The Acropolis in Athens

The question was Athens a democracy in ancient times has been asked by many scholars in the modern era. The ancient Athenian democracy in practise was not that democratic for the poorer classes of the adult male citizen population, known as the thetes. The Athenian assembly, known as the ecclesia or ekklesia, met on average about 40 days per year on a hill called the Pynx, for the Athenian year was divided into ten sections callied prytanies, and there were four assembly meetings every prytany (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, translated by P.J.Rhodes, 1984, Chapter 43.(2)-(3), pages 89-90). An Athenian citizen who left his place of employment to attend the assembly would probably have been sacked and replaced with a slave or a metic. Metics in ancient Athens were permanently resident, non-voting foreigners, many of whom were born in other Greek city-states, known as poleis. Since voting in the assembly was by a show of hands, employers who brought their employees into the assembly could exert a powerful influence on how the latter voted (Raphael Sealey, A History of the Greek City States: 700-338 B.C., University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1976, 1985 Edition, pages 186-187). The Athenian jury courts, known as the dikasteries or dikasterias, were an unreliable source of income, because the jurors (dikasts) were selected by lottery. There were 10 dikasteries, each of which had 600 citizens. The 10 dikasteries represented the 10 tribes (phylai) which Cleisthenes had divided the Athenian citizen population into. Usually, there were about 10 dikasteries in attendance on any given day, and each one of them might try a maximum of four cases in one day, with all cases having to be concluded within one day (see Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, translated by P.J. Rhodes, 1984, Page 162, Note 67.1 ). Civil law suits where the damages to be awarded were 1000 drachmas or less had 201 jurors out of 600 jurors per tribe selected by means of a lottery. Where the damages to be awarded were over 1000 drachmas in a civil law suit then 401 jurors out of 600 were selected by lottery (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Chapter 53.3, Page 98). Criminal cases saw 501 jurors out of 600 selected by lottery (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Chapter 68.1, Page 113). Then as now, minor civil law suits usually formed the majority of cases tried, which meant that there was a greater chance of not being picked for jury service in a trial where the amount of damages to be awarded were 1000 drachmas or less, approximately a 1 in 3 chance of being picked for jury service (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, page 162, Note 66.1). Therefore, the people who formed the usual majority in the Athenian assemblies and jury courts were of moderate means, neither rich nor poor, i.e. those who belonged to the middle class as the ancient world of pagan Greece would have known the middle class to be. In Athens they made up what was known as the zeugitae class of citizens.

In times of war and invasion, such as during The Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C., many members of the Athenian middle class would have become impoverished, especially when their lands outside the city walls of Athens and the port of Piraeus were occupied by the besieging Spartans, or when the Athenian navy and marines (epibatae) suffered a disastrous defeat, and as a result were subjected to a simultaneous naval blockade and land siege. In Aristophanes' comedy play about Athenian jurymen during The Peloponnesian War called The Wasps (422 B.C.), the character Procleon's aged jurymen comrades seem to be hoplite veterans of the Greek-Persian War of 480-479 B.C., and hoplites were drawn from the zeugitae middle class. A hoplite was a heavily armored infantryman in ancient Athens. The cavalry was drawn from the class of knights known as hippeis or from the aristocrats called the pentacosiomedimni. Procleon in The Wasps is looked after by his son Anticleon, and in the play they are served by five slaves, two with speaking roles and the rest silent, suggesting that Procleon belongs to a moderately well-to-do household. In ancient Athens, the middle class consisted of self-employed craftsmen, yeomen farmers, workshop owners, wholesalers, retailers, naval and merchant marine captains, shipowners (trierarchs), and publicans. For philosophers with an oligarchic, pro-aristocratic bias like Aristotle for example, such people would have been part of the so-called rabble. In ancient Athens, slaves, resident foreigners, freed slaves, women, and males under the age of 18 were excluded from the the ranks of citizens, and after 451 B.C. a citizen had to prove that both of his parents were freeborn.

Although pay for serving on the Council (Boule), which prepared motions for debate in the assembly, was adequate, its members were subject to a vote of confidence ten times in one year before the assembly and jury courts, i.e. at the end of every prytany, (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, translated by P.J.Rhodes, Chapter 43.(4),page 90), and if they were incompetent because they were semi-literate and poorly educated, they could be called to account, making service in the Council therefore unattractive to the poor and uneducated. See Attic Calendar. Moreover, if the poorer citizens were really in control of ancient Athens, then why in its history as a democracy did it never legislate unemployment benefits and old-age pensions into existence. Only during the last years of the Peloponnesian War, in the years from 410-404 B.C., was there a daily subsistence grant of two obols per day to citizens who were not in receipt of any other state payment, designed to counter wartime shortages and inflation. This payment was discontinued when the war ended (See Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Page 138, Note 28.3). During the Peloponnesian War, middle-class demagogues such as Cleon the leather merchant, Lysicles the sheep dealer, Hyperbolus the lamp-maker, and Cleophon the lyre-maker came to prominence in Athenian politics. Hyperbolus and Cleophon were probably either self-employed craftsmen or workshop owners, as the latter addressed the assembly after the Athenian naval victory at Arginusae in 406 B.C. wearing a breastplate while drunk, urging Athens not to surrender to the Spartans. Breastplates were hoplite equipment, and hoplites were drawn from the zeugitae middle class. In the 330's B.C. the Athenian state made hoplite military training compulsory from the ages of 18 to 20 for all members of the zeugitae class, and the cadets (ephebes) were given a shield (hoplon) and spear from the state, but they were required to provide their own breastplate, backplate, helmet, and sword (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Chapter 42, pages 86-88). See Ephebos. During the Peloponnesian War, the countryside of Athens, known as Attica, was occupied by the Spartans from 431-425 B.C and again from 413-403 B.C. The Athenian farmers who fled to the walled city of Athens and its port at Piraeus, linked by two parallel walls, would have lost their income from olive oil and wine exports after their trees were cut down by the Spartans, a blow made all the more worse by the fact that olive trees and vines take some time to grow to maturity. This may have made them eager to compensate themselves by seizing new land overseas, as Athens tried without success to do in the Sicilian campaign of 415-413 B.C.

This is what Raphael Sealey wrote on page 298 of his book called A History of the Greek City States: 700-338 B.C. in the revised 1985 version published by the University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles:

It should be added that payment for jury service was introduced on the proposal of Pericles. The original rate was two obols; later it was raised to three obols. Fourth-century (i.e. B.C.) writers, such as Theopompus and Aristotle, gave this measure a partisan background; they said that Pericles could not compete from his private resources with the largesse of Cimon, and so by introducing jury pay he sought to bribe the populace with public money. The story is patently tendentious. Moreover, judging from the way Athenian orators address juries, pay for jury service was not a bribe for the very poor but compensation paid to people of moderate substance for absence from their gainful activities. Similar considerations would explain why public pay was extended to the Boule (Council of Five Hundred) and most magistracies (archons).

It appears that the pay for jurors was insufficient to keep pace with inflation throughout the period when Athens was constitutionally a democracy from 508 to 322 B.C:

J.B.Bury and Russell Meiggs, A History of Greece, The MacMillan Press Ltd, Fourth Edition (with revisions), 1992, pp.237-238:

Except in remote or unusually conservative regions, money had now entirely displaced more primitive standards of exchange and valuation. Most Greek states of any size issued their own coins, and their money at this time was in almost all cases silver. Silver had become plentiful, and prices had necessarily gone up. Thus the price of barley and wheat had become two or three times dearer than a hundred years before. Far more remarkable was the increase in the price of stock. In the days of Solon a sheep could be bought for a drachma; in the days of Pericles, its cost might approach fifty drachmae. As money was cheap, interest should have been low; but mercantile enterprise was so active, the demand for capital so great, and security so inadequate, that the usual price of a loan was twelve per cent.

And page 363 of A History of Greece, by J.B. Bury and Russell Meiggs:

Money was now much more plentiful, and prices far higher, than before. This was due to the large amount of the precious metals, chiefly gold, which had been brought into circulation in the Greek world in the last quarter of the fifth century (i.e. B.C.). The continuous war (i.e. The Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C.) led to the coining of the treasures which had been accumulating for many years in temples; and the banking system circulated the money which would otherwise have been hoarded in private houses. But, although the precious metals became plentiful, the rate of interest did not fall; men could still get twelve per cent for a loan of their money. This fact is highly significant; it shows clearly that industries were more thriving and trade more active, and consequently capital in greater demand. The high rate of interest must always be remembered when we read of a Greek described as wealthy with a capital which would nowadays seem small
The changed attitude of the individual to the state is shown by the introduction of a payment for attending the meetings of the Assembly. The original obol a meeting was soon raised to two obols and then, before 391 (B.C.), to three obols. Finally the pay was raised to a drachma for ordinary meetings and a drachma and a half for the sovereign meeting of each prytany, which was reserved for special business, and apt to be less exciting. The remuneration for serving in the law courts was not increased; it was found that half a drachma was sufficient to draw applicants for the judge's ticket.

In ancient Athens B.C., this is what the currency was like:
6 obols = 1 drachma
100 drachmae = 1 mina
2 minas = 1 stater
30 staters = 1 talent
See Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, translated by P.J. Rhodes, Penguin Books Ltd, England, 1984, page 176. Also on page 176 of the above:

In the 300's B.C.

an invalid was entitled to a maintenance grant if his property was less than 3 minas (1800 obols).
Ibid, page 151, note 49.4: Of course, the sum of 3 minas or 1800 obols property value does not reveal what his amount of annual income was, for a person can be asset rich but income poor.
Grants to war invalids are attested from the sixth century (B.C.); grants to all impoverished invalid citizens were probably introduced in the second half of the fifth. In the early fourth century the grant was one obol a day; by the 320's B.C. it was two obols a day; at all times it was less than an unskilled but able-bodied man could earn, and less than was paid for the performance of civic duties.
Ibid, page 175:
In the late fifth century B.C., an unskilled worker could earn ½ drachma (3 obols) a day and a skilled worker 1 drachma (6 obols); in the late fourth century B.C. an unskilled worker could earn 1½ drachmae (9 obols) a day and a skilled worker could earn 2-2½ drachmae (12-15 obols) a day.
Ibid, page 158, note 62.2:
Assembly pay, like most other payments, was increased to keep pace with inflation, but the rate of pay for jurors was the same in the 320's B.C. as in the 420's B.C.

Many of the poorer Athenian citizens were usually absent from Athens as rowers on board naval vessels (triremes) on patrol of the overseas Athenian Empire, or on commercial voyages (Victor Ehrenberg, From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries B.C., Second Edition 1973, 1991 Reprint by Routledge, London and New York, pages 223-224), and in addition they often were recruited as settlers/invaders in overseas Athenian colonies (cleruchies). See Victor Ehrenberg, pages 197 and 223-224. The middle class Athenian citizens often served as marines (epibatae) on board naval vessels, sentry men on the walls and fortifications of the city of Athens, and the two parallel long walls that linked Athens to its walled port at Piraeus, or as garrisons in overseas city-states subject to the Athenian Empire. The poorer citizens, in addition to serving as rowers on warships, also served as lightly armored infantry known as peltasts.

Aristophanes, The Wasps, The Poet and the Women, The Frogs. Translated with an introduction by David Barrett, Penguin Books Ltd, England, 1964, pages 35-36:

Membership of the Jury Corps was open only to citizens over thirty (middle-age in those days, but no other qualifications were required). The official strength of the Corps was 6,000 members being chosen by lot at the beginning of each year, 600 from each of the ten phylai (the tribes of Athens). (Whether as many volunteers as this were normally forthcoming is a little doubtful). Jurymen wore short brown cloaks and carried staves. On the days when trials were being held, members of the Corps who wished to serve on a jury presented themselves early in the morning and the various juries were selected by lot as required. Important cases were tried by a full court of 501 jurymen, and on exceptional occasions a case might be heard by several ’courts’ sitting together. Private lawsuits came before smaller juries, possibly of 201 members.

Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, translated by P.J. Rhodes, Penguin Books Ltd, England, 1984, pages 98, 112 and 162, note 67.2-3.
Private lawsuit - 1000 drachmae maximum in damages awarded - 201 out of 600 jurors selected.
Private lawsuit - Over 1000 drachmae in damages awarded - 401 out of 600 jurors selected.
Page 113: - Public lawsuit - 501 out of 600 jurors selected.
Important public suit - 1000 jurors - 2 panels combined in the heliaea (final court of appeal).
Very important public lawsuit - 3 panels combined - 1500 jurors.

N.G.L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 B.C., Third Edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford, New York, 1991 reprint, p.526:

When the labouring or wage earning class contains a large number of slaves, the social gulf between those who own property and those who do not tends to widen. Wealth (euporia) and poverty (aporia) in the fourth century B.C. meant the possession or the lack of capital (ousia) rather than an ability to earn high or low wages. Even the smallest capitalist tended to look down on the wage-earning citizen who had to engage in a vulgar occupation (banausia). For capital gave leisure, and 'one needs leisure', said Aristotle, 'to develop excellence and to participate in politics'. If one had no capital, one could not have leisure. One became a wage-earner like a skilled slave, and was on the level of the labouring class (chernetikon).
Ibid, page 527:
Slaves in most states worked alongside of free men, whether as artisans or clerks, as hands on a boat, or as harvesters winnowing grain. In consequence, the wages of citizen labour, competing openly with those of servile labour, remained low and barely kept pace with the rising cost of bread.

If the poorer citizens of Athens were really in control of their democratic government, they would have been able to legislate slavery out of existence, since this institution depressed their wages.

The Athenian assembly met on a hill in central Athens called the Pynx, which is located less than 1 kilometer west of the Acropolis. This small, rocky hill looked down on the ancient Agora, which was the commercial and social center of the ancient city of Athens. The word "Pynx" in Greek meant "tightly packed together" while "Agora" meant "gathering place" or "assembly". Scholars such as Mogens Herman Hansen suggest that the Pynx was able initially to hold 6,000 citizens, though later expansions may have accomodated 8,000 or as many as 13,000. The grassy area in front of the flat stone platform that was the speakers' platform, known as the bema ("stepping stone"), was in ancient times an area of bare rock on which about 6,000 men could stand. The Agora below the Pynx served as a marketplace where merchants kept stalls or shops to sell their goods amid colonnaded porticoes, and this architectural feature called the Stoa attracted artisans who built workshops nearby. In the mid-400's B.C., the number of voting adult Athenian males who were freeborn citizens was about 43,000 people. Clearly the ancient Athenians did not expect all eligible voting citizens living in the countryside of the Athenian city-state, known as Attica, to attend the assembly or Ecclesia(ancient Athens). A police force of 300 Scythian slaves carried red ochre-stained ropes to induce the citizens who loitered in the agora of Athens to attend the meetings of the assembly. Anyone with red-stained clothes who was not at the meeting was liable to pay a fine (Robin Osborne, editor (2008). The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, page 206 and J.M. Moore, editor (1975), Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, page 279). After 403 B.C. pay was introduced for assembly attendance, and only the first 6,000 to arrive were admitted and paid, with the red rope now used to keep latecomers at bay (Aristophanes, Ekklesiazousai, 378-370). Scythians, like their cousins the Sarmatians, were an Iranian-speaking peoples who lived as tribal-based, mounted horse archers and pastoralists on the steppes and prairies north of the Black Sea in what is today the Ukraine and Russia. From around 1500 B.C. onwards some of them migrated into what is today Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, where they intermarried with the previous inhabitants of these afore-mentioned countries. Other Iranian tribes migrated to Prussia, Lithuania, and Latvia. The word "Iran" means "Land of the Aryans," and the word "Aryan" means "nobles." The Aryans or Iranians are members of the Indo-European language family, which also includes Greek, Armenian, Celtic, Latin, Germanic and Slavic languages, but not the Caucasian Basques, Georgians, and Pelasgoi. Many Iranians later linguistically assimilated with Slavs, Germans, and the non-Indo-European, Mongolian-Turkic or Ural-Altaic speakers. Genetic testing has revealed that the higher castes of India have a larger minority of persons of Eastern European paternal and maternal ancestry than the lower castes. See in Google Search Genetic Evidence on the Origins of Indian Caste Populations by Michael Bamshad and The Origin of the Pre-Imperial Iranian Peoples by Dr. Oric Basirov. The Iranian Scythians sold some of their slaves to the Greek colonists who had founded colonies in the Crimean Peninsula, which juts out into the Black Sea. The Ossetians of the former Soviet Caucasus speak an Iranian dialect called "Ironski". The possession of slaves allowed even Athenian citizens of moderate means to devote more of their time to political life, since owning a few slaves was by no means equated with aristocratic wealth, although the richer an Athenian citizen was the more slaves he could afford (J.P. Rodriguez, The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Volume 7, ABC-CLIO, 1997, pages 312-314). See Athenian Democracy. The number of Athenian adult male citizens "varied between 30,000 and 50,000 out of a total population of around 250,000 to 300,000" according to J. Thorley in Athenian Democracy, (Routledge 2005, page 74).

When Cleisthenes, the founder of the Athenian democracy, was involved in the political struggle with Isagoras from 510-506 B.C. in the turbulent years following the overthrow of the Pisistratidae clan who had ruled Athens from 546-510 B.C., he designed the constitution of Athens to benefit his Alcmaeonidae clan, which lived near the city of Athens. Isagoras was a member of the Philaidae clan, which had its base at the town of Icaria, located in the northern slope of Mount Pentelicum which lay well to the north of Athens, and which was cut off from the plain of the city of Athens (Raphael Sealey, 1985, page 149). The tribal assemblies of 9 of the 10 Cleisthenic tribes met in the city of Athens, and men of the city could attend more easily and in larger numbers than men located further away from Athens (Raphael Sealey, 1985, page 154). Each of the 10 Clesithenic tribes had a greater chance of electing the 10 tribal strategoi or generals from among the leading men of the city since these men would find it easier to bring in their dependents than leading men from the outlying districts (Raphael Sealey, 1985, page 155). The leading city families, of which the Alcmaeonidae clan was one of, would find it much easier to bring their friends and dependents in larger numbers into the assembly which met in the city than leading families of the more distant parts of Attica (Raphael Sealey, 1985, page 157). The reforms of Cleisthenes benefited the wealthy families of the city of Athens, and nearly all the prominent politicians active in Athens from the time of Cleisthenes until the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. belonged to demes (villages, towns, suburbs) in or near the city of Athens. Pericles, a member of the Alcmaeonid clan, was elected commander-in-chief or strategos autokrater from 446-431 B.C. by holding together a coalition of the wealthy city families (Raphael Sealey, 1985, pages 351-352). All this changed when the Spartans besieged the countryside of Attica from 431-425 and 413-403 B.C., forcing its inhabitants to live within the walls and fortifications of the city of Athens, its port at Piraeus, and the two parallel Long Walls which connected them. Living in crowded conditions the Athenians were subject to mass emotions, and many people from the countryside of Attica who rarely came to vote in the city assembly now found it easier to do so. Such conditions allowed men with little or no history of political activism to rise in Athenian politics, and these men became known as demagogues or rabble-rousers (Raphael Sealey, pages 351-352 and 356). The Athenian constitutional crisis of 411 B.C. according to Raphael Sealey arose from the defection of many members of the Athenian Empire in the wake of the disastrous Sicilian campaign of 415-413 B.C. The Athenian state, as it had evolved from the mid-400's B.C. with pay provided for jurors (dikasts), magistrates or archons, and members of the Council of 500 or Boule, had become expensive to run without tribute money from the subject states of the Athenian Empire, and so eligibility for these offices would be restricted to Athenian citizens above the rank of the lowest socio-economic class, known as the thetes, who could serve in state offices without pay (Raphael Sealey, pages 358-360, 365-366 and 371).

By Ardent Seeker