Democracy in Ancient Athens

Comparing Ancient Athenian Democracy to American Democracy

Democratic techniques were much different in Ancient Athens than they are in present day, in countries like the United States.  Here are some qualities of the ancient governing system that were unique to the time period:

1. Athenian democracy was exclusive.  Women, slaves, children, and resident aliens did not have citizenship and could not vote.  They did not have any influence on the government at this time. (Raaflaub, Ober, and Wallace, 11)

2.  Alienation of political power was absurd to the Greek people. Elections were held through a lottery/chance technique, and they only personally selected their military leaders (like Pericles).  "The quintessentially democratic method was selection by lot, a practice that embodies a criterion of selection in principle opposed to the alienation of citizenship and to the assumption that the demos is politically incompetent" (Euben, Wallach, and Ober, 62).   

3.  Citizenship was determined in a different way, "In ancient Athenian democracy, the right to citizenship was not determined by socio-economic status; but the power of appropriation, and relations between classes were directly affected by democratic citizenship" (Euben, Wallach, and Ober, 75). 

4.  Differences in citizens and non-citizens were clearly made, "Greeks were intensely concerned with differences among individuals--differences between humans and animals, between males and females, between free people and slaves, between men who owned property and men who did not, and of course between Greeks and non-Greeks" (Euben, Wallach, and Ober, 83).  Today, modern America fights for those inequalities to become extinct in society.

5.  The legal system was challenging in ancient Athens because individuals often represented themselves in court rather than getting a lawyer or other official representative to deal with the offense.  "...the volunteer prosecutor was often not a disinterested or mercenary third-party but the injured party himself" (Osborne, 169). 

Democratic techniques in the modern world have embodied the ideology of democracy, but the overall structure has been diluted over time. "The dominant ideologies in modern capitalist states have tended to dilute the democratic idea, to dissolve it altogether into the concept of liberalism, to offer liberalism not as a complement to, but as a substitute for, democracy as popular power" (Euben, Wallach, and Ober, 78). 

    A shared quality between ancient and modern democracy is the amount of nationalism and patriotism seen in the people and the government alike.  For example, the Athenian people regarded their power and existence very highly.  "Pericles says abut his policy:...Remember, too, that the reason why Athens has the greatest name in all the world is because she has never given in to adversity, but has spent more life and labor in warfare than any other state..." (Euben, Wallach, and Ober, 106).  Similar to this profound sense of accomplishment and perseverance, The United States and its government has also been known for demonstrating respect and honor within the nation and it has also faced times of adversity.

    Another similarity is seen between ancient Athens and modern democracy when a lack of representation for a city-state or nation as a whole is seen.  In modern democracy, there are still examples where the people, or demos, of a nation feel excluded from the decision making within the government "...Everyone shouting for their rights means that no one is clearly heard" (Euben, Wallach, and Ober, 330).  This of course is seen in ancient democracy as well due to the fact that only adult males were allowed to participate in the government's activities.  (Raaflaub, Ober, and Wallace, 11)

    Creating a more detailed comparison to twenty-first century democracy, John Zumbrennen makes connections to ancient Athenian leaders representing the "silent" demos and describing how this is done in the United States, specifically during the Bush administration shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  "...Besides resting on his surging popularity in the days after 9/11 and the vast flow of positive rhetoric from government and media outlets in those days, Bush's political position here hinged on his temporarily successful attempt to let the silence of the American demos speak" (Zumbrennen, 187-188).  He goes on to explain why this success existed and compared it to success in Pericles' rule, "What is more, as with Pericles, Bush's success depended in considerable part on central claims about American unity and American identity" (Zumbrennen, 188). 

    Although similarities exist between ancient and modern democracy, they relate to each other in only basic ways.  In Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, the comparison is discussed, "...This system was radically different from just about anything we citizens of the twenty-first century know as a democracy.  Even the few examples of direct democracy that have survived to be studied by modern scholars...are comparable with the Athenian model in only elementary ways" (Raaflaub, Ober, and Wallace, 11).