Michael Scott: Was Ancient Greek Democracy Really Similar to Our Own?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dr Michael Scott is the Moses Finley Research Fellow at Darwin College and an affiliated lecturer at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge. His first book, From Democrats to Kings is out now and his second, on the sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia, is published in April 2010. For more information, visit www.michaelcscott.com.]

Ancient Greece’s most famous export to this day is arguably democracy. America, alongside many nations, recently celebrated the 2500th ‘anniversary’ of the invention of democracy in ancient Athens and its links with today’s democracies in America and around the globe. But was ancient Athenian democracy as alike to democracies of today as we may like to think?

The more you look at the facts, the more the ancient democracy of Athens and the democracies of today look different. Ancient Athens only allowed a very small group of men resident in Athens the vote. Women and foreigners were excluded....

Ancient Athenians participated in a direct democracy: every citizen went to the assembly and voted on the issues. Moreover, if they were voting on whether or not to go to war, the voters did not go home afterwards to put their feet up while professional soldiers carried out their orders, they went home to pick up their armour and go off to fight.

To a democrat of ancient Athens, today’s democracies, where the majority of voters elect representatives to make most of the decisions for them (and who then rely on professionals to carry out those decisions), wouldn’t merit the label of democracy either.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/22/2010

The article is as foolish, as the premise behind many things that hurts contemporary American society and often
defeats the meaning of democracy itself: the undivided (practically divine) power and fanatical adherence to some clearly obsolete and absolutely incompatible with modern civilized life
articles of the US constitution, as if time has frozen in 18th century...

Arnold Shcherban - 3/22/2010

or, perhaps, the audience it meant for?
Don't thousands of years passed account for something?