The Greek Democratic Polis

Paul Szykowny
Dr. Brown
History 151
21 September 1998

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Most people would agree that ancient Greek culture and modern American culture are amazingly different. There is, however, one important ideal that both cultures have in common; Democracy. This paper will show that because the Greeks used elected bodies such as general assemblies and peoples court, and because the Greeks lived under the tradition of majority rule, the Greek polis was fundamentally a democratic institution.
The best example of a democratic polis is Athens. "By the seventh century all free born adult male citizens of Athens had the right to attend open meetings in a body called the assembly (ecclesia)." (Martin 83) This assembly used a different form of democracy than what we, as Americans, are familiar with. Instead of electing officials to vote on issues for us, the Athenian ecclesia was more direct. "All Athenian citizens had the right to speak and vote at the meetings of this general assembly, or ecclesia, the body which had final and supreme power in the state." (Amos 106) H.D. Amos gives us an informative example of the importance of voting in the ecclesia;
The involvement was direct and immediate. It is early 415 B.C. The ecclesia is debating whether the fleet should be sent to attack Sicily. You go along, but hardly as a spectator. If you and your fellow citizens vote in favor of it, you are voting, in all probability, to send yourself or your son or your nephew as a rower or a hoplite. Voting become rather important in such circumstances. (106)
Democratic elements were also apparent in the courts of Athens as well. One element,
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trial by jury, is one fundamental principle of the United States, and for the Athenians. Athenian trials by jury, however, are much more different that ours. "There was no judge, no prosecuting or defending council, no deliberation by the jury." (Amos 114) "The juries were very large, averaging 500 citizens." (114) Also, because of this large jury, they need not decide the verdict unanimously, like in our courts. "They decided the verdict by a simple majority." (114)
The other classic example of a democratic polis is Sparta. The Spartan ruling body was not much like the Athenian, however, it retained some basic democratic elements. "The few who made policy in Sparta were a group of twenty-eight men over sixty years old, joined by two kings. This group of thirty, called the council of elders (gerousia) formulated proposals that were submitted to an assembly of all free adult males." (Martin 74) This assembly did not have nearly as much direct control as the Athenian assembly did. "The assembly had only limited power to amend the proposals put before it; mostly it was expected to approve the council's plans." (74) From this it would appear that the assembly was a mere puppet of the gerousia. One might wonder how the gerousia was not able to seize complete control over Sparta. The answer to this lies in the ephoroi. "This ephoroi, a board of five annually elected "overseers" kept the gerousia power in check. They were able exercise extreme judicial power over the gerousia if they got out of line." (74)
There are many other examples of democratic city states in ancient Greece. Most of these, however, are not as significant as Athens and Sparta. Both city states incorporated two basic elements of democracy into their government. One was majority rule. The other, was the idea of trial by jury.

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Works Cited
Amos, H.D, Lang A.G.P. The Greeks. Chester Springs: Dufour, 1979.
Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece. New Haven: Yale, 1996.