Depiction of Areopagus (Athenian governing council) with Acropolis in the background by Leo von Klenze  (1846) (Public Domain)

True Democracy? Oligarchy Versus Ochlokratia In Athens

If what is taken to matter most is the power of decision-making, and, as part of that, the power to call executive office-holders to account by judicial or other means, then the first democracy properly so called anywhere in the world was that of Athens, brought it into being in stages during the approximately half-century between circa 508 and 462 BC. Aristotle in his Politics treatise of circa 330 BC, refers to some 1,000 separate political entities in Hellas (the Greek world) between about 500 and 300 BC of those, perhaps a quarter, perhaps as many as half at one time or another within those two centuries experienced some form of democracy.

The relief representation depicts the personified Demos being crowned by Democracy (276 BC) Ancient Agora Museum (Jerónimo Roure Pérez/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Etymologically, the ancient Greek coinage dêmokratia, first attested in 425 BC, combined dêmos and kratos. The meaning of kratos is unambiguous: power or might. The meaning of dêmos, however, is ambiguous: either ‘people’ - the people as a whole, the city or state, for example of Athens - or the majority of the empowered (adult male citizen) people. So, ancient Greek dêmokratia could mean either ‘the power of the people’ (as in Lincoln’s ‘government of the people by the people for the people’) or the power of the masses, over both the organs of state governance and over the Elite Few citizens. Members of the Elite Few rich citizens, might well have preferred oligarchy (rule of the Elite Few) to democracy, which they viewed as merely mobocracy or mob-rule.

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Ancient Origins Quotations