The Origins of Democracy

Democracy we associate with the modern West and ancient Athens, but little in between

Learn the origins of democracy in James Sickinger’s article “Origins: …And by the People” from the January/February 2001 issue of Archaeology Odyssey.—Ed.


Origins: …And by the People

Democracy we associate with the modern West and ancient Athens, but little in between

By James Sickinger



Dave Clarke

Every four years millions of Americans, many of them united by little other than their shared citizenship, flock to schools, churches and other polling places to cast their ballots for our next president. On no other occasion do all Americans have the opportunity to vote for the same office, making presidential elections the most democratic feature of the American political system.

When we think of democracy, we usually think of the ancient Greeks, but identifying the exact origins of political practices can be tricky. Many of the city-states of the ancient Near East, for example, had popular assemblies in which citizens passed laws and elected officials (see Jacob Klein, “The Birth of Kingship: From Democracy to Monarchy in Sumer”). But these states are seldom labeled democracies, and our own institutions do not trace directly back to theirs.

In looking for the origins of democracy, in fact, we will not find an unbroken tradition linking the democracies of the ancient world to those of the modern age. Democratic ideals and values disappeared from western Europe during the Middle Ages, and when they resurfaced in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were very different from their ancient predecessors. The roots of modern democracies lie in more recent times.

Nonetheless, the idea that the people should rule themselves is not new. The word “democracy,” meaning “power of the people,” is, of course, Greek in origin. Kingship disappeared from most of the Greek world during the so-called Dark Age (11th to 9th century B.C.E.). The city-states, or poleis, that began to emerge in the eighth century B.C.E. were not the possessions of individual rulers or even a limited number of families. These states were conceived as the common possession of their citizens and had strong egalitarian tendencies.

Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.


The Acropolis in Athens. Photo: AP/Petros Giannakporis.

Just how democratic they were can be debated. The Greek city-states did not extend citizenship to all their inhabitants. Foreigners, women and slaves were excluded—a feature, however, that hardly distinguishes the ancient Greeks from other Western societies until modern times. Citizenship was limited to adult males—and not even to all of them, for full citizenship required ownership of land.

But land ownership was not restricted to an elite few, and what made many ancient Greek city-states democratic was their large number of small farmers: These farmers had a voice, however limited, in the affairs of government.

The numbers and influence of these middling landowners is evident in Greek warfare. By the seventh century B.C.E., Greek armies relied on heavily armed infantrymen called hoplites. Only citizens fought as hoplites, and each hoplite provided his own spear, shield, helmet and breastplate. The widespread use of hoplite warfare implies the existence of a substantial farming class that could supply its own armor in the early Greek poleis.

Ironically, ancient Sparta—notorious for its militant authoritarianism—offers some of the earliest evidence for hoplites and their acquisition of democratic rights. Spartan citizens called themselves homoioi or “equals,” a name deriving from either the identical training all Spartans underwent or the equal plots of land they received (the sources are unclear). Early on these “equals” also enjoyed some power in government. The Greek biographer Plutarch (c. 46–120 C.E.) preserves a document called the Great Rhetra, supposedly from the seventh century B.C.E., which outlines the branches of Spartan government. It mentions two kings, a council of 30 elders and a citizen assembly with final say in all decisions. The Spartan people were their own masters.

In ancient Athens, however, democracy advanced further. The Athenians extended the rights of citizenship to a far greater portion of their male inhabitants, including the poor and landless. How and why this development occurred at Athens are questions still hotly debated among historians,1 but the general outline is clear. At the start of the sixth century B.C.E. the reformer Solon sought to limit aristocratic oppression of the poorest Athenians by abolishing debts and debt slavery; he also ended the aristocracy’s monopoly on public office and gave all citizens the right to appeal the decisions of judicial officials. In 508–507 B.C.E. Cleisthenes implemented further reforms that made Athenian government more representative. He reorganized the citizen body into ten tribes, each drawing citizens from different parts of Attica (the area of Greece that includes Athens), and created a new Council of 500, which consisted of 50 members from each tribe. These reforms helped guarantee that the political process represented all Athenians.

Democracy, however, achieved its most developed state around the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. This final step is generally associated with a man named Ephialtes. All we know of him is that in 462–461 B.C.E., he sponsored reforms that deprived the Areopagus, Athens’s ancient aristocratic council, of its “extra” powers and transferred them to the law courts, the Council of 500 and the assembly of adult male citizens. We do not know what powers the Areopagus had exercised previously, so we cannot say precisely what powers Ephialtes gave to the people. But from this time the popular organs of Athenian government—the Council of 500, the law courts and especially the assembly—exercised sovereign power. Subsequent years brought further advances. Eligibility for the archonship (the archon was Athens’s highest public office; nine archons were appointed every year) was extended to more citizens, and public officials began to be paid for their service—which meant that more citizens could afford to participate in official political affairs.

Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.

Athenian democracy differed in many ways from our own, and we should not idealize it. The Athenians chose most of their state officials by lot (leaving the decision to chance), and most offices had a one-year term limit. These practices were designed to prevent corruption and ensured greater participation in government, but they could not have made government very efficient. The Athenians were also reluctant to extend democratic privileges to others: aliens residing in Athens had little hope of ever becoming naturalized Athenian citizens. During much of the fifth century B.C.E. the Athenians ruled over many other Greek city-states, including former allies; the tribute exacted from these cities helped to pay public officials in democratic Athens. It is no exaggeration to suggest (as many historians have before) that democracy and imperialism were quite closely connected.

Still, one Athenian practice may have contemporary relevance. At the end of the fifth century B.C.E., the Athenians began to pay citizens to attend meetings of the assembly. Originally the first 6,000 to show up for a meeting received the small amount of one obol (not even half a day’s wage), but by the middle of the fourth century B.C.E. that payment had grown six fold. Were the Athenians on to something? When voter turnout in American presidential elections hovers near 50 percent, this may be one lesson we wish to take from our Athenian ancestors.


“Origins: …And by the People” by James Sickinger was originally published in the January/February 2001 of Archaeology Odyssey. It was first republished in Bible History Daily on November 6, 2018.

James Sickinger is an Associate Professor of Classics at Florida State University.



1. See Ian Morris and Kurt Raaflaub, eds., Democracy 2500: Questions and Challenges (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1998).


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

What Were the Ancient Olympics Like?

The Greeks Go to Washington

The Athenian Acropolis
Antiquity’s high holy place

Phidias and Pericles: Hold My Wine by Diane Harris Cline

The Archaeology of Atheism in Ancient Athens

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  • Wes says

    This subject catches me at the right moment. Just read the paperback edition of Richard Billings’ survey of Marathon, providing some elaboration on Greek civil society as the battle approached. In addition, decades back when I was actually stationed in
    Athens from time to time, my friends and I used to climb in the hills above the city.
    Thanks to books like Billings’ and Fodor’s of the time, I’m finally figuring out what I was surrounded by. It turns out that if you climb Mt. Hymettus and look north, you can see a lot of antiquity’s vital history right before you feet to the east, west and north.

    Perhaps the significance for the west, is that if Athens and its allies had succumbed to the Persians, we would have lost our peak at democracy. But what also strikes me about this instance is that most of what we know of Persia is by Greek accounts, even though the Persians had a Pony Express to distribute their mail and the original version of the US Post Office’s motto. … What in the world were they writing? Was it all cuneiform and clay tablets? The fact is that the Greeks before and after wrote a lot and it was preserved.

    If we didn’t have the minutes of democracy’s early meetings, I guess we would have had to discover it courtesy of the Romans – and I don’t think the 18th century thinkers were that limited in scope. Both Latin and Greek means of communication had roots in earlier alphabets, but I suspect it was Phoenician. Their contribution in part was vowels. Which made writing less like DNA sequencing. Punctuation removed more ambiguity…

    But in the meantime, Greek or Hellenic culture was exported East via Alexander and his generals. They created a post Persian world that was less stable and less democratic but evidently provided a better means of communicating ideas within the connected world. It gave democracy at least another chance or two by leaving a record of its models.

  • Kent says

    You wisely point out that democracy hasn’t evolved over the ages in a completely linear fashion. It comes and goes, dies and is reborn, and takes different shapes. One thing is clear – its hard to achieve and maintain the right balance between unfettered democracy where even those who contribute almost nothing to society by way of their own education, financial contributions (i.e. taxes) or awareness of events in the world and their consequences, yet are permitted to vote, and those who, even though they may have been popularly elected, ignore popular will and presume to rule with an all-knowing hand. To me the greater threat to freedom is the latter, popular democracy with all its messiness far outranks rule by the all-knowing elite. There is no substitute for common sense.
    Kent Adams
    Houston, Texas

  • Robin says

    Thanks for the insights and the refs, Laz. Will look into it. Also appreciated the remarks of Helen. Human nature never changes.

    • Helen says

      Humans have not changed since Cain decided Abel had to go and made it happen.

      What holds human nature.selfishness in the extreme in check is the willingness of humans to work with God and not against Him. In that way our nature is “housebroken” instead of remaining feral.

      Peace be with you, Robin. 🙂

  • Laz L. says

    The Roman Republic as described by Livy is closer to the structure of the US Constitution as a result of Machiavelli’s (yes, that same guy) commentary on the first 10 books of Livy which was read by the key Founding Fathers of the American Republic.

  • Michael says

    Thanks for this would like more info about how the republic related to the western style “democracy” like the us and UK.

    • Helen says

      Investigate the Roman Republic. While you are at it, take note of what happened in the late Republic which led to dictatorship (imperial rule). You may see the seeds that have been planted and are beginning to mature in the Western democracies even now.

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