It is fairly common these days to see people demanding “more democracy” or proclaiming that “this is what democracy looks like” at rallies, protests, and riots. At its base, “democracy,” which comes from demos (“people”) and kratos (“power”), simply means “rule of the people.” The Greek origins of the word highlight the fact that ancient Greece, specifically Athens, bequeathed democracy to the world.
However, when modern people shout for “democracy,” what they are really demanding is direct democracy within a parliamentary framework. Such a system owes more to the British tradition than the ancient Greek example. Indeed, if one were to recreate ancient Athenian democracy in the modern world, many would cry “fascism!”
All told, the murky history of democracy contains many inaccuracies or unknown facts. The following 10 examples show that commonly held beliefs about the democracy of ancient Athens are not, in fact, correct.
A Limited Democracy
The old aristocrats of Athens distrusted the hoi polloi. Their sentiments were later echoed by the Roman patricians and the framers of the US Constitution. For the most part, the aristocrats believed that the ability to cast votes in Athenian elections had to be severely restricted to a certain segment of the population. In particular, propertied men who served in the Athenian military were the only ones allowed to vote.
However, thanks to the reforms of demagogues and tyrants, suffrage rights were eventually expanded. In the wake of Solon, Athenian aristocrats claimed that all men above age 20 could vote. This roughly translated to 10 percent of the overall population. Two of the largest demographics in the city—women and slaves—never earned the right to vote. Concerning the latter, this meant that a full 40 percent of the city’s population was barred from voting.
Finally, the last great restriction on Athenian democracy was the issue of citizenship. Only Athenian citizens could vote in any election. This meant that the sons of non-Athenian mothers or fathers were disenfranchised.