From Athens to the 21st Century: Blueprint for Real Democracy

Direct participatory democracy in the 21st century is a viable alternative option to the restricted democracy that the majority of western nations live under. The inspiration for such a system can be found in classical Athens between 508 and 322 B.C.E. This article shall not give a detailed description of this system, for such a work would require a monumental work, rather I shall outline the Athenian system to demonstrate the important principles of large numbers who can control an ideological hegemony in the interest of the many. It shall also attempt to dispel some myths about direct participatory democracy.

The efficacy of such a system has been derided for centuries by political theorists as both impossible to implement, and even if so, would cause a general upheaval of society as the poor clamour for gross redistribution of wealth. What these people fail to tell you is that Athens solved these two problems in such a way that the elite retained their wealth but used it such a way that the Athenian economy was one of only a few in the pre-modern era to experience extensive and prolonged economic growth.

There are various reasons for the success of Athens. One of the factors was certainly the direct participatory democracy with its multiple institutions. The ‘constitution’ of Athens was a de facto federalist system. At the base were the 139 demes perhaps best understood as villages. These were the basic political unit are were the centre of political life for the everyday man.
Kleishtenes REFORMS
The demes were in turn organised into trittyes. This process worked to mix the Athenians up so that local political alliances could not be cemented in a bid to gain a stronger foothold in Athenian politics. With the trittyes it was practically impossible for one group, or even a small group to take control of Athenian politics through the manipulation of the voting and representation systems.

The phylai, or tribes, were the largest political groupings. These consisted of 10 trittyes again in such a way as to mix the groups up so that each tribe had to look out for the interests of each subdivision in that group. In 508 when democracy was first instituted, there were 10 tribes, increased from the previous 4 under the old regime.

At the ‘national’ level the participation by all citizens did not cease. The national system consisted of three main parts: the Boule (Council), the Dikasterion (Law Courts), and the Ekklesia (Assembly). The first two of these used a lottery system to allocate its members while the Ekklesia was open to all citizens.

The Boule was the body that oversaw the everyday business of the state. They numbered 500 lotteried officials with attendant slaves and servants available to assist in the business of government. They were in essence the executive branch of the government. All decisions were done by majority votes and every tribe was represented by 50 of its members chosen from the demes according to the proportion of their population. Members served for one year, and were restricted to twice in their lifetime and not within a period of 10 years between each.

The Dikasterion were the law courts where public disputes were settled. Each session consisted of either 201 or 501 jurors. There were no judges or legal experts, only public magistrates available to read out aloud to everyone the relevant laws. Courts met on most days of the year, and jurors received a daily wage much as they do these days when one is called up for jury service.

The most important body in the system was the Ekklesia. It was here that all Athenian citizens could come together and debate political issues. There were no restrictions on who could speak. The floor was open to everyone. Assemblies generally numbered 5000-8000 persons, about 1/5th of the voting population at any one time. For very important legal cases the Assembly would also sit in judgement and like all other decisions resolutions and laws were passed by simple majority.

The Athenian system is not a direct blueprint to a viable system of democracy in the 21st century. However, it provides the inspiration for system where large numbers are directly involved in the system. The numbers were so large in the Athenian system that bribery was virtually impossible. The wholesale purchase of politicians as it is done nowadays through lobbying groups and special interests would have been impossible in Athens.

Now, many political theorists would claim that Athens was not the real democracy that many idealists claim it was. The say that it was democratic in name, and that in reality the elite were the ones to control affairs behind the scenes. More often than not, such claims come from those who have not actually taken the time to consult the necessary literature on the matter. Thankfully, towards the end of the 20th and into the 21st century scholars are moving on from these cynical interpretations of the Athenian political system.

What is clear from the extensive evidence left to us by the Athenians is that the everyday people maintained an ideological hegemony over the elite. This meant that the state on whole served the interests of the majority but net necessarily at the expense of the rich minority. It is true that the rich were compelled to contribute to the costs of society through infrequent direct taxation and the system of liturgies. However, the fear of a grand, sweeping redistribution of land and wealth never happened in the c.200 years that Athenian democracy existed.

Indeed, to the contrary in these 200 or so years Athens went from being a middling power both militarily and economically to the regions’ leading economic power and a leading military power through the use of its swift navy.

In its own time, Athens was unique for its wide base of citizen participation. How the Athenians were able to mobilise themselves despite their large numbers in such a decentralised system is not short of phenomenal. The system enabled the Athenians to become very rich through the exploitation of local mines, and trade networks. Democracy made Athens an attractive destination of foreign traders, and by the late fifth century Athens was the trade hub of the Aegean. To those that claim that democracy is inefficient, I say, you have little evidence to support this claim, given that historically speaking the wealthiest and most successful nations have been democratic.

If we want to live in wealthy nations were the interests of the many in society are looked after it is high time that we start creating political systems that accurately reflect this aspiration. The current system despite what politicians and other supporters say is a system that is easily hijacked by the elite. We entrust a small group of individuals to look after the interests of us and yet those interests are consistently ignored in favour of the interests of the elite.

Moreover, we are convinced to vote for these people through a perverse ideology controlled in a vice-grip by the elite. When persons arise that attempt to offer change in the benefit of the poor majority, they are discredited by the machine of elite propaganda and piecemeal voting that is apparently what democracy is focused toward establishment candidates. We need a system that reflects the everyday man’s interest. They only way to do this is to work for it ourselves. The lesson we can learn from the Athenians is that not only is direct participatory democracy possible, it is actually more efficient and can promote economic growth and flourishing.

In conclusion, as outlined in this article, Athens provides the inspiration for a system of direct participatory democracy. This system should include all citizens in the system with the use of large numbers to counteract the aims of special interests who otherwise corrupt our politicians. The goals of such a system would be recreate a ideological hegemony in the interests of the many. The results will be more efficient for society in the long run, as such a system will promote economic growth and prosperity. Insofar as we all have an interest in society we should all have equal power to affect change and participate in our society.


  • Carugati F. Hadfield G. and Weingast B.R (2015). “Building Legal Order in Ancient Athens. Conference Paper July 2015.
  • Carugati F. Ober J. and Weingast B.R (2015). “Development and Political Theory in Classical Athens”. Polis (Forthcoming).
  • Ober, J. (1989). Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (1996). The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory. Princeton University Press.
    • (1998). Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (2006). ‘Thucydides and the Invention of Political Science’ in Brill’s Companion to Thucydides. (eds) Antonios Rangakos and Antonis Tsakmakis. pp. 135-159. Leiden.
    • (2010). “Wealthy Hellas”, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Volume 140, Number 2, Autumn 2010, pp. 241-286. John Hopkins University Press.
    • (2015). The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press.
  • Olson, M. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press.
  • Raaflaub K.A. (1995), ‘Kleisthenes, Ephialtes und die Begründung der Demokratie’ in Demokratia: Der Weg der Griechen zur Demokratie, Konrad H. Kinzl. Wege der Forschung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
    • (1996a). “Equality and Inequality in the Athenian Democracy“, in Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, Josiah Ober and Charles Hendrick. Princeton University Press.
    • (1996b). “Power in the Hands of the People: Foundations of Athenian Democracy,” in Democracy 2500: Questions and Challenges, Ian Morris and Kurt A. Raaflaub Atlanta, American Philological Association.
    • (1996c). “The Thetes and Democracy: Response to J. Ober,” in Morris and Raaflaub.
  • Scheidel W. (2005). “Military Commitments and Political Bargaining in Ancient Greece”. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics.
  • Weingast B.R. (1995). “The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market Preserving Federalism and Economic Development”. Journal of Law, Economics and Organization. 11. No. 1, pp. 1-31.
    • (1997). “The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law”. American Political Science Review. 91, pp. 245-263.
    • (2013). “Second Generation Fiscal Federalism: Political Aspects of Decentralization and Economic Development”. World Development. 20, pp. 14-25.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.