Athenian Democracy 4

4 April 2017

Who really made our type of government? We surely didn’t. It was amazingly the people of Athens. It started in 508 BC and is still around as we use it. It remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right Participation was not at all open, but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a scale that was truly phenomenal.

The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theaters. Only adult male Athenian citizens who had completed their military training as ephebes had the right to vote in Athens. We have had that and many other laws changed around the government. In our government every few years the people vote on new people to represent them, hence the name “Representative” Democracy. However the Athenian people also voted on some of their leaders but that was done in the Agora, which is where every male land owner who is over the age of twenty would meet.

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This meeting was called the assembly. The assembly could be best related to our State Representatives. Then just above them was the council of 500, who monitored the assembly and gave them topics to discuss, as well as bills to vote on. Above the council of 500 come the Magistrates. The Magistrates job can be best described as the “Police in the Government. ” Their job is to ensure that all the laws are being followed and act accordingly when they are not.

The Magistrates, despite the amount of power that they hold, are still not the highest government official in the Athenian democracy, after them comes the Council of the 10 Generals. The Council of 10 Generals was in charge of the military. The Athens didn’t start by being a democratic city. It was started by Cleisthenes whose reforms turned Athens from an oligarchy (government by the few) to a democracy (government of the people). The key to Athenian democracy was Cleisthenes redrawing of the social-political landscape of Athens and Attica.

The chief magistrate of the city was often called the Archon eponymous or ruler. His responsibilities included conducting investigations of legal cases, in particular those that involved the state. He was responsible for protecting the orphans and heiresses with no family and to appoint the choregos who was in charge of organizing the religious festivals. The move towards democracy reflects other changes in society. In the prehistoric period, throughout Greece, aristocratic families have provided the main fighting force, as cavalry.

In the seventh century the Greek city-states develop the new military idea of the heavily armed soldier, the hoplite. A remorseless phalanx of hoplites becomes as effective on the battlefield as the tank in modern times. These soldiers provide their own weapons and armor, but this is expensive. Several of the Greek oligarchies, including that of Athens in the sixth century, reflect the power of this middle class of citizens. A strategic change of direction by Athens, early in the fifth century, gives these poorer citizens a new power.

The military effort is diverted into building up an Athenian navy. Triremes, the fast warships of the time, need men to row them. Suddenly every citizen has a part to play, and the crews of a fleet of warships have a self-evident political strength. A more radical democracy, introduced by Pericles in 462, is almost an inevitable result. Approximately one hundred officials out of a thousand were elected rather than chosen by lot. There were two main categories in this group: those required to handle large sums of money, and the 10 generals, the strategy.

One reason that financial officials were elected was that any money embezzled could be recovered from their estates; election in general strongly favored the rich, but in this case wealth was virtually a prerequisite. Generals were elected not only because their role required expert knowledge but also because they needed to be people with experience and contacts in the wider Greek world where wars were fought. In the fifth century BC, principally as seen through the figure of Pericles, the generals could be among the most powerful people in the polis.

Yet in the case of Pericles, it is wrong to see his power as coming from his long series of annual generalships (each year along with nine others). His office holding was rather an expression and a result of the influence he wielded. That influence was based on his relation with the assembly, a relation that first lay simply in the right of any citizen to stand and speak before the people. Under the fourth century version of democracy the roles of general and of key political speaker in the assembly tended to be filled by different persons.

In part this was a consequence of the increasingly specialized forms of warfare practiced in the later period. Elected officials too were subject to review before holding office and scrutiny after office. They too could be removed from office any time the assembly met. In one case from the fifth century BC the 10 treasurers of the Delian league (the Hellenotamiai) were accused at their scrutinies of misappropriation of funds. Put on trial, they were condemned and executed one by one until before the trial of the tenth and last an error of accounting was discovered, allowing him to go free.

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