The word democracy comes from demokratia (meaning ‘people-power’). It was invented in ancient Athens more than 2500 years ago, shortly before 500 BC. But it was a very different sort of democracy from anything with which we would associate that word today. Power was exercised directly by the people, not through elected representatives. Politics (like democracy, a Greek invention, the word as well as the thing) was face-to-face and in-your-face action – there was no postal voting then – and it could get messy.
The People’s jury courts were every bit as much a democratic arena (including in the competitive sense of that word) as the Assembly; likewise the theatre (yet another Greek, or rather Athenian, invention). But the People was a highly exclusive category: women (and other inferiors – as empowered Greek males saw them) need not apply, and only legitimate, adult, properly enfranchised and inducted citizen males were actually entitled to rule (themselves).
There were two main decision-making political arenas: the Assembly (ekklesia, whence comes our ‘ecclesiastical’) and the People’s jury courts (heliaea, dikasteria). The Assembly of those citizens who were ‘called out’ (ekkletoi), and chose to attend, met on the Pnyx hill below the Acropolis up to 40 times a year, or every nine days on average.
Astonishing to think that government by mass meeting meant literally meeting en masse so frequently. Any citizen who wished might speak in order to persuade his fellow-citizens to adopt a policy he favoured, but it took courage as well as rhetorical skill to mount the bema or speaker’s rostrum (above) and address a crowd of 6000-plus in the open air whatever the season or atmospheric conditions (only rain stopped play).
One who famously had the requisite courage and skill in superabundance was Pericles, who was elected to the top executive office of General many times over and saw several of the policies he proposed – for example, altering the terms of eligibility for citizenship – adopted and enacted.
Small wonder, then, that a German artist, executing a fine history painting (above) just 20 or so years after modern Greece had been liberated from Ottoman control and acquired a Bavarian monarch, should have chosen to depict a helmeted Pericles in full rhetorical flow on the rostrum on the Pnyx hill acting out his chosen role as demagogos (leader of the people).
That sort of direct democracy may well strike us today as odd. Even odder – and it struck some ancient commentators, most eminently Aristotle, in the same way – was the democratic practice of ostracism (ostrakismos). In the absence of political parties it was individual politicians who took the rap as well as reaped the praise by sticking their heads over the parapet and advocating particular policies. For their pains they might suffer a prosecution and consequent loss of property, or office, by due legal process. Ostracism, by contrast, was an extra-legal way of removing a particularly contentious individual from Athens for 10 years without a legal trial but without his suffering loss of either citizenship or property.
This is how it worked. Every year, at the same point in the civil-year monthly cycle, the Assembly was asked if it wished to hold an ostracism. If a majority of those present voted in favour (by show of hands), a day was appointed for the ostracism procedure to take place. It took its name from the ostraka or potsherds (above) cast by the individual voters, on which was inscribed or painted the name of the citizen they wished to see ostracised. Provided at least 6000 potsherds were cast in all, the ‘candidate’ who attracted the most (negative) votes ‘won’ – or rather lost and was banished. Monstrously unjust, or so the (non-democratic) theorist Aristotle opined. A perfectly proper demonstration of the Power of the People, according to ideologues of a democratic persuasion. In the 480s, as war with Persia loomed, a whole series of ostracisms took place. All centred around Themistocles. In one year a cache of 190 pre- prepared potsherds bore his name, incised in only 14 hands, the action of a conservative faction, or cabal that couldn’t wait to see the back of him.
Finally, suppose one had the misfortune – or pleasure – of finding oneself in court, as either prosecutor (in Athenian Greek ‘the pursuer’) or defendant, pleading one’s case before a jury of one’s peers, selected by lot, and numbering normally as many as 501. The trial of Socrates for impiety in 399 BC was a classic case in point. He went down – to his death. Democracy Athenian-style could be brutal.
To enable proceedings to be all over within one day, and to try to ensure equal fairness of time- allocation to both parties, a system of time-management via the use of a water-clock called a klepsudra, or ‘water-stealer’ (above) was employed.
A skilled performer could judge from the speed and angle of the water’s outflow how much time he had left. A supremely confident – or overconfident – litigator might seek to give the impression to the jury that the case for (or against) him was, well, watertight and so, before his allocation had been exhausted, cry, ‘Throw out the water!’ After him, the deluge.
Quite possibly, though, that was preferable to the record-breaking 45 days that one contemporary British barrister (a good friend of mine – no names, no pack drill) occupied a court with a single speech a couple of decades back. n
• Democracy: A Life by Paul Cartledge is published in hardback by Oxford University Press at £20. IMAGES: © akg-images.