PBS documentary on DVD: “Athens: The Dawn of Democracy”

I found this PBS documentary enlightening. From my understanding of the classical Athenian political system, this presentation overplays the role of elections and underplays the role of sortition. [Obtained through Netflix.]

Athens: The Dawn of Democracy
2007 NR 120 minutes
In this PBS program, historian Bettany Hughes explores the realities of ancient Athens’s “Golden Age” and uncovers a mix of brilliant, humanity-changing philosophies and dark, war-like themes that co-existed in one turbulent time and place. Although ancient Athens still retains its reputation as a pure and shining democracy, its history tells a more complicated story that includes slavery, black magic and an unquenchable thirst for war.

  • Cast: Bettany Hughes
  • Genres: Documentary, Historical Documentaries, PBS Documentaries, TV Documentaries
  • Format: DVD

YouTube clip.

6 Responses

  1. Forgot to mention that one of the best parts for me was to see a reconstructed kleroterian actually used.

    Seeing that demonstration did more than the thousand words I’ve read about the process.


  2. Thanks, David – this is quite interesting. The eliding of the crucial role of sortition is a recurring phenomenon in popular historical accounts of Athens. See here and here.

    I just listened to the beginning of the YouTube segment. This looks like a mix between some potentially useful history and superficial (or maybe just false) political analysis. I’ve seen another PBS documentary which provided a similar mixture: The Greeks, Crucible of Civilization”.

    Watching this bit of “the Dawn of Democracy”, I cringed, for example, at the host’s assertion (about 3 minutes in) that Athens “couldn’t tolerate criticism from within”. This trope must be a reference to the execution of Socrates. In fact, of course, Athens was extremely tolerant of anti-democrats.

    This comment is preceded by the confusing claim that the US promotes the Athenian ideals of democracy, while sanitizing the Athenian history of its unpleasant parts. I am not sure if this is supposed to be interpreted as asserting that the US is a better example of democracy than Athens was, or that the US has the same faults that Athens had. I suspect the casual viewer would assume it is the former, but even the latter is too charitable toward the current system. It is quite cowardly to pose as a hard headed, myth busting historian by “exposing” the shortcomings of a 2500 year old society while glossing over (or even denying) the shortcomings of your own. In any case, any analogy between Athens and the US that doesn’t emphasize that while the official rhetoric was similar, the actual political systems were very different, is misleading.

    And what to make of the claim that democracy triumphed and was then “forgotten”? Democracy was not forgotten – it was suppressed overcoming recurring attempts to restore it.

    Overall – based on those few minutes – it looks like standard fare for a high-brow Western media production, but still well worth watching.


  3. Other items I learned from this documentary:

    Only about 1 out of 10 inhabitants were qualified Athenian citizens. I knew it was limited, but didn’t know it was only 10%!
    I wonder then if we can still call it a democracy? Or rather just an oligarchy that used sortition within itself?

    Classical Athens was at war about every other year. Again, a lot more than I realized.
    From this documentary I got the idea that the citizens themselves even manned the triremes. If that’s the case — then so much for the argument that a proportionally representative assembly would be less bellicose.


  4. Given the age structure of the Athenian population, age qualification alone would have put the enfranchisement rate at 50%. Add to that exclusion of women and you are at 25%. Add to that a substantial population of slaves and foreigners and you are at 10%. Clearly, to the extent that political equality existed, it was limited to that elite group alone. There clearly was a hierarchy in which this group held much more power than other groups.

    But, since even that group was non-intimate – tens of thousands of people, an achievement of political equality within the group of citizens would be a unique achievement from which lessons could be drawn. I think that modern scholars do believe that a high degree of political equality was achieved within that group.

    As for belligerence – I completely agree. The Democratic Peace Theory notwithstanding, there is no direct connection between democracy and peacefulness.

    More generally, democracy is not a panacea.


  5. Interestingly, if you google the name of this documentary (in quotes), this blog is currently the second hit you get.


  6. I do not find this comment in that posting area. I may be having technical difficulties. Please let me know if this is received and by whom?

    Thank you.

    David Grant


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