The Rise of Radical Athenian Democracy

On Politics

Political writers for two thousand years and more saw in this history an object lesson in, variously, the dangers of hubris—overweening self-confidence—the folly of allowing the lower classes to dominate politics, the corrupting effects of power, and much else. The dominant lesson drawn thereafter was the impossibility of combining democratic politics and ordinary prudence. The problem was in essence simple; Athens turned itself into an empire and overreached. At the end of the Persian Wars, Athens was the dominant maritime power, and established an alliance of Aegean island states, whose purpose was to take advantage of Persian weakness to deplete Persian naval power and to loot Persian possessions by way of compensation for the war. This was the Delian League; it was based on the island of Delos, where its treasury was established. It swiftly turned into an Athenian empire. The members of the league became tributary states of Athens, and their taxes went to beautify the city and subsidize the political life of the Athenian lower classes; to run their form of democracy, the Athenians had to pay a subsidy to allow their lower-class citizens to take time off from earning a living, and they were not scrupulous about where the money came from. The Athenians did not moralize about this. They took it for granted that states tried to maximize their power; the more powerful would exploit the less powerful, even if they might keep exploitation within limits, in the hope of more willing assistance in the event of war.

The check on Athenian conduct was self-interest. If Sparta had kept its military and political leadership after the Second Persian War, the Athenians would have been more cautious; resistance from their island allies might have persuaded them that tribute seeking was not worth the candle. Neither obstacle stood in their way; Sparta was indecisive, and the tributary states were weak. Athens embarked on an extension of its democratic institutions. Ceremonial offices alone were reserved for the better-born. As power gravitated to the boule and the Assembly, no provisions were put in place to ensure the good behavior of the Assembly or the council; neither the modern idea of the separation of powers nor the modern view that a constitution should provide a check on the exercise of power made any headway. Both ideas are prefigured in Aristotle’s Politics a century and a half later, and after the Peloponnesian War the constitution was modified in that direction, but mid-fifth-century Athenian practice was not. Athens was a radical democracy; the constitution placed absolute power in the hands of “the people,” and on the good sense of the people the safety of the individual and the wise management of affairs depended.


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


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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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