by Tim Harding
Within the context of ancient Athenian democracy, the term ‘radical democracy’ refers to a set of constitutional reforms introduced by Ephialtes and Perikles, beginning in 462 BCE. The main elements of these radical reforms were that (1) all major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Ekklesia (Assembly); at which all adult citizens of good standing were entitled to vote (Roberts 1998, 41); and (2) public officials were randomly chosen by lot, known as sortition (Scarre and Fagan 2008, 291). In this essay, I propose to argue that these radical democratic reforms went too far – that is, that their advantages were outweighed by their disadvantages.
Radical democracy was the culmination of a series of constitutional reforms introduced over a period of about 130 years, which were begun by the archon Solon in 594 BCE (Aristotle, 6-13; Roebuck 1965, 206-210; Martin 2000, 84-86). The general thrust of these reforms was to transfer power from the aristocracy to the citizenry of Athens (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 84-85). This process separated the business of the State from the activities of its wealthier citizens; and limited the financial dependence of the State on their generosity (Humphreys 1978, 97).
The reforms were interrupted by the tyranny of Peisistratus, Megacles and Peisistratus’ sons between 560 and 510 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 210). However, from about 508 BCE the reform process was recommenced and greatly extended by Kleisthenes, who is regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 87). Kleisthenes’ democratic reforms comprise the bulk of the constitutional situation that existed before the introduction of radical democracy by Ephialtes and Perikles in 462BCE.
Radical democratic reforms
According to Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, the composition of the major governmental bodies and the legal system before and after the introduction of radical democracy may be summarised as follows.
After the Persian wars, the Council of Areopagus (comprised of aristocrats) resumed guardianship of the constitution. Ephialtes, who had become a leader of the people, diminished the authority of the Areopagus by (1) denouncing and bringing legal actions against members of the Council regarding their alleged maladministration; and (2) re-assigning some of the powers of the Areopagus to the Council of Five Hundred, the Assembly and the law courts (Aristotle, 25; Bury 1963, 347; Hammond 1967, 288; Roberts 1998, 41, 47). The role of the Council of Five Hundred or boule, was to draft legislation for consideration by the Assembly, which had a quorum of six thousand citizens (Waterfield 2004, 117; Roberts 1998, 41). All major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Assembly, which were a form of direct democracy.
After Ephialtes was assassinated, Perikles took his place as popular leader of the Assembly. Perikles was also a general who redirected military resources towards sea power, which had implications for democracy because of the large numbers of citizens required as rowers of the triremes, of which more will be said later.
The major changes of radical democracy were that all magistrates (administrative officials) were selected by lot (sortition), except for military officers and certain other key officials who were elected by vote (Aristotle, 43). No magistrate selected by lot could hold the same office twice (Roberts 1998, 41). The Council of Five Hundred also became elected by lot – fifty from each of ten tribes. Each tribe held the office of Prytaneis in turn, the order being determined by lot. The Prytaneis was responsible for convening meetings and setting the agendas of the Council and the Assembly (Aristotle, part 43). However, in the interests of national security, the generals could instruct the Prytaneis to either call or not call a meeting of the Assembly (Roberts 1998, 47).
One counterbalance to this seemingly random process was a strict legal requirement that any new law must be consistent with the constitution and existing laws, which limited the whim of persuasive orators (Waterfield 2004, 102; Roberts 1998, 42).
The Council of Five Hundred passed judgement on nearly all magistrates, subject to appeal to the law courts. Individual citizens could also lay an information against magistrates for not obeying the laws, subject again to appeal to the law courts if the Council found the charge proven (Aristotle, part 45).
Most of the law courts consisted of 500 citizens over the age of thirty; and more important cases were heard by 1000 or 1500 citizens selected by lot (Aristotle, part 45) from a pool of 6000 jurors (Waterfield 2004, 118). Perikles introduced pay for jury service in the law courts, which counterbalanced the wealthy influence of the aristocrats (Aristotle, Part 27). Pay was later introduced for the Council of Five Hundred and the Assembly (Aristotle, 62), presumably to encourage attendance (Thorley 1996, 73). Councillors were exempt from military service, which would also have encouraged participation (Roberts 1998, 46).
The eligibility for citizenship by birth was altered to require both parents to be citizens (Aristotle, 41) which reduced the ability of aristocrats to marry other aristocrats from outside Athens, thus forcing further social mobility between the classes (Waterfield 2004, 102). This change also inhibited the making of foreign alliances (Humphreys 1978, 99).
In his Funeral Oration, Perikles announced that the community would look after war orphans until they reached adulthood (Thucydides, 2.46.1); which, apart from providing direct benefits to the orphans, enhanced the sense of community in Athens.
Although ostracism (banishment to exile for ten years by vote of the Assembly) was an earlier institution, it became an important part of radical democracy because it symbolised the principle that the interests of the city state must prevail over those of the individual when these are in conflict (Martin 2000, 112). Ostracism also helped to rid the city of potential tyrants (Humphreys 1978, 101).
Advantages of radical democracy
The main advantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows.
(1) The various military threats to Athens made it important that all citizens felt integrally part of the city and its defence, particularly as they provided the essential manpower for the navy (Thorley 1996, 76). As the anonymous writer of the ancient text known as “The Old Oligarch” wrote:
“First of all, then, I shall say that at Athens the poor and the commons seem justly to have the advantage over the well-born and the wealthy; for it is the poor which mans the fleet and has brought the state her power, and the steersmen and the boatswains and the shipmasters and the lookout-men and the shipwrights—these have brought the state her power much rather than the hoplites and the best-born and the elite.” (‘The Old Oligarch’, i.1)
(2) Athens’ shift to democracy assisted her in forming alliances with other democratic city states such as Argos and Megara (Hammond 1967, 298).
(3) Radical democracy fostered political stability and civic pride by holding in check the inherent tensions between rich and poor; and between professional politicians and the masses (Waterfield 2004, 116, 119).
(4) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy promoted public expenditure on monumental buildings (such as the Long Walls), the arts and other cultural activities (Waterfield 2004, 119). There was also an increased accountability of this public expenditure, as all the major decisions were debated and settled by the Assembly (Bury 1963, 348).
(5) The introduction of pay for jurors and later Assembly attendees encouraged wider participation and strengthened the position of democratic leaders against their aristocratic opponents (Hammond 1967, 301).
(6) Natural consequences of the radical democratic reforms were freedom of speech in the Assembly and equality before the law (Goldhill 2004, 5).
Disadvantages of radical democracy
The main disadvantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows:
(1) There was a major problem of efficiency. Because all public policy issues had to be debated and settled by the Assembly, which could not sit during the many festivals that were held, decision-making could be excessively slow and unresponsive to immediate needs (Thorley 1996, 71). Big issues might take days to resolve (Roberts 1998, 41).
(2) There were risks to the quality and coherence of policy decisions; and their implementation. Selection by lot meant that there were no professional government officials, or civil servants, apart from military generals (Waterfield 2004, 116). For example, instead of having a Treasurer advised by financial experts, finance was managed by a multiplicity of boards (Roberts 1998, 43). The lack of a civil service resulted in an over-reliance on professional politicians and orators like Perikles to develop and oversee the implementation of public policy, without expert advice (Waterfield 2004, 116).
(3) There were practical difficulties which prevented all citizens from participating equally in the Assembly meetings. Many Athenian citizens lived too far away from the city; the meeting place at the Pnyx could accommodate only about 6,000 of the 50,000 citizens who now had the right to vote; and only around 2,000 normally attended because many citizens could not afford to attend, at least until pay for Assembly attendance was later introduced (Waterfield 2004, 116-117; Bury 1963, 349).
(4) Few citizens exercised their right to speak in the Assembly, resulting in the public debate being increasingly led by professional orators (Roberts 1998, 41); with most citizen participation being limited to cheering and heckling (Waterfield 2004, 117).
(5) The assumption that every citizen is equally capable of exercising sound judgement is dubious. In contrast, modern representative democracy assumes that some people are better than others at political reasoning (Goldhill 2004, 2).
(6) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy worked against Panhellenism, despite the efforts of Perikles to make the two concepts work together. The brake on Panhellenism arguably increased the threats to Athens from other Greek city states; and to the Greek states as a whole from external threats (Waterfield 2004, 119).
(7) The restriction of citizenship to children of both parents who are citizens would have excluded notable citizens such as Themistocles and Kleisthenes (Bury 1963, 350). It must have also excluded other potentially notable citizens. According to Hammond (1967, 301) modern historians have argued that this restriction also prevented Athens from developing into a larger state.
(8) Finally, it is highly doubtful that mass meetings could successfully manage an empire or wage a lengthy war. It is telling that radical democracy was eventually abandoned after Athens provoked and lost the Peloponnesian War (Roberts 1998, 45).
I have not included the disenfranchisement of women and other non-citizens as a disadvantage here, because this was a common feature of all political systems in ancient Athens; and therefore cannot be attributed to radical democracy.
Naturally, different readers will have different values and priorities; and are therefore likely to weigh the various advantages and disadvantages differently. Also, that there may be numerically more disadvantages than advantages of radical democracy is of little consequence.
My own view is that many of the advantages of radical democracy, for example, defence, political stability, civic pride, free speech, equality before the law, transparency and accountability can also be achieved through other forms of democracy such as the modern system of representative democracy. When combined with the major disadvantages of radical democracy, especially for efficiency and the quality of public policy, I believe that this factor tips the balance against radical democracy.
The historical fact that the ancient Athenian experiment with radical democracy was abandoned after the Peloponnesian War and has rarely, if ever, been repeated, indicates that radical democracy may not in practice have been the best form of democracy.
Anon. c.424 BCE ‘The Polity of the Athenians’ The Old Oligarch in The Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University, New York. Available-: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/424pol-athens.asp
Aristotle, ‘Constitution of Athens’, trans. F.G. Kenyon. R.W.J. Clayton (ed.) Athenian Politics, 1973 London Association of Classical Teachers: The Classical Association, London. Available-: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/athenian_const.html
Thucydides Chapter 4: Pericles’ Funeral Speech in History of the Peloponnesian War trans. R. Warmer, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1972 (revised).
Bury, J.B., 1963 A History of Greece, Macmillan, London and New York.
de Blois, L. and van der Spek, R.J.,2008 An Introduction to the Ancient World (2nd edition) Routledge, London and New York.
Goldhill, S., 2004 ‘The Good Citizen’, in Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters. John Murray, London, 179-94.
Hammond, N.G.L., 1967 A History of Greece (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Humphreys, S. C., 1978 ‘Public and Private Interests in Classical Athens’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Dec., 1977 – Jan., 1978), 97-104.
Martin, T. R., 2000 Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Osborne, R., 2009 Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC, Routledge, Hoboken.
Roberts, J.W., 1998 ‘Radical Democracy’ in City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens, Routledge, London.
Scarre, C and Fagan, B.M. 2008 Ancient Civilisations, (third edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River.
Thorley, J., 1996 Athenian Democracy, Routledge, Hoboken.
Waterfield, R., 2004 Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.
 Athenian citizens were males born in Attica with at least one Athenian parent, excluding metics (foreign residents) and slaves.
 The archon was the position title one of several aristocratic leaders who replaced the hereditary kings of Athens in about 750 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 205).
 Also spelled as Cleisthenes.
Copyright notice: © All rights reserved. Except for personal use or as permitted under the Australian Copyright Act, no part of this website may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, communicated or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. All inquiries should be made to the copyright owner, Tim Harding at firstname.lastname@example.org, or as attributed on individual blog posts.
If you find the information on this blog useful, you might like to consider supporting us.