A Story of Use and Abuse

Athenian democracy in the political imagination.

By Arlene W. Saxonhouse

The Parthenon from the Southeast, by Frederic Edwin Church, 1869. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, gift of Louis P. Church.

In 1890 the British Library acquired a set of papyri dating from the first century that had been found by archaeologists digging in a rubbish heap near the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus. Amid the trove of tax assessments and official records was a papyrus with a text, known from ancient references and fragments but long believed lost, of what has come to be called the Constitution of Athens, generally attributed to Aristotle. Though the papyrus is hardly complete and has many contested passages, it offers an extensive history of Athenian political development and details Athens’ political structure during the fourth century bc. Suddenly, the institutional configuration of the first democracy became available.

Previously, Athenian democracy had largely been seen as a regime in which the people (dêmos) had power (kratos) and voted in an assembly (ecclesia) where the majority determined the laws and policies for the city. Until the discovery of the papyrus, those writing about ancient Athens relied on the surviving literary works of ancient historians, orators, and philosophers and the comedies of Aristophanes for their depictions of that regime. These texts offered a narrow picture of Athens, largely as a city in which the dêmos (denigrated as the “many,” the “poor,” the “mob”) ruled. Later writers used Athenian democracy either as a warning about the dangers of popular rule or as a splendid model of a sovereign people ruling freely and equally over themselves. William Mitford, who in the late eighteenth century began to write what became for the English the authoritative history of Greece, found “marks of kindred between Turkish despotism and Athenian democracy.” Daniel Webster, speaking in the U.S. Congress in the 1820s, asked, “This free form of government, this popular assembly, the common council held for the common good—where have we contemplated its earliest models?” The answer he gives to his rhetorical question: ancient Athens.

Even though counting heads is not an ideal way to govern, at least it is better than breaking them.

—Learned Hand, 1932

The story I will tell is of the reversal in both England and America of the attitude toward Athenian democracy as a regime to be excoriated into one worthy of admiration and emulation. The discovery of the Constitution of Athens, however, allows us to look beyond the Athenian democracy that existed in the political imagination of earlier authors. It offers specifics about the first democracy that went far beyond the etymology of the word democracy. Scholars with an interest in ancient history began to learn about the complex institutions of this regime: the elaborate procedures for identifying who could be counted as a citizen and therefore allowed to vote in the ecclesia; who by a process of sortition filled numerous administrative offices; how the five hundred members of the administrative council (boulê) were chosen by lot, how these officers dined together, and how they determined the agenda for the ecclesia. These facts, and many more, can now inform our understanding of the intricate practices involved in maintaining the self-governing polity of ancient Athenian democracy. The detailed practices of Athenian democracy reveal the complex tensions existing within regimes that aspire to instantiate the democratic principles of freedom, equality, and participation.


Thomas Hobbes, the preeminent philosopher of seventeenth-century England, detested Athenian democracy. In 1629, more than two decades before the publication of Leviathan—the work in which he defended the absolute power of a sovereign ruler—Hobbes published his translation of Thucydides’ history of the war between the Athenians and the Spartans. In his introduction he says of Thucydides’ “opinion touching the government of the state, it is manifest that he least of all liked the democracy.” Hobbes explains:

In those days it was impossible for any man to give good and profitable counsel for the commonwealth and not incur the displeasure of the people. For their opinion was such of their own power…that such men only swayed the assemblies…as did put them upon the most dangerous and desperate enterprises. Whereas he that gave them temperate and discreet advice was thought a coward.

Hobbes intended his translation, with its depiction of the turmoil inherent in Athenian democracy, to warn his fellow Englishmen against any foolish fondness they might harbor for a regime that gave the people power, favoring liberty over order.

In the second book of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides records a funeral oration in which the Athenian statesman Pericles eulogizes the democratic city, a place where citizens (in Hobbes’ translation) “live not only free in the administration of the state but also one with another, void of jealousy.” It is a city that has “found out many ways to give our minds recreation from labor,” where “there is in the same men a care both of their own and of the public affairs…We weigh what we undertake and apprehend it perfectly in our minds.” Pericles’ glowing portrait of Athenian democracy has inspired many. Garry Wills has argued that Lincoln modeled his Gettysburg Address on it; it appeared on placards to motivate the English to hold firm in their resistance to the threat of German domination during World War I; and in an original draft of the proposed constitution of the European Union, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing quoted the oration in the preamble.

Near the beginning of his speech, Pericles offers a peculiar definition of democracy. Hobbes translates the passage thus: “We have a form of government…which, because in the administration it hath respect not to a few, but to the multitude, is called a democracy.” The most familiar translation today, used in classrooms across the country, is by Rex Warner: “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.” Thucydides’ Greek, though, says nothing of the sort—there is no reference to “power” in the “hands…of the whole people.” Warner has given Pericles the definition of democracy that dominates our modern discourse, where democracy has shed the pejorative connotations that accompanied it for most of its history. Hobbes, hostile to democracy, is satisfied with Thucydides’ Greek, which avoids praise. Most modern translators reveal a discomfort with definitions of democracy that do not include the notion of political power belonging to the “people” and attribute to Pericles words he does not say.

For two centuries after Hobbes published his translation, Athenian democracy remained a cautionary tale about the dangers of popular rule. The eighteenth-century English author Temple Stanyan wrote in his history of Greece that in Athens “the people wrested too great a share of the government into their hands,” so that “things were carried by tumult and faction; and they were seldom free from as great or worse disorders than those they complained of under their kings.” Mitford, in his History of Greece, larded his work with warnings about “the evils arising from all the forms of government adopted in the different states of Greece.” Most threatening was Athens, which he described as an “ochlocracy, mob rule,” “that turbulent form of rule” and “a tyranny in the hands of the people,” concluding that “absolute democracy is tyranny.”

Snap the Whip (detail), by Winslow Homer, 1872.

Snap the Whip (detail), by Winslow Homer, 1872. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Christian A. Zabriskie, 1950.

While Mitford was writing his history in England, the Americans constructing a new political system for a new nation adopted in 1782 a great seal for the United States sporting the Latin phrase novus ordo seclorum, “a new order of the ages.” Novelty rested at the heart of America’s self-conception, yet ancient political systems provided some inspiration—emphatically not Athenian democracy, though. Rather, the founders turned to the Roman Republic. Arguing for ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the Federalist Papers, James Madison insisted that governments derive their powers “from the great body of the people” but maintained that such governments would succeed only insofar as that power was “filtered” through representation. Alexander Hamilton warned that the history of city-states such as Athens created “sensations of horror and disgust…at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” When Madison argued for limiting the size of deliberative bodies “to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude,” he added, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Rome with its mixed regime limiting the collective power of the multitude was more appealing. The very term for the new political system, republic, drew on Latin (res publica), not Greek. Senate, Capitol, Cincinnati all evoked Rome, not those Athenian assemblies vibrating between tyranny and anarchy and becoming “a mob”—even if they were populated by the Socrateses of the world. The Senate would not be an ecclesia; it would meet in the Capitol, a name adopted from the Capitoline Hill in Rome, rather than from the Pnyx, where the ecclesia met. George Washington, resigning his presidency after two terms, modeled himself on the Roman hero Cincinnatus, not Pericles.

Yet in the early 1800s America democratizes. White male suffrage expands, the Democratic Party is founded in the late 1820s, and the pejorative connotations attending democracy wane. As the historian Gordon S. Wood writes, with “the rapid transformation to democracy in the decades following the revolution, ancient Rome lost much of its meaning for Americans,” and Greece replaces Rome. The Greek wars of liberation against the Ottoman Empire of the 1820s abetted this development. Americans saw the Greeks resisting foreign domination, much as they had done several decades earlier, and embassies from Greece seeking financial aid brought images of an ancient Athens more attuned to fighting oppression than the chaos feared by the founders. A “Greek fever,” or philhellenism, spread across America. Edward Everett—a president of Harvard, a senator from Massachusetts, and the “other” speaker at Gettysburg—campaigned throughout America to promote the appreciation of Greek culture and replace the study of Latin with ancient Greek in schools and universities.

New settlements throughout America adopted Greek names. In 1825 real estate developers from Detroit platted a new settlement in southeast Michigan, calling it by the striking name Ypsilanti to honor a Greek general from the War of Greek Independence. General Demetrios Ypsilantis and a small number of men had withstood numerous Turkish forces during the battle of Petra in 1829, symbolizing the resistance to tyranny inherent in the Greek and now the American spirit. Suddenly, there was a veneration for all things Greek—especially Athenian democracy.

So many men, so many opinions.

—Terence, 161 BC

Addressing Congress in response to the Greek request for aid, Daniel Webster, in contrast to the founding fathers, speaks of Athens as the ancestor of the American political system. “We must indeed fly beyond the civilized world…if we would separate ourselves entirely from the influence of all those memorials of herself which ancient Greece has transmitted…This free form of government, this popular assembly, the common council held for the common good—where have we contemplated its earliest models?” he asks. “This practice of free debate and public discussion, the contest of mind with mind…whose was the language in which all these were first exhibited? Even the edifice in which we assemble…reminds us that Greece has existed, and we, like the rest of mankind, are greatly her debtors.” Athenian democracy was no longer exiled from the American stage, but it did not fully replace the republican model bequeathed by Rome. Instead, Greece traveled alongside Rome, creating an intermingling of and confusion between two very different forms of political organization, one limiting (or in Madison’s words “filtering”) the power of the people, the other fostering it, an intermingling that continues to bedevil modern democratic republican regimes.


During the early decades of the nineteenth century, a similar transformation took place in England. The group known as the philosophical radicals, originating under the tutelage of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, helped democratize England by agitating for the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832, vastly expanding adult male suffrage. Active among the philosophical radicals were John Stuart Mill and his friend George Grote. It was the democratic activist Grote’s multivolume History of Greece (1846–56) that reversed the negative view of Athenian democracy Hobbes’ Thucydides translation had articulated two centuries earlier and eighteenth-century British historians had confirmed. Grote instead bestowed extravagant praise on Athenian democracy, writing that it “kindl[ed] an earnest and unanimous attachment to the constitution in the bosoms of the citizens, but also creating an energy of public and private action such as never could be obtained under an oligarchy.” For Grote, “the theory of democracy” was responsible for “creating in the mass of the citizens an intense positive attachment and disposing them to voluntary action and suffering on its behalf such as no coercion on the part of other governments could extort.” In an earlier essay he had declared, “It is to democracy alone…that we owe that unparalleled brilliancy and diversity of individual talent.”

Grote acknowledged that “democracy happens to be unpalatable to most modern readers,” but he blamed that distaste on their familiarity with the caricatures in Aristophanes’ comedies rather than the Periclean speeches of Thucydides. In his own History, Grote quoted almost the entirety of Pericles’ funeral oration, adding that “it was impossible to pass over lightly the picture of the Athenian commonwealth in its glory” the oration presented, and “the effect of the democratical constitution, with its diffused and equal citizenship, in calling forth not merely strong attachment but painful self-sacrifice on the part of all Athenians—is nowhere more forcibly insisted upon than in the words above cited of Pericles.”

Mill continued his friend’s exaltation of Athenian democracy in reviewing the History: “The superior nobleness and superior gentleness combined, in which Athens shone preeminent among all states Greek or barbarian…Mr. Grote unhesitatingly ascribes to the superiority of her institutions: first, to her unlimited democracy.” He went so far as to make the totally absurd suggestion that the Battle of Marathon, in which Greece defended itself against the Persians in 490 bc, “even as an event in English history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.” Yet Mill was largely correct in predicting that Grote’s History would be “the triumphant vindication of the Athenian democracy.”

This revised assessment of ancient Athens continued to inspire the British through the next century. Following the outbreak of World War I, the English historian Alfred Zimmern remarked in the preface to the second edition of his book The Greek Commonwealth that Britain had now come “face-to-face for the first time since she has become a democracy with the full, ultimate meaning of the civic responsibilities, both of thought and action, with which…the fifth-century Athenians were so familiar.” And so, he continued, “Greek ideas and Greek inspiration can help us today…in the work of deepening and extending the range and the meaning of democracy and citizenship.” The classical historian A.H.M. Jones claimed, “Prima facie, the Athenian democracy would seem to have been a perfectly designed machine for expressing and putting into effect the will of the people.”

Allegory of Magnanimity, by Luca Giordano, c. 1670. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Athenian democracy also became a resource for chastising economics-focused, politically disengaged citizens of modern democracies in the late twentieth century. Hannah Arendt found in ancient Athens a place where “men could show who they really and inexchangeably were,” in contrast to a modern world where humans “labored” in the economic sphere rather than “acting” in the political world that the ancient democratic regime opened up to them. Arendt lamented the focus on “fabrication” that had replaced the pursuit of immortality gained by speaking and acting before others. The renowned classics scholar M.I. Finley used Athenian democracy to criticize both an apathetic post–World War II political world and the social scientists who praised that apathy as a stabilizing force. His slim, highly readable 1973 book Democracy Ancient and Modern sought to refresh democracies by recalling the active life of Athenian citizens. Finley did not foolishly imagine that we could replicate ancient democracy, but he insisted that we consider whether “new forms of popular participation, in the Athenian spirit though not in the Athenian substance…need to be invented.” Like Arendt, Finley found in Athenian democracy political practices that could advance a form of human flourishing lost in the contemporary world.

While for Arendt and Finley Athenian democracy could bolster a vision of what was possible for humans to achieve through their political lives, others began to fault Athens on grounds quite different from those expressed by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers. No longer was Athens the paradigm of mob rule; it now was not democratic enough. The emergence of the second wave of the feminist movement in the late 1960s stirred questions about a democracy in which women could not participate in the debates that Finley and others found so praiseworthy. Others, spurred by opposition to the Vietnam War, saw in Athens’ tyrannical rule over her Mediterranean empire the uncomfortable tensions between democracy at home and oppression abroad. With the civil rights movement, scholars became more attentive to the fact that Athenians’ cultural achievements, their “free” way of life, rested on slavery. More recently, concerns about immigration have increased interest in Athens’ practices of exclusion aimed at protecting the “purity” of the citizen body.


With the discovery and deciphering of the papyrus with the Constitution, Athens no longer need be understood simply as a regime where the demos ruled, as either an ideal that can be emulated or a warning to those enamored of democratic practices. Instead of exploiting the image of democracy for one’s own ideological preferences, we can use the ancient Athenian regime to investigate the commitments and compromises we must make as devotees of democracy. The papyrus’ detailed description of the multiple administrative institutions reveals the complexity required if one is to put democratic principles of popular rule into practice. Leaving aside the profound inequality of slavery and the exclusion of women, Athenian democracy embraced the fundamental equality of its citizens. All could vote in the ecclesia; all could perform the wide range of administrative tasks a thriving city needed. Fifth-century-bc authors used two words to refer to what later came to be known as democracy: isonomia and isêgoria, equal participation in lawmaking and equal opportunity to speak in the assembly. In pursuit of equality, the Athenian regime went so far as to have all routine offices selected by lot, a practice built on the premise that any citizen could perform any administrative task. The papyrus describes in almost excruciating detail the many offices that were filled through sortition—from supervisors of mining leases to those deciding where dung was to be deposited and even how much the “girls who play the flute” were to be paid.

This commitment to equality goes deep into the bowels of the city’s administration, showing how profoundly it permeated Athenian democracy. Yet sortition did not determine all offices. The supervisor of the water supply and the controllers who distributed the funds for public festivals were among the few elected positions; the market supervisors were not. Why were some offices off-limits to the lottery system? Must even the most democratic of regimes employ filtering and acknowledge the inequality such filtering entails? What determines where equality applies and where not? The papyrus highlights the difficulties entailed in institutionalizing the equality the Athenians treasured.

The worship of opinion is, at this day, the established religion of the United States.

—Harriet Martineau, 1839

A recurrent issue for modern democracies is agenda setting: Who determines which issues get addressed and which policies or laws are voted on? The papyrus describes how in Athens the boulê sequentially determined the issues to be debated in the ecclesia. Those deciding the agenda could—and ought to—be any citizen, not only those filtered through election or those with the financial resources to influence elected representatives. That principle rubs against the republican ideals built on concepts of selection and election, not sortition, that mark our modern democratic polities. Insofar as we are committed to democratic principles, Athenian democracy forces us to ask how deep those commitments are.

The papyrus also allows us to ask how much of Athens’ capacity to function as a democracy depended on maintaining its slave population and its control over the cities within its income-producing empire. The Athenians named one of their state ships Free Speech, after the practice so essential for the debates in the ecclesia, and yet they executed Socrates. Does this indicate a discordance between democracy and what we now regard as rights, which do not enter into the language of the papyrus? The elaborate system of accountability for those holding offices, whether by lot or by election, that the papyrus describes means anyone could bring charges of embezzlement. Does that foster equality or open the door to attacks by political rivals?

While the papyrus revealed the institutional minutiae of Athenian democracy, historians found themselves questioning how and the degree to which the Athenians were able to realize the aspirations captured by the practices it described. New questions arose: Who actually participated in the meetings of the ecclesia? How many citizens attended? How does one count votes in an assembly of thousands? How often during their lifetimes would citizens fill the various administrative offices? How were the outlying populations informed of the ecclesia’s agenda? Were the ecclesia’s decisions slanted in favor of the urban population? The Danish scholar Mogens Herman Hansen, trying to answer some of these questions, measured the seating capacity of the Pnyx based on the space an adult male would occupy. He concluded that about six thousand citizens could have attended at one time, a mere fourth of what was probably the citizen population of fourth-century-bc Athens. Perhaps Athens was not a regime where the demos had the power as previously imagined or where all citizens were fully engaged in the life of their city. After the publication of Hansen’s work in the 1980s, volumes with such discordant titles as The Quiet Athenian appeared.

Athens as a regime of a widespread citizen devotion and engagement—for better (Grote, Mill, Finley, Arendt) or worse (Hobbes, Mitford, the founders)—is now subject to question. Many of the uncertainties about fifth- and fourth-century-bc democratic practices cannot be definitively resolved, but with the details the papyrus provides, Athens is no longer simply a symbol to be manipulated in the service of assorted political ideologies. It has instead allowed Athens, a particular city from a particular moment in time with particular aspirations and institutions, to become a rich resource for understanding the complex and often contradictory principles that underlie democratic regimes.

When praised, Athenian democracy has symbolized the flowering of a regime that transforms the “will” of the people into the laws and policies by which a people governs itself. By focusing on this aspect of Athenian democracy, though, we may lose sight of what Athenian democracy—now known, however imperfectly, through the papyrus—really offers the modern world. It is not a regime to be emulated or avoided, glorified for its reliance on the people or condemned for its failure to live up to ideals of inclusiveness, admired for fostering human flourishing or denounced for creating political chaos. Rather, it is a regime that enables us to assess the challenges that confront our political aspirations, whether they be the meaning and articulation of who is equal, what leadership among equals entails, how to ensure widespread political participation, how to protect against corruption. Taking Athenian democracy out of the political imagination, whether to be used or abused, and investigating its institutions as recorded in the papyrus and the questions they raise enable us to explore the challenges and contradictions inherent in efforts to develop political structures that incorporate our commitments to freedom and equality.


This essay appears in Democracy, the Fall 2020 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The issue is made possible by a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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