Athenian democracy (5th to 4th century BC)

Athenian democracy (5th to 4th century BC)

Athens is generally presented as the birthplace of the democracy direct, from the 5th century BC to -338 and the conquest of the city by Philip of Macedon, Alexander’s father. Although access to citizenship is limited, the Athenian democracy ancient and its political regime is a model. But what principles guided the structure of Athenian institutions and how was the policy of the city of Athens conducted?

The drawing of lots in Athenian democracy

Bernard Manin describes in his work "The Principles of Representative Government" the political system and the Athenian institutions. The Athenians are described there as distinguishing the regimes according to the mode of appointment of the rulers, and as favoring a “democratic” system, substituting for the principle of the drawing lots the practice of the election only in a marginal way, although for important functions. .

The place of the drawing of lots in Athenian institutions would therefore be a sign of their democratic attribute, but also of the place of the religious in ancient society, the gods who guide the outcome of the drawing of lots affixing a seal of justice to it. The good Athenian citizen must therefore command and obey in an alternative way.

Although criticized by philosophers, first and foremost Socrates and his pupil Plato, as requiring citizens to be too involved in public life, the principle of political participation, twin sister of the freedom of the Athenian citizen, remains subordinate to voluntary service.

Thus at the Ekklesia, assembly where the citizens vote the laws by show of hands on the hill of Pnyx, only one fifth of the citizens sit (nearly 6,000 out of a set of 40,000 Athenian citizens). Speaking is, moreover, monopolized by an elite of speakers, whom the Sophists intend to train in particular. There are three major factions, popular, moderate and aristocrat.

La Boulé, the council which prepares the agenda for the assembly, is made up of 500 citizens over the age of thirty, drawn by lot by constituency (dème). Historians agree in considering that having regard to the system of the drawing of lots, nearly half of Athenian citizens sit in Boulé during their lifetime.

The elections

The election is conceived in Athens as the technique of appointment of rulers endowed with superior qualities, postulating inequalities of talent and democracy out of any antagonism. If 600 magistrates, who are thus drawn by lot from among the voluntary citizens, exercise the function of public official for a year, another hundred are elected from among the aristocracy and occupy the most important functions, in war and finance.

The conditions of access to the judiciary remain nonetheless not very restrictive, since only the fulfillment of the fiscal, military and family obligations of the volunteers is verified. No skill is required to attend, and only sympathy for oligarchic opinions is prohibited.

Created in the 4th century BC to control the consistency of the new laws and their insertion in the hierarchy of norms, when the laws are codified in Athens, the Nomothetes are also elected from among an elite, more able to account for 'legal and technical competence.


The Héliastes, judges in political affairs, constitute 6,000 randomly drawn from among volunteer citizens over the age of thirty. Here again, no special skills are required to take part in public decision-making.

Judges, however, have a wide field of action, and stand in particular as a safeguard against a possible drift of democracy. The illegal criminal action, which can be brought by any citizen, as long as he does not abuse it, allows them to check the conformity of a bill with democratic principles. Various sanctions can be decided at the end of an adversarial procedure, the cancellation of the proposal, a fine, or even the final withdrawal of the political rights attached to citizenship.

The Héliastes can also experience betrayals, attempts at corruption, coup d'etat, or even condemn a general who has experienced a military defeat.

Athenian citizenship and democracy

Athenian freedom, "freedom of the ancients" for Benjamin Constant, is thus conceived as a free participation in public affairs. Its principle frames the structure of Athenian institutions, which skilfully combine the principle of drawing lots and election for more important positions.

If civic religion establishes an equal relationship between men and the gods of the city (who are not omniscient), the Athenians do not however conceive of the individual in his interiority. This is why the reproach often addressed to the Athenian democracy of not conceiving individual freedoms - although offering a great freedom of mores, by contrast with Sparta - seems tainted with anachronism.

Citizenship is, finally, not recognized to all the inhabitants of Athens since women and slaves are excluded. Slavery can even be considered as the condition of direct democracy in Athens since, having no economic activities, citizens can devote themselves to political functions and city affairs.

The argument that the development of trade would keep citizens away from political participation has also been taken up by a host of historians and philosophers of politics ... from Aristotle to Rousseau.

But would that mean that the Athenian ideal of Athenian democracy would be incompatible with the world from which industrial revolutions give birth?


- Athenian Democracy in the Time of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology, by Mogens Herman Hansen. Tallandier, 2009.

- Pericles, Athenian democracy put to the test of the great man, by Vincent Azoulay. Armand Colin, 2016.

- Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, 1995, reed. Flammarion, coll. "Fields", 1996.

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