The Democratic Significance of the Classical Athenian Courts

This draft, not-for-citation paper by Daniela Cammack (forthcoming in Declinism, Central European University Press), argues that the 4th Century was actually the high point of Athenian democracy and culture:

The incomparable Mogens Hansen has done more than anyone to refocus attention on fourth century Athens (particularly 355-22), arguing convincingly not only that the democracy in the age of Demosthenes differed significantly from that of Pericles but also that the vastly richer philosophical, oratorical and epigraphical sources of the fourth century should make it the centre of gravity of histories of the period.

Unfortunately Hansen views the change from assembly- to sortition-based legislative decision making as ‘a move from the “radical” democracy of the fifth century to a more “moderate” (later “modified”) system in the fourth’. According to Cammack this is anachronistic:

This is exactly what a subject of a modern constitutional democracy would expect. The judiciary, in such systems, is indeed meant to limit what “the people” (or their representatives) can do to themselves. But it is not clear that the relationship between Athenian judges and assemblygoers should be understood in these terms. In particular, we cannot assume that late fifth-century Athenians regarded their courts as a less democratic forum than the assembly, since in both cases, among other things, decisions were made by ordinary citizens voting en masse. Indeed, I will argue that judicial panels may have been regarded as a significantly more reliable vehicle of the rule of the dêmos, conceived as the collective common people as distinct from those who took leading political roles. From this perspective, far from moderating democracy, the reforms of the late fifth century seem designed to render it more extreme.

One Response

  1. Cammack’s argument is good. The Assembly was the least democratic institution of the Athenian system – and this was apparently realized by the Athenians themselves. Reducing the Assembly’s power therefore resulted in a more democratic system. The idea that 4th century Athens was less democratic than 5th century Athens is an ideologically-induced mistake.

    These facts should be noted by modern advocates of “participatory democracy”.


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