Democracy is a word that means being governed by the people. Athens was a city state of Attica, Greece, which can be remembered for its best government institutions that exercised democracy. The Athenian democracy, under Cleisthenes, was instituted in around 508 BC. It is during the classical period that Athens became greatly known as a center for arts, learning as well as philosophy. The Western Civilization is known to have borrowed from their democracy (Manville, 2003).
Athens has always been considered to be the origin of democracy; it has acted as a reference point for the European Democracy. Around the seventh century BC, Athens emerged with a powerful aristocracy which was largely dominant. However, exploitation was encouraged by this type of aristocracy. It is this exploitation that led to political, social as well as economic problems. This led to a call for reforms by the poor majority who felt they were being oppressed by few rich. It is then that a recognized Athenian, known as Solon, came to their rescue and tried to balance things between the rich and the poor.
Solon was a noble who lived moderately. He tried to ease the pain of the poor, who were the majority. However, he made sure he did this without doing away with the privileges that were being enjoyed by the rich. He started by dividing the people of Athens into four property classes. It is in these classes that the citizens were assigned different roles and enjoyed various rights. The compositions, as well as the functions of the government, were formalized. All the citizens could attend the Assembly, as well as exercise their right to vote. The Assembly, which was also called Ecclesia, was the sovereign body. It was mandated to elect officials, pass laws as well as decrees, and also hear appeals from courts which were of great importance.
The top two income groups took up the position of magistrates, also known as archons. Those who retired from these positions became members of Areopagus, also known as the Council of the Hill of Ares. They were mandated with checking the powers of the Ecclesia (Rhodes, 2004).
All these reforms were aimed at preventing economic, political as well as moral decline in Athens. It followed that the Athenians were provided with a comprehensive code of law. Some of the reforms dealt away with Athenians enslaving their own. More over, legal redress was provided and political privileges awarded to those with productive wealth. This is opposed to the before when it was hereditary. This was the basis of their reforms since it improved the economic aspect of the lower classes.
However, Solon did not deal away with the fight for control of the archonship. There were those who remained in power for a long time and being succeeded by their sons. This is when Cleisthenes proposed to come up with substantive reforms. He wanted to change the way the politics was organized, and to be more political inclined than before. He also aimed at improving the way the army was organized. It followed that the population was organized into ten tribes. More citizens were given access to power. This aspect was known as Isonomia; the principle of equality of rights for all the citizens. In later generations, power shifted more to the poor; meaning that they could hold public office. The powers of the council of the Areopagus were trimmed.
It can be said that, the democracy of Athens under Cleisthenes and Pericles, based itself on the principle of freedom. In order to preserve these principles that had already been created, the lot was used in selecting officials. In using the lot procedure, all citizens were equal and qualified for office. Allotment machines were used so as to avoid corruption. By this method, no citizen could be selected more than once. This translated that no one could build a power base by staying in a position for quite a number of times.
Other institutions like the courts had a large number of juries; there were no judges. The jury was also selected by means of lot. The court could control other governmental bodies as well as those in leadership. More over, army generals were also chosen through elections. They had to have military knowledge as well as wealth. This is due to the reason that those who were found guilty of corruption paid from their own private funds. Any decision made by the Ecclesia was executed by Boule of 500, who were elected each year by lot.
It is important to note that the Athenian democracy was direct; all of the decisions were made the citizens. They literally controlled the entire political system as well as public business. The Athenians could be said to have enjoyed their liberties at the time. However, the Athenian democracy went on the decline due to external pressure as well as from some of its citizens.
The Athenian model of democracy was stable and powerful where the people voted on legislation and bills by themselves. It also followed that participation by the Athenians was open and not based on the economic aspect of an individual (Rhodes, 2004).
It can be said that Solon, Cleisthenes and Ephialtes all threw in ideas on the development of Athenian democracy. There were three political bodies that ran the affairs in Athens: the Assembly (about 6000 people), the council (about 500) and the courts (from 200 to 6000). The courts and the assembly were the true powers. However, there are a number of critics of the Athenian democracy. The modern ones could be having a problem with the way the citizen body was narrowly defined.
The Athenian way of governance was called a democracy because the administration favored the majority instead of the few. Most of the laws could afford providing equal justice to all, despite their private differences. Class was not considered to interfere with the governance; even the poor could hold office and be paid for their services. The freedom that the Athenians enjoyed in their government extended to the ordinary life. It is also important to note that liberty was an idea that was also constituted in the constitution.
Equality was exercised in numbers and not wealth. Justice prevailed even in the courts because the decision making was not left to just one person but to a jury of more than two hundred. Each of the Athenian citizens was treated equally and was given equal share in the government. The majority had their say (the majorities were the poor). The decisions made by them were considered sovereign, it is for this reason that their constitutions stayed for a long time.
It is adamant to note that those who voted in the assembly were the people. However, they were not free of review or punishment in case they misbehaved. This is because, it is the same individuals who held office and could be held responsible for any misgivings. They were all subject to a review which could discredit them from office. This meant that those in office were agents of the Athenians and not just their representatives.
In conclusion, it is important to note that the courts and the assembly were looked at as representations of the people of Athens. There was no power above the people. Most of these offices were held yearly just to make sure that it was rotational and that no one tried to take advantage of the office being held. The politics was inclined to make sure that even those who were poor could govern themselves (Sinclair, 1988). This is the aspect which tried to solve the economic problems of the Athenians.