Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication

[ link colors: Demos | External Source | Citation to Evidence| Word Tools ]

Demos Home


→ Introduction.

A Reformer and a Tyrant.

Cleisthenes, Democracy, and Persia.

One Last Step to Democracy.

The Fifth Century: Democracy stumbles twice.

Secondary Works Cited.

Index of Citations

General Index

Demos Home

The Development of Athenian Democracy 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003

page 2 of 7

· Introduction ·

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 44).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

This brief survey of the development and early history of Athenian democracy is a supplement to “Overview of Athenian Democracy,” which appears elsewhere in this series. The first paragraphs of that article describe how the Greek word Demos (δῆμος, pronounced “day-moss”) has several meanings, all of them important for Athenian democracy. Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district. Young men, who were 18 years old presented themselves to officials of their deme and, having proven that they were not slaves, that their parents were Athenian, and that they were 18 years old, were enrolled in the “Assembly List” (the πίναξ ἐκκλησιαστικός) (see Dem. 44.35; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1).

Another meaning of Demos, to the Athenians, was “People,” as in the People of Athens, the body of citizens collectively. So a young man was enrolled in his “demos” (deme), and thus became a member of the “Demos” (the People). As a member of the Demos, this young man could participate in the Assembly of Citizens that was the central institution of the democracy. The Greek word for “Assembly” is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), but the Athenians generally referred to it as the “Demos.” Decrees of the Assembly began with the phrase “It seemed best to the Demos,…”, very much like the phrase “We the People…” that introduces the Constitution of the United States. In this context, “Demos” was used to make a distinction between the Assembly of all citizens and the Council of 500 citizens, another institution of the democracy (see below). So some decrees might begin “It seemed best to the Demos…”, others might begin “It seemed best to the Council…”, and still others might begin, “It seemed best to the Demos and the Council….”

Plot on a Map

So the Athenian Demos was the local village, the population generally, and the assembly of citizens that governed the state. The idea of the Demos was a potent one in Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

Plot on a Map

It had not always been the case. The Iliad—the work of literature that was the shared text for all Greeks—describes a world whose values pre-date those of the Athenian democracy. One passage from it, especially, suggests that the idea of the “demos” changed dramatically in the years leading up to the 5th century. Here, the Greek general Agamemnon has decided, for no particularly good reason, to test the resolve of his army. The test consisted of him suggesting that they abandon their siege of Troy and go home. Evidently the Greeks failed, since with this suggestion they rose to their feet and ran joyously to their ships. The warrior Odysseus, who was party to Agamemnon’s scheme, went about urging the men to return to their places:

Read about the evidence
Homer (Hom. Il.).
Plot on a Map
Achaia (in text as “Achaians”).

“Whenever he encountered some king, or man of influence
he would stand beside him and with soft words try to restrain him:
‘Excellency! It does not become you to be frightened like any
coward. Rather hold fast and check the rest of the people….’
When he saw some man of the People [demos in the Greek — CWB] who was shouting,
he would strike at him with his staff, and reprove him also:
‘Excellency! Sit still and listen to what others tell you,
to those who are better men than you, you skulker and coward
and thing of no account whatever in battle or council.
Surely not all of us Achaians can be as kings here.
Lordship for many is no good thing. Let there be one ruler,
one king, to whom the son of devious-devising Kronos
gives the sceptre and right of judgement, to watch over his people.’”
(Iliad 2.118-206; R. Lattimore, trans.)

Plot on a Map

The Homeric hero Odysseus did not favor putting rule into the hands of the Demos. What happened, then, to change the status of the Demos from that of a lowly mob, to be beaten down with a stick, to that of the ruling People of classical Athens?

[ back to top ]

page 2 of 7