The Athenian Democracy, the democratic system of government present in Athens, Greece, intermittently in the 500 years before the death of Christ1, has been hailed by many as the forerunner to modern democracy. The system, however, was quite distinct from modern democracy, but just as complicated as the systems of political representation present in many West-European social democracies and, in particular, Britain.
The demokratia was unique in that, for a political ideology many thousands of years old, and prior to any temporal space considered by Westerners to be to any degree civilised, it embodied values which have only found their way into the constitutions of Western society in the last 250 years. The concepts of liberty and equality, mentioned notably in prose of the time2 were, nominally, key to the system.
The Principle Behind the System
From the etymology of the word, the demokratia is literally the rule - kratos - of the people - demos, and as such political decision-making was, at least in principle, based on this idea. In order to commune and make decisions, the city-state of Athens met in the ekklesia, or people's assembly, to which any citizen (men only, and discounting slaves) over the age of 20 had a right to attend, speak, and vote. The society being open 'in both deed and word', the assembly was also open for visitors to watch.
This liberty afforded to the people also extended partially into private lives: as well as public liberty, private liberty was also afforded for individuals to live in whatever manner they chose. This freedom - eleutheria - did not, however, extend any further. (It is comparable to the negative freedom afforded to individuals in libertarian states such as America in the 20th/21st Centuries3.)
Assemblies were held in the state of Athens, and a typical yield was around 6000. Critics of the time, most of whom were made up of the Platonic line of philosophers, have begun to find practical fault here, and the language of the time reflects this. Although in ideological terms, the term 'demos' used in the title of the 'demokratia' refers to the 'people', the demos were regarded as a class, those who were able to turn up to ekklesia meetings.
While they by no means constituted all of the audience for any given meeting, the participants were generally the city poor, who - living closest to the area in which the meetings were held - were most able to attend the meetings. This meant that, by their majority, they frequently seized control of the vote in ekklesia meetings. This control of the majority (rather than those qualified to make decisions, better informed, or positioned such that they had more of an interest in the outcome of decisions) is one of the many faults which Plato finds with the Demokratia.
The ekklesia was not the only level of Attican government. The system of government was large and complicated, and is best studied with the ekklesia as a basis. The day-to-day running of the Athenian government was done by means of jurors, who were elected by lot from the population. That is to say that, in a system not dissimilar to the lotteries of today4, people were chosen at random to hold state posts for a period of a year.
The most important 100 jurors were elected by the ekklesia, whose votes were counted by the proedroi, a group of nine chairmen of the ekklesia assembly, also voted by the assembly. These proedroi were able to hold onto their position for more than a year, if voted in again, and are roughly comparable to the upper tiers of the cabinet present in British government. It is from these that Pericles, a famous Greek general/politician rose to became an almost absolute ruler of Athens during the Pelopennesian war.
Criticism - the Mytilene Debate
The Mytilene Debate is one of the many political incidents through which we may glean a greater knowledge of the workings of the Athenian Democracy. The incident itself took place in 427 BC, during the Pelopennesian war, during which the city state of Athens (and her allies) were fighting Sparta (and her allies). The island of Lesbos, on the other side of the Aegean Sea to Athens, had been formerly one of the allies of Athens. However, during the Pelopennesian war, Lesbos revolted against Athens, and so - after the quelling of the revolt, and Athens's recovery - a debate was held in the Greek assembly (the ekklesia) as to what should be done to the people of Mytilene, the main city on the island of Lesbos.
The ekklesia, led by speakers unknown other than Kleon, came to the conclusion that the death penalty should be applied universally, and so - accordingly - the assembly sent a trireme5 to Lesbos, to inform the general present there that all of the citizens (men) should be killed, and all of the women and children should be enslaved. In respect of the decree of the ekklesia, the ship was despatched, and made its way to Lesbos. The following day, under the lead of Diodotos, a further debate decided that it was in Athens's interest not to kill all of the men on the island, and so - after a vote - a second ship was sent to revoke the previous order of genocide, and replace it with a more reasonable order: that of the killing of the ring-leaders, and further penalties (for example, the razing of the walls of the city of Mytilene).
This example serves to illustrate the manner in which the ekklesia were little more than sheep, who were shepherded by the Rhetores, the politicians trained in the art of rhetoric who - through their oratory and charisma - talked the demos (the people present at the ekklesia debates, who numbered around 6000) into voting into whichever manner the Rhetores believed necessary. The fickleness of the ekklesia was well spoken about by writers of the time, such as Plato (who, in turn, represented the views of Socrates), and similes such as that of the Ship's Captain are particularly noteworthy in talking about the ekklesia, in addition to Plato's 'wild beast' simile, both of which derive from his most noteworthy work, The Republic.