The Origins of Democracy

Editor’s note: Shiv is a final year Classics student at UCL. This article focuses on the origins of democracy, created in Ancient Greece.

The System of Athenian Democracy

Democracy, one of the foundations of our current society, was created in Ancient Greece, at around 500BCE.

The Greek word coined was ‘δεμοκρατια’ (demokratia) which derives from the words ‘demos’ (people) and ‘kratos’ (rule/power); the term literally means ‘rule of the people’.

Their system had three main institutions:

  • the ‘ekklesia’ (assembly) – the body that wrote laws and foreign policy
  • the ‘boule’ (council) – a council of representatives from the ten Athenian tribes
  • the ‘dikasteria’ (dicastery) – a group of random jurors before whom cases were argued.

This article will focus specifically on Athens around the 5th/6th century BCE – it’s very easy to think about Ancient Greece as whole linear timeline, but in actual fact it was a huge empire of city states and spanned over a long period of time which makes it very difficult to consider all the different aspects of ‘Ancient Greek democracy’.

The Introduction of Democracy

The reason democracy was introduced into Athens was the desire for equality, so that the small elite aristocratic class would no longer make decisions for the whole state.

However, this equality only expanded to men over 18 whose parents were also Athenian citizens; women, slaves, hectics (foreign residents in Athens) and freed-men were not eligible to vote. In the 4th century, only around 10-20% of the population could participate in the government.

All of the eligible voters were invited to attend ekklesia meetings, which were held 40 times a year and was where laws would be written and revised. Decisions were made by majority vote, which was the key part of democracy. Citizens could also be expelled from Athens for 10 years if voted on by the ekklesia; this was known as ostracism.

More everyday matters would be handled by the boule, a group of 500 men, 50 from each tribe. These men were chosen by lot, rather than election. The Greeks believed that a random lottery was more democratic than an election as it could not be swayed by money or status.

The dikasteria was essentially the justice system. Athens didn’t have police so it was the people who argued, defended, prosecuted and decided on cases by a majority vote. Jurors were paid wages so that everyone could do the job, not just the wealthy.

The Fall of Athenian Democracy

In 411BCE, there was an Athenian coup which was the result of the Peloponnesian War (the war between Athens and Sparta).

They overthrew the democratic government and replaced it with an oligarchy (the rule of a few tyrants) of 400 men; this was led by aristocratic, wealthy Athenian men who felt that the democratic government was ruining the city-state. This lasted for four months until they replaced it with more democratic regimes. In 404BCE when Sparta won the war, the government was replaced by an oligarchy called ‘The Thirty’ – a group of thirty Spartan aristocrats who ruled the state. 

Democracy made a comeback a year later. However, democracy ended in Athens finally because of the rise of the Macedonians in the 4th century. When Alexander the Great died, The Macedonians gave Athens a settlement that resulted in them losing power over their foreign affairs. They revised the Athenian constitution so that only those who had at least 2000 drachmas were classed as citizens (basically – only the rich people could be citizens).

They continued to change the constitution until Athenian democracy was changed into an institution that was no longer run by the people.

Public opinion on Athenian democracy

It’s hard to know the general feeling around democracy as there were so many contesting opinions, and most of the information we have is from aristocratic writers who would’ve let their personal political views impact their writing.

  • Thucydides thought the main issue with the democracy was that common people didn’t know enough about the motions to make informed decisions with regards to voting.
  • Plato and Aristotle believed democracy was a way for the poor to tyrannise the rich. Plato also blamed the democracy for Socrates’ death as he was put on trial and subsequently put to death by majority vote.

Athenian democracy is also often associated with imperialism, and the way it treated its city-states was incredibly brutal and unfair at times. Athens is often accused of using the democracy to benefit itself while oppressing the other states; for example, they decided to execute the entire male population of Melos and sell its women and children. 

The Differences between Athenian and Modern democracy

The key difference between Athenian and modern democracy is that the Athenian democracy was a direct democracy and modern democracy is representative.

This means that the Athenians decided everything by majority vote, and all citizens had equal powers.

In a representative democracy we vote for representatives who then make political decisions, supposedly in our best interest.

It is questionable whether a direct democracy would work now. Instead of elections, politicians would be decided by random lottery which would mean that more people would have to be educated about current affairs, but could also result in misinformed decisions.

Furthermore, while we live in a representative democracy, we do have many features of direct democracy, such as referendums. A perfect example is Brexit, where people sought out more information after the referendum had already happened; they voted without knowing all the facts and many went on to regret that decision based on the aftermath. False promises and lots of money for advertising makes it easy for politicians to prey on uneducated people who don’t have time to do their own research.

In this sense, it would be better to have a full direct democracy where there were assemblies so people could educate themselves, but even in Athens only a small fraction of citizens actually attended the assemblies

Some would argue that Athens wasn’t a democracy due to its exclusion of women, slaves and foreign residents; it wasn’t truly representative of the population and thus decisions could not be made in the best interests of everyone.

Women’s right to vote and the abolition of slavery means our democracy is much more representative now; however currently only 33.8% of MPs in the House of Commons are female, and only 10% of MPs are BAME (that’s 65 out of 650). It is also strange to think that those most against Athenian democracy were the wealthy elite, whereas now our current democracy greatly benefits the rich while marginalising the poor.

This is why the revolts were successful in Athens, they were funded by the rich; they had money and status on their side. 


The lasting impact of Athenian democracy is immeasurable and has completely changed the governing of the Western world. While the definition and connotations of the word has undergone many changes, at its core it has remained the same: democracy is the rule of the people.

Whether we currently live in a democracy or not is a big question that I won’t even try to answer, but what I will say is that if the Athenians saw our system now, I don’t think they’d recognise it as a true and fair democracy. Our political system is too highly influenced by money, status, race, sexuality – the list goes on.

While the Athenians were incredibly supremacist and exclusionary, democracy has its origins in equality and representation which is what our democracy should emulate. 


‘Democracy Ancient and Modern’ by J. Peter Euben

If you want to learn more about Athenian Democracy, check out this series on Kanopy (free, register using uni email!)


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