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Athens: What It Takes to Build a Successful Society

Protesting and rioting is easy – actually building a better society takes work.

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America has seen many protests and there are many people eager to “tear down” the system – but protesting is easy. The difficult part is coming up with solutions and a society that works better than what we have now.

As Winston Churchill famously noted in 1946:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time … ”

Can any one person or group create a whole new system of government that works specifically for the people? Well, history shows us that this has been done before. And if it has happened before, those who follow history will know that it could quite easily happen again.

The Greek city-state of Athens is a perfect example of how democratic systems were tried, tested, revamped, and renewed. As a people, the ancient Greeks had an idea of what proper governance should look like and essentially used trial-and-error over hundreds of years to perfect it.

Draco’s Laws

The first attempt at a genuine democracy was seen around 621 B.C. with the end of oral law and adoption of written laws. This was spearheaded by a man named Draco. Prior to this, laws were unwritten and mostly unknown by the majority of Athenians. By writing them down and placing them on small three-sided pyramids, every literate person could read the laws.

Yet these laws, and the punishments for those who broke them, were extremely harsh. They were codified by Draco, so it should come as no surprise that the word “draconian” comes from his name. The punishment for just about every crime, from stealing a cabbage to murder, was death. Plutarch wrote:

“It is said that Draco himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offences, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones.”

Brutal? Certainly. Yet this was the first step in giving people an understanding that they lived in a land with governance. That there were things they could not do, and things that could not be done to them, without consequence.

Solon’s Reforms

In 594 B.C., this system was updated by Solon. Solon brought about several reforms, the first of which was doing away with Draco’s draconian laws (for all crimes except homicide).

At the time, Athens was run exclusively by a group of nine archons – or rulers – each from a noble house. Solon expanded the power to include other groups of society (although the groups granted these rights were limited in number).

Solon also stopped the use of slavery for the collection of debts from fellow Athenians and, perhaps most importantly, created the right to a jury in court. This was a great leap forward in society. Nowhere else in the known world before this time could a person’s fate at the hands of the law be decided by other citizens on a large scale. Previously, the decision was most often at the decree of a ruler or judge. These changes were the first step to making all people equal before the law.

Solon introduced a series of other reforms that covered property, sales, tariffs, trade, morality, and just about every subject you can think of, and then he went on a journey. During his travels many of these reforms collapsed, much to Solon’s anger and disappointment.

A New Dictator

Athens once again fell to a dictator. Hippias, the “tyrant” of the Athenians, ruled the state from 527 to 510 B.C. Hippias’ hold appeared absolute, until Cleisthenes, an exiled lawgiver, asked the Spartans to help remove him. The Spartans agreed.

But here began a long period of mistrust between Athens and Sparta. The Spartan king helped overthrow and exile Hippias, but then thought that his kingdom deserved to rule Athens. He tried to put his own man into power.

The Father of Democracy


The people of Athens rose against another all-powerful ruler, and Cleisthenes was brought back to Athens. He began new reforms, including a system whereby all citizens were equal. It was, however, a time when only men were classed as citizens.

Cleisthenes is known as the Father of Athenian Democracy because, under his direction, regular people became the power source. The word “democracy” actually derives from two words: demos, meaning people, and kratos, meaning power or force.

He instituted ten tribes, based not on family connections but on areas of residence known as demes. Each deme would send a number of its people to help run Athens, so all locations were represented, and these representatives were changed regularly so as not to allow one person or tribe to build up too much power or influence. Government positions were literally filled at random to stop men of influence from securing a privileged position.

Cleisthenes also introduced a safeguard against those who would buy influence: ostracism. If a person grew too powerful, the citizens would be summoned; if a plurality of those agreed, the man would be sent away for a period of ten years. It was thought that such a length of time would be enough to break the web of influence he may have spun.

Trying New Systems

Over the centuries, the governing structure of Athens went through many versions. Sometimes it failed, sometimes it succeeded. But after each fall, Athenians would build again in a better image than the one that went before. It was a process and indeed a struggle.

The United States of America is a continuation of Athenian democracy; it is the next iteration in a project that has lasted millennia. Has it reached perfection? Is it the pinnacle of all human history? Clearly not. But perhaps that is the point. It is a project that should never be finished, should never dare people to say that “we have completed the human experiment and this is our result.” The demands of those who can only destroy will not move humanity forward as a species. It is through careful refining, consideration, and, above all, honesty that the dream of democracy will grow.

Mark Angelides is Managing Editor of Liberty and Hailing from the UK, he specializes in EU politics and provides a conservative/libertarian voice on all things from across the pond. During the Brexit Referendum campaign, Mark worked to promote activism, spread the message and secure victory. He is the editor and publisher of several books on Ancient Chinese poetry.

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