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A quick introduction to ancient Democracies and “Republicanism”

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Petros G. Doukas

A quick introduction to ancient Democracies and “Republicanism”  

By Petros G. Doukas *

Heraclitus (late 6th cent.BC) said it all: “… all things happen according to strife and necessity” [DK22B80], and that “war is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men• it is war who made some slaves and some freemen.“[DK22B53]

Democracy, itself, in its various ancient forms, slowly arose, as Plato, Aristotle (and 22 centuries later Karl Marx) analyzed, from the strife between the classes of the rich (who sought ever more wealth), and the class of the poor masses who yearned,

(1) for Freedom from slavery and freedom to run their own affairs, and (2) some sort of Equality in the right to participate in the running of the affairs of the city!

The process of change started following the era of heroic monarchies of, say, the late bronze age, when the noble ancient kings begot offspring and descendants that were not just, or competent, and not capable of securing the safety and prosperity of the State.

It was first the nobles (and not the common folk) that demanded a say in the running of State affairs, much as the Magna Carta was imposed on King John in 1215, not by the people, but by a group of rebel barons, who instituted next to the king, a council of 25 barons who oversaw his actions.

In Athens, possibly starting around the late 8th century BC, the nobles forced the creation of the Council of Άρειος Πάγος (and of the magistracies of the 9 archons). Areopagus was an “aristocratic” institution, and was considered by the people as being the political center of those supporting an “oligarchical” system of government.

By “oligarchical” we mean a constitution (σύνταγμα, πολίτευμα) where only those that met stringent income and property criteria were allowed to vote and to be elected in various government offices.

“Democratic” was the system of government in which the poor were fully allowed to vote, be voted (especially by κλήρωση/ draw by lot, where luck carried much more weight and allowed for much greater political equality, than the ability a rich person had to buy influence and votes by deploying his wealth)!

The process of change from monarchies to democracies started when the class of nobles demanded from the kings a major say in the running of state affairs. Sequentially, the lesser nobles also started demanding a say, then the rich and the landed gentry also started demanding a share, then the lesser rich teamster class (ζευγίται) demanded similar political rights with the richer πεντακοσιομέδιμνοι class, and so on until the class of the very poor also demanded and got substantial powers.

So progressively, more political power and a say in Government was handed down to the financially meeker and weaker classes: In Athens, Draco around 621 BC formally drafted an “oligarchical” constitution by giving power to legislate and to elect the 9 Archons to all who could provide (and carry) their own arms for the defense of the City! [Arist.Const.Ath. 4.2] «ἀπεδέδοτο μὲν ἡ πολιτεία τοῖς ὅπλα παρεχομένοις: ᾑροῦντο δὲ τοὺς μὲν ἐννέα ἄρχοντας καὶ τοὺς ταμίας οὐσίαν κεκτημένους οὐκ ἐλάττω δέκα μνῶν… »

Aristotle writes that the “Council of 400″ was also instituted under Draco, whereas others consider that it originated under Solon. («βουλεύειν δὲ τετρακοσίους καὶ ἕνα τοὺς λαχόντας ἐκ τῆς πολιτείας. κληροῦσθαι δὲ καὶ ταύτην καὶ τὰς ἄλλας ἀρχὰς τοὺς ὑπὲρ τριάκοντ᾽ ἔτη γεγονότας, καὶ δὶς τὸν αὐτὸν μὴ ἄρχειν πρὸτοῦ πάντας ἐξελθεῖν: τότε δὲ πάλιν ἐξ ὑπαρχῆς κληροῦν.» [4.3]

The basic oligarchical (self-serving) argument was that only those who could pay taxes, finance public works and can purchase, carry heavy arms for the defense of the city and can finance themselves during wars, should have the right to vote on matters of public interest and hold public office.

The wealthier class had something to lose in case of foreign invasion and had a vested interest in the continuity of the State. Thats why they required some property assessment and minimum wealth for the the “citizen” to actually have citizen rights!

On the other side, the oligarchical argument went,

1. The very poor had almost nothing to lose, so had a much lesser vested interest in the salvation of the system,

2. They very poor, could did not have the leisure time and money to cultivate the αρετή = virtue, and were not considered pillars of virtuousness

3. They argued that if one cannot create some wealth for himself and his own household, how could he help the city prosper? [see f.e. Xen. Memor. Γ’ VI.14]

4. The poor did not have the means to acquire heavy arms and support themselves during the military campains.

Following Draco, Solon (c.594 BC) instituted two major proto- democratic reforms:

1. He allowed the very poor θήτες to also vote in the general assembly of the Athenian citizens, but not to hold public office! Public magistracies under Solon (and before him), were reserved for the 3 upper classed, ranked by wealth: the pendakosiomedimnoi, the triakosiomedImnoi (or knights) and the diakosiomedimnoi or ζευγίται (teamsters).

The reasoning had to do, in addition to the four points above, with the following practical consideration: if a very poor person was caught misappropriating public funds, he would not have the monies to pay the heavy fines to be levied upon him.

2. Solon also allowed the participation of all citizens to the jury-courts of Appeal, thus giving weight to every Athenian. Who could ignore a poor person if he was also a judge and you could face him in Court one day?

3. Apparently it was also Solon that instituted the body of the “Βουλή of the 400″, some sort of Senate, deliberating and crafting the legislation before it went to the final arbiter, the Ekklesia of the dēmos. The Members of the Vouli were chosen by lot (and not by vote), and for a one year tenure.

According to Plutarch, Solon’s Council existed as a check on the power of the people; the 400 Councillors were “to deliberate before the People, and nothing was to be brought before the Assembly without an initial resolution of the Council” («οὓςπροβουλεύειν ἔταξε τοῦ δήμου καὶ μηδὲν ἐᾶν ἀπροβούλευτον εἰς ἐκκλησίαν εἰσφέρεσθαι») [Plut. Sol. 19.1].

The Council of the Areopagus and the Council of 400 intended to keep a balance between the wealthier classes and the poor, “just like anchors” (ὥσπερ ἀγκύραις)


*Petros G. Doukas

•Chairman, ICC Greece – The International Chamber of Commerce
•Chairman, Capital Partners SA – Investment Banking Advisors
Athens 10558 Greece
•Distinguished Fellow of the Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils, Washington DC
•Member of the Board, Compete.GR, The Competitive Council of Greece
•Member of the Board, ΚΕΦΙΜ Center of Liberal Studies 
•fm.President, ΕΕΔΕ, The Hellenic Management Association
•Life-long Member of The Jockey Club of Greece – Φίλιππος Ένωσις
•Member of the Board, Sidra of Saudi Arabia European Development Fund Company Limited
•fm. Member of Parliament – Attica Region
•fm. Deputy Minister of Finance
•fm. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs
•fm. Country Head: CITIBANK Greece
•fm. Vice-President, CITIBANK New York, Treasury Division
•President, The Hellenic Golf Federation
•Ph.D Econ. New York University, MBA Fin. Columbia U., MA Econ. NYU, BA Intl.Affairs, The George Washington University

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