‘The disease began, it is said, beyond Egypt in Ethiopia… then it suddenly fell upon the city of Athens’
Between 430-426 BCE, the Greek city state of Athens suffered a mysterious and devastating plague. Highly contagious and often fatal, the disease is reputed to have reduced the population of Athens by up to a quarter. Although the cause of the epidemic is unknown, bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, anthrax and influenza have all been suggested as possible culprits. The symptoms exhibited in Athens however, do not exactly match those of any known disease and speculation as to the nature of the epidemic continues to the modern day.
Our sole contemporary source for information on the plague is the historian Thucydides, who claimed to have suffered from the condition himself, and catalogued its symptoms and effects in minute detail. Although the objectivity of Thucydides’ account has been called into question, his description of the sufferings endured by plague victims and the effects of the epidemic upon Athenian society as a whole have proven of great interest to both physicians and historians.
What is Democracy?
I remember once reading a line in the excellent Horrible Histories series, writes John B Knight, that claimed that democracy in Athens was, in fact, not very democratic at all because of those it excluded. However this logic seemed to entirely miss the point. The word democracy itself means the rule of the demos (citizenship). At Athens this consisted exclusively of males of a certain age group who were born of two Athenian parents. These citizens were given the right to vote in the assembly and serve the government of the state.
The idea of democracy is not as inclusive as most would like to believe. By definition it is in fact entirely exclusive; even in this day and age where only people meeting specific criteria and who have registered are given the right to vote. It can be argued that democracy in Athens was in fact superior to our own as any decision affecting the community would be put to a vote, particularly that of whether or not to go to war and, as we know, the Athenian demos acquiesced to fight some state or another nearly every year.
Where did the idea ‘democracy” come from?
It is hard to underestimate the novelty of such an idea when it was first proposed. Until around 500 BCE, Athens had first been ruled by an aristocratic clique and then, when individuals saw the power that could be wielded with the backing of the mob, by a series of tyrants.
After a number of power-grabs by such individuals, and intervention from Sparta, an Athenian exile named Cleisthenes took upon himself the reorganisation of the state with the intention of curbing the power of the aristocratic and wealthy families. He created a whole new tribal system by which an Athenian citizens’ loyalty was to his tribe and not a wealthy benefactor or family. Furthermore he curbed the powers of the Areopagus Council, previously made up of ex-magistrates, and introduced a new body of 500 chosen from a specific number of eligible candidates from each tribe. These individuals were selected by lot thus eliminating any possible partisan bias or collusion against the wishes of the majority.
Cleisthenes (Photo courtesy of the Ohio Statehouse Photo Archive)
The most important factor in this new system was equality. Every Athenian citizen regardless of status or wealth was given equal rights politically and in the eyes of the law. For the first time in human history any individual could decide upon those in power within his own state, and even himself attain the highest position by virtue of nothing but his birthright. This system was intrinsically linked to the development of warfare in Greece at the time. Armies had moved away from use of an aristocratic cavalry and towards citizen infantry militias. For the loyalty and good conduct of this citizen army it was important that those fighting had a stake in the state.
Democracy: then and now.
Today our democracy is far more inclusive to those who were unable to attain citizenship at Athens, such as women or resident foreigners but I would suggest that we are ruled by the representatives of the people rather than the people themselves. Though in future this may be set to change it is still hard to imagine we will ever taste true democracy as at Athens where we are given the power to influence any and every decision taken by our government that affects our lives.
For one thing, there are just too many of us!
John B. Knight