Political Participation and Trust in Ancient Athens

By Ayesha Vemuri and Sedona Chinn

The foundations of western democracy and political thought lie in the ancient Athenian democracy. Their institutions are the roots from which modern governments have grown. Therefore, as Design!publiC III explores modern phenomena of political participation and trust, it stands to reason that Athenian understandings, as the ancestor to modern democracy, be likewise understood.

Athenian government was arguably the world’s first large-scale experiment in democracy. The democracy of the institutions were much more immediate than found in today’s democratic societies. Assemblies, in which legislation was written, pronouncements decided, officials elected, and political criminals tried, were free to be attended by any citizen (men of age with Athenian ancestry who had completed their military training), and it was a citizen’s responsibility to do so.

Compared to our modern democracies, in which officials are elected to vote in legislative houses in place of their constituents, the democratic process was much more immanent and direct in ancient Athens. However despite this, large portions of the population were completely absent from the political process; women, slaves, and foreign residents were not counted as citizens and therefore could not participate.

Offices also were more frequently changed in ancient Athens. The position of president of the assembly was rotated amongst the ten tribes of Athens each month, and each citizen was only allowed to hold the position once in their lifetime, therefore preventing the centralization of power in the hands of a single person. Officials were, for the majority, selected not by election, but by lottery. This too was to prevent the wealthy, influential, or popular from holding power exclusively. The weakness of such a design was that in times of crisis, there was not a definite and exclusive leader to which Athens could turn.

Seen in the construct of Athenian democracy is the fear of tyranny. Athenian government was designed so that each branch of government was checked and balanced by another, and even individual offices were rotated often to assure that no one person or party could take control of the government. The design of these institutions points to a real mistrust in government and in those who hold positions of power. The Athenian solution to corruption and tyranny, therefore, was participation by all its citizens. Left to the few, government would quickly turn to tyranny.

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