How Democratic was Athenian Democracy?

On Thursday 7th January, we welcomed Professor Michael Scott virtually to the LSA CA for his seventh annual Presidential Lecture, in which he shed light on the inner workings of Athenian democracy. Professor Scott’s TV documentaries, books, public lectures and outreach work have brought the ancient world to whole new audiences and in 2020, despite lockdown, he became the Director of a brand new Institute of Engagement at the University of Warwick where he is a Professor of Classics and Ancient History and began work on ‘X Marks the Spot’ a brand new book on discoveries from the past and their discoverers. We were delighted that he joined us on Zoom for his 2021 lecture entitled, ‘All’s Equal in Democratic Athens – NOT!’.

Professor Scott highlighted how history’s rather rose-tinted view of the city’s unique and acclaimed democracy is not wholly realistic. The ‘demos’ had a greater share of power than in other ancient states but ‘democracy’ certainly did not automatically make for a fair and equal political system. Professor Scott analysed the hyperbole of sources such as Pericles’ Funeral Oration, as recorded by Thucydides, which panegyrised the city’s democracy, stating that the Athenians “follow a constitution which does not imitate the laws of our neighbour but we are rather a model to follow” (Thucy 2.34).

Professor Scott began our trip to ancient Athens by taking us back to the Acropolis, the origins of which, he explained, were as a religious settlement rather than a centre for democratic activity, yet politics (literally the affairs of the ‘polis’ or ‘city’) was closely linked to religion. Then he described the Agora (marketplace) where a ‘melting pot’ of people would gather for everyday activities, court cases and jury duties. Next, the Tholos where the Boule (‘council’), formed from an annually rotating number of citizens from the ten tribes, sat on a regular basis to complete contracts or summon assemblies. Lastly the Pnyx, overlooking the Agora, where debates and discussions took place amongst all the male voters.

Male voters, indeed. Professor Scott showed how ancient Athens’s voting population comprised of roughly 50,000 free, male citizens, all of whom had the right to speak in the assembly (ekklesia). They could also be selected for jury service – selected by a clever device called a kleroterion – and would be randomly selected to serve on the Boule probably twice in their lifetime. 

Political service was regarded as intrinsic to one’s civic duties and these male citizens were remunerated for their attendance at the Pnyx and jury service. Women, on the other hand, although they could be Athenian citizens, were not allowed to vote, or even attend the assembly, or defend themselves in court. Their role was viewed as very much to take charge of the household (oikos): as Meander once said, ‘the poor wretch opens the door to his home and a woman controls everything, orders him about and fights him at every turn’. Women did play pivotal economic and religious roles in the city, but their citizenship was viewed as a means to ensuring that their children also became full citizens, rather than for its intrinsic value.

Another group in society that were not part of the political world and had no democratic power was slaves. A scarce few could gain citizenship after being freed and gaining a reputation, but this was very difficult. And yet, they numbered up to 400,000 in population, a vast number! Whilst many performed the hardest manual jobs that were vital to Athens’ success such as silver mining, some slaves had less physical jobs which should have given them greater status but they were still devoid of power because they were slaves. Professor Scott explained using a variety of sources such as Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes and epigraphy, the complex prejudices against slaves and the variety of treatment they received depending on their masters.

Whilst women and slaves were completely excluded, not every free man was able to participate in Athens’ democracy either: for example, many had to travel from far to come to Athens for their voice to be heard and those that did might not have had a high level of education and would not be listened to by their fellow citizens. Name, wealth and privilege had an important role – the ability to have a real say in decision-making rested then with those from Athens with higher birth and education.

Furthermore, Professor Scott showed, even amongst the free population, there were further restrictions: metics (foreigners) who often came to Athens as craftsmen, were liable for military service and paid taxes yet had no voting rights, no property rights or marriage rights and social mobility was blocked as any children they had with an Athenian citizen could not become citizens. Even amongst citizens, there were gradations of rank and degrees of stigmatisation. Professor Scott clearly explained the complicated distinctions between the nothoi (children of only one citizen or illegitimate children of citizens), atimoi (those who lost their rights for a range of reasons) and demopoietoi (those who were gifted citizenship but lacked social and religious status). Athens’ social strata were certainly complex and it is a moot point how well understood and applied these rules were by the ordinary Athenian!

To conclude the lecture, Professor Scott brought us back to the present era and reflected on the legacy of Athenian democracy. He reiterated the reality of segregation and inequality within ‘democracy’. The tools of democracy such as the pinakion, ostrakon and ballot box may have encouraged randomised selection and decision-making, but not much came down to chance – political power and political persecution or impotency were engrained in the system.

Many thanks to Professor Scott for such an interesting and engaging talk and especially for his excellent Q&A session which followed, in which he answered diverse questions about metics, rebellions against democracy, clothing and symbols of status, other ancient democracies, and, most presciently of all, modern-day democracies. We would normally celebrate the Presidential lecture with a special meal for members afterwards, but this year had to settle for replicating the one element we could – our annual quiz, which this year was themed and featured some fun questions (and interesting answers) about Professor Scott’s early television appearances and classical inspirations! Well done to our winners: Marian, Thomas, Declan and Lorna.

Many thanks to our LSA CA Committee for successfully running this third webinar of our 2020-21 Lecture Programme, to Brooke H for her work for this blog, and of course to our President for his ongoing support and for the passion and knowledge with which he helps us all learn more about the ancient world.