The political structure of any society has its own individual characteristics
which make the society unique. Athenian democracy is said to be democratic but truly is not as one defines it in modern terms.
In the past, gender, status, and citizenship limited participation; whereas today, participation is extended to more people.
Today, democracy is defined as rule by the people, not rule of a few. Many things contribute to the fact that Athens is not
considered a democracy in today's world. A few of these attributes include the very complex structure of Athenian democracy
starting from the several different groups of the government, to the requirements of being able to participate in government,
to voting rights, to slavery's impact on government.
Aspects which made Athens' government successful:
- Complex structure of Athenian democracy
- Requirements of being able to participate in government
- Slavery's impact on government
- Quality of citizens
The structure of government in Athens during the Golden Age focused much authority
at the top and began to filter down to a narrow group of people. At the top of the government was the Council of 500. The
council had few criteria for membership, male over the age of 30 and only needing to posses a minute amount of knowledge in
the field of government. To prevent domination of the Council, members were only allowed to serve a single year. On top of
that, nobody was allowed to be a member two consecutive years, and no man could serve more than twice in a lifetime. As Starr(52) noted, women were not even considered for government positions and by no means
were allowed to be present during Assembly function or partake in any discussions pertaining to politics. Thus, women were
removed from the political picture and men left in complete control. By today's standards, women are allowed to run for Congress
and any other governmental position. This critical point strongly differs with the way a democracy is defined in today's terms.
Ranks in the Athenian Government:
- Council of 500
- 10 Subcommittees
- Courts of Law
- Common Folk
Starr(52) goes on to state that the council held few, but clearly important purposes because
they prepared the agenda for each session of the Assembly. According to their rules, the Assembly refused to take up issues
not examined by the Council. The majority of the time, the Council recommended the best solution to any problem which arose.
Once the Assembly passed a resolution, the executive branch carried it out on behalf of the people. The Council of 500 supervised
this step to ensure the smoothness of this process.
The Council broke down further into ten subcommittees. A subcommittee had
to meet everyday in the Agora to keep a watchful eye on the government (Structure Radical Democracy). As a precautionary measure,
one-third of the subcommittee had to be in the Council chamber night and day in the instance that an emergency arose ( Starr 52-53 ).
Including all of the political groups discussed above, the only two actually
elected by public vote were the city architects and a board of ten generals. These generals were consulted at time of war
when no one was willing to take a chance in entrusting their lives to officials chosen by lot. Although they would not entrust
their lives in the hands of random citizens at times of war.
The courts of law were another critical aspect of Athenian democracy. Each
year panel of six-thousand male jurors over the age of thirty were drawn out of those that volunteered. For each trial, a
jury of two-hundred and one were drawn using a very intricate system of lots so bribery and powerful influence would be avoided
( Bowra 73 ).
Women were excluded from all political matters and were confined to house
chores such as:
- Spinning wool
- Watching over children
Clearly, women being exlcuded from participation in such a role would affect
the outcome of a trial. If they were allowed to particiipate, it would change Athens' economy and its history as we know it.
Slavery affected Athenian democracy in a way which seemed to be insignficant.
Athens differed from many of the other slave owning cities in that they were unable to maintain a large number of slaves.
They did, however, incorporate slaves into their daily lives.
For example, they worked in:
The immense succss of Athens is nothing short of remarkable and should not
be overlooked merely because they are not viewed as a true democracy in today's terms. The citizens of Athens felt very strongly
on the voting notion. Even rural citizens would travel far distances in order to be present for an Assembly meeting. There
were approximately six-thousand voters present at any one meeting. This shows that they felt strongly about their government.
A big role in Athens success can be attributed to a simple, yet effective
entity called ostracism. Ostracism was a way that unwise politicians were removed from office. Once a year, the individuals
of the Assembly on a clay tablet, wrote the name of a single man in the Assembly they most wanted to exile.
A man could be ostracized for various reasons:
- Overly ambitious
- Shows poor judgment
- Dislike by other members of the Assembly
The name which appeared on the majority of the tablets was sent into exile
for ten years. Once sentenced into exile, he was not allowed to dwell in Athens, but would have to reside in a distant town
( Starr 50-52 ).
In conclusion, the Athenian democracy is said to be democratic but after further
analysis, it is truly not a democracy under today's standards. Today men, women, rich, and poor are allowed to vote on political
decisions. Hignett states, "For they were no less characteristic of oligarchy than of democracy"
(215) The definition of a democracy is government by the people, but was it governed by all the people? The answer to this
question is no, due to the fact that women and slaves were excluded from political matters. Although the government of Athens
was successful, it would not fall into the category of "democracy" in today's terms.