Basic ideas of ancient Greek democracy and their relevance for modern conceptions of democracy

Term Paper, 2008

9 Pages



- Introduction

- The power of the people

- Equality

- Liberty

- The rule of law

- Conclusion


The fascination that springs from the first democratic polity of history, the ancient polis of Attica, remains undaunted right up to now and the examination of this alluring topic will certainly occupy future scientists as well. The main questions are: How – and most of all why did democracy develop at this time and at this place? How was this political system organised? And what lessons can we draw from the rise and fall of the Athenian democracy? In the following, I am going to touch some of these issues while analysing what the basic ideas of Athenian democracy looked like, comparing the ancient with the modern understanding and investigating to what extent they might be relevant to current theories of democracy. Thus, I am going to concentrate more on the abstract, intellectual foundations of the political system than on concrete manifestations like institutions and procedures. From my point of view, this approach appears to be more advantageous anyway because the formal frame could only be applied much harder to modern states than general ideas might be.

As the basic ideas which led to the genesis and shaped the form of democracy may be considered the power of the people (commonly known as the rule of the people but I am going to show why this is not the appropriate translation), equality, liberty and the rule of law. After having examined the nature and consequences of these concepts, I am going to summarise my results.

The power of the people

First of all, it is required to explain why I do not speak of “popular rule” – the English equivalent for the German word “Volksherrschaft” – which is obviously a far more common expression. Nevertheless, it is based on an inappropriate translation. “Demokratía” contains next to “demos”, the people – the verb “krátein”, which means to hold power. To rule, on the other hand, is expressed by the greek word “árchein”, as in “oligarchía” for example.1

This differentiation may seem fastidious but it is the linguistic manifestation of the idea to annihilate all rule and mastery of men over men.2In other words: the ruler shall be identic with the ruled people, i. e. the people shall govern themselves. This is the core of identity theories – as advocated e. g. by Jean-Jaques Rousseau – which are the basis for theories of direct democracy.

In a direct democracy there is no authority of the state that is not identic with the citizenhood whereas for representative democracies the division of powers into legislative, executive and judiciary are generally accepted as obligatory. The German “Grundgesetz” states in article 20, paragraph two: “Alle Staatsgewalt geht vom Volke aus. Sie wird vom Volke in Wahlen und Abstimmungen und durch besondere Organe der Gesetzgebung, der vollziehenden Gewalt und der Rechtsprechung ausgeübt.“3This applies in similar ways for most modern democratic systems. The sovereignty belongs to the people – who can vote for their representatives – but it is exerted mainly by legislative, executive and judiciary whereas in direct democracies, e. g. ancient Athens, only the people as the single authority shall exercise political power.


1 During my research, I read about another interpretation of the term „demokratía” by Walter Eder: “Instead, the word originally pointed to the position of a person or group whose power rested on the demos as its followers. Nothing provocative or new lies in this suggestion, for it accords with the meaning that Otto Debrunner (1947: 13 = Kinzl 1995 b: 57), applying strict rules of etymology, deduced from an analysis of demokratía : "to be master over the people" ("die Macht über das Volk besitzend") or "to be in power with the help of the people" ("durch das Volk die Macht besitzend"). This analysis fits the suggestion mentioned above that demokratía in the fifth century should rather be considered an "aristocracy by acclamation" or a "guided democracy."” − http:ƒƒwww2.tu−berlin.deƒfb1ƒAGiWƒHospitiumƒEder.htm (20ƒ07ƒ2008, 7 p.m.)

2 Pabst 2003, p. 17f

3 Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2006, p. 20

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Basic ideas of ancient Greek democracy and their relevance for modern conceptions of democracy
University of Applied Sciences Bremen
Democracy: Theory and Practice
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Basic, Greek, Democracy, Theory, Practice, Athens, ancient, concept, idea
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Lisa Wegener (Author), 2008, Basic ideas of ancient Greek democracy and their relevance for modern conceptions of democracy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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