Democracy in Ancient Greece

Democracy in Ancient Greece

Democracy is government by the people. This rule is exercised by the people in an assembly of the people or by representatives of the people. The word ‘democracy’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘δημος’ meaning ‘municipality’ and ‘κρᾶτἐω’ meaning prevail. Both these words seem to have Indo-European roots. ‘δημος’ is from ‘dā : də-, and dāi- : dəi-, dī̆-‘, ‘to share, divide’ and ‘κρᾶτἐω’ seems to be from ‘kert-, kerət-, krāt-‘, ‘to roll, turn, wind’

While the oldest written evidence of democracy in Greek culture is in Homer there are myths that relate to democracy that suggest a relation to democracy at a much earlier time.

In Aeschylus, Suppliant Women reference is made to an ancient king who defers to the people for the rule of law:

line 398 King– “I have declared already that, though I am ruler, I will not do this thing without the consent of my people, lest hereafter, if any evil befall, the people should say, “You honored aliens and brought ruin upon your own land.”

line 517 King– “I am going now to call together the people of the land, that I may make the masses friendly; and I will instruct your father in what things he should say.”

line 600 Danaus — Be of good cheer, my children, all goes well on the part of the citizens. Decrees, carrying full authority, have been passed.”

line 605 Danaus– “Action was taken by the Argives, not by any doubtful vote but in such a way as to make my aged heart renew its youth. For the air bristled with right hands held aloft as, in full vote, they ratified this resolution into law: “That we are settlers in this land, and are free, [610] subject to no seizure, and secure from robbery of man; that no one, native or alien, lead us captive; but, if they turn to violence, any landholder who refuses to rescue us, should both forfeit his rights and suffer public banishment.”

These events at Argos occurred perhaps 400 years before the Trojan War.

Pausanius provides evidence of democracy at Argos that occurs at a much later time but still just before the Trojan war.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.19.2: “But from the earliest times the Argives have loved freedom and self-government, and they limited to the utmost the authority of their kings, so that to Medon, the son of Ceisus, and to his descendants was left a kingdom that was such only in name. Meltas, the son of Lacedas, the tenth descendant of Medon, was condemned by the people and deposed altogether from the kingship.

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, line 66, Oedipus– “Have they a king? Or does speaking [in assembly] rest with the masses?”

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, line 77, Stranger — “Stay here, where I found you, until I go and tell these things to the people of this district—not in the city. [80] They will decide for you whether you should stay or go back.

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus line 1760, Theseus: “Children, he told me that no one should draw near that place, or approach with prayer the sacred tomb in which he sleeps. He said that, so long as I saw to this, I would always keep the country free from pain.”

There was a time when women participated in public deliberations at the time of Cecrops:

Augustine, De civitate Dei 18.9-11, “Athens certainly derived its name from Minerva, who in Greek is called ᾿Αθηνη, and Varro points out the following reason why it was so called. When an olive-tree suddenly appeared there, and water burst forth in another place, these prodigies moved the king to send to the Delphic Apollo to inquire what they meant and what he should do. He answered that the olive signified Minerva, the water Neptune, and that the citizens had it in their power to name their city as they chose, after either of these two gods whose signs these were. On receiving this oracle, Cecrops convoked all the citizens of either sex to give their vote, for it was then the custom in those parts for the women also to take part in public deliberations. When the multitude was consulted, the men gave their votes for Neptune, the women for Minerva; and as the women had a majority of one, Minerva conquered. Then Neptune, being enraged, laid waste the lands of the Athenians, by casting up the waves of the sea; for the demons have no difficulty in scattering any waters more widely. The same authority said, that to appease his wrath the women should be visited by the Athenians with the three-fold punishment— that they should no longer have any vote; that none of their children should be named after their mothers; and that no one should call them Athenians. Thus that city, the mother and nurse of liberal doctrines, and of so many and so great philosophers, than whom Greece had nothing more famous and noble, by the mockery of demons about the strife of their gods, a male and female, and from the victory of the female one through the women, received the name of Athens; and, on being damaged by the vanquished god, was compelled to punish the very victory of the victress, fearing the waters of Neptune more than the arms of Minerva. For in the women who were thus punished, Minerva, who had conquered, was conquered too, and could not even help her voters so far that, although the right of voting was henceforth lost, and the mothers could not give their names to the children, they might at least be allowed to be called Athenians, and to merit the name of that goddess whom they had made victorious over a male god by giving her their votes. What and how much could be said about this, if we had not to hasten to other things in our discourse, is obvious.”

Instances of Democracy in the Iliad

In the Iliad of Homer, 1.53, “on the tenth Achilles called the people to assembly,”.

In the Iliad of Homer, 2.70, Agamemnon states: “but first will I make trial of them in speech, as is right,”. He then tells the army that they can go home and they vote ith their feet and begin to leave. But the captains begin to argue with them. Sometimes the captains resort to physical coercion, but they resort to persuasion as well. Then Agamemnon spoke 2.393), “So spake he, and the Argives shouted aloud as a wave against a high headland, when the South Wind cometh and maketh it to swell—even against a jutting crag that is never left by the waves of all the winds that come from this side or from that.”Plainly Agamemnon is looking to the army to vote in a primitive way.

In the Iliad of Homer, 18.494, “But the folk were gathered in the place of assembly; for there a strife had arisen, and two men were striving about the blood-price of a man slain; the one avowed that he had paid all, [500] declaring his cause to the people, but the other refused to accept aught; and each was fain to win the issue on the word of a daysman. Moreover, the folk were cheering both, shewing favour to this side and to that. And heralds held back the folk, and the elders were sitting upon polished stones in the sacred circle, [505] holding in their hands the staves of the loud-voiced heralds. Therewith then would they spring up and give judgment, each in turn. And in the midst lay two talents of gold, to be given to him whoso among them should utter the most righteous judgment.” Plainly this disbute was to be settled by an assembly of the people. The people were listening to various deliberations and then they would vote which they thought the best.

Instances of Democracy in Hesiod’s Theogony

Line 80: “for she (Calliope) attends on worshipful princes: whomever of heaven-nourished princes the daughters of great Zeus honor and behold at his birth, they pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and from his lips flow gracious words. All the people [85] look towards him while he settles causes with true judgements: and he, speaking surely, would soon make wise end even of a great quarrel; for therefore are there princes wise in heart, because when the people are being misguided in their assembly, they set right the matter again [90] with ease, persuading them with gentle words. And when he passes through a gathering, they greet him as a god with gentle reverence, and he is conspicuous amongst the assembled: such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.”


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