In 1992, 2500 years of democracy’ were enthusiastically celebrated all over the world. This was an unusual celebration for two reasons.
Firstly, while anniversaries of statesmen, revolutions and the founding of nations are quite commonly celebrated, no other political ideal has ever been celebrated in this way.
Secondly, democracy in the modern world is quite different from democracy as it was practiced in ancient Greece 2500 years ago.
The democratic ideas and practices with which we are here concerned are emphatically modern, but it would be useful to briefly note the chief features of democracy in the city-state of Athens (widely considered to be the most stable, enduring and model form of democracy in Greece) in ancient times
Appropriately, the word democracy itself is of Greek origin. The Greek word demokratia is a combination of the words demos (meaning the people) and kratos (meaning power or rule). Thus, the one common principle underlying democracy in both the ancient and modern worlds is the idea of rule by the people, whether directly – through personal participation – or indirectly, through elected representatives. The important difference, of course, is in the way in which ‘the people’ were defined.
In the ancient Greek polity, the ‘demos’ was rather restrictively defined and notably excluded three main categories of persons: the slaves, women, and metics (the foreigners who lived and worked in the city-state). This meant that barely a quarter of the total population were members of the citizen body. Nevertheless, it is notable that the direct participation of a 40,000 strong citizen body was no mean achievement. The actual career of Athenian democracy was fairly troubled, as aristocrats, generals and demagogues made periodic attempts to control power.
Their contempt for the poor – described as ‘the mob’ or ‘the rabble’ – finds echoes in the modern world, where democracy was achieved through struggle, and against considerable odds. Indeed, the struggle for democracy everywhere and throughout history, has been simultaneously a struggle against political inequality based on, and justified by, inequalities of birth and wealth.
At its best, however, Athenian democracy conveys an impressive picture of direct participation by citizens in the assembly which deliberated and took decisions on all policy matters, and met on as many as 300 days in the year. Citizens also participated directly in government, as they were chosen by lot to serve in official administrative and judicial positions.