In today's modern world every political regime, even the most authoritarian or repressive, describes itself as democracy or a democratic people's republic. The concept of rule by the people, on behalf of the people, has come to be accepted as the norm, and very few would overtly espouse the cause of dictatorship, absolute monarchy or oligarchy as the most desirable political system upon which to base the government of any country.
It is also generally accepted that democracy, as a political ideology, began in Greece, specifically in Athens, in the seventh century BC and reached its zenith in the fifth century under the leadership of Pericles. Dating an exact starting point is impossible, but at the beginning of the seventh century BC Solon inaugurated a series of reforms that began the movement away from rule by individuals, or tyrants, and by the end of that century the reforms of Cleisthenes provided the basis of the Athenian democratic system that culminated in the radical institutions introduced by Ephialtes and Pericles in the fifth century. The result was the first, and possibly only, truly participative democratic state.
Of course, not every inhabitant of Athens enjoyed the right to vote. Only full citizens could do that, and they represented approximately 30% of Athens's male population, numbering between 30,000 and 60,000 during Athens' Golden Age and declining rapidly throughout the Peloponnesian War. The remainder was made up of metics and slaves, who vastly outnumbered free citizens and, indeed, almost all other slave populations in Hellas, a fact which the Athenians often conveniently chose to forget when singing the praises of their democracy. There is a very strong indication that foreign chattel slaves were an utter necessity to Athens' economy, and though they did not serve as fleet rowers as they would have done in Rome, they still carried out the myriad of unpleasant and demeaning jobs which allowed Athenian citizens the free time to actively participate in the city's politics. In many ways, without slaves, there would have been no democracy in Athens.
Women also had vastly inferior rights in Athens than those of many other poleis (chiefly Sparta), and were virtually regarded as the property of their fathers, brothers and husbands. Women enjoyed no political rights and precious few legal ones, they were forced into arranged marriages at an extremely young age, and they were even fed differently from their brothers while growing up, leading to an average mortality age that was far lower than that of men of comparable social class.
Ironically, between 322 BC and the 19th century, Athenian democracy was almost totally forgotten. If there was any mention of democracy in Athens at all, it was in reference to so-called but largely mythical notions of Solonian democracy as recorded in Plutarch's Life of Solon or Aristotle's Politics. At the beginning of the 19th century, scholars such as August Boeckh began the evaluation and study of democratic Athenian institutions, and inscriptions and the writings of Thucydides and Demosthenes, among others, were used to re-construct those democratic bodies and to gain an understanding of their workings. Later in the century, academics, particularly George Grote, provided new insights into the Athenian democratic processes, and today there is a much fuller understanding of what contributed to Athenian political life. That said, the questions of how and why Athens came to develop the political system it did remain a major area of academic contention.
©2016 Charles River Editors (P)2016 Charles River Editors