Democracy Then and Now


While wars today are fought in the name of democracy as if democracy were a moral ideal as well as an easily identifiable government style, it is not really that black and white. The inventors of democracy were the Greeks who lived in small city-states called poleis. Contact with the wide world was slower. Life lacked modern conveniences. Voting machines were primitive, at best. The people -- the ones who put the demo- in democracy -- were intimately involved in decisions that affected them and would be appalled that bills to be voted on now require reading through thousand-page tomes. They might be even more aghast that people actually vote on those bills without doing the reading.

What Do We Call Democracy?

The world was stunned when Bush was first named the winner of the U.S. presidential race, even after more U.S. voters had cast ballots for Gore. How could the U.S. call itself a democracy, yet not select its officials on the basis of majority rule?

Well, part of the answer is that the U.S. was not established as a pure democracy, but as a republic where voters elect representatives and electors. Whether there has ever been anything close to a pure and total democracy is debatable. There has never been universal suffrage -- and I'm not talking about voters disenfranchised by corruption or improper balloting and tallying. In ancient Athens, you had to be a citizen to vote. That left out more than half the population.


Democracy [demos ~= the people; cracy >kratos = strength/rule, so democracy = rule by the people] is considered an invention of the ancient Athenian Greeks. This page on Greek democracy brings together articles on the stages democracy went through in Greece, as well as the controversy Greek democracy caused, with passages from period thinkers on the institution of democracy and its alternatives.​

Democracy Helped Solve Ancient Greek Problems

The ancient Athenian Greeks are credited with inventing the institution of democracy. Their governmental system wasn't designed for the enormous, spread-out, and diverse populations of modern industrialized countries, but even in their small communities [see Social Order of Athens], there were problems, and the problems led to inventive solutions. The following are roughly chronological problems and solutions leading to what we think of as Greek democracy:

  1. The Four Tribes of Athens: The ancient tribal kings were too weak financially and the uniform material simplicity of life enforced the idea that all tribesmen had rights. Society was divided into two social classes, the upper of which sat with the king in council for major problems.
  2. Conflict Between Farmers and Aristocrats: With the rise of the hoplite, non-equestrian, non-aristocratic army, ordinary citizens of Athens could become valued members of society if they had enough wealth to provide themselves the body armor needed to fight in the phalanx.
  3. Draco, the Draconian Law-Giver: The privileged few in Athens had been making all the decisions for long enough. By 621 B.C. the rest of the Athenians were no longer willing to accept arbitrary, oral rules of 'those who lay down the law' and judges. Draco was appointed to write down the laws.
  4. Solon's Constitution: Solon redefined citizenship so as to create the foundations of democracy. Before Solon, the aristocrats had a monopoly on the government by virtue of their birth. Solon replaced the hereditary aristocracy with one based on wealth.
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  1. Cleisthenes and the 10 Tribes of Athens: When Cleisthenes became a chief magistrate, he had to face the problems Solon had created 50 years earlier through his compromising democratic reforms -- foremost among which was the allegiance of citizens to their clans. In order to break such loyalties, Cleisthenes divided the 140-200 demes (natural divisions of Attica and the basis of the word "democracy") into 3 regions: Cleisthenes is credited with instituting moderate democracy.

The Challenge - Is Democracy an Efficient System of Government?

In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, not only were children denied the vote (an exception we still consider acceptable), but so were women, foreigners, and slaves. People of power or influence weren't concerned with the rights of such non-citizens. What mattered was whether or not the unusual system was any good. Was it working for itself or for the community? Would it be better to have an intelligent, virtuous, benevolent ruling class or a society dominated by a mob seeking material comfort for itself? In contrast with the law-based democracy of the Athenians, monarchy/tyranny (rule by one) and aristocracy/oligarchy (rule by the few) were practiced by neighboring Hellenes and Persians. All eyes turned to the Athenian experiment, and few liked what they saw.

Beneficiaries of Democracy Endorse It

On the following pages, you'll find passages on democracy from some of the philosophers, orators, and historians of the time, many neutral to unfavorable. Then as now, whoever benefits from a given system tends to support it. One of the most positive positions Thucydides puts into the mouth of a leading beneficiary of the Athenian democratic system, Pericles.