One evening the news suddenly reached Athens that Elateia, a key city giving access to the main body of the Greek peninsula, had unexpectedly been attacked and fallen to Philip of Macedon. There was sudden commotion in the streets, the Council members attempted to clear the way to the Assembly and there, next morning, the citizens of Athens met, waiting and ready before the Council appeared to give the news. As Demosthenes describes it: ‘The herald then voiced the question, “who desires to speak?” No one moved. The question was repeated several times without a man standing up, although all the generals were there and all the orators.’ This far from impartial reminiscence is merely a lead-in to the voice for which they have all been waiting. For ‘it appeared that the occasion demanded not merely patriotic feeling and wealth, but familiarity with public affairs from the beginning and a right judgment of Philip’saims and motives’. Hence, the narrator modestly concludes, ‘I was the man who showed such capacity that day. I came forward and addressed the Assembly’ (Dem XVIII 170; 172-3). Here we have Athenian democracy in action, even if in response to the threat which eventually closed it down. The citizen body as a whole meets to decide what to do. Typically the issue is one of immediate policy, specifically foreign policy, rather than of creation of law. Although all are called on to speak (the herald standardly first asked for those over 50, then for the others), in fact some are listened to, and expected to speak, more than others. Finally, Demosthenes is not addressing these reminiscences to the Assembly itself but is instead defending hispolicy in a legal suit brought against him in the Courts. These
are all features of the first and most famous democracy of them all, the democracy of ancient Athens. In the last chapter it was observed that democracy was not only a Greek word and Greek idea but that, for at least some of the ancient Greeks for at least some of the time, they actually lived in a form of government which both they themselves and also independent commentators described as a democracy. They had, as noted, surprisingly few imitators in the succeeding thousands of years and seem also to have had no predecessors, for democracy seems to be a form of government which they themselves invented. Since the restless fertility of Greek invention also produced political theory, it might be thought that there would be a neat match between these two exemplifications of their genius, so that the people who first practised democracy were also the first people both to explain and defend it. This, however, is not what happened. The principal commentators whose works survive were anti-democratic in inclination, and although they attempted to explain, they did not defend. This is the case both for the principal historian, Thucydides, with his brilliant analysis of the progress of the actual events, and also for the principal philosophers who considered the theory, Plato and Aristotle. Since such commentators came, almost necessarily, from the leisured, propertied (one might say, thinking) classes, and since these classes felt themselves to be threatened by democracy, this hostility is presumably not completely accidental. Nevertheless it poses a problem. For, while we can easily find powerful and important criticism of democracy in Greek thought, we have to look at the practice itself as well as the arguments reported by hostile commentators in order to extract any kind of defence, or even sympathetic explanation, of it. This is one reason for starting with the practice rather than the theory, and in this chapter two things will be attempted. First, ancient Athenian democracy will be described so that we have before us an actual working example of democracy as a basis for future discussion. Then the theory inspired by this practice will be introduced, theory which has had a deep influence on the discussion of democracy from the time of the Greeks up to the present day.