests a distinctly homogeneous attitude amongst the demos with respect to powerful individuals, something which is important to consider in the fifth century democratic context. Solon was elected archon as a peacemaker, in the heyday of Athenian political stasis. One man was given charge of all law-making in the hopes that aristocratic feuds would dissipate. Later, Peisistratus is able to eventually secure power by empowering the hyperakrioi, ensuring their support; then by allegedly fooling the other Athenians into believing Athena herself was beside him[24]. Cleisthenes is given power precisely because the people are fed up of later Peisistratid tyranny and he, despite being aristocratic, promised to deliver freedom. Finally throughout the fifth century, war-heroes are given disproportionate power by the ecclesia, because they promise victory and glory to Athens. These success stories again draw attention to the susceptibility of the masses to empowering promises, and the consequent empowerment of he who promises. The implication of this is the presence of a psychological hegemony, whereby the people gravitate towards powerful problem solvers. Even after multiple democratic reforms, one or two names always stand out from a crowd of supposedly 30,000 equals at any time. This is plain to see in the Alcibiades-Nicias rivalry. Around 421 BCE, Alcibiades’ political manoeuvring with Sparta enabled him to guarantee the conclusion of the Assembly favoured him, and consequently appropriate Nicias’ support[25]. The following appointment of Alcibiades as strategos is a perfect demonstration of individuals utilising the malleability of voters as a tool to gain power. The scenario was centred on a small number of influential Athenians; the ecclesia was nothing but a show of hands towards whomever they believed to be acting in their interests.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the power of Athenian aristocracy was not as subdued by such reforms as is commonly assumed. Patronage was a common method for a wealthy politician to gain support, evident in the form of festivals, sports events and culture – most notably Pericles and the Parthenon. Davies notes this period as one of wealth power, where wealthy citizens spent money as a contribution to their lamprotēs[26] which Frost believes should be seen as a purely political end in itself[27]. Plato takes a step further and states leading members of the Boule were liable to take bribes[28], all of which must have created a decisive power imbalance, leaning towards oligarchy rather than democracy. A connection between aristocracy and chariot racing, an inherently high-class activity, can also be used to prove the presence of eupatridai through the fifth century, as it was not until the fourth century that this activity began to die out in Athens[29]. In addition to this, archaeological and topographical foraging into Cleisthenes’ demes have unveiled evidence of a significant aristocratic presence in the fifth century, as well as the possibility of pro-Alcmaeonid gerrymandering[30]. This simultaneously illuminates the possibility of wealth influencing fifth century politics, as well as presenting the chance that one tribe may be more influential than another. Though this does not necessarily suggest an oligarchy, if one group were to have more political clout than another, it certainly reduces the democracy. From a philological perspective, the Greek word hetairia, once meaning ‘club’ or ‘society’ simultaneously meant ‘conspiracy’ by the fifth century[31]. The specific addition of this definition implies the presence, or suspected presence, of such organisations behind the scenes of the democracy, linking with Michels’ postulation of the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, suggesting the omnipresence of a ruling few behind any supposed democracy[32]. Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides in particular supports this view: ‘We have a form of government… which, because in the government it hath respect not to a few but to the multitude is called a democracy’[33]. The difference between that and Warner’s later 1954 translation is that Hobbes alludes to a ruling few who act in the interest of the many, whereas Warner clings to the more popular, parochial opinion by saying ‘power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people’[34]. Hobbes can be seen as more accurate when related to the previous Alcibiades-Nicias episode, when the few in government focussed their attention on impressing the ecclesia to meet their own ends, despite Alcibiades decisions ensuring victory.

To conclude, there was more to Athenian democracy than is often upheld. When compared with the oligarchies of Sparta and Corinth, Athens was radical for its inclusion of the common man in politics. However, it is easy to dispel this democratic veneer. There is still evidence of a fifth century aristocracy which, through wealth power, could have distorted voting. The populace also demonstrated clear leanings towards charismatic individuals, and their susceptibility to rhetoric empowered a minority of popular speakers. Thucydides, a fifth century Athenian labelled Pericles as a pseudo-monarchical figure[35] and a hierarchy amongst citizens was evident. When considering the details beyond the banal claim that Athens was a democracy simply because maybe ten percent of its populace were able to vote, a more crypto-oligarchic approach reveals that fifth century Athens wasn’t all that democratic.



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[1] Aristotle; Politics 1290a30

[2] Plato; Protagoras 319b-d

[3] Gomme (1967)

[4] Thorley (2005:74)

[5] Cartledge (The Democratic Experiment, BBC History

[6] Eremenko (Political participation: Model by Verba in the EU and Russia)

[7] Plato; The Republic 557b

[8] Aristophanes, Acharnians 17-22

[9] Hansen (1983:18)

[10] Carter (1986:193)

[11] Finley, Athenian Demagogues

[12] Wolin, Democracy: Electoral and Athenian

[13] Aristotle; Athenian Constitution 28.1

[14] Blackwell (2003) Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy

[15] Jarratt (1991:98)

[16] O’Sullivan (1995:15-23)

[17] Thucydides 38

[18] Ibid

[19] Rhodes (1986:140)

[20] Holland, (2005:164–167)

[21] Plutarch; Themistocles 19

[22] Ibid 7

[23] Ibid 22

[24] Herodotus 1.60

[25] Thucydides 5.43-45

[26] Rhodes, (1986:136)

[27] McGregor (1981:33-9)

[28] Plato; Epistles vii 325c5-d5

[29] Rhodes, (1986:138)

[30] Lewis (1963)

[31] Finley, Athenian Demagogues 6

[32] Michels (1999)

[33] [Hobbes] (1627) Thucydides 131-132

[34] [Warner] (1954) ibid

[35] Euben (1993:478)