Democracy and its Origins

We hear every day many uses of the term Democracy. What did it originally mean? Where did it originate? Can we actually know? How far was it ever the ‘Rule of the People’?
‘This has been decided by the polis. When a man has been Kosmos, for ten years that man shall not be Kosmos. If he should become Kosmos, whatever judgements he shall give, he himself shall owe double, and he shall be useless as long as he lives, and what he does as Kosmos shall be as nothing. The swearers [to this shall be] the Kosmos, the Semioi and the Twenty of the polis.’ (From Dreros on Crete, dating from the middle to late VIIth C BC)
[ ML, 2 – trans Fornara, 1983; no. 11 ]
This is one of the earliest epigraphic pieces of evidence we have from an early democratic city state (POLIS).
The limitations placed upon the right to hold the supreme office are clear – an individual may hold it once every ten years and there shall be clearly defined punishments for any who break that law, not just in fiscal punishment (something which might be of minor significance to the rich élite), but perhaps more importantly in the status of that individual in the polis structure, demeaning him to the lowest ranks, rendering him ‘useless’ in the community. His civic right to continue to play a role in the social structure of the polis will be removed, insinuating that there was, even at this early date, not only an expectation, but a desire amongst the citizen body (what would develop in to the ekklesia of a democratic state) to participate and play a useful role for the good of the polis. There is a closely defined group who swear to this oath, giving epigraphic evidence of a developed governmental structure – the Kosmos, the Semioi and the Twenty; it is further worth noting that it is the office which swears to the oath, not individuals, presumably in such a way the UK refers to ‘the Crown’ or the USA refers to ‘the White House’, possibly signifying that this might be an annual oath, sworn by officials upon the start of their tenure of office. The implication further stands that these are elected magisterial roles, the presumption being that it is the citizen body (here referred to as the polis) which elects them and on an annual basis. This law shows that the legislative body was the ‘polis’ which has the right to restrict the powers and rights of tenure of the magistrates and that the magistrates will continue in office with these rights and restrictions at the will of the citizen body, not by inheritance, wealth or position of birth – it is the polis which here exercises its dominant will: ‘This has been decided by the polis…’. Hölkeskamp [ Schiedsrichter, Gesetzgeber und Gesetzgebung im archaischen Griechenland, Stuttgart, 1999, 172-73 ] also points to privileges at Kyzikos on the Hellespont being granted by the polis and this being supported by a subsequent oath. The fact that such epigraphic evidence, dating from approximately the same period but in two such widely disparate early poleis does also lead us to intuit that the democratic concept was not necessarily an unusual one in the late archaic period. Furthermore, the earlier problems of the colonial period must have been, to a certain extent at least, solved, as there had been the opportunity to build up a system of magistrates and the importance of the collective will of the citizen body, the polis. The earliest epigraphic evidence for the existence and role of a Boulē [Council]of the People comes from a stele on which the inscription is written in boustrophedon using the Ionic letter formations situated at Khios which gives the right of appeal to the Council which was to meet once a month to hear such cases, thus showing that certain legal powers, presumably to overrule the decisions made by a judicial magistrate as the same stele makes reference to a basileus and a demarch, if the appeal were successful. There remain intrinsic questions, however – who exactly comprised this citizen body; how were the decisions made and were they through vote, debate or recommendation of a dominant elite; were the decisions made through a system of voting and if so by secret ballot or basic hand count or was there simply a system of public acclamation in the agora, all systems used in later Hellenic constitutions to carry a vote or make a decision? It is on these questions that so much relies in an understanding of the earliest democratic processes across the Hellenic world, and yet questions which, with present evidence, must remain unanswered. All that we can truly state from the evidence available to us is that the importance of the community was paramount in these poleis and with that came a sense of being part of the communal decisions and an importance of each individual, both of which are intrinsic to the ultimate development of a democratic system of government and constitution. For such a system as shown at Dreros, Khios or by inference at Kyzikos to have evolved, however, there must have been an earlier developmental phase; again an obvious question – where is the earliest idea of any democratic process to be found in the evidence?
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