Here's an essay I wrote for my English class. I know it's a bit U.S.-centric, but it is an interesting read. Well, at least I thought so. Ah well, enjoy.
The present will always depend heavily on the past. The ideas of long ago will often have a lasting impact on the times in which we live. The ancient Greeks have given us many contributions that have greatly influenced history, such as the Greek views on medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. However, the greatest contribution that the ancient Greeks have given the modern world is that of democracy.
The earliest Greek governments were monarchies, with each king ruling over a city-state. This tradition was handed down from the practice of the tribal chieftains who had led the Helladic tribes to Greece. These kings had a limited area to rule over, but occasionally a king would gain influence over larger territories. According to Greek legend, the first king of Athens was Theseus. Supposedly, Theseus incorporated the outlying towns and villages into Athens. The denizens of the villages kept their property, but Athens was in charge of the government. Although it is not known whether Theseus was really responsible for this, the end result was an Attican peninsula united under Athens.
Between 700-600 BC, government gradually shifted from a monarchy to an oligarchy. This oligarchy had a great deal of power until the 630’s BC, when an Athenian named Cylon won the footrace at the Olympic Games. Inspired by his victory, Cylon used his followers to stage a coup and set him up as the tyrant of Athens. However, Cylon’s grab for power did not work; he was found by an angry mob cowering behind a statue of Athena. Although the mob promised to spare Cylon’s life, Cylon and his followers were killed by the Alcmeonidae, one of the aristocratic families of Greece. This dealt a formidable blow to the aristocracy; not only did it show that the government was not immune to uprisings, but it left a bad omen for the Alcmeonidae, who had killed Cylon while he claimed the protection of Athena. This blow to the Alcmeonidae reputation lasted for hundreds of years.
In 620 BC, a man named Draco was hired to revise the laws of Athens. It is here that the first trappings of a democracy started, for Draco gave political rights to all Greek men who could afford to purchase the bronze weaponry of the hoplites. However, Draco’s laws were undemocratic in their harshness. The penalty for all crimes, ranging from murder to theft to merely loitering, was death. It is from Draco’s codes that we get the English word draconian.
The laws changed in 594 BC, when a financial crisis that was turning many of the citizens of Athens into slaves required the intervention of a man named Solon. Solon forbade people from loaning money and using the borrower’s freedom as collateral, a concept that is indeed still true in our society today. Solon also expanded political rights to a fourth class, the thetes, who were free men who did not own property or serve in the military. This is another practice still alive in America today; all citizens, no matter whether they own property or not, can still participate in government. However, the most important change Solon made was the right of every Athenian to a trial by jury, instead of a council of aristocrats. The right of trial by jury was so important to our founding fathers that a special amendment was added to our constitution ensuring that all citizens in our country had that right.
Here, Athens underwent a period of tyrannical government. In 546 BC, a Greek named Pisistratus managed to take hold of the reigns of power. However, he took care not to remove any of the democratic reforms that Solon had introduced. Instead, Pisistratus made sure that all important offices were filled by members of his family. The Athenians were content with this arrangement, and they allowed Pisistratus to rule for 19 years until his death. At this time, Pisistratus’ sons Hippias and Hipparchus served as tyrants for the next seventeen years. Then Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC, and seven years later, Hippias was removed from power by the Alcmeonidae family. Thus ended the tyranny in Athens.
A man named Cleisthenes became the next man to reform the democracy. Cleisthenes was able to undertake two very large missions: additional elements of democracy, and a revision of the way that Athenians saw themselves in relation to other Athenians.
At this point, the three main democratic institutions came into being: the Assembly (ekklesia), the Council (boule), and the People’s Court (heliaea). The Assembly was the largest body, and was in charge of writing legislation. Participation was open to all male citizens of at least 18 years in age, regardless of property ownership. Because the duty of the Assembly was to discuss the state of affairs in the city, it was necessary for all members of the Assembly to have freedom of speech. Although there were certain restrictions, such as the right of citizens over 50 to get to speak first, and occasional legislation prohibiting discussion on other legislation, the freedom of speech enjoyed by the citizens was very high. This idea still carries on today, and is regarded by many to be the core idea of our government.
The Council consisted of 500 men of over 30 years in age, fifty from each of the ten tribes of Athens. The legislative year was broken into ten segments called prytanies, and during each prytany, the fifty men from one tribe would serve as presidents of Athens. One man in the prytany would be chosen by lot to be in charge of the treasury key, the seal of Athens, and the keys to the archives of Athens. The next day, a new man would be chosen, and nobody could hold the keys and the seal more than once. Also, if anything important happened to Athens, the man with the keys, or the prytane, was in charge. The rest of the Council was responsible for organizing the meetings of the Assembly. Also, the Council had the power to vote for preliminary decrees, which would then be voted on by the Assembly.
Interestingly enough, it is estimated that approximately one-half of the men in Athens were in charge of running the city for one day at some point in their lives. This was democracy to the extreme.
When viewed together, the Assembly and the Council show many similarities with our legislative branch today. Both democracies feature a bicameral approach to making laws, with a large house open to all, and a smaller, more exclusive house with slightly different powers. The main difference is in Athens, the Assembly had more power, whereas today, our Senate is more important. However, the Council in Athens was a combination of a legislative and an executive branch.
The third institution, the People’s Court, was in charge of presiding over all legal trials in Athens, with the exception of murder cases, which were under the jurisdiction of the Court of the Areopagus. In the People’s Court, the juries ranged from 501-1500 people, depending on the severity of the case. All citizens were eligible to be jurors. They were selected to represent a mix of all of the citizens of Athens in order to ensure a fair trial. The plaintiff and the defendant were always given equal time to speak. This was regulated by a water clock. There were no lawyers; each party had to argue their own cases. The jury, which was large in order to minimize corruption, then voted by placing a token into one of two urns. Whichever side was represented by the urn with the most tokens in it won the case; a simple majority was all that was required.
The final duty of the People’s Court was to preside over appeals against rulings of the Assembly or the Council. This responsibility is very similar to the power of judicial review that our Supreme Court enjoys today.
One important aspect all three of the above institutions shared was the fact that there was a wage for being in the Assembly, being a Councilman, or sitting in jury duty. This allowed the poor in Athens to participate in their government, because they did not have to worry about the loss of a day’s wages. This truly made the government open to all the (male) people, an idea which is held in high regard, if not always followed, today.
As you can see, Athenian democracy has had an enormous effect on the government of the United States of America. The procedures have changed, but most of the ideas are there. It is no coincidence that the Capitol, the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court Building are built with Greek architecture. The buildings pay homage to the Athenians, our predecessors in democracy. The spirit of ancient Athens is alive today, in our nation’s capital.