Strength of the Common People: A Look into Athenian Democracy

Ask a group of people what they think of when you say the word ‘Athens’, and you will get variety of answers, involving art, war, academia, mythology, and theatre. However, one answer that seems to resonate with people in regards to what Athens means to them is democracy. Athens is often accredited as the birthplace of self-governing society, as the term ‘democracy’ is derived from the Greek words ‘demos’, meaning “common people”, and ‘Kratos’, meaning “strength” (World Atlas). In fact, the structures of the Acropolis themselves often symbolize democracy, and the recovering of these artifacts and structures show the longevity of this theme over time. The aspects of democracy in modern Greece and in societies across the globe alludes back to its predecessor of ancient Athens. In this way, the symbol of democracy from ancient Athens is an embodiment of modern Athens and acts as a legacy and source of inspiration for places throughout the world.

The Pnyx, established during the period of Democratic Athens (508-323 BCE). A gathering place of Athenian assembly. Speaker’s podium is located at the center right. Image taken from the set of Challenge Images.

The Pnyx, located above and in the featured image, played a pivotal role in ancient Athenian democracy. This meeting place was used to accommodate the assembly for the new legislative branch of Athens. The assembly was comprised entirely of citizens, which met roughly every ten days to decide on matters proposed by the senate (Camp 46). Characteristic of modern democracies and an activity that often took place at the Pnyx is the right to vote. The image below depicts the voting process whereby individuals with citizenship, which excludes slaves, foreigners, and women, used two different colored pebbles to place their anonymous yes-no votes on issues presented by the senate. Similar to practices in the legislative branch of modern democracies, members of the assembly would be allowed a yes-no vote on a wide range of issues affecting Athenian life, including both public and private issues, financial and religious matters, public festivals, wars, treaties with foreign powers, and regulations on ferry boats (Blackwell). The image of the voting process below is important in that it shows, first-hand, how processes of democracy took place and that Athenians valued a citizen’s right to vote. The fact that the remnants of the Pnyx still stand today as a reminder of its purpose in the past further highlights the importance of democracy to modern Athenians. 

Depicts voting process using psephoi (pebbles) in a scene from the Wine Cup with the Suicide of Ajax, dates to around 490 B.C.E., attributed to the Brygos Painter. Red-figured kylix made in Athens. Terracotta piece, 4 7/16 in. high x 12 3/8 in. diameter. Now located in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA. Image taken from lecture slides MG325DemocraticAthens2019.
Areopagus (Mars Hill) located in Athens, Greece. Used as a site of court for homicide trials. Image taken from lecture slides MG325DemocraticAthens2019.

Holding trials in a court of law is another characteristic of modern democracy that appears in ancient Greece. The image above shows the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill. This structure was used by the Council of the Areopagus during the democratic period as a site for trials of homicide and other serious crimes. The Council of the Areopagus held the role similar to that of a modern judicial branch, having jurisdiction over Athenian citizens and overseeing certain matters of legality (Blackwell). Unlike modern judicial branches, however, legal matters at the Areopagus did not involve a public prosecutor and all defendants spoke on their own behalf. Because of this, the trials at the Areopagus may have acted as inspiration for modern legal justice systems, but its processes have been adapted over time.

Another aspect of Athenian democratic life is the tactic of ostracism. First instituted after the Battle of Marathon in 490, Athenians saw their former leader and tyrant, Hippias, fighting for the opposing Persian forces and feared that their accustomed democratic way of life was being threatened. Every year, the citizens would gather and ask the question of whether anyone in the city was becoming so powerful that they now represented a threat to the democracy. Using the aforementioned voting system, if a majority of citizens said yes, they would meet two months later with ostraka (pot sherds) labeled with the name of a leader who was believed to be too powerful. The leader with the most votes was exiled for ten years (Camp 55-56). Pottery, an important aspect of Athenian culture, was utilized in this tactic. The picture below on the left shows examples of pot sherds, or broken pieces of pottery, that could have been used as ostraka if needed. The picture below on the right shows ostraka with the name ‘Themistokles’ written on them. In this case, the citizens felt that Themistokles was a threat to Athenian democracy and used their established rights to attempt an ostracism. While the tactic of ostracism is not comparable to a tactic in modern democracy, the remnants of said activity further illuminates the importance that democracy held in ancient Athenian life. The Athenians were willing to go so far as to exile someone for ten years just to preserve their self-governing powers.

Rim and body sherds with decoration. Made of clay. Believed to be from the Late Helladic II-III periods (c. 1600-1050 BCE). Now located in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, MI.
A few pieces from a collection of 190 ostraka. Written on the ostraka is “Themistokles son of Neokles”, which is probably by Themistokles’ enemies, leading to his ostracism. Image taken from set of Challenge Images.

As explained above, many structures and artifacts from Greece have been recovered that highlight the importance and the role of democracy in ancient Athens. Looking to the present, these aspects of democracy continue to act as a symbol for modern Athens and elsewhere in the world. One example of Athenian democracy appearing in the modern world is artist Marta Minujin’s temporary installation piece in a Buenos Aires park, as shown in the image below. This piece was constructed almost entirely of books that had been banned by the country’s dictatorship, until the establishment of Argentina’s first democratic election in a decade. The piece was modeled after the Parthenon. This is because the Parthenon is thought to be the symbol of Athens, and democracy, as mentioned before, is a key trait of Athens. Minujin utilized the reputation of democracy that is associated with Athens to make a statement in her artwork about the disheartening banning of books due to a dictatorship. It is not explicitly stated through the artwork that the Parthenon replica is meant to represent democracy. However, because of the strong association between Athens and democracy, it is assumed that the audience recognizes this association, and the structure does not have to explicitly make this distinction.

Images taken from the New York Times. Depicts artist Marta Minujin’s temporary installation piece located in a Buenos Aires park (1983). The artist and her team spent 17 days building a full-scale replica of the Parthenon made out of banned books. Image taken from set of Challenge Images.

Another instance where Athenian democracy is symbolized in places other than Athens comes from the Federal Hall National Memorial in New York. This building replaced the original Federal Hall where George Washington took his oath as the first president of the United States. Additionally, this site was home to the first U.S. Congress, Supreme Court, and offices of the executive branch. The new Federal Hall, as shown below, utilized aspects of Athenian architecture to make a point about its purpose. The looming Doric columns are characteristic of the Parthenon, the symbol of Athens. The United States is built on democracy and self-governance. It makes sense then that an architect would choose a symbol of democracy, the Parthenon, when designing a building that is critical in a democratic society, such as the United States. While this structure is no longer an active part of the U.S. Customs service, its role today continues to showcase democracy as a memorial to the first presidential inauguration (Loth).

Federal Hall National Memorial located on Wall Street in New York, NY. Designed by the firm of Town and Davis and built from 1833-1842. Originally served as the U.S. Customs House, but today is a museum honoring the first presidential inauguration. Photograph taken by Calder Loth.

The Greek term ‘democracy’ roughly translates to “strength of the common people”. This idea is thought to have originated in Athens and has played a pivotal role in Athenian life over centuries. The longevity and importance of this theme is further illuminated through the recovered artifacts and structures that portray aspects of democratic life in ancient Athens. The symbol of democracy remains a characteristic trait of modern Athens and often acts as inspiration for structures across the globe. In places like Buenos Aires and New York, structures that stand for democracy are depicted to resemble the Parthenon, the symbol of Athens and thus a symbol of self-governance. The power of the people is an aspect that continues to hold meaning for Greece and has held a legacy for other democratic nations across the globe.

Works Cited:

Blackwell, Christopher W. “The Development of Athenian Democracy.” in Adriaan Lanni, ed., “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context” (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, edd., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities [www.stoa.org]) edition of January 24, 2003. http://www.stoa.org/projects/demos/article_democracy_development?page=all. Accessed 28 April 2019.

Camp, John. The Archaeology of Athens. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001.

Kiprop, Joseph. “What Is A Democracy?” World Atlas. 1 Aug. 2017. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-a-democracy.html. Accessed 28 April 2019.

Loth, Calder. “The Parthenon and its Derivatives.” Institute of Classical Architecture and Art (ICAA). 4 April 2012. https://www.classicist.org/articles/classical-comments-the-parthenon-and-its-derivatives/. Accessed 28 April 2019.