Athens leads the way in DEMOCRACY

As Sparta goes its own peculiar way in the Peloponnese, on the mainland a new important polis is is beginning to develop. This is the polis of Athens. When it started, no one would really say Athens was destined for glory. A particular series of events and consequences made Athens very important.

Unlike other poleis that are under Dorian control, Athens remains free of the Dorians. The Dorians never manage to conquer it.

Athens actually manages to conquer most of the territory around itself. Athens comes to control all of the land we call Attica. The Athenians take very different approach to the people they conquered. They did not turn the conquered people to slaves. Instead, they made the conquered people into equal citizens of Athens. In this way, they gain the loyalty of all the people that lived in Attica.

Peace is the great blessing of Athens. Athens remains at peace with its neighbors most of the time. This gives the polis time to develop.

Like other poleis, Athens begins its government with kings. But eventually, the aristocracy replaced the kings as the governing body. Aristocrats elected members of their social class to fill all the offices in the government and make all the decisions. This is satisfactory until Athens begins to develop a lot of trade.

Trade means the development of a new middle-class. A wealthy middle-class means the introduction of the hopolites into the army. In the old days, the aristocrats are the army. Now they are replaced by the independent merchants and independent farmers as hopolites. The aristocrats begin using their control of the government to protect their class interests. Either intentionally or through ignorance they ignore policies that can increase Athens trade in the Aegean and Black seas.

The merchant class is annoyed. They begin to demand a say in Athenian government. The aristocrats resist. This brings on a period of tyrannies in Athens.

A tyrant is a legal or illegal ruler who exceeds the authority of his office. He takes and uses powers he does not have.

The tyrants try to protect the power of the aristocrats. Some tyrants try to protect their own personal power. Their bad behavior makes enemies of the Athenian people. The people now distrust leaders they, the people, do not control. The people's determination to control leaders leads to democracy -- rule by the people. Slowly but surely decision making on great events is taken from office holders and given to all citizens of Athens.

It is the money of the middle class that makes this possible. With money the middle class is funding the army, the navy, and public buildings. Money pushes out the aristocratic warrior class. The anger of the independent farmers at their treatment also forces change.

Unfair treatment of poor Athenians forces the aristocrats and middle class to allow the poor but independent farmers the vote. Again, the number of Athenians who participate in democracy is expanded.

Athenian democracy works because Athens is small. Small enough that people can know one another. The land Athens controls is about the size of our state of Rhode Island. But Athens has many fewer people living on that land than live in Rhode Island today.

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A New England town meeting

In the United States we duplicate the idea of Athenian democracy with the New England town meeting. In small towns in New England, all the citizens meet to vote on all the laws and make all the decisions for their town.

Created By
Robert Brady
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