What we can learn from ancient Greek democracy

James Kierstead

James Kierstead

James Kierstead is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington. Besides his academic publications he has also written for n+1, Quillette, Times Higher Education, Areo, Quadrant, The Conversation, Spectator Australia, and aargh! (Aotearoa Anarchist Review). Twitter: @Kleisthenes2

Now that a majority of the world’s citizens are living in a democracy, and virtually all of them in a state that claims to be a democracy, you might be forgiven for forgetting that there was another world in which democracy flourished, some two and a half thousand years ago, in ancient Greece.
We know of nearly 60 city-states that practiced dēmokratia at some point during classical times, from Selinous in Sicily to Olbia on the Black Sea (1). These small communities – most with only a few thousand citizens – governed themselves through Assemblies, Councils, and boards of elected and randomly selected officials, steering their own path through an extraordinarily dangerous world. Around a third of all Greek city-states were destroyed at some point in their history, the men massacred, and the women and children enslaved (2).

But beyond its human interest and its value as part of the historical record, does ancient Greek democracy have anything to teach us? Does the experience of a few small male-only cooperatives from the fifth and fourth centuries BC hold any lessons for the millions-strong, cosmopolitan national democracies of the twenty-first century AD? Can the way they went about dēmokratia help us reflect on how we do democracy today? I think that it can, and in fact I’m so sure of it that I’ve dedicated much of my career to teasing out precisely how.

I think ancient Greek democracy can help us in three main ways: by giving us more information about the comparative performance of political regimes; by providing us with a rich store of now novel-seeming ideas for how popular institutions might be organized; and by holding a mirror up to our own democratic practices, helping us reflect both on what aspects of them we can take pride in, and what we might think about changing.

Comparative performance

For the members of the leisure class who dominated the writing of history over most of the last few centuries, there was only one thing Athenian democracy could teach us: that democracy was a terrible idea (3). Athens was ruled by an idle (yet strangely hyperactive) mob that led the city to unexpected defeat against Sparta, executed Socrates, and ultimately rendered the city powerless to halt the rise of more efficient states like Macedon and Rome. As late as the early 19th century, historians of Greece were still pointing out ‘the dangerous turbulence’ and ‘inherent weakness’ of popular government.

Athens. Photo @ Puk Patrick for Unsplash.

It was only in the middle of the century, with the work of George Grote, a banker, MP, and friend of John Stuart Mill, that the tide began to turn. For Grote, it made no sense to blame all of Athens’ mistakes on its system of government; compared with other pre-modern societies, Athens performed pretty well, both in military terms and in its treatment of its citizens. Since Grote’s time, other historians have helped fill out the picture. The aristocratic trope of the ‘idle mob’ (4) now seems a poor fit for the Athenian dēmos, the vast majority of whom were farmers, labourers, or craftsmen. And the trial of Socrates is now generally seen in its context (5), in the aftermath of a short-lived oligarchic junta which had repressed the democracy, assassinated some 5% of the citizenry – and enjoyed deep links with the philosopher.

George Grote (1794-1871)

In fact, if we look at the classical period as a whole, rather than focusing on particular episodes, Athens emerges as clearly the most successful Greek state of its time: the economic powerhouse of Greece, by far its most influential cultural centre, and one of its leading military powers (2). What’s more, the periods of Athens’ greatest flourishing were also the periods in which it was most democratic. That association between more popular control of institutions and greater flourishing also seems to hold for the Greek world as a whole, with the ancient Greek city-state ecology providing one of pre-modernity’s few examples of significant, sustained, and intensive economic growth.

The Greek world, with its host of different regime types competing in a high-stakes environment, ran a bloody and turbulent real-world experiment that we can now learn from at our leisure. It’s all the more valuable because it tells us something about the performance of a set of democracies that are very different from our own modern, post-industrial, and often post-colonial societies. That helps us get more of an idea of what effect democracy itself has on state-performance, even outside of the special circumstances of modernity.

And though there are possible confounding variables in the ancient experiment itself (would a mega-polis like Athens have ended up at the front of the pack even without democracy?) the record allows us to say one thing with certainty. One claim that’s sometimes made about radical democracy – that it will inevitably lead to a state’s immediate and chaotic collapse, or, failing that, to swift annihilation by rivals – is disproven by the actual experience of the direct democracies of ancient Greece.

These states, Athens foremost among them, didn’t collapse, and, though they occasionally suffered defeat, so did their non-democratic competitors (who, by the way, ultimately fared no better against the much larger states like Macedon and Rome). They were, in fact, often beacons of prosperity, security, and dynamism in a tempestuous world. And that makes them an excellent source of ideas about how a vibrant democratic order might be realized today.

Ideas for institutions

Already in the archaic period (before the Persian Wars) we can see city-states using subdivisions of the citizenry to help reduce the risk of a takeover by an autocratic sole ruler, what the Greeks called a tyrannos (our ‘tyrant’). In Gortyn on Crete, the powerful office of kosmos rotated among the city’s tribes, and thus, effectively, among its major family clans. In Miletus in Asia Minor, the paramount molpoi were chosen by half of the city’s tribes one year, and then by the other half of the tribes the next, ensuring that Miletus’ highest officials would always be faced by a natural opposition of around half the populace (6).

We may not feel a need nowadays to use subsets of the citizenry to equalize opportunities for high office. But civic subdivisions in ancient Greece also performed another function, bringing citizens together in feasting, religious ritual, and other activities. This built up connections, trust, and fellow-feeling, something modern social scientists would refer to under the umbrella term ‘social capital(7).

That social capital is important to democracy isn’t completely alien to us, though the idea that the state could have a hand in promoting it is one that might provide food for thought today. But there’s another insight suggested by ancient democracies that’s less familiar to us, and that offers a more bracing challenge to current practices. This is that there are, in fact, lots of different ways of empowering the people politically outside the narrow band of institutional ideas we rely on today.

Elections, for example, are nowadays widely seen as one of the key markers of democracy. But Aristotle tells us that in his time elections were seen as oligarchic, and in Athens only about one-seventh of officials were elected. Ancient Greek democrats recognized that there was a tendency for men from wealthy and upper-class backgrounds to dominate elections. Though elections were clearly more open to the people than dynastic succession, they couldn’t guarantee widespread popular participation on their own.

As a result, the Greeks generally looked to other mechanisms to help them achieve that goal. One was term-limits: our oldest surviving Greek law, from Dreros on Crete, bans men who’ve previously held the office of kosmos from holding it again within the next decade. A related mechanism was rotation: in Athens, groups of fifty men from each of the ten tribes took over the day-to-day running of the state on a monthly basis.

Greek democrats’ mechanism of choice, though, was random allotment – picking names out of a hat, essentially, though the Greeks used helmets or pots filled with beans or scraps of pottery, at least until specially-designed allotment machines came along (see video below).

Like rotation, this was originally an oligarchic practice, and was long seen as allowing the gods a say in human decision-making.

But by the classical period the practice was widely identified with democracy. It’s even one possible reason why the elitist Pythagorean cult banned bean-eating – because beans were associated with allotment and hence with mass government. And no wonder – allotment is how the other six-sevenths of Athenian officials were selected, not to mention the central Council and the popular juries.

Fragment of an Athenian allotment machine. Jurors placed bronze identification tickets into the slots, and black and white dice were inserted into a tube down the side of the machine, one for each row of tickets, with a white die meaning selection.

These juries passed sentences by a form of secret ballot, another democratic mechanism which wasn’t uncommon in ancient Greece. A lot of voting, though, took place openly, by a show of hands. This included voting in the citizen Assemblies, where the most important decisions were taken.

Democratic Athenians could also vote to expel individuals from the city for ten years by a simple majority, a special procedure known as ‘ostracism’, ostraka being the word for the pottery sherds that citizens would scratch their least favourite politician’s name on. Democratic Syracuse had a similar institution called petalism, in which citizens wrote names on the leaves – petala – of olives.

Jurors’ ballots from Athens. Jurors held their fingers against the axles and passed between two urns, dropping their vote into one and the other ballot into the discard urn. A hollow axle meant a vote for the plaintiff, a solid one for the defendant. ‘The people’s vote’ is inscribed on each ballot.

A final democratic mechanism was people just turning up – to the Assembly, whose meetings any citizen could attend; to the annual selection of jurors; and as volunteers for Athens’ seven hundred or so official posts. Athens rarely forced its citizens to take part in politics (even if their culture encouraged it); there was usually an element of self-selection.

Despite that – or maybe partly because of it – classical Athens had rates of public participation in government that put our current democracies to shame. Some thirty percent of Athenians over thirty, at the very least, would have served a year on the Council at some point in their lives. Many others also got a chance to take part in the city’s politics thanks to one or several of the mechanisms I’ve just described – by being allotted or elected to an official position (or being rotated through one); by casting a secret ballot as a juror; by scratching a politician’s name on a sherd during an ostracism; or by turning up to an Assembly meeting and raising their hand.

But now we’re leaving the sphere of institutional ideas and entering the sphere of values – and of evaluation, of Athens’ democracy and of our own.

Ostrakon (pottery sherd) inscribed with the name of the Athenian statesman and general Kimon, the son of Miltiades (c. 510 – 450 BC) who was ostracised in 461.

A mirror for reflection

Ancient Greek democracies excluded women and immigrants from political participation. They were also slave-owning societies, with democracies like Athens even possessing public slaves who performed certain tasks on behalf of the state (8).

Greek democracies weren’t alone among pre-modern states in not having an abundance of women in public life, nor in failing to hold the gates of citizenship open to foreigners. Slavery, of course, has been widespread until fairly recently. Even so, the exclusiveness of ancient Greek democracies might well prompt us to ask whether they really deserve to be called ‘democracies’ at all.

One possible response is that since the Greek city-states were the first societies to use the term dēmokratia, what they were engaged in just was ‘democracy,’ and that’s that. But just because they invented the ideal of dēmokratia doesn’t mean that they lived up to it fully. It’s open to us to decide, because of certain cultural blind-spots, that the Greeks in some particulars failed to instantiate what the ideal of dēmokratia requires.

So what does it require? Dēmokratia, ‘the power of the people,’ seems to require both a) that a reasonably large group of people (a true dēmos) is involved in politics and b) that everyone in it holds some real power. A state with only one person with a lot of power isn’t a democracy, and nor is one in which everyone’s officially a citizen but nobody has any political rights.

Now, the Greek democracies clearly could have included a lot more people in the political process. Only about 10 to 20% of the residents of Athens’ territory were citizens. Was this ‘citizen democracy’ really nothing more than another elite ruling over disenfranchised masses?

That the citizenry in Greek democracies constituted an elite is impossible to deny. But that doesn’t mean that they were no different from the other top-down systems that dominate pre-modern history.

In comparison to the autocratic monarchies of Persia, Macedon, or (later) of the Roman Empire, the citizen-run city-states of classical Greece are intriguing outliers. Most people who lived in them never got to be citizens, it’s true; but that tens of thousands of Athenians (including the poorest) ran their state jointly, as political equals, is something that should spark our interest.

It should also be enough for us to call them ‘democracies’ without snorting derisively. That’s partly because, if ancient Greek democracies didn’t do very well at opening public life up to a significant proportion of the population, our ‘democracies’ don’t do very well at fulfilling the other requirement of a truly democratic system – that everyone in it enjoys some actual political power.

Virtually everybody in our democracies (even, after a few years, immigrants like me) enjoy political rights. Rarely, though, does this extend any further than the right to vote (as well as to run for office, a prohibitively expensive undertaking). The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared in the eighteenth-century that the English were foolish to think themselves free just because they could cast a vote every few years. More than two centuries later, his criticism still has force.

Taking a hard look at our distant democratic ancestors, then, should occasion in us some humility as well as some pride. We should take pride in the fact that we stand at the end of a long process by which the boundaries of political inclusion have been extended to encompass all long-term residents, regardless of their sex or origin. We should take special pride in the way we’ve been able to sustain democracies that enjoy a sort of ethnic diversity the Greeks could hardly have imagined.

But the Greek example should also instil in us a degree of humility. Aristotle, if transported into our time, would probably take one look around him – at our elected elites, at the absence of the random selection of officials or of any real public participation in decision-making – and pronounce our systems decisively oligarchic. (For a related discussion of societal hierarchies and individuals’ place in society see Simone Redaelli’s article ‘Deconstructing hierarchical societies for a happier life’).

The citizens of ancient Greek democracies were wrong to be so exclusive. But they did, in their thousands, and for hundreds of years, run their affairs in a way which gave ordinary citizens real power, and that’s something we might well want to take some lessons from.

What we can learn

This piece is only a selection of the areas in which the Greek democratic experience has something to teach us. The focus has been on how the Greeks actually did democracy in a concrete sense, but there’s also plenty to learn from how ancient thinkers thought about popular rule. As there is from the values the Greeks saw as essential to a democratic culture – values like free and equal speech (parrhēsia and isēgoria) and equality before the law (isonomia).

Even in the more concrete sphere of institutions, what I’ve highlighted here inevitably reflects my own interests, and there are plenty of other areas – from the law to the military – that continue to be investigated, increasingly with an eye to how they might help us think about democracy in the present (9, 10). Even the pre-Victorian idea that the main thing Athenian democracy can teach us is that democracy doesn’t work still has its usefully provocative defenders (11).

For the most part, though, scholarship on ancient Greece remains more focused on reconstructing the past than the present. That’s as it should be: piecing together the realities of ancient societies is a complex undertaking, and, for all the heroic work that’s been done on ancient Greece in the past, new advances are continually being made, whether due to new evidence or new perspectives. Democracy is as important as ever, as is a proper understanding of democratic history.

Meanwhile, thinkers and tinkerers are busy working out how some of the things the ancient Greeks saw as essential to democracy might be revived today, helping us move beyond an approach to democratic institutions that focuses on elections almost to the exclusion of all else (for a detailed analysis, read Robert Talisse’s “Democracy’s Burden“).

‘Kleroterians’ (fans of the klēros, the lot) brainstorm ways that sortition might be employed in modern public life. Citizens’ assemblies from British Columbia to Iceland deliberate on matters of public importance – and make recommendations to governments. And ‘participatory budgeting,’ most well-established in Brazil, explores what happens when local people come together to make their own decisions about how their tax money will be spent.

Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil

It’s absolutely right that all of these movements are proceeding with caution, gathering data, testing concepts at the local level, and seeing what works (and what doesn’t). Pie-in-the sky utopianism has led to too many disasters for any responsible scholar to call for a complete overhaul of our systems. The historical record suggests that more direct democratic institutions probably wouldn’t bring everything crashing down on their own, but with our modern representative systems doing a lot of things quite well, the onus is on the would-be revivalists to demonstrate that they’d not only do no damage, but that they’d represent an improvement on what we have.

At the same time, for all of our systems’ successes, there is clearly still some room for improvement. The deficits of representative democracy are by now familiar: governments put in power by only a minority of voters; an entrenched political elite with strong connections to big money; and a crude political process in which the contest isn’t between rival policies, but between increasingly tribal factions (5). Though we pride ourselves on our democratic systems, ordinary people still exercise very little power. It’s no surprise that confidence in our current form of democracy is at an all-time low.

Against this backdrop, the idea of revitalizing our systems by drawing on ideas and practices from the more direct democracy of the ancient Greeks holds considerable promise. The task now is to work out, carefully and in detail, which ideas and institutions, in which forms and contexts, might help us take our democracies back to a more participatory future. And this project is only just beginning.


James Kierstead



  1. Robinson, E.,”Democracy beyond Athens”, 2011.
  2. Ober, J., “Democracy and knowledge”, 2008.
  3. Roberts, J.,”Athens on trial”, 1997.
  4. Wood, E., “Peasant-citizen and slave”, 1988.
  5. Fuller, R.,”Beasts and Gods”, 2015.
  6. Grote, O., “Die grieschischen Phylen”, 2016.
  7. Putnam, R., “Making democracy work”, 1993.
  8. Ismard, P., “Democracy’s slaves”, 2017.
  9. Lanni, A., “Law and order in ancient Athens”, 2016.
  10. Hanson, V.D., “The western way of war”, 2000.
  11. Samons, L., “What’s wrong with democracy?”, 2004.
Received: 07.06.20; Ready: 21.07.20. Editors: Daniel Sharp, Alexander F. Brown.

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