By Vladan Lausevic

When teaching history at the primary and high school level, the Athenian democracy is presented as the first example of democratic governance in history. However, Athenian democracy was also an example of “illiberal democracy, or populist governance. This is an argument made by political science Professor Aristides Hatzis who argues why the Athenian city-state was based on authoritarian and populist elements.

The Athenian city-state was a “demos”, a collective with political identities and a sense of community (similar to modern nations). Hatzis explains that this was a case based on a “social contract” – citizenship between the members of the demos and its decision-making institutions. From time context view, it is important to understand that Athenian citizenship was limited only to men, born in Athens with both parents being Athenian-born and who had gone through military training.

The Athenian democracy was among the first city-states to introduce relevant aspects of democracy that, in modern meaning, would be described as a majoritarian rule with more or less unlimited popular sovereignty. However, citizens of Athenian society also developed populism without developing what is regarded as the rule of law principle. Modern states are often described as the rule of law states or constitutional states. During the antique period, institutions such as a constitution or the rule of law were not existing. As Hatzis argues, the Athenian democracy was also an illiberal democracy.

 In principle, it was possible to change or annul any law with a temporary majority rule. The political power of the demos-people was, therefore, more or less unlimited. Aspects framed in modern understanding as “checks and balances” were not in function. Juridical processes were submitted to understandings of citizens’ majority. Also, despite the notion of the citizen, “the individual” as the smallest judicial unit in society was not existing. Meaning that individual freedoms and rights were not recognized in the Athenian democracy – only the political rights were.

The recognition regarding rights was based on the right for the demos to exist as an institution for a collective decision-making process. And only the citizens of Athens had political rights despite being a consisting minority compared to the population numbers of residents. The political rights of citizens were limited only to around 10-15% per cent of the Athenian population. The concept of ”liberty” and “individual” was different from those constructed during the revolutionary processes in the later 18th and during the 19th century, such as revolutions in the USA, France and German-confederation.

For example, what in modern terms would be regarded as “individualism” in the sense of behaviour was within Athenian society in principle regarded as morally negative. Therefore, the principle of “ostracism” was a kind of contemporary safeguard where citizens and politicians who were considered too selfish, influential or powerful were often forced to abandon the polis and its demos. 

Comparing to the Athenian democracy, the meaning of modern liberal democracy is also seen as a political sphere where certain decisions are to be excluded from the decision-making process of majoritarianism. Meaning that the actors such as society in general (demos) or government are prohibited from intervening and taking actions towards an individual citizen or resident based on civil liberties and human rights.

Liberal democracy is organized by including negative rights and freedoms that limit a government to interfere with a legally binding institution as a charter, constitution, or basic law. Within legal frameworks such as these, the “safeguarding” aspects and “checks and balances” influence the political behaviour of the individuals and demos.

One example of Athens not being a rule of law open society can be understood from the trial of six generals after the naval battle of Arginusae in 406 BCE. Despite the Athenian victory over Sparta, 6 of the 8 generals were put on trial because they failed to rescue the survivors of sunken triremes (warships) due to a wild storm in the area.

The six generals were sentenced to death after a messy trial due to a mix of political manoeuvres and emotional outbursts despite the attempts of several officers to enforce the law and ensure a fair trial. One of the law-abiding officers was philosopher Socrates, who at the time was president of the court. He later argued and advocated for the rule of law viewed from a modern perspective. The difference between democracy on one side and tyranny and oligarchy was that its laws administrate a democratic state.

The failure of protecting the “rights” of the defendants in the Arginusae trial and the dodging of the law to achieve political ends led to the prosecution of Socrates himself. By such means, Athenian democracy was not similar to a constitutional or liberal-democratic one. Instead, it was a society based on rule by populist male politicians and not ruled by the law.

Photo by Michael Baccin via Unsplash

Vladan Lausevic is active as opinion-maker and co-founder of Syntropia community for democracy based in Sweden.

Athens as an “illiberal democracy” – populist governance during antiquity
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One thought on “Athens as an “illiberal democracy” – populist governance during antiquity

  1. Thank you for this. It brings back memories for me.
    At school I remember being taught about what was called Ancient Greece. We were required to study Greek for a year. This was a time when there were still many classics teachers. That might have been the reason. There was a need to find them something to do!
    We were in fact taught about the limitations of Greek democracy. Later, in our history lessons, we were taught about the movement towards democracy in England in the nineteenth and twentieth .
    What I do not remember as clearly was the linkage made between economic changes and the growth of democracy. However we did learn about the requirements that the growth of factories had for a literate work force. In fact the Franco-Prussian war had a big impact in English education. There was a belief that Prussia showed how advanced they had become in terms of industry thanks to their education system.
    So it is clear to me there is a link between increasing education and demands for the voices of the people to be heard.
    However there is no reason to believe that more education means more democracy.
    In fact to me taking England as an example, progress in democracy stopped in 1918 – 1928 when women were given the vote.
    What I have seen no sign of is any real progress in enabling the more highly educated people we have now a greater say in the running of their countries.
    The question is how could we use technology to enable people to get information and be able to contribute to decisions that need to be made in society.

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