Athenian Democracy

On Politics

Cleisthenes’s creation was unlike a modern democracy not only in being a direct not a representative democracy. It was not a liberal democracy; there were no constitutional restrictions on what the Assembly could do, no boundaries between public and private life it could not transgress. The Athenians treated choice by lot as self-evidently the most egalitarian way of distributing power, where we use random selection for little beyond jury service. Athenian equality was narrowly political; the eupatridae, or wellborn families, had no doubt of their social superiority; men had no doubt of their superiority over women, nor did Athenians doubt their superiority to foreigners; a slave was at the bottom of the heap. Nonetheless, the Assembly’s power was very real. It did not hesitate to dismiss Pericles, or other generals, and sometimes did so in a fit of ill temper and regardless of merit. Its sovereignty was absolute, and its members knew it. The consequences were predictable; unless the Assembly was on its best behavior, it could be seduced by flatterers, bamboozled by crooks, and led by the nose by the glib and quick-witted. If it lost its temper, it could behave atrociously.


1. Ryan, Alan. On Politics. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.


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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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