Saturday, May 10, 2014

The short history of democracy

With the end of Bronze Age, in the 10th century B.C., the kingdoms surrounding the Aegean Sea collapsed and the Greek city states governed by constitutional monarchy and oligarchy were established instead. In these city states the kings had either a very few power or completely a symbolic position. This oligarchic regime shared by a few noble families within the framework of a constitution was clogged in war-like crisis situations due to the conflict of power among the families. In order to prevent management blockage during these crisis, the ruler named “tyrant” selected for a temporary period and holding all authority; legislative, executive and judicial powers in one hand, were designated. However, as it can be easily guessed, having seized the power once, tyrants did not give up these powers on their own initiative after the crisis or war ended and generally they retained the power until they were overthrown by the oligarchic structures. Greek city states switched between these two regimes for several centuries; absolute monarchy in which tyrants who took control in difficult times and the oligarchy where noble families who overthrew the tyrants and then struggled for power among themselves. But during this whole process, Greeks kept their constitution which provided the authority even to tyrants and improved it step by step.

King Theseus, Founder of Athens; semi-god and semi-king receiving the ruling power from the divine forces.
Theseus, Victor of the Minotaur, Charles -Édouard Chaise, 1791
When it comes to the 6th Century BC, oligarchic system enhanced from a few noble families to a dozen of them sharing the power with the growth of the economies and the cities. In 590 BC, 9 senators called as “Archon” and each of whom selected from the noble families for only one year ruled the city-state of Athens. Decisions were taken in the general assembly with the participation of the noble. Although the power is shifted from one absolute ruler who rules with divine forces and limitless authority to a few noble families sharing the power within the framework of a constitution, yet it is too early to mention about the public’s will and the democracy. In the meanwhile, Athens underwent into a major economic crisis and the great statesman, Solon who was one of the “seven wises” was selected in order to overcome the difficulties resulting from the economy which was on the verge of stopping.

Library of American Congress, Thomas Jefferson Hall.
Solon sculpture. Frederick Wellington Ruckstull
The very basis of the system that brought Athens on the verge of a social and economic collapse was “the debt slavery"; the only way to borrow money for an Athenian was to put up himself and his family as collateral as slaves in case of a failure in paying the debt. As a result of the debt, thousands of Athenians became slaves, agriculture decreased and famine came out. Solon took courageous decisions and not only he removed the debt slavery system, but also by cancelling all the current debts, opened a clean slate for all Athenians. While Athens got rid of the crisis due to the slavery and debt thanks to Solon's courageous decisions, Solon moves his reforms a step further by taking advantage of this public support, sowed the first seeds of democracy in the sense that we know today; and then by redefining the aristocracy by wealth and richness rather than nobility, he expanded the number of the ruling families by adding the ones who enriched by trade. Secondly, he opened the general assembly i.e. the parliament to all the citizens of Athens. Although the main ruler class was still aristocracy which was defined by wealth, the people of Athens could now vote in the parliament on important matters and even act as a jury in important cases. This form of public participation had never been seen in history before. Solon, who solved the economic problems, opened the oligarchic rule to much wider masses by opening aristocracy to merchant families and then by opening the general assembly to the public, he established the first known public participation in the history despite being limited. After completing his reforms, Solon relinquished his power and left Athens, however right before leaving Athens, he asked Athenians to promise to hold his system for 10 years. Yet in less than five years, Peisistratos, Solon’s own cousin, seized control and declared his tyranny. Although Peisistratos was a tyrant, the historians describe his 20 years rule as “fair and good”. However, his sons Hippias and Hipparchus who seized power after his death were cruel tyrants. This situation lasted until Cleisthenes seized control. Cleisthenes is known as the father of democracy today and was a member of a noble family from Athens.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton were two Athenian heroes who killed cruel tyrant Hipparchus in the city center and went down in history as tyrant-killers (Tyrannicides). Their statues were put up in the main square of Athens after the foundation of democracy.
The First Civil Disobedience Act in the History, BC 507 Athens Rebellion

Since Cleisthenes was more interested in reforms rather than power, he opened the general assembly that was closed for a long time to the public again and aristocrat families who reacted to this were united under the leadership of Isagoras. In 507 B.C., Isagoras staged a coup against Cleisthenes with the support of Spartans and by sending Cleisthenes away from Athens, he seized the power. Isagoras closed down the general assembly and gave all the authority to a few aristocrat families. A very bad surprise was waiting for Isagoras who had seized the power with Spartan soldiers and exiled Cleisthenes; Athenians whose council had been closed were so angry that they went out into the streets and rebelled. The history is full of thousands of rebellions but the thing that distinguishes this rebellion from the others and made it the first civil disobedience act is that it didn’t have a leader. Without being organized by a rebellious leader, the Athenians went out into the streets with a massive anger and compressed the Spartan Soldiers in the main square of the city. At the end of the rebellion that lasted for three days, the Spartan soldiers and Isagoras had to leave Athens to save their lives. Athenians opened their general assembly again, and first of all, they called Cleisthenes back and gave him the full authority to continue his reforms. After this event, Cleisthenes would establish the first known democracy with all its proper functions and make the Athenians the first public who manages themselves in the history, and he will went down in history as the father of democracy.
The Birth of Democracy
Cleisthenes gave the right to vote in the general assembly to all the Athenian citizens, regardless of being rich or poor, noble or commoner without any discrimination. Archons turned into a consultancy council, the parliament became the only authority. In order to prevent tyranny, Cleisthenes invented a policy named Ostracism; Athenians had the right to exile a person whom they determined by voting. This system sent the person who strengthen excessively to exile and functions as an insurance to avoid a possible tyranny.
Spartans, the biggest rivals and neighbors of Athenians provided the order of their own city-states by using an excessive education-indoctrination system and by military policy. They thought that this invention of Athenians called as democracy is a naïve relish to end tragically in a short time but they were completely wrong. While Spartans advanced with militant citizens who were looking for ways to escape at first opportunity and kept unity under pressure with aggressive war policies, were fading away, Athens became the super power of his era.

Cleisthenes, the father of the democracy

Anna Christoforidis, 2004

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