Out of the Attic: The Ancient Roots of Elections
Biden, McCain, Obama, Palin. Which other names are on your mind on these few days before the Big Election?
What! No thought of Cleisthenes?
Athenian democracy lasted about as long as the United States has existed. It began in 508/507 B.C., said Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students (edited by Carroll Moulton), and ended in 322/321 B.C., when the Macedonians overthrew the Athenian government.
A sad history of tyranny directly preceded Athens’ period of democracy. According to Samuel K. Eddy in The Ancient World: Prehistory to 476 C.E., a tyrant named Pisistratus ruled the city state until his death in 527 B.C. His two sons continued the tyranny at their peril: one brother was assassinated in 514 B.C. and the other was expelled with the help of the Spartans.
Isagoras, an aristocrat, in turn set up a strict oligarchy. He reckoned without his fellow nobleman, Cleisthenes, who stirred up the common folk of Athens in 508/507 B.C., besieged the oligarchs in their Acropolis stronghold, and permitted Isagoras’ Spartan supporters to retreat unharmed. The resulting reforms, wrote Eddy, were “essentially political in nature, although (they) inevitably had repercussions in Attic society as a whole.”
Of greatest impact was the abolition of the four traditional tribes of citizens and restructuring Attica’s 170 “demes” (villages) into groups of ten demes called “trittyes.” The trittyes were formed by drawing lots in the three geographic districts: the city of Athens, the coast and the Attic interior.
Although roughly equal in population, the trittyes were not necessarily contiguous – a positive outcome in Cleisthenes’ eyes, for a divided nobility meant a less threatening nobility. The Athenians created entirely new religious cults to forge the new social structure, with the blessing of the Delphic Apollo.
Fifty citizens from each of the trittyes formed the Council of 500 (the “Boule”), whose members prepared legislation for the greater assembly of those Athenians eligible to vote. After the age of 30, citizens joined 6,000 other potential jurors and judges.
At the age of 18, a man became a member of his father’s deme. Two years of military service usually followed, after which the young citizen could join the other 30,000 Athenian free males over age 20 (out of a total population of 300,000).
The voting assembly met outdoors about 40 times a year. About 6,000 citizens attended each session. A particularly heated debate could add to the several hours of meeting time.
Affairs both foreign and domestic came up for direct popular vote, by a show of hands, in the Athenian assembly. Voters elected financial and military magistrates, appointed legislative panels of their peers, and chose the judges who presided over political trials. Ostracism, or penalty of exile, awaited any free adult male who abused his citizenship or violated the rule of law.
Although every free adult male, rich or poor, had the right to vote, slaves, foreigners and women did not. The denial of political rights to slaves and women, however objectionable, to modern American voters, was – after all – a part of the history of our own country in much more recent times. And in ancient Greece itself, the philosopher Plato disapproved of democracy in any form, fearing a tyranny of the uneducated public. An enlightened oligarchy was more to his liking.
Twentieth-century Greece saw a return to tyranny in 1967. According to the online C.I.A. World Factbook, a military dictatorship “suspended many political liberties and forced the king to flee the country, lasted seven years. The 1974 democratic elections and a referendum created a parliamentary republic and abolished the monarchy.”