Athenian Democracy

London Mayoral election will take place in May, followed by Referendum on Membership of EU in the UK in June. This month we want to show images related to politics from the ancient Greece.


Democracy

The invention of democracy is among the most significant legacies bequeathed by ancient Athens to the later world. However, it seems unlikely that the Athenians ever recognised the irony of this relief celebrating the system. The Demos (people) is accurately represented by the seated male figure, since all adult men were members of the all-powerful citizen Assembly, but the figure of Democracy (people-power) is female, although the women of Athens had no vote and few other rights beyond basic maintenance by their (male) relatives.

Stele with a relief showing Democracy crowning Demos (the people of Athens), ca. 337 B.C. Athens, Agora Museum ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Stele with a relief showing Democracy crowning Demos (the people of Athens), ca. 337 B.C. Athens, Agora Museum
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

 

Voting

Juries in Athens were large, usually 501 or more. The large number was a guard against bribery, and the odd number prevented a hung jury. Old retired men who had the leisure to attend often predominated, and a small but very popular subsistence allowance was paid. The litigants spoke a chance to put their case, a vote was taken. Each juror had a small bronze voting disc and two urns, one for Guilty and one for Not Guilty, were set up, each juror dropping his ballot in the appropriate vessel. A court was taken and the verdict pronounced. There was no appeal.

Bronze juror’s ballots, 4th century B.C. Agora Museum, Athens. ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection Ltd

Bronze juror’s ballots, 4th century B.C. Agora Museum, Athens.
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection Ltd

Ostraca

The idea that any citizen might corner enough political power and influence to become oppressive and despotic made the Athenians profoundly nervous, so they devised an institution known as an ostracism. Once a year a citizen assembly was called and if a minimum of 6000 members gathered, they were issued with potsherds – ostraca. (Obviously paper would have been more convenient, but this was both scarce and prohibitively expensive, while broken pots were plentiful). On these sherds the participants scratched the name of the citizen they feared, and a sufficient number of votes ensured a ten-year exile for the potential offender, after which all political threat would have died away and no further problems anticipated.

Image No. GR4LB191-GG Greece. Ostraka, Kerameikos Museum, Athens. ©Geoffrey Garvey/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Greece. Ostraka, Kerameikos Museum, Athens.
©Geoffrey Garvey/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Assembly

The heart and soul of Athenian democracy was the Ekklesia, the great citizen Assembly which met at the Pnyx at the foot of the Acropolis. Every adult male citizen had the jealously- guarded privilege of membership once it was accepted that he was the son of a legally married citizen father and citizen mother, and he had the right to attend and take part in debates and to vote on the outcome. A number of committees prepared the business of the various departments, but nothing could be ratified without the vote of the Assembly. In practice, every Athenian man was his own member of parliament.

 Athens. Pnyx assembly area. Bema of the orators. 5th century BC ©Geoffrey Garvey/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection


Athens. Pnyx assembly area. Bema of the orators. 5th century BC
©Geoffrey Garvey/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection