The word democracy means rule by the people, and by the people in ancient Greek times meant one thing, that, male citizens were directly involved in state matters. Democracy developed in Athens as a monarchical rule and eventually became an oligarchy ruled by a council of nobles. The primary reason Athens was able to develop a democracy was due to the economic instability of farming combined with some social factors occurring during the 8th century BCE. A minority group of farmers were able to acquire large amounts of wealthy by investing in specific the cash crops, such as olive oil and wine, while other farmers, who grew wheat, fell deeper into debt eventually selling themselves and their families into slavery. Athens had begun importing wheat and exporting olive oil and wine. According to Richard Hooker, the situation became so bad that the average Athenian farmer was “primed for revolution” (Hooker, 1996). Recognizing the danger, Areopagus (high Court of Appeal for criminal and civil cases in Athens) attempted governmental reform to “end the privation and exploitation” and ensure it never happened again by installing Solon, a poet, politician and lawmaker. It was Solon who was the one to eventually establish democracy in Athens, as the head of Athens in 549 BCE (Hooker, 1996).
Solon would go onto create various reform, included nullifying debt, freeing those who had to sell themselves and their families into slavery, banning loans secured by the promise of slavery; and encouraging the production of olive oil and wine over other crops. He additionally divided the Athenian population into four classes, based on wealth and property, all of which participated in government in some way. If Solon was considered a great hero and his reforms were the basis of Athenian government, they did not last long. Within a few years, Athens was verging on anarchy, and a nobleman, Pisistratus become the new leader of Athens. Thus returning tyranny to Athens but this new tyranny was “as important to the foundation of Athenian democracy as Solon’s reforms had been” (Hooker, 1996).
Pisistratus began a building program in Athens and wanted cultural and religious reform. He desired to make his city “culturally sophisticated and dynamic” and attacked the power of the nobility by shifting some power to the lowest classes (Hooker, 1996). He also worked to ensure Solonian government functioned and “that elections were held” (Hooker, 1996). After Pisistratus tyranny ended upon his death, the Spartans, Athens’ great rival, were brought into help continue the process in 510 BCE. The new leader, Isagoras, attempted to restore Solonian democracy by purifying citizenship by removing a large number of people from their rolls. Eventually, uprising by the people of Athens swept Isagoras and the Spartans from power and opened the door for Kleisthenes, another important leader in the development of democracy.
Between 508–502 BCE, Kleisthenes installed a series of reforms resulting in what we consider Athenian democracy. He gave citizenship to all free men in Athens and the surrounding area. He “developed an innovative system to break the power of…aristocratic families [by a] political realignment of…citizenry” (Landon, n.d.). He introduced a new council, the Council of Five Hundred, which was organized by demographics not heredity. He also changed the military that “had been based on the old tribal structure” (Landon, n.d.).
The last piece of Athenian democracy came long after Kleisthenes in 487 BCE in the form of ostracization. Ostracism was designed so the Assembly could vote a citizen into exile citizens from the polis for 10 years. This important new political device “would guarantee that individuals who were contemplating seizing power would be removed from the country before they got too powerful” (Hooker, 1996).
By the time the great Athenian leader Pericles (495–429 BCE) came to power in a popular democratic movement in 462 BCE the Areopagus had been stripped of its power, and the city was now governed by the council and Assembly. “Pericles…brought forward legislation that let anyone serve as the archon (one of the nine central leaders of the country) despite birth or wealth. The Assembly became the central power of the state… [It] was given sole approval or veto power over every state decision” (Landon, n.d.).
Pericles would introduce state payment to juries allowing poorer citizens to recover some money when they served as a jury member. Pericles also tightened citizenship requirements demanding that both parents be Athenian citizens. Only male citizens participated in the government, and “the great democracy of Periclean Athens was in reality only a very small minority of the people living in Athens. It was, however, the closest human culture has come to an unadulterated democracy” (Landon, n.d.).
Nearly everything that is associated with Greek culture came about during the period of Pericles rule. The great dramatic works were written and the monumental architecture was “built off of the wealth that literally poured into Athens” (Landon, n.d.). Wealthy and at peace, Athens was able to take its resources and “invest it in a massive cultural flowering of art, poetry, philosophy, and architecture” (Landon, n.d.).
During the Periclean Age, Athens and Sparta entered into the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BCE). Large campaigns with heavy fighting took place throughout the Greek world, and it was the first war to be recorded by a historian by Thucydides, the “Father of History”. The Peloponnesian Wars have come to us as “the archetypal war between a commercial democracy and an agricultural aristocracy and a war between a maritime superpower and a continental military machine” (“The Peloponnesian War”).
It was Pericles who insisted “that the greatness of the state is a function of the greatness of the individual” (Sayre, 2013). In fact he felt so strongly about the individual’s role in Athens prosperity due to the fact that “life depends upon this link between the individual freedom and civic responsibility” (Sayre, 2013). For most of those living in Western culture today we recognize these two statements as the foundation of own our lives and political system.
The Greek Golden Age was responsible for as much destruction, as it was greatness. Without this remarkable period, and Pericles as its leader, the Western world would not be as it is now, yet one more step was necessary to plant the seeds of Western culture and democracy: Hellenism.
Hellene is the Greek word for “Greek.” The Hellenistic age was the era when “Greek culture and power extended itself across the known world” (Hooker, 1996). Hellenism is the act of spreading this culture and spread it was. “This was a new idea, exporting culture, and more than anything else, this exporting of culture would deeply influence all the civilizations that would later erupt from the soil” (Hooker, 1996). The Hellenistic world marks the first time international culture in Western, Middle Eastern, and North African history. Greeks exported all aspects of their culture and altered the culture and religion of the Mediterranean. They accepted other cultures as well, bringing non-Greek ideas and people into Greece and Italy (Greek colonies).
The rise of democracy in Athens is reflected not only in the magnificent ruins of the city but also in the spread of those ideals into other parts of the world. Each of the before mentioned promoters of democracy (from Solan, who established the thought process from creating democracy, to Alexander the Great, who spread the culture and ideas as he conquered new territories) played a hand in creating a cultural, political and social structure based on logical and philosophical morals in order to create a world rooted in equality for all those living within its society. The ideas and culture created by the Greeks would first be transferred to the Romans, who would themselves continue shaping the course of Western culture and history.
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Bowra, C. M. (1965). Classical Greece. New York: Time.
Cunningham, L. S., & Reich, J. J. (2006). Culture and values: A survey to the humanities (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage/Wadsworth.