Tracing the roots of democracy back to ancient Greece and its impact in the modern world

– This special feature by Voxytalksy aims to trace the roots of modern democracy back to ancient Greek times and how it’s similarities to the modern world democracies of today.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

It is with zero doubt that it can be said that the ancient Greeks invented the concept of democracy in the historic city of Athens. Athens was originally ruled by kings, but by the 5th century BCE, the city witnessed a cataclysmic shift. Aristocracy and oligarchy were being challenged and were eventually overthrown by the citizens for a rule by the ‘demes’ (people of the land). The word ’demes’ is also a literal translation of the word ‘democracy’ virtually meaning all citizens, but in ancient Greece, ‘citizens’ did not include women, children, slaves or the Greek poleis (urban center).
‘Democracy’ as a word was first used in Greek texts by Herodotus in 440 B.C. but it is highly likely that the concept of democracy predates him considering Cleisthenes’s contribution to the concept of democracy.
Cleisthenes gifts democracy to the world
Much of the credit towards this gradual but firm shift of Athens from an oligarchy towards (government by the few) a democracy (government of the people) goes to Cleisthenes who pushed for reforms in the oligarchic structure of the nation. Cleisthenes or Kleisthenes was an ancient Athenian lawmaker (member of the aristocratic Alcmaeonid clan) who is referred to as the “the father of Athenian democracy” by historians for the fact that he was the central figure in reducing the number of noblemen in Athenian politics and increasing the power of the Athenian citizens in the Athens assembly.
If we look back in time, in 510 BC, Spartan troops helped the Athenians to overthrow their tyrant king Hippias who was succeeded by Cleomenes I. However, Cleomenes I also turned a tyrant when he supported pro-Spartan oligarchy in the nation. His rival Cleisthenes dethroned him with the support of the middle class and aided by Democrats (free people of the land) to take over as the new king by 508 BC. He gave the people of Athens isonomic institutions and established equal rights for all citizens, but as written above, only men were considered ‘citizens’.
The key to the success of Cleisthenes’s democratic style was that he redrew the social-political landscape of Athens and Attica from scratch! He replaced the four existing tribes with ten new tribes (Phylae) which he further split into thirds (Trittyes).
Each of the Trittyes was strategically located in the city (the center of the city, the area beyond the hills, and the coastline) to help break the city into smaller municipalities (Demes) of varying sizes. A total of 140 demes made up the structure of Athens and its neighboring city Attica to help govern the city in an equitable and balanced manner.
The tenets of Greek democracy:
a) Citizens Only
Only male citizens above the age of 18 had the privilege of being called a citizen. Xenophon, a Greek philosopher has written that each citizen who took part in democracy was gifted slaves who would work for them.
b) Assembly, Council, and Courts
The governing bodies of Greek democracy in Athens had these three institutions to govern the people:
• The Ecclesia or Assembly met almost four times a month (ten months of the Athenian calendar make this forty times a year) and gave the citizens an opportunity to vote on important matters like foreign policy and legislative issues. The assembly meetings were generally conducted in the Pnyx or larger theater which could seat 6000 to 14000 people. It was open to all male citizens who could debate on important decisions and after the final decision was taken, it was carved in stone and erected in prominent places across the entire city like the agora (marketplace) for everyone to view. Since thousands of citizens were involved in the process, the best speakers with best vocal ability did the oration.

Every year, they would all meet once to practice ostracism (who to banish) based on poor governance, a wrong deed or a lost court case. The people would write down names on clay pots and the person whose name got the most votes was banished/exiled from Athens for at least ten years. The banished person was to be given back his/her property and rights as a citizen after their ten years of exile was over. The tyrant Pisistratus was the first person to be ostracized like this and Hyperbolus was the last person to be ostracised. In total, 12 people including Kimon, Thucydides, Aristeides, Themistocles, Alcibiades, etc. were ostracized in the ancient Athenian democracy’s history. The very fear of banishment kept the corrupt in check and helped Athenian democracy become a popular governance measure.

The Ecclesia had a chief magistrate called the Archon Eponymous (anarchy means without an archon) who held office for a single year. He was chosen by the Areopagus (council of elders) which included those people who had previously been Archons in the Athenian democracy. He used to conduct investigations into cases and was responsible for looking after orphans and heiresses who had no family. He was also the head of organizing religious festivals in the city and other merriments.

There was also an Archon Basileus who was a ceremonial officer who would conduct religious matters like sacrifices and crucifixions since murders were under his jurisdiction.
A Polemarch was the head of military matters and was the commander-in-chief of the military. The actual military power still remained with the ten Strategoi (generals) from the ten tribes mentioned above. He also oversaw foreign laborers (Metics) and their works in Athens.

• The Boule or Council of 500 met each day and discussed the workings of the Assembly and ratified its decisions if needed. It had 50 men from 10 tribes who were chosen by a system of lottery. The members of the council were chosen on the basis of their Demes (municipalities) and were not permitted re-election for another 10 years after their service was over. The current Athens parliament is still known as the ‘Bouli’.

• The courts or Heliaia had a jury of 501-1501 citizens chosen by daily lottery for managing trials in criminal and civil cases. There were six judges who were called the Thesmothetae. The real power was held with the jury in which the 501-strong jury handled cases of private nature, the 1001-strong jury handled cases against officials of the state, and finally, the 1501-strong jury handled serious charges like murder, treason, etc. The juries generally voted in a secret ballot and were also paid for their services.

• Other official positions like Agora (market) inspectors, tax collectors, merchants, etc. were all chosen by a lottery system.
Did the system work?
• Absolutely! When viewed in the context of its time and its massive outreach, Athenian democracy was a path-breaking concept! The concept of equal rights for citizens, notion of accountability, rotation of power, routine investigations by officials, keeping autocracy in control and finally the promise of true justice is what made ancient democracy a revolutionary idea of that time.
• Athenian society gave us an example of how a model government should be like. However, we have bettered that concept by leaps and bounds since centuries. In a contemporary democracy, women can also have the right to vote. Furthermore, the sharing of power is what makes democracy the most suitable form of government for large countries.
• Though many vile concepts such as gerrymandering, filibustering, cloture, etc. have seeped into the system, the basic sanctity of democracy remains the same. Democracy is always a work-in-progress type of government since it has a certain balance of power to its basic root structure and this balance helps to revert drastic or unworthy changes over the course of time.
Impact of this age-old concept in the 20th and 21st centuries
• Most of our current political vocabulary is mostly ancient Greek-derived. For example, politics, anarchy, aristocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, tyranny, etc. are all words that were used in ancient Athens.
• Though many countries call themselves democracies (like India), they are actually veiled oligarchies. Ancient Athens gave more power to the general public, but in current society, the people with the big pockets do the talking. So, in summation, India is actually an oligarchy functioning in the garb of a democracy!
• In today’s world, most countries are split up into states, districts, sub-district, and blocks for better crowd management. This concept is similar to ancient Athens where most states were poleis or citizen-states and there were roughly 1000 political states and communities in ancient Greece.
• Most forms of government are similar to ancient Athens since they also have a balance of power (separation of power in civic terms) split up into roughly three-four sub-levels of administration. Just like they had the Assembly, Council, and Courts, most current neo-political governments also have a Parliament, a Council of Ministers presided by a President/Prime minister or both, and a Judiciary presided by a Supreme Court of Judges.
• The concept of egalitarianism was also the main concept of ancient democracy that has still lived on in current democratic governments. The notion of one citizen = one vote is now universal law. This vote is a fundamental right that is provided regardless of birth, strength, intelligence, beauty, wealth, social status, etc. and everything happens via a secret ballot. Though the true concept of egalitarianism wasn’t there in ancient Greece considering the fact that women couldn’t vote, but with modern thought, women also have this power in modern society.
• After the Romans (the Roman Republic and later the Empire) took over, demokratia (people-power) had almost died after 300 BCE since the Romans hated this concept; they preferred the aristocratic-oligarchic form of rule. Additionally, the Byzantine Greeks of the 6th century CE also ruled autocratically under ‘divinely’ authorized monarchs. As a result of this, democracy as a form of government had disappeared until the 17th Century BCE.
• It is in the 17th century that the American and the French revolutionaries started to think of adopting a democratic style of government to curb the current mob-rule in their territories.
• Slowly, the western-liberal thought made democracy come back as an accepted governmental norm. It is this achievement of humanity that has helped developed modern political thought and evolution of the true spirit of democracy since the 17th and 18th centuries.
Though the ‘Golden Age of Greek Democracy’ was short-lived due to the Peloponnesian War and Spartan rulers (between 480 and 404 BC), it still was one of the most revolutionary concepts of its time. It is with pride that we can say that modern democracy took birth in ancient Greece thousands of years ago and has lived on to eventually change the shape of history.
Most aspects of ancient Greek democracy are now commonplace to modern people. Its basic notion of stripping off the power and authority from unworthy aristocrats towards a rule by citizens had been a major hit in society. After all, who wouldn’t want equal rights, political accountability, and separation of powers in their country? No wonder that at least 167 countries (166 of these are sovereign states and 165 are UN member states) out of 195 countries of the world consider themselves democracies! Long live democracy!


  1. This is such a detailed post on the origins of democracy. It’s strange to think that it would work during the time of its inception. I also feel like democracy has evolved so much since this time (it’s crazy to think about it).


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