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Democracy: The Kind of Good Old Days

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Just around the corner is the 2016 election, where we will, as Lewis Black once put it, decide between two bowls of shit. That is of course if we even bother to vote, which as Americans is sometimes not the case. If you are interested in the Classical roots for democracy and voting, or are wondering if the Greeks and Romans had to put up with the same crap we do, then this article is for you. If you’re not interested in this stuff, read something else I guess….

Let’s start with Athens, that beacon of freedom, the inventor of democracy. According to the mytho-history of the city, Athens started, like pretty much everyone else, as a monarchy ruled by kings. By the 7th century BC, unrest became rampant enough to justify a new form of government. Draco, the legendary lawmaker, instituted Athens’ first written constitution, replacing kings with 9 archons to head the government. Draco’s laws were, well, draconian, and by 594 BC Solon was appointed to reform the system.

So monarchy was a bust, and oligarchy was pissing people off too. Solon, with pretty much no other options, said “screw it, govern yourselves”, invented Democracy, and promptly left the city for 10 years on a self-imposed exile. Apparently Solon’s complete lack of faith in his own system was merited, as it wasn’t long before further turmoil led to Peisistratus taking over as tyrant of Athens.

Solon laid some of the foundation for Classical Athens’ Democracy, including the creation of the Ecclesia (Assembly). He also allowed all citizens voting rights, regardless of property classes, something previously restricted. By 514, Peisistratus’ successors, Hippias and Hipparchus, fell out of favor—the Athenians are picky regarding their overlords—leading to the latter’s assassination and the former’s attempt to run a true dictatorship complete with the usual killings, lavish lifestyle and abuses of power. By 510, Hippias was overthrown and Cleisthenes was put in charge of establishing a new form of government. Presumably not wanting to go on his own self-exile, Cleisthenes picked the best bits of all the previous systems, which is to say all the bits where the average Athenian could tell any other Athenian to piss off without worrying about royalty, titles, or finding out the other guy was in charge of public works (guess whose house is now the new city sewer). More or less, Cleisthenes’ democracy was the Athenian system until 338BC, when Philip II of Macedon (Alex the Great’s father) defeated Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea, effectively ending Athenian autonomy and democracy.

That is pretty much the short version, and when we talk about Athenian democracy, we are generally talking about the stable, Cleisthenic version that operated throughout what we call the period of “Classical Athens”.

Let’s start with the basic similarities and differences. We have “representative” democracy; we elect people to Congress to vote the stupid laws turning pizza into a vegetable, or whatever it is they do when they’re not creating sex scandals. Athens, by comparison, was a “direct” democracy; citizens voted on the laws themselves—and they had their own sex scandals too. The second big difference is that not all offices were based on elections or appointments, but rather were assigned “by lot”. Literally, a lottery decided who would hold office for a particular term. This is probably the most foreign and bizarre difference, since it seems absurd to us that one could become a public office  holder simply by drawing a name from a hat—though a lot of the time one wonders how much worse we would be. Not all offices were filled this way, especially not the critically important ones; they weren’t stupid and didn’t put some drunk baker in charge of the army or anything. Still, it is a little crazy to think that the founders of democracy used a method more random than Hogwart’s Sorting Hat to run the government. What’s even more insane is that it worked.

These are the big differences, but just like the DMV and Medieval torture chambers, we are more alike than we are different.

The first similarity is limits on individual power. We often take for granted things like relatively short terms and checks and balances, but in an age and region where the most common form of government was some sort of absolute monarchy, the ability to boot someone out of office after a term offered a way to change rulers without waiting for someone’s death. Terms for many of the chief magistracies were one year, from June to July, including the nine archons. The best example of this is the Eponymous Archon, the one year elected  official  who gave their name to the year, making a fairly effective dating system. Further, some offices required a certain time frame between reelection, for instance members of the Boule were restricted to two non-consecutive terms, a decade apart. To top off their revulsion to one person hoarding too much power, the Athenian state had its famous “ostracism”. If a citizen was deemed to be winning too many elections or a potential tyrant—or if the people just really, really hated a dude—they could vote to boot him out of the entire damned city. Ostracism allowed the state to exile a fellow citizen for 10 years, just to make sure someone did not become too powerful. Just imagine the joy we’d have here if we could kick our politicians not just out of office, but out of the country for an entire decade.

Finally, just to keep this entry relatively short, much like us, the “freedom” of voting was fairly restricted. Male citizens were allowed to vote, which isn’t so surprising. Much like early US history, women were barred from voting. Also like early US history, there were property restrictions on voting. Remember above when I mentioned one of Solon’s reforms and property classes? They were used to separate eligible voters and office holders. Before Solon, only the rich could vote. The poorest 2 classes, the zeugitaes and the thetes, were restricted in what offices they could hold. The archonships, for example, were not originally open to these two classes. In a weird way, this made the Athenian system a bit more progressive than our own. While the property classes restricted the poor from holding office, they could still vote. Up until the 19th century, many states had property restrictions, greatly diminishing the ranks of potential voters. Coupled with women and blacks, suffrage wasn’t always the great democratic right we might think it is today. The fact that it took up to 1965’s Voting Rights Act to move towards universal suffrage shows the scale at which our own democracy has grown. Just what would the Athenians think of what we have done to their invention? I’ll let Aristotle speak on that.

“It is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic”

~Politics 4.1294b


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