Attic democracy

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The Pnyx with speaker's platform, in classical times the place of the Attic people's assembly

The Athenian democracy gained its full expression in the 5th century BC. BC, in the period between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War . This was at the same time the time of Athens' greatest development of power through the Attic League and the economic prosperity and splendid cultural development based on it, of which the buildings on the Acropolis have been handed down as the most impressive testimony .

Attic democracy is an early forerunner of a political order based on the principle of popular sovereignty . With it, a type of constitution was developed that could and can serve as a model and historical experience for all efforts to expand direct democratic approaches.

Even in the epoch of its completion, Attic democracy only offered a part of the population of Attica the right to political participation . Women, slaves and metics (strangers, mostly also of Greek origin) were excluded. With a few exceptions, only men whose parents had been citizens of Athens had all political rights. On the other hand, these registered full citizens were challenged at all political decision-making levels. There was no separation of powers in the modern sense; there were hardly any limits to the power of the people's assembly.

Development history

The development of the Athens polis to a democracy took place in a process that lasted over two centuries and was by no means straightforward or targeted. In the history of Athens , after the abolition of the monarchy, the oligarchy of the noble families first developed . Finally, various structural reforms led to the development of classical Attic democracy.

Starting position

Apart from its 2,500 square kilometers and the size of the citizenry, Athens emerged as a polis until the beginning of the 6th century BC. Not particularly different from other Greek city-states. The increasing social tensions in Athens at this time had also already appeared in other poleis and there often favored the form of rule of tyranny . Original and of long-term importance, on the other hand, were the paths taken in Athens to overcome the crisis, which led to an institutionally secured shared responsibility of the citizens for the community.

Up until this turning point, the rulers in Athens largely corresponded to the current pattern that was also practiced in other Greek city-states: Since the replacement of the monarchy (in this case at the latest in the 7th century), the leadership was in the hands of noble families ( Eupatrids ), the divided the power into offices to be filled each year. The nine archons (recorded in lists since 682 BC) held prominent posts , including one who gave the year the name ( Archon eponymos ), a chief cult official ( Archon basileus ), the military commander-in-chief ( Archon polemarchos ) and six thesmothets for the administration of justice. The Areopagus , a council of aristocrats, was responsible for assigning offices and controlling the exercise of office .

People's assemblies could be held for particularly important decisions - above all about war and peace . At that time, the social organization of the Polis inhabitants took place mainly in the cult associations of the phratria (brotherhoods), which were also headed by noble families. Through the cults in these associations, the Eupatrids not only established relationships with the gods that were important for everyone, but also had suitable reservoirs in the phratria for the formation of their own clientele.

The causes of social tension were related to the changes that Greek colonization had brought about on the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This included strong population growth in many poleis, which was cushioned by the establishment of colonies across the Mediterranean. As a result, maritime trade intensified and in some places there was a change in agricultural structures, including in Attica. Wine and olive cultivation for export now became lucrative, while the previously dominant grain producers came under pressure and feared for their influence. But the main victims of the development were smallholders. The Eupatridai tried to keep themselves harmless from them and their cultivation areas . As a result, more and more of them fell into debt bondage and, as they were liable with their own bodies, were partly slaves of other Athenian full citizens and as such were partly sold abroad. The cohesion of the polis society was therefore at the beginning of the 6th century BC. In Athens massively threatened, as was the military strength, since the hoplite army was based on the free peasantry . In this situation Solon was found in 594/93 BC. Elected archon and appointed by the divided citizenry as mediator or reconciler ( dialacts ).

Foundation laid by Solon

The extent and scope of Solon's reform work suggest the existence-threatening extent of the crisis that had gripped Athens. Apparently Solon was given a free hand to implement his plans. The intention of Solon, who had created elementary prerequisites for the creation of the later democracy, was not a democratic order, but the dismantling of traditional privileges of old noble families in favor of a broader participation right of the Athenian citizenship.

A characteristic of the reforms of the Solon were the measures to restore the free small peasantry, the elimination of debt bondage through debt cancellation and the exclusion of liability with the body for the future ( Seisachtheia ). In his endeavor to redress past injustices and to re-establish a good and just order of the polis (eunomy), Solon also took care of the repurchase of those Athenians who had been resold as slaves because of debt service arrears. In addition, he limited the property to a maximum. This should favor the maintenance of smaller farms.

In order to better protect the restored citizenship, the demos , from undesirable developments in the future, Solon created an extensive body of law with a constitutional character. In doing so, he was able to tie in with attempts to codify the law under Drakon , who as Archon 621 BC. BC had wanted to contain a crisis of the polis through harsh penal laws (hence the "draconian measures" in today's parlance). Solon's approach, however, aimed at citizens' rights and obligations to participate in important matters of the polis. The established structures of the political distribution of power were largely taken into account by stating access to office, military service with self-equipment and possible tax-like levies staggered according to asset classes ( timocratic order ):

  1. The Pentakosiomedimnoi (crop yield over 500 bushels per year) were the only ones eligible for Archons;
  2. The Hippeis (over 300 bushels) only got access to the Archonate after some time, did military service on horseback like the Pentakosiomedimnoi, but only had access to the subordinate offices;
  3. The witnesses (over 200 bushels) did military service as hoplites with also restricted access to office
  4. The Thets (under 200 bushels): were at most lightly armed during military operations or provided the rowing teams and only had political participation rights in popular assemblies and in the people's court without access to office.

In addition to the Areopagus , made up of former archons , which continued to be responsible for blood jurisdiction, for the control of officials and for moral supervision, it is said in traditions from the late 5th century BC. That Solon had founded a " Council of Four Hundred ", which had similar functions as the " Council of 500 " later founded by Kleisthenes . For example, motions for resolutions for the people's assembly are said to have been discussed in advance. The functions of the council allegedly founded by Solon are only known from Plutarch and the sources for its existence emerge only during the revolutionary situation in 411 BC. Chr. On.

The establishment of the People's Court ( Heliaia ), whose jury consisted of members of all classes, created a counterbalance to the Areopagus in the jurisprudence and created broad participation. The Heliaia probably acted as a court of appeal , where public officials could take action against coercive measures. Another means of activating citizenship was the popular lawsuit , which enabled any citizen without any official function to bring charges in front of a court of violations of public order.

It is characteristic of the aura of the father of Attic democracy that still surrounded Solon centuries after his death that Aristotle and Plutarch gave him this - in fact, probably not until the end of the 5th century BC. - Attributed to stasis law, which obliged every citizen to take sides for one side in massive disputes in the polis. And it was entirely in the spirit of Solon that, at the beginning of the second Peloponnesian War , Pericles could say to his fellow citizens that only in Athens a citizen who does not care about political questions is not regarded as a quiet but rather as a bad one.

The aforementioned and a large number of other legal regulations of Solon were displayed on large, rotating wooden panels on the Acropolis. It was important to the author that they should continue to be used and effective without him. Therefore, after completing the reform work, Solon went abroad for 10 years. The tyranny he had beaten for himself met him before his death in 558 BC. In the form of Peisistratos in his hometown. During the tyranny of Peisistratos and his sons, the Peisistratids Hipparchus and Hippias , Solon's laws were only partially applied. But the foundations of the state order that Solon had laid survived and became in the late 6th century BC. For the creation of a democratic system in Athens.

The reforms of Kleisthenes

After the 51-year tyranny of the Peisistratiden in 510 BC. Was eliminated and the directional victory against his rival Isagoras from 508 Kleisthenes put the institutionalization of political participation possibilities initiated by Solon on a new basis. The reorganization of the citizenry, which Kleisthenes initiated with the support of the people's assembly, has apparently been able to mobilize important parts of the citizenry under the catchy term of isonomy , political equality, especially when influential nobles made a front against it and from Sparta at times military ones Received support.

The kleisthenic reforms, which were ultimately preserved, were based on a territorial reorganization of the Attic polis with the aim of mixing the citizenship and politically welding it together. To this end, Kleisthenes divided Attica into three major regions: the urban settlement area including the Piraeus , the inland and the rest of the coastal area. Each of these regions was in turn subdivided into ten sub-regional authorities ( Trittyen ), so that a total of 30 Trittyen resulted. From the hitherto existing four phyla 10 Kleisthenes made entirely new, by summarizing three Trittyen from different geographical regions to a tribe. As a result, citizens of different origins and everyday experience were systematically tied together to form a large political and military association, and the possibilities of influence of the noble families that had dominated up to that point were weakened.

Solon's Council of 400 was transformed into a Council of 500, to which each phyle sent 50 members. The individual demes, in turn, were largely placed under self-administration, which encouraged and institutionalized political participation at the local level throughout Attica.

Political change in the course of the Persian Wars

The course and outcome of the Persian Wars, which were particularly favorable for Athens , were undoubtedly suited to consolidating the reorganization of the polis society and confirming the forces that supported it. The middle wealth classes were able to expand their influence over the Council of 500 and the People's Assembly; The willingness to mobilize and the military successes strengthened the self-confidence of the citizens and spoke in favor of proceeding on the chosen path of expanding political participation opportunities and obligations.

Since 487 BC The archons got their offices through a lottery process that decided on the admitted candidates from the first two asset classes. With that the archonate lost its prestige and weight. In the same year a first place in the National Assembly ostracism (ostracism) instead, which was declared more common in the coming years. Every year, if the majority in the Ekklesia voted in favor, an Athenian citizen could be banished for 10 years. This procedure, perhaps already introduced in connection with the Kleisthenic reforms, enabled the people's assembly to banish a conspicuously ambitious or political troublemaker from Attica for ten years. What was presumably designed as a precaution against a new tyranny became in practice a political regulator that tied personal primacy in Athens to the consent of a majority in the popular assembly. It is true that it was still exponents of the noble families who dominated the political scene; In the long run, however, only those could be successful who, with their manners and concepts, did not meet with rejection in the middle of the citizenry.

After 480 BC When Athens had won the sea ​​battle at Salamis and the Persians had been defeated on land and forced to flee at the Battle of Plataiai in 479 by the united Greek armed forces, there was an additional shift in social forces in the Attic polis. Athens had become the most important sea power in the Mediterranean through the naval armament program of Themistocles . In the military field, in addition to the mounted two first Solonic asset classes and the third asset class representing the hoplite army, the thetes with only low incomes who were needed as rowers on the triremes were also used. Their political interests, which soon emerged more clearly, also had to be taken into account in the future. Because with the establishment of the Delisch-Attic Sea League directed against the Persians in 478/77 BC. There was a permanent consolidation of the importance and influence of the Thets.

After almost two decades of consolidation following the Persian Wars, during which Attic politics was still largely determined by the noble families concentrated in Areopagus, Attic democracy was fully developed - certainly with substantial support from the lowest wealth class. It was primarily the Thets who could have an interest in abandoning the course of foreign policy moderation maintained under Kimon and fully exhausting the potential of Attic sea power.

Democratic change

Kimon knew how to combine the League interests and activities of Athens with good relations with Sparta, the leading Greek land power. But when he in 462 BC When he responded to a Spartan request for help in the 3rd Messenian War in the Peloponnese with 4,000 hoplites , the weights in the popular assembly shifted decisively, and Kimon's opponent Ephialtes was able to push through a constitutional reform that disempowered the Areopagus and introduced the developed Attic democracy: review and control of the officials were withdrawn from the Areopagus. Docimasia (more formal aptitude test for candidates before taking office with regard to parentage and reputation) and euthynia (examination and accountability of the conduct of official business at the end of the term of office) as well as the general supervision of civil servants were transferred to the committees of the Council of 500. The criminal supervision of individuals and civil servants was transferred to the people's courts.

In the run-up to the disempowerment of the Areopagus operated by Ephialtes, the 30-year-old Perikles appeared as one of several accusers against Kimon, who as a strategist had not seen the interests of the League of the Union offensive enough from the point of view of his opponents. Kimon was acquitted, but ostracized soon after the democratic overthrow . On the other hand, after Ephialtes had been murdered by adversaries, Pericles developed over the years more and more to become the first advocate of the interests of democracy among the citizens, who spoke powerfully.

Shaping democracy in the era of Pericles

Bust of Pericles, Roman copy of a Greek original, Vatican Museums

Pericles had probably accepted Kleisthenes' political legacy early on - his mother was his niece - and interpreted it democratically alongside Ephialtes. Under his aegis in 457, the political commitment of low-income citizens was put on a material basis through the introduction of diets . For members of the people's courts (heliasts) there was a judge's pay, which was up to 425 BC Rose from one obols to over 2 to 3 for each day of the meeting. Council members in the Council of 500 received a council salary twice the judge's salary. In connection with this, access to the council has now been opened to the thetes. The drawing of lots decided who among the candidates became a member of the council for one year. Overall, however, this was only permitted twice in a lifetime - and not immediately afterwards. By a citizenship law introduced by Pericles, since 451 BC It was ensured that the circle of those who could get into political office as citizens and receive diets was limited to those who were descended from Athenians on both paternal and maternal sides. At the same time, this was linked to a further political weakening of the noble families, who were more likely to marry beyond the polis than ordinary citizens. In addition, foreign policy conflicts of interest in the citizenry could be better avoided.

In this way, a stable political basis emerged for Pericles in the popular assembly, with the support of which he was able, among other things, to implement the magnificent building program on the Acropolis , which brilliantly brought out Athens' new claim to supremacy in Greece. However, Pericles set himself apart from the lavish lifestyle of the great noble families, to which he belonged as a scion of the Alkmeonids , by giving the impression that he was completely absorbed in state affairs. This will have contributed to its three decades-long special position. B. was expressed in the fact that from 443 BC he Chr. Was elected year after year to one of ten strategists who emerged from the Phylenordnung. These military leadership positions were the last politically significant electoral office (in which Themistocles and Kimon had already developed their political effects), after all others had to use the lottery procedure. The formerly particularly influential office of archon, on the other hand, was not only awarded by lot, but had existed since 458 BC. BC also accessible to witnesses, so that only those thetes who did not finance their military equipment themselves could not hold this office. The reactivation of the Areopagus (which was retained with limited competencies, e.g. in the area of blood jurisdiction ) as the political representation of interests of the aristocratic families was thus additionally put to a stop.

In external relations, the democratization of Athens was accompanied by an intensification of Attic striving for supremacy. Corinth and with it the Peloponnesian supremacy Sparta was challenged when Athens made common cause with neighboring Megara against Corinth. A dispute that lasted over six years was the result (1st Peloponnesian War 459–453 BC). An Egyptian expedition of the Attic fleet failed in 455 in an attempt to weaken the Persians in their sphere of influence by supporting insurgents. In 454, by a resolution of the Athens People's Assembly, the treasury of the Delos -Attic League was moved from Delos to Athens and Athena was made the patron goddess of the League, to whom each member now had to pay one sixtieth of his or her contribution. Later federal funds were also diverted for the construction program on the Acropolis. From 446 BC. Capital crimes were tried in the entire territory of the League in the Athenian people's courts; the Bündner were no longer treated as comrades-in-arms (Symmachoi), but as subjects (Hypekooi).

Internal and external development of Athens in the era of Pericles were closely related: the growing military importance of the Thets as ship crews since the sea battle of Salamis and in the course of the expansion of the Attic sea power had driven the political weight of the citizens with low incomes and the democratization. Their political ascent, in turn, meant that interests aimed at securing and expanding Athens' hegemony at sea became more and more apparent in the decisions of the people's assembly. The peace agreements with Persia in 449 BC BC ( Peace of Callias ) and with Sparta 451 and 446 BC Chr. Changed nothing in this basic constellation.

Functioning of the developed Attic democracy

One of the noteworthy aspects of this direct democracy is the length of its existence, especially in comparison with other traditional forms of socio-political organization. Between the beginning of the developed Attic democracy in 462/61 BC. And their end 322 BC It existed for almost a century and a half in BC and could have continued beyond that without the Macedonian supremacy that removed it. The basic institutional structure, which has remained essentially unchanged over the period mentioned, has therefore proven to be both functional and stable - regardless of the sometimes problematic structural conditions.

Because of the restriction to male full citizens, the popular sovereignty that has been enforced at all levels since the disempowerment of the Areopagus included perhaps a fifth to a quarter (there are only estimates) of the inhabitants of Attica. There were probably around 40,000 in the 5th century (in the 4th century more likely 30,000) who had the right to participate in the popular assembly and who were responsible for tasks in the self-government of the demes, in the people's courts, in the council of 500 and in the various offices came into question.

The popular assembly

The People's Assembly ( Ekklesia ) was the core institution of Attic democracy. The Athenians were granted access to the People's Assembly as soon as they were 20 years old and entered in the citizens' lists of their respective demes after completing their military service as Ephebees. In practice, however, this right of participation has mainly been exercised by those who lived in the narrower catchment area of ​​the urban settlement core; others were probably only occasionally and when very important problem decisions were made by a long walk to and from the Pnyx that they could not be prevented from participating. 6,000 participants were already considered to be "the people in abundance", who could make decisions on all matters, mostly in the form of cheirotonia . The ostracism was also bound by this quorum, and it was also the annual number of citizens who served as a jury in the people's courts.

Everyone present in the people's assembly was not only entitled to vote, but also had the same right to speak (isegory) - a particularly prominent feature of his freedom in democracy. In order to ensure an orderly flow of the Ekklesia, which lasts from sunrise to sunset, the matter on the agenda had to be spoken strictly and each person willing to speak was only allowed to comment once on the respective subject. In view of the very different temperaments and talents, use was made of this only to a limited extent, so that ultimately the accomplished speakers stood out mainly and acted as demagogues ("People's Leader" - initially not in the now exclusively pejorative sense of "People's seducer").

The main subjects of discussion at the People's Assembly were foreign and security policy, elections and the confirmation and dismissal of office holders, the initiation of criminal proceedings and high treason trials, the food supply for the city as well as honors and civil rights awards for special services to the polis. In the first Ekklesia of the year the question was routinely dealt with as to whether the existing laws needed to be changed or supplemented.

Council of 500

The agenda and motions for resolutions for the people's assembly were set in the council of 500 ( bule ). The council thus played a decisive role in the constitutional structure of Athens, because a vote in the people's assembly was only possible if a proposal from the council ( probuleuma ) had been submitted. Its composition and way of organization, derived from the kleisthenischen Phylenordnung, also determined the conference rhythm of the Ekklesia. According to the ten phyls, the year was divided into ten sections, in which the 50 representatives of each phyle held the presidency of the council and the current management ( prytanie ). From among their number they in turn appointed a chairman who changed daily and who acted as the official representative of Athens for one day and one night. Under her aegis, each prytany had to hold a general assembly of the people (with the confirmation of the incumbent, see above) and an average of three other ecclesia. For the people's assemblies, the council also provided the assembly leaders (prohedroi), originally from the Prytans, later from the council members who were not Prytans.

The Council of 500 was the political body in which all Attic Demes were permanently represented in relation to the respective population, and with its supervisory function over the civil servants, its resolutions resulting from preliminary deliberations for the people's assembly and its responsibility for current domestic and foreign policy Affairs of the almost daily accessible and active lynchpin of this democratic community. The council members - like all office holders - at least 30 years old were redeemed among voluntary candidates from the Demen, as well as the daily changing chairman (epistates) of the Prytanie, who had to lead the council and possibly the people's assembly.

The People's Courts (Dicasteries)

Just as the people (the demos ) decided in the Ekklesia as democratic sovereign, so they exercised the judiciary in the people's courts which arose from it. Both organs embodied the people as a whole and continued to have overlapping personnel, so that court sessions and popular assemblies could not be scheduled on the same days. According to the ancient Greek historiography, the dicasteries as everyday judicial organs go back to the Heliaia established by Solon .

The objects of action were divided into private ones, which the injured party had to bring forward, and public ones, concerning the whole polis, for which every citizen of Athens could be considered as prosecutor in the sense of the popular complaint. Depending on the subject area, the various archons were responsible for accepting the lawsuit, but in the democratic era they no longer had to judge, but merely exercised the formal direction of the proceedings in the processes of the respective jury courts. Depending on the type and importance of the proceedings, these dicasteries had 201, 401 or 501 jurors, and in important political and high treason proceedings also with a multiple of the 500 that were prescribed for cases of popular litigation.

Machine to draw the heliasts, Agora-Museum Athens

In a complicated process, the judges were drawn from 6,000 Athenian citizens over 30 years of age who had sworn the helicopter oath for the respective year. This oath obliged them to vote according to the applicable laws, but the judges were otherwise completely free in their decision and did not have to justify their judgment. In the 5th century, 600 heliasts were assigned to one of the archons at the beginning of the year. To prevent bribery, however, a much more complex drawing procedure was developed in the 4th century. On a day when court sessions were scheduled, the 6,000 judges gathered and were drawn, as required, in a two-stage process, a panel and an archon. Each panel consisted in equal parts of members of all 10 phyls.

Since 399/8 BC only private lawsuits have been accepted. Through an arbitration (diaita) in advance without trial. The mediators responsible for this (diaitētēs), who also had to justify their duties (euthyna), were all at least 60 years old. It appears that this conciliation procedure also represented a kind of preliminary negotiation in which the litigants had to present all their arguments and evidence. If the trial was unsuccessful, these were sealed in clay pots so that it was not possible to bring new evidence to court. Proceedings with a value in dispute below 10 drachmas were decided in the 5th century by the deme judges (dikastai kata dēmous), in the 4th century by "The Forty".

In front of the court, the plaintiff and the defendant presented their facts, as well as legal reasons and evidence, one after the other, and each had one more opportunity to reply. The scope of the submissions of both parties was limited by the use of water meters to the negotiation duration appropriate to the subject of the process. Without discussion and joint legal assessment, each juror then decided by throwing one of two voting stones into an urn whether the complaint should be confirmed or dismissed in the form presented. The simple majority decided; in the event of a tie, the plaintiff lost. If the sentence was not already established by law, a second vote was taken on whether the sentence requested by the plaintiff or the defendant was to be enforced, after both parties had submitted the relevant submissions.

Each process had to be completed within a day. In general, 9½ hours were available for trial and judgment in the popular lawsuit; In private lawsuits, the competent court could process up to 4 cases per day. An abusive expansion of the already brisk recourse to these people's courts was countered by imposing heavy fines and a future ban on suing in similar matters who did not receive at least a fifth of the judges' votes as a statement of claim. The defendant also had the option of indicting the accuser on unlawful charges at the start of each trial. The death penalty could suffer, who tried to mislead the jury by appealing to an even non-existent law.

There is disagreement among ancient historians about the evaluation of the Athenian people's courts. Do some (e.g. David Cohen, Gerhard Thür ) see them v. a. Others (e.g. Peter J. Rhodes, Edward Harris, Mogens Herman Hansen) refer to the more than 200 years of success of the dicasteries, an authority that had little to do with the administration of justice, but rather with moral and political control of norms. The former state that the court speeches v. a. moral charges against the counterpart were that the dicasts could neither question witnesses themselves nor had to justify judgments, as well as that Athenian judges, due to a lack of professionalism, had hardly any real knowledge of the legal situation and i. d. R. judged according to moral and rhetorical points of view. This contrasts with the great practical experience of the Athenians in legal matters. In addition, a closer look at the traditional court speeches shows that legal as well as moral and political arguments were on an equal footing. An impressive testimony to how rhetoric and legal arguments went hand in hand can be found in the speeches of Demosthenes (Dem 18) and Aeschines (Aisch 3) in the process “On the Wreath of Honor”.


While the Ekklesia and dicasteries were viewed as direct executive organs of the people's will and the citizens who constituted them were granted immunity with regard to decisions made, this did not apply to council members and holders of offices - regardless of whether they were elected or redeemed. In their functions they were servants of the people, were accountable and could be prosecuted and punished.

In addition to approx. 600 lottery offices, there were around 100 electoral offices which, because of their importance for the polis, the unqualified should not get into. The elected officials included the taxiarchs (military commanders of the Phylenregiments), the Hellenotamiai (administered the tributes of the members of the Attic League ) and the strategists . The strategist's electoral office, which is outstanding because of its military importance, promised considerable political influence through annual re-election, but could also lead to exile or death if the war was unsuccessful if a corresponding judgment was passed in high treason trials.

The areas to which the official system extended (public order, market supervision, construction, finance, cult, etc.) corresponded to those of today's state administrations. However, the responsibilities were distributed among many and for the individual incumbent very limited, so that a lack of qualifications in lottery offices could be compensated for by a manageability and rapid induction. The principle of collegiality coupled with the Phylenordnung, which brought with it the joint responsibility of 10 or 20 colleagues for one area of ​​responsibility, favored the division of tasks. This type of office organization - with admission, annuity (limited to one year) and non-repeatability of the same function - could not encourage personal career aspirations. It is all the more remarkable that at no point did a situation arise in which the official system no longer worked due to a lack of voluntary candidates.

The appreciation of this democratic order among the full citizens who constitute it and the continuous practice of this order have apparently released so much public spirit and willingness to participate that the political activities necessary for its existence were carried out almost as a matter of course. More than every 20th citizen held an office or a council seat in the Boulé at any given time (not to mention the Areopagus); a good 20% were permanently available to the dicasteries as jurors; nearly a third liked to attend particularly important popular assemblies.

"Only democracy allowed a full development of the energy that was in the crowd, and in this way created a polis, an urban community with unparalleled power potential."

Crises of democracy in the course of the great Peloponnesian War

The power potential referred to by Kagan was perhaps not shown primarily in the internal political consolidation of the democratic consciousness and institutional structure, but - as Thucydides already noted in his research into the causes of the great Peloponnesian war - in the trump card to the outside, which ultimately also the Peloponnesian supremacy Sparta had to challenge and the rivalry drove towards a decisive battle between the two great Greek powers.

The 431 BC The dispute, which began in BC and lasted almost three decades (up to 404) with interruptions, weakened Athens in its external development of power lastingly; The democratic constitution of the polis did not fail because of this, despite times of severe crises. Only during two relatively short episodes (411/410 under the council of the four hundred and 404 BC under the rule of the thirty ) have oligarchic regimes prevailed against it.

In the first years of the war, with the death of Pericles in 429, the Athenians lost the great political constant of their democracy of the past three decades. In the year after year, oppressive war involvement, the people's assembly became susceptible to extravagant plans, hasty decisions, excessive hardship against resistant Graubünden, and demagogically fueled megalomania. The asymmetry of the war strategies between the land power Sparta and the sea power Athens may have contributed to the fact that the first phase of this war alone lasted 10 years, around 421 BC. To end temporarily in an exhaustion peace on both sides.

Six years later, under the influence of the highly talented gambler, Alkibiades , the popular assembly embarked on the catastrophic adventure of the Sicily expedition , which reignited the war with Sparta and encouraged some members of the League to openly oppose Athens. Thucydides (V, 85-113: Melierdialog ) showed in an inalienable exemplary manner the cynical ruthlessness with which the Athenians exercised their power in this phase against every legally justified objection by their negotiating partners from the small island of Melos .

In these turbulent times of war, however, the people's assembly could occasionally take illegal actions against its own electoral officials, as the blanket death sentence against the strategists involved in the sea battle of the Arginus (406 BC) showed, who were required to rescue their own dead failed in stormy weather conditions. Against such excesses - each of the six responsible persons would have at least the right to their own trial under the law - there was already a preventive law ( Graphe Paranomon ), which criminalized those who caused the people's assembly to adopt unlawful decisions. The exact date of introduction of this law is as obscure as the effect it has had; the tradition naturally only contains references to situations in which it was ineffective.

The two episodes of oligarchic regimes 411/410 and 404/403 BC In any case, were not prevented by the Graph Paranomon. That it failed as a constitutional guarantor of democracy is hardly surprising in view of the pressure that had built up from losses in the war, indignation and defeat, especially since the overthrow of democracy was also promoted by the Spartans and their allies. From the last third of the 5th century there is also an oligarchical polemic, see Pseudo-Xenophon .

Persistence and change in the 4th century BC Chr.

Already in the year after the final defeat and the end of the Peloponnesian War, which had temporarily given the Athenians a Spartan occupation on the Acropolis and the reign of terror of the Thirty, was 403 BC. The democracy restored. The great majority of full citizens apparently regarded it as a good and desirable political order, even after the loss of the maritime empire, and ensured that it was established in the 4th century BC. Continued for another eight decades. There was extensive continuity in the institutions and organizational structures, even if there were innovations in legislation and diets and the Areopagus was given a little more authority again.

In order to secure the validity of the existing laws and to stabilize the legislative process against fluctuating current interests, an additional institution was created: the nomothets . They initially formed two commissions of 500 elected members each, one of which was responsible for the compilation and recording of all written laws from the times of Dracon and Solon, while the second had to check the work results of the first.

In addition, a multi-stage procedure (nomothesy) was introduced for changing and supplementing the existing laws, in which, among other things, as in a formal process, the claimant championed the amendment and on the other hand defended the existing law. A nomothet committee, redeemed from the 6000 jurors , then voted openly on the amendment, which, if confirmed, would become law. But even against such a nomothic decision, every citizen was still able to appeal because of inexpediency.

There was a shift in diet payments in the 4th century: the incumbents no longer received support (which may have shifted the focus of candidacies to the middle wealth classes); for this, the citizens arriving at the People's Assembly received a support payment up to their six thousandth. And even the attendance of festive events and theaters was supported with a "show money" (Theoricon).

Attic democracy of the 4th century BC At times connect to the 5th century: From 377 to 355 BC BC succeeded in establishing a second Attic League, in which Athens was again the leading power, but had to better accommodate the Graubünden's claims to autonomy and codecision. The development of power in Macedonia under Philip II weakened the hegemony of Athens in the Aegean Sea and promoted the tendency to break away among the League members, leading to the war of allies 357–355 BC. And led to the dissolution of the League.

But even in the shadow of the growing power of Macedonia, the Attic democracy continued for more than three decades, encouraged and defended by the great speaker Demosthenes , among others . Their end came in 322 BC. After defeats at sea and on land, when Alexander's Macedonian successor Antipater put an occupation into Piraeus and established a census-bound oligarchy .

However, the Athenians returned in 307 BC. BC, after the expulsion of the Macedonians, back to the traditional democratic constitution. The vitality of this post-classical democracy was great despite the precarious foreign policy situation. It wasn't until 262 BC. With the defeat in the Chremonideischen War and the renewed occupation by Macedonia came the final end for the Attic democracy.

Critical appreciation of the Attic democracy

From the point of view of a current understanding of democracy , the human rights deficits of Attic democracy must first be noticed, i.e. the exclusion of all women and slaves from political participation. The fact that the achievements of women and slaves belonged to the existential prerequisites of this community is often hardly appreciated - also because of the disregard or disregard already mentioned in the sources. In this regard, the Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BC came. BC not beyond a basic figure of ancient thought in the polis society. For political participation, only who was available for military service came into question. The understanding of democracy peculiar to the Athenians at the time reached its goal where origins and wealth had served their purpose for political privileges.

The idea of ​​a division of state power to protect against attacks that endanger freedom did not concern her either. Due to the history of development, their focus was on preventing an oligarchy of the aristocratic families and renewed tyranny . The precautions against it consisted in the almost consistently practiced principles of loosing office and the rotation of offices, so that for Euripides the rule of the people consisted in the replacement of one by the other in the functional positions of the polis.

From this practice arose almost naturally a commitment of the citizens for the interests of the community, which stands alone in universal historical terms in such density and durability. Negative judgments about Attic democracy are often based on the fact that this system of rule has largely dispensed with the expertise and experience of trained functional elites. As a result, the People's Assembly, as sovereign, tended to blind itself under the influence of demagogues . Illegal decisions and procedures ( Arginus trial , conviction of Socrates ) as well as military adventurism (Egyptian and Sicily expeditions) were in this view the logical consequences of a political faulty construction. The ancient historian Jochen Bleicken countered that such outliers were not the rule in a charged atmosphere, that errors were corrected in retrospect as far as possible and resulted in preventive measures (Graph Paranomon in the 5th century, nomothesy in the 4th century). And at least in the case of military adventures, the perpetrators were also the victims; the same men who decided on an adventurous campaign had to carry it out.

Even contemporary inner-Athenian criticism has castigated the democracy of the Periclean era as a form of rule that served the uneducated and inept to fill their pockets with the money and goods of others. The diet payments and tributes of the League members as well as considerable tax burdens , liturgies (public services) and Eisphora (taxes for public tasks) of the rich served as evidence for this. On the other hand, it should be noted that targeted expropriation and redistribution measures did not take place, that the Solonian asset classes persisted and that the People's Assembly continued to hand over the treasuries (not least for the purpose of possible liability) only to citizens of the 1st asset class.

If Athens has become the radiating center of Greek culture through antiquity and modern times up to the present day, then Attic democracy has laid the foundations for it. With her comparatively great openness to change, to new ways of thinking and to external relations, with her development of power, her festivals and her magnificent buildings on the Acropolis , she developed a magnetic effect in many ways and, from a historical perspective, has the predicate given to her by Pericles, the school of Greece to be, far surpassed. The tragedy of Aeschylus , Sophocles and Euripides , the comedies of Aristophanes , the sculptures of Phidias and Praxiteles , the historical work of Thucydides , the sophistry , the philosophy of Socrates , Plato , Aristotle , that of the Epicureans and that of the Stoa : they all have theirs Origin or their place of activity in Athens and are hardly conceivable without the potential for stimulation and the opportunities for development that came with Attic democracy.

In all of this, it should not be overlooked that the democracy that was realized in the Attic polis for holders of civil rights was connected with the structural subjection of all citizens of the Attic League to the polis association of the Athenians in the second half of the 5th century. Pericles himself confessed to this tyranny. Thucydides (II 63) narrates it in the initial phase of the great Peloponnesian War with the words:

“... you are also threatened with the loss of your kingdom and the dangers of the hatred that grew out of your rule. You are also no longer free to withdraw from this if someone even wanted to become virtuous and peaceful in the fear of this hour; for the dominion you exercise is already tyranny; To raise them may be unfair, to give them up is dangerous. "

This connection between the internal and external developmental conditions of Athens in antiquity is certainly not the least important of the aspects that make the study of Attic democracy seem instructive and interesting.


Important sources include inscriptions, several comedies / tragedies, the work of Thucydides and two writings with the name Athenaion politeia , see The State of Athens and Pseudo-Xenophon .

  • Jochen Bleicken : The Athenian Democracy . 4th edition, Paderborn 1995.
  • Moses I. Finley : Ancient and Modern Democracy . Stuttgart 1980.
    (Original edition 1973: Democracy Ancient and Modern )
  • Peter Funke : Athens in classical times . 2nd edition, Munich 2003.
  • Mogens H. Hansen : The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. Structure, principles and self-image . Berlin 1995.
    (Original edition Oxford 1991: The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology )
  • Christian Meier : Athens. A new beginning in world history . Berlin 1993.
  • Christian Meier : The emergence of the political among the Greeks . Frankfurt am Main 1980.
  • Michael Stahl : Society and State among the Greeks . Vol. 2 (of 2). Paderborn 2003.
  • Robin Osborne : Athens and Athenian Democracy . Cambridge 2010.
  • Hansjörg Reinau: The discovery of civic responsibility. In: Hansjörg Reinau, Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg (Hrsg.): Political Participation. Idea and reality from antiquity to the present (Colloquia Raurica 13, 2013), pp. 3–43.
  • Karl-Wilhelm Welwei : Classical Athens. Democracy and Power Politics in the 5th and 4th Centuries . Darmstadt 1999.

Web links

Commons : Attic Democracy  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. ^ Peter Funke: Athens in Classical Times. Munich 2007, p. 9.
  2. Thucydides II, 40, 2. Pericles' speech to the fallen is not preserved in the original, but gives its content as Thucydides understood it.
  3. Herodotus I, 27-31.
  4. ^ Peter Funke: Athens in Classical Times. Munich 2007, pp. 14-16.
  5. ^ Peter Funke: Athens in Classical Times. Munich 2007, pp. 17-21.
  6. ^ Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, The Greek Polis. Constitutions and society in archaic and classical times, 2nd edition, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1998, p. 168. This reform is only mentioned by Aristotle (Ath. Pol. 22,5).
  7. ^ Peter Funke: The Greek world of states in classical times (550–336 BC), in: Hans-Joachim Gehrke and Helmuth Schneider: History of antiquity. A study book , Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler, 2000, pp. 97–162, here: 112.
  8. Jochen Bleicken: The Athenian Democracy. 4th edition, Paderborn 1995, pp. 225/240.
  9. Jochen Bleicken: The Athenian Democracy. 4th edition, Paderborn 1995, p. 392 ff.
  10. Donald Kagan: Pericles. The birth of democracy . Stuttgart 1992, p. 98.
  11. ^ Mogens H. Hansen: The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. Structure, principles and self-image. Berlin 1995, p. 325.
  12. Moses I. Finley: Ancient and Modern Democracy. Stuttgart 1980, pp. 24 ff ./37.