Greece - The First Democracies

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3,000 years ago, people were convinced that the laws of society came from the gods. The Greeks in the city-state of Athens changed all that, at least to some extent. Religious cults still played a major role in political life, but the Athenians invented democracy and deprived the gods of legislative power. However, in return, they made a goddess of Democracy. The Athenian democracy lasted only 200 years, but the idea was spread to other regions, while Greek culture made a lasting impact on the entire Mediterranean.

A Historical overview of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek history can be divided into three main periods: the Archaic period, the Classical period and the Hellenistic period.

In the Archaic period (approx. 750-500 BCE), Corinth, Megara and other Greek city-states founded a number of colonies in southern Italy, on Sicily and along the Black Sea coasts. Greece consisted of several hundred such city-states which were quite scattered.

Classical period (approx. 500-336 BCE): In 507 BCE, the city-state of Athens introduced democracy and the Classical period became the heyday of democracy. Athens colonised quite a few areas and also spread democracy to some of the existing Greek city-states. However, many Greek city-states introduced democracy without it being at the instigation of Athens. There were about 1,000 Greek city-states. In Greece itself in the late Classical period (around 350 BCE), there were approx. 600 city-states; outside Greece, approx. 400 city-states were founded as colonies.

The Hellenistic period (336 to 31 BCE) is associated with Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire in the years 334-323 BCE, as well as with the subsequent period, when several hundred new colonies were founded which spread Greek culture far into the former Persian Empire. After Alexander's death in 322 BCE, Greece was still a patchwork of city-states, many of which had joined together in regional federations.

In 146 BCE, Greece was finally conquered by the Romans.

Legislative power gradually taken from the gods

Greek culture began to flourish in 800-700 BCE. Homer's two great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are from this time and it was also during this period that the first writers and philosophers appeared.

At the beginning of the 500s BCE, Thales was living in Miletus, a Greek city-state on the west coast of Turkey. He was the first person that we know of who made a separation between myth and knowledge. He may have been the very first human being who realised that what was told in the myths and everything that we can see and measure are two fundamentally different things. There is a difference between belief and knowledge.

Also during the 500s BCE, the Athenian statesman Solon reformed some of the old laws, legislation which was religious in origin. Among other things, he abolished debt bondage and he organized the Athenians into four classes by wealth and gave them political rights according to the size of their fortunes. He also introduced public courts and juries sworn in under oath. It was by no means a democracy, but his were the first of a series of legal reforms. Another important thing was that he wrote down all the laws. Until then they had been oral.

One of the most interesting things in this regard, however, is that the Athenians didn't regard Solon as a god or a demi-god, but as an ordinary human being. He was neither deified nor turned into a mythical figure, not even after his death when he was instead considered to be the great founding father who had created the constitution of Athens.

The Greeks thus began regarding legislation as something created by human beings.


Democracy was introduced in Athens in 507 BCE and lasted, with the odd interruption, until 322 BCE, that is, not even 200 years.

The foundation of Greek democracy was, first of all, the principle of freedom: Freedom to take part in directing and participating in the various democratic institutions and to live as one pleased. On top of that were two principles of equality: equality before the law and the right of all free male citizens to speak in the legislative assembly.

Women, slaves, freed slaves and foreigners were not citizens and there were therefore probably only 40,000-45,000 citizens out of a total population of 300,000 to whom "equality" and democracy applied.

Greek democracy was a direct democracy, which meant that all free citizens had direct access to the people's assembly which discussed and made decisions about issues of public concern. Debating and voting took place in a large public square with room for thousands of people.

Moreover, decisions in the Greek democracy did not deal with the same issues as politics does today. Modern politics is about economics, social affairs, education, culture, criminal justice, major construction projects, foreign policy, the organization of the state and more. In ancient Athens, politics was about foreign policy, warfare, the organization of the state and to a large extent about public religious celebrations. Politics did not interfere with social issues, economics or what went on in people's homes. The free, male citizen who participated in the Greek democracy was free to be a tyrant at home. His domestic economy was a private matter and wealth was a prerequisite for the freedom and spare time which allowed him to participate in the democracy.

Two key figures of democracy

The person who introduced democracy in Athens 507 BCE was Cleisthenes. Until then, Athens had been ruled by aristocrats and tyrants. Cleisthenes had the support of the people and completely changed the structure of power. Among other things, he abolished an old tribal system and organized the Athenians in 10 new, locally-based tribes in a system which broke with the previous structure of society. In this way, the rich families who had held power up to then were no longer given preferential treatment.

One of the most famous Greek democratic leaders was Perikles. He was in charge of Athenian great power politics from approximately 450 BCE until his death in 429 BCE. Most famous in a democratic context is his speech from the burial of a soldier in 430 BCE, in which he praises freedom and equality before the law. In his speech, Perikles doesn't even mention the gods; the greatness of Athens was due solely to the Athenians and their forefathers. It is democracy which guarantees the sovereignty and success of the state, and it is equality before the law which ensures that it is the most able who are elected to public office, not the richest or the aristocracy. Moreover, most civil servants were appointed by a lottery among all the citizens.

The question is, however, how much Pericles' speech reflected the real circumstances in Athens and how much was pure propaganda. But in the big picture of things, this may not be so important. What is important is that the values he talks about meant something to people. Had his audience not been deeply interested in freedom and democracy, and had they not shared an understanding which did not credit the gods with the success of Athens, he could not have given a speech like that.

The Greek philosophers

It is hardly any coincidence that the flourishing of Greek philosophy and the majority of the ideas for which the Greeks have since been remembered happened during the democratic era. Democracy allowed freedom of speech and thus it was possible to develop new ideas in public. When democracy disappeared, Greek creativity gradually disappeared too.

"Sophia" means wisdom in Greek. It is the same word which we find in "philo-sopher", which means lover of wisdom. The Greek philosophers and their philosophies were developed in different schools which had each their own era.

Relativism and subjectivism

Two pioneering thoughts developed by Greek philosophers were what we today call relativism and subjectivism.

Relativism means that everything will always be defined in relationship to something else; that is, there is nothing of absolute value or which is an absolute truth and unchanging for ever, not even religious truths.

Subjectivism means that what you experience will never be quite the same as what I experience. We all experience the world from our own individual assumptions and our own individual senses. We can talk to each other about what we experience, but we can never be sure that we experience the world in the same way. There are therefore many "small" personal truths about the world, not one big one.

Relativism and subjectivism do not deny that some things may be better or worse than others; we just have to make an effort to find out which is which. Good and Evil are not given in advance.

This way of thinking is radically different from almost all tradition and religion. Tradition and religion usually insist that there are eternal truths which apply to everyone in the same way. This was how it was among the Greeks too and this was what the philosophers challenged. They denied that such a thing as objective truth could exist because all experience is individual and subjective, and we can only know how we perceive the world ourselves. We cannot know what others perceive or know and, even when we use language to help us, we can never be certain that we are experiencing exactly the same thing. Therefore, there are no eternal or universal truths, and therefore, human beings in any society have to constantly negotiate what is to be held as truth and what rules should be applied in society. Democracy stems from this.

The most famous philosopher in this context was Protagoras who is, first and foremost, remembered for his statement, "Man is the measure of all things"; i.e. human beings perceive the world and thereby decide how the world is to be understood. The world does not exist independently from human perception and this perception is always individual.

The philosopher Gorgias went even further and said, "Nothing exists. Even if it existed, it would not be possible for humans to comprehend it. Even if we could comprehend it, we would not be able to communicate it to others."

Religion and democracy in the Greek philosophers

Some of the philosophers were still religious, while others openly denied that gods could intervene in human life. Instead, they reflected on the individual and insisted that the individual is autonomous, in relation both to the gods and to other people. Each of us is free and the human being must be the focal point. One philosopher, Alkidamas, even went as far as to regard the slaves as individuals on an equal footing with other people and to agitate for their release.

This constant doubting and questioning of the common standards, the divine myths and the organisation of society as a whole gave these philosophers a lot of enemies. Social order rested heavily on ritual and worship of the gods and the philosophers' thoughts therefore appeared to be subversive. People felt uncomfortable and insecure, just as the Egyptians felt uncomfortable and insecure when Akhenaten abolished the ancestor cult and the familiar gods.

Some of the Greek philosophers may have dealt directly with democracy, but what one sees is rather a parallel development between the emergence of democracy and the freedom which the philosophers got from democracy to think and express new ideas.

Greek non-democrats

Even back then, democracy had the problem that it demanded constant civic engagement and insistence on democracy, otherwise it developed into anarchy or dictatorship, which actually happened a few times between the years 507 and 322 BCE. This occurred not least because the People's Assembly of Athens was, from time to time, dominated by demagogues and populists who did not serve the interests of the state, but just feathered their own nests. Moreover, Athens was constantly at war with other city-states, and often with the Persian Empire too, and had difficulty in defending itself. The two times when democracy in Athens was abandoned were after a big defeat and after losing a war.

By most measures though, the Athenian citizens kept watch over their democracy and it was generally a successful form of government in the 300s BCE. But the three Greek philosophers most famous in our time, and who lived in the 300s BCE, namely Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, were not democrats.

Democracy worried them, because of the personal freedom that it implied; people's right to live as they pleased. They regarded this freedom to be a misunderstanding of the true meaning of human life. They believed that the meaning of life was to know one's place in the state and society - and fulfill it. They didn't care for relativism and its lack of fixed values.


Socrates (469-399 BCE), like many other philosophers, insisted on individual autonomy and constantly asked questions and twisted and turned everything, so that people didn't quite know how to understand him; but he did believe that there are absolute values. There is such a thing as an absolute Good and it is man's task to attain and realise this Good. This realisation could, according to Socrates, only be achieved through independent thinking, reason and controlling one's urges.

Moreover, Socrates was religious and felt that his conscience was controlled by an inner "daemonic" voice. Yet his contemporaries regarded him as a dangerous man. In 399 BCE, Socrates was condemned to death by the people's court for his ideas, because it was believed that he was corrupting the youth of the day.


Plato (427-347 BCE) was a student of Socrates and was deeply convinced that there is an immutable and perfect world of ideas behind the world we perceive. Plato's idea of the ideal world of ideas is therefore called idealism. Gone were subjectivity and relativism. Plato's major project was to identify these eternal ideas, this "Truth", which lies hidden behind everything we experience.

In his book The Republic, he tried to find the perfect form of government; the perfect system, which could, once and for all, be implemented and ensure the greatest justice, order and stability, and which would reduce the danger of war with neighbouring states.

Plato knew very well that his ideal republic was a utopia, but nevertheless, this ideal republic was a totalitarian state which left no room for the participation of ordinary people. Instead, society should consist of three groups: the rulers, the guardians (i.e. police and military) and the traders. The rulers should be chosen carefully and trained specifically to lead the country. Gone was every form of equality and equal influence.


Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was one of Plato's students. In some respects, he broke radically with Plato; for example, Plato believed that philosophers should govern, while Aristotle did not believe that philosophers should spend time on politics.

While Plato tried to find the order and reality of all things in the world of ideas through pure deliberation, Aristotle insisted that we can only know something about what we can observe. Aristotle, more than anybody, was the one who founded empirical science; i.e. that we base our knowledge on measurement and experience, on empirical data. However, he shared Plato's goal of finding the perfect, eternal system.

Aristotle also wrote the book Politics, in which he tried to philosophise his way to the ideal form of government. According to Aristotle, there were three good forms of government: monarchy (one person rules), aristocracy (an able elite rules) and civil constitution/democracy (free, adult males rule). The danger with all three of them in Aristotle's opinion was that the rulers could abuse their power and the three forms of state could evolve into tyranny, oligarchy and mob rule respectively.

The ideal solution would be if everyone had insight into what best served the state, but he thought it was an illusion that such a thing could ever happen. He therefore leaned more towards the form of government where a community of good citizens ruled for the common good. Where Plato believed that the state should be governed by an intellectual elite, Aristotle believed that the state should be governed by a community of citizens with very high morals. According to Aristotle, these high morals should arise from the fact that these were to be people who were so wealthy they didn't have to work and therefore had time to think about things. Work was to be done by women, foreigners and slaves.

In order for a state to be good, it had to be made up of good citizens, and therefore Aristotle held the point of view that politics and morality were intertwined.

Aristotle thus was no great democrat and his political philosophy only concerned a small, privileged minority; but he saw that a good state relies on moral, enlightened and educated citizens.

Alexander the Great - and the death of democracy

Aristotle's most famous pupil was the Macedonian prince Alexander - better known as Alexander the Great. From 356-323 BCE, he conquered the entire Persian Empire which stretched from western Turkey and Egypt to the Indus River, thus leading to the spread of Greek culture and language throughout the vast territory he conquered.

When he died in 323 BCE, his empire collapsed, but many small city-states in the Greek territories, which were now ruled by different kingdoms, kept democracy until around the year 150 BCE. Moreover, Greek continued to be the lingua franca, the way English is today.

The last philosophical fruits of democracy

One of the last major philosophical schools in Athens was Stoicism, which was founded by Zeno of Cyprus about the year 300 BCE. The Stoic school is interesting in a historical, political and democratic context, because it was the Stoic philosophers who really insisted on moving all thinking and decision making away from the gods and over to man. The Stoics fundamentaly disagreed with Plato's notion of a spiritual world of ideas separate from a material world of the senses. According to the Stoics, everything - even thoughts and ideas - originated from the physical world because that was all there was.

The Stoics also emphasised the fundamental equality of all men and disputed that some people can be born to have privileges. Moreover, they laid emphasis on the personal and intellectual development of the individual.

Finally, the Stoics cultivated the natural law, which says that the world is a rational whole, and natural laws and moral laws must both be consistent with reason. Laws created by human beings must be evaluated on principles that are objective and based in nature. They also distinguished between natural law, which must apply at any time, and positive law, which is the actual law which a specific community must have under the given circumstances, with the important point that positive law must not be in conflict with natural law.

A last major philosopher in relation to the individual, freedom and democracy is Epicurus (341-271 BCE). He also argued that all knowledge comes from the impressions of the senses. Moreover, he said that what cannot be observed by us is true only if it is not contrary to the impressions of the senses. He was inspired by the philosopher Democritus (460-370 BCE), who believed that the world consists of an infinite number of indivisible atoms moving in an infinite, empty space. Epicurus agreed with this theory, because even if the atoms cannot be observed, the theory doesn't conflict with the impressions of our senses.

According to Epicurus, human beings have no creator and no destiny. On the contrary, we all seek pleasure or enjoyment and the individual experiences of pleasure or pain are immediate sensory experiences. Life is not just about satisfying the immediate desire or creating the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number of people. Life is all about finding the peace to cultivate one's garden and one's needs in a simple way, away from the noise and political strife of the world. If anyone was an individualist, it was Epicurus!

The individual and art

One of the important things that Greek democracy and philosophy brought with it was the concept of the individual, but it was not only in philosophy and in the political system that the individual appeared. From the 300s BCE, the individual also appeared in art.

While art had previously only shown stereotypes of people, it was during the Greek democracy that the world first saw statues, busts and portraits that truly portrayed individuals. People were depicted with wrinkles, crooked noses and different hairstyles.

The countries that Alexander conquered avidly received all these "perks" from the democratic Greek culture when they were first introduced to them. Greek medical knowledge, mathematics, architecture, other technologies and sciences, art and especially Greek philosophy became a great inspiration to the neighbouring civilisations, and Athens continued to exercise an alluring power over all intellectuals in the Mediterranean. But none of them replicated democracy, and none of them produced any new thought or showed a level of creativity that could compare with the Greeks.


Overall, one can say that democracy paved the way for a lot of new ideas. Not least in the form of a philosophy that was centred around the human being and which abolished the eternal truths, pointing out that everything is relative. However, not everyone shared the perspective on the human being expressed by these philosophers and there were many who had doubts about democracy.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were looking for absolute and eternal truths, as well as a sustainable morality, and didn't accept relativism, even though Athens was still a democracy in their time.

When democracy disappeared, there was also a considerable thinning out among the ranks of the Greek philosophers. Freedom of thought, reflection on the individual, relativism and democracy were contemporaries and, when they disappeared, much of Greek thinking and creativity disappeared too, along with their material prosperity.

Next chapter: Rome - the Triumph of Pragmatism