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Ancient Civilizations. Democracy.


Democracy has today evolved to become quite symbolic and viewed by historians as well as critics as different from its historical origin. While democracy is considered as the best form of government a state or country/nation may come up with, many forms from illiberal to liberal have emerged so that it is no longer clear where the good of laws and governance lie.

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This paper shall try to outline the main features of radical democracy and consider the advantages and disadvantages of the system and compare with democracy as practiced in Australia.


It was said that the Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens around 500 BC (Jones, 1966). Athens was one of the very first known democracies. It comprises of the central city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica. While other Greek cities set up democracies which may have followed the Athenian model, none were as powerful, stable and well-documented as that of Athens. It is a unique and direct democracy where the people vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Participants were constituted regardless of economic class with the public opinion of voters influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres (Henderson, 1993).

The Athenian Population

During the 4th century BC, about 30,000 have been the adult male citizens entitled to vote in the assembly. Adult male Athenians citizens who had completed their military training as ephebes were the only ones given the right to vote. The non-citizen components are a majority of the population — slaves, children, women and resident foreigners or metics. Others who were also excluded to vote were the atimia who may have failed to pay a debt to the city. While this state may to some Athenians amount to permanent or inheritable disqualification, in contrast with oligarchical societies, there were no real property requirements limiting access. The vast numbers for the Athenian democracy to work shows the breadth of participation among those eligible that exceeded any present day democracy (Henderson, 1993).

Main Bodies of Governance in Athens

There were three political bodies in Athens where citizens gathered in numbers of about hundreds or thousands.

The assembly or ἐκκλεσία ekklesia with a quorum of 6000. The Athenian democracy is centred on the meetings of the assembly whose ‘members’ were not elected but attended by right when they chose. Its four major functions are: make executive pronouncements or decrees such as to go to war or granting citizenship to a foreigner, elect some officials, legislate; and try political crimes. The assembly and the courts are where true power lies. Citizens voting in both were not subject to review and prosecution like the council members and all other officeholders. In mid-4th century, the assembly’s judicial functions were largely curtailed but its role in the initiation of various kinds of political trial was maintained (Jones, 1966).

The system’s standard format was that of speeches are made for and against a position, then a general vote by hands or cheirŏtonĭa (arm stretching) with blocs of opinion, but one thing definite is that there were no political parties nor opposition.

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It has been said that counting was quite impossible where a quorum of 6000 was required but coloured balls were used of which white symbolised yes and black for no. By the 5th century BC, there were 10 fixed assembly meetings per year for every ten state months.

The council of 500 or boule. It was formed to address to two major reforms in the development of Athens’ politeia or constitution: the Reforms of Solon circa 594-593 BC with the boule having 400 members and 100 citizens drawn from the four Ionian Tribe and the Reforms of Kleisthenes circa 508-507 BC of which ten Attik Tribes were created and 50 citizens were drawn from these tribes to form 500. It was the largest board of officeholders responsible in: drafting preparatory legislation considered by the assembly, oversee the meetings of the assembly, and execute legislation directed by the assembly. The 500 were selected every year by a lottery with 50 citizens each from the 10 Athenian tribes among the men over thirty years of age.

During the radical democracy, proposals considered as from the boule were known to pass through the assembly untouched showing the importance of the role the body played in legislation. The official selected by lot for a single day is called epitastes from the presiding prytany. He chaired the day’s meeting of which he also held the keys to the treasury, the seal to the city, and welcomed foreign ambassadors

The courts with a minimum of 200 and on some occasions up to 6000 to run. The legal system centred on the dikasteria of Heliaia or jury courts manned by large panels selected by lot from an annual pool of 6,000 citizens called Heliaia or ἡλιαία. To serve as juror, a citizen had to be over 30 years of age and has full citizen rights as the Athenians believe older was wiser. The jurors were also under oath, a feature lacking at the assembly.

The authority of the courts had the same basis as that of the assembly that express the direct will of the people. While office holders or magistrates of the boule could be impeached and prosecuted for misconduct, the jurors could not be censured, as they represent the people and considered the highest authority. If unjust decisions were made, the jurors as they claim prior to a decision must have been misled by a litigant. A case usually is resolved within one day. While a few convictions had automatic penalty, others had the two litigants propose a penalty for the convicted defendant and the jury chose between them in a vote.

The Citizen-initiator or the Ho boulomenos, he who wishes, is the figure that behind the whole system indicating the right of citizens to take the initiative: to stand to speak in the assembly, to initiate a public law suit, to propose a law before the lawmakers or to approach the council with suggestions.

The above mentioned are the three functions within the Athenian democracy: the officeholders organized and saw to the complex protocols; the Ho boulomenos as the initiator and or one who propose of content; and the people, massed in assembly or court, or convened as lawmakers to make decisions of yes or no, or choose between alternatives.

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Detractors of the democracy considered it reckless and arbitrary, as well as for being an imperialist democracy. In addition, it was seen as discriminatory and misogynist, in that democracy compromised the status of those who did not share it.

Contemporary critics of “majoritarianism” consider Athenian democracy as illiberal regime against liberal democracy that supposedly led to anomie, balkanization, and xenophobiaatill, Athenian democracy was the first and the best example of a working direct democracy.

The Australian Democracy

The Commonwealth of Australia is a constitutional democracy based on a federal division of powers of a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system. Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of Australia, represented by the Governor-General at federal level and by the Governors at state level. The Constitution gives extensive executive powers to the Governor-General exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister (Denoon, Donald, et al, 2000). One incident of which the Governor-General’s reserve powers was exercised outside the Prime Minister’s direction was the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in the 1975 constitutional crisis.

Like the radical Athenian democracy, it, too has three branches of government:

  • The legislature or the Commonwealth Parliament, comprising the Queen, the Senate, and the House of Representatives with the Queen is represented by the Governor-General, but the Governor General who by convention acts on the advice of his or her Ministers.
  • The executive: the Federal Executive Council or the Governor-General as advised by the Executive Councillors or the Prime Minister and Ministers of State.
  • The judiciary or the High Court of Australia and other federal courts.

The bicameral Commonwealth Parliament consists of the Queen, the Senate or the upper house with 76 senators, and a House of Representatives or the lower house with 150 members elected from single-member constituencies known as “electorates” or “seats”. The seats in the lower house are allocated to states on the basis of population with each of the state guaranteed a minimum of five seats.

The 12 Senators represented each state with each of the territories consisting of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory by two.

The two major political groups that form government: the Australian Labor Party, and the Coalition which is a grouping of two parties: the Liberal Party and its minor partner, the National Party.


While the radical democracy of Athens may be considered quite barbaric, flawed and represented a democracy that trampled on the oligarchy, it was however a government that upheld the voice of the majority of males that Athens legally considered. Its major flaws are the absence of rights of women, slaves and younger citizens. It was observed that the rich during that time may reduce the rights of those working or under their employ by not giving a day-off during assembly.

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The democracy of Australia is based on a constitution not entirely her own, and with leaders representing leaders beyond its realm, which is a far cry from the original democracy. While it may have an “equality” feature, representations through the ministers and all appointed officials start to become blurry and lines unclear.


Henderson, J. (1993) Comic Hero versus Political Elite pp.307-19 in Sommerstein, A.H.; S. Halliwell, J. Henderson, B. Zimmerman: Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis. Bari: Levante Editori.

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