What are the Unique Traits of Athenian Democracy?
There are several traits that make Athenian democracy unique not only in the ancient world but also in the modern world as well. For the first time in recorded history, citizens had a say in what laws were to govern them . Democracy was an unknown and alien concept in the ancient world, and Athenians knew that their political process was different in and they were intensely proud of it. “Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. We do not copy our neighbours, but are an example to them” (funeral speech.37). The concept of the citizen, the allotment (lottery)system of choosing members of government administration and courts, and it’s form of direct (pure) democracy are all traits that set the Athenian political system apart.
The first unique trait of Athenian democracy was their concept of “the citizen”. Unlike our democracies in North America, all persons were not considered equal in Athens, and to be considered a citizen you had to meet several strict qualifications. First and foremost, you had to be a good person, someone who strived for excellence in all things and who served the polis (community)for the betterment of all (notes). The concept of “the good life” (arete) was the ultimate goal for the Athenian citizen and to achieve this you served the state above all things, even your own family. “There were no individual freedoms, there was no such thing as civil rights- you are not a part of the state if you didn’t participate” (notes). After a being good citizen, you also had to be; male, the son of legitimate citizens, and finally, you had to have completed your mandatory military training. Men under 18, women, slaves, Metics (resident aliens) and citizens who had their rights suspended were excluded from citizenship (notes). Of a population of around 250,000,only 30,000 were considered citizens (notes). Unfortunately, this created a very misogynistic view of the world and the role of women was subverted. Slavery was also encouraged, and it became a necessity with men away at political meetings. It was not enough to be just a citizen, you had the obligation to be deeply involved in in your community and by definition, the political process. A citizens very worth was dependant on this “we alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as harmless but as useless character” (funeral speech.40). Wealth or prestige was not as important as Success in the political realm. Wealth was seen only as a means to an end “wealth we employ , not for talk or ostentation, but when there is a real use for it” (funeral speech. 40).
The allotment system was another important trait of the Athenian democracy. Members of government administration and the courts were picked by lottery instead of by traditional election as elections were seen as more open to tampering and corruption (lecture). This was an entirely new way to do things and it was more equitable and did away with nepotism. Wealth or prestige was no longer a prerequisite for holding government office, as was previously the case. A man was equal to his fellow citizen regardless of wealth. “Neither is poverty a bar, but a man my benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition” (funeral speech.37). This concept was an important idea and opened up the political leadership and decision making to the common man.
The most important trait of Athenian democracy was that it was a direct (pure) democracy. The Athenians were the first in the ancient world to transfer the power of rule into the hands of the people. Athenian citizens had a say in what laws were to govern them and an assembly of all citizens (notes) formed a direct democracy. A direct democracy is a democracy in which every citizen has a direct vote unlike our modern democracy which uses representatives to speak for us. Athens was small enough to have all of its citizens directly cast votes on every motion, and they had the right to bring motions forward and submit laws. It was confident that every citizen, regardless of wealth or social status, had the intelligence to make sound decisions, and only together as a group, could the right consensus be reached. “we are all judges sound judges of policy” (Funeral speech pg. 3. 37). Every citizen was as involved in politics as he was in his own family because according to Athenians, the only way to live the good life was to be involved in the polis “ An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his household’ (funeral speech pg. 3 40). This sentiment is central to the Athenian world view and why Athens was successful as a direct democracy for so long.
The Athenian democracy model was the world’s first real test of the concept of democracy. The Athenian system was not perfect and was certainly flawed in some respects, but many of ideals Athenians held in high regard are noble expressions and are still relevant in today’s modern world. “The rule of the many’” (lecture) was to be the seed that great thinkers took and evolved into the system of government we have today, and as such, has left a legacy that touches us every day.
Thucydides, History of The Peloponnesian Wars, Book 2 : Funeral Speech