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True Democracy? Oligarchy Versus Ochlokratia In Athens

True Democracy? Oligarchy Versus Ochlokratia In Athens


If what is taken to matter most is the power of decision-making, and, as part of that, the power to call executive office-holders to account by judicial or other means, then the first democracy properly so called anywhere in the world was that of Athens, brought it into being in stages during the approximately half-century between circa 508 and 462 BC. Aristotle in his Politics treatise of circa 330 BC, refers to some 1,000 separate political entities in Hellas (the Greek world) between about 500 and 300 BC of those, perhaps a quarter, perhaps as many as half at one time or another within those two centuries experienced some form of democracy.


The relief representation depicts the personified Demos being crowned by Democracy (276 BC) Ancient Agora Museum (Jerónimo Roure Pérez/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Etymologically, the ancient Greek coinage dêmokratia, first attested in 425 BC, combined dêmos and kratos. The meaning of kratos is unambiguous: power or might. The meaning of dêmos, however, is ambiguous: either ‘people’ - the people as a whole, the city or state, for example of Athens - or the majority of the empowered (adult male citizen) people. So, ancient Greek dêmokratia could mean either ‘the power of the people’ (as in Lincoln’s ‘government of the people by the people for the people’) or the power of the masses, over both the organs of state governance and over the Elite Few citizens. Members of the Elite Few rich citizens, might well have preferred oligarchy (rule of the Elite Few) to democracy, which they viewed as merely mobocracy or mob-rule.

Athens - Ripe for Democracy

Preconditions of the origins of democracy at Athens include: the invention of the polis or city-state around 700 BC; a rule-bound political entity based on a definition of the privileges and duties of citizens (always free adult males); weakening of the original rule over the poleis by exclusive noblest and affluent aristocracies, through such factors as intermarriage between noble and non-noble families, the impoverishment of some aristocrats, and the rise of new-wealthy families due to for example success in overseas trade; the shift from long-range fighting conducted only by the most wealthy to the dominant role of infantry phalanx fighting undertaken by more middling-rich heavy-armed soldiers; and the emergence in some of the larger, more important poleis (Athens was one) of sole-ruler autocrats called ‘tyrants’ who found it helpful to dispossess or weaken the older ruling families by spreading political power more widely down to poorer, commoner citizens.


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Taken from an Interview by Dr Richard Marranca with Dr Paul Cartledge, A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College, University of Cambridge and  author of Democracy: A Life

Dr Richard Marranca is an author, teacher and filmmaker. He has had a Fulbright to teach at the University of Munich, as well as seven National Endowments for the Humanities summer grants. His books are available online.  Read more at:

Top Image: Depiction of Areopagus (Athenian governing council) with Acropolis in the background by Leo von Klenze  (1846) (Public Domain)

By: Dr Richard Marranca



Dr Richard Marranca is an author, teacher and filmmaker. He has a strong interest in history and religion in the ancient world and publishes in these areas. His Egyptian manuscript Speaking of the Dead: Mummies & Mysteries of Egypt, will... Read More

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