Athenian Democracy in the British Museum

I recently visited the British Museum and found that among the hundreds of displays devoted to the ancient Greek world and specifically to ancient Athens, there is one display box titled “Democracy”.

The box contains, among other items, a storage jar dated 490-480 depicting Theseus (“credited with the invention of democracy”), a drinking cup dated 490-480 depicting Athena watching over the Greeks at Troy as they vote to decide whether Ajax or Odysseus should receive the arms of the dead Achilles, and several jurymen pinakia, such as the one below, which belonged to one Archilochos of Phaleron and is dated 370-362.

The box carries the following description:

Classical Athens was the world’s first democracy. The tyrants who had ruled the city for some 50 years were expelled at the end of the 6th century BC and, from 460 onwards, all male Athenian citizens governed law and politics by debating and voting in a popular assembly. State offices and legal juries were filled by drawing lots. Not everyone, however, was included in this democracy, and women, resident foreigners and slaves were excluded. Nevertheless, Athenian democracy was a starting point for the development of modern democracies.

It is interesting that despite the mention of the practice of sortition in Athens, the text endorses the conventional modern view of equating democracy with elections and equating democratic progress with  the widening of electoral rights.