Writings of the Ancient Greeks on the Topic of Democracy

We look to ancient Greece as the birthplace of democracy (power in the hands of the demos/people), which is fair, although it was the ancient Greek polis of Athens, rather than a consolidated panhellenic (all-Greek) effort, that developed democracy as a form of government. Not all ancient Greeks -- not even all people of Athens -- thought democracy was a good idea. Here are some of the major ancient Greek writers on the topic of democracy:

  • Aristotle
  • Thucydides
  • Plato
  • Aeschines
  • Isocrates
  • Herodotus
  • Pseudo-Xenophon
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Aristotle, from Scuola di Atene fresco, by Raphael Sanzio. 1510-11.
Aristotle, from Scuola di Atene fresco, by Raphael Sanzio. 1510-11. CC Flickr User Image Editor
In his Politics, Aristotle distinguishes between good and bad forms of ruling, whether it be rule by one (mon-archy), a few (olig-archy, arist-ocracy), or many (dem-ocracy). More »
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Thucydides
Thucydides. Clipart.com
Thucydides uses Pericles as a mouthpiece for his most famous passage on democracy. Pericles is delivering a funeral oration (recreated by Thucydides) during the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides supports Pericles, although his personal feelings towards democracy were less enthusiastic. Thucydides' Pericles says:
  • Democracy allows men to advance because of merit instead of wealth or inherited class
  • In a democracy, citizens behave lawfully while doing what they like without fear of prying eyes.
  • In a democracy, there is equal justice for all in private disputes.
More »
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Plato, from Scuola di Atene fresco, by Raphael Sanzio. 1510-11.
Plato, from Scuola di Atene fresco, by Raphael Sanzio. 1510-11. CC Flickr User Image Editor
In Plato's dialogue Protagoras, Socrates and the sophist Protagoras discuss whether or not a carpenter (tinker, tailer, sailor or passenger) can be virtuous enough to be a leader. As this is a typical Socratic dialogue, it is hard to see where it is heading. A point is made in this section, that it is impossible to impart political wisdom, yet everyone, no matter what his trade or level of poverty can participate equally in democracy More »
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Bust of Aeschines
Marble bust of Aeschines from the 4th century B.C., at the British Museum. ChrisO/Wikipedia
According to Aeschines, an Athenian statesman, orator, and follower of Socrates, the defining characteristic of democracy is that it is rule by laws -- not rule by the people. More »
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Isocrates

Isocrates, a famous Athenian orator and rhetorician, looks at how democratic societies tolerate evil.
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Herodotus
Herodotus. Clipart.com
Herodotus, the Greek historian known as the Father of History, describes a debate on the three government types in which proponents of each type (monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy) tell what's right or wrong with democracy. More »
Xenophon Writing
Xenophon Writing. Clipart.com
This is a puzzling treatise on the constitution of Athens, by "the Old Oligarch" or Pseudo-Xenophon in which bad legislation is described as the hallmark of a good democracy, and good legislation shows the forced imposition of the will of the more intelligent. More »