“The paradox of ancient Greek democracy is that the freedom and rights of citizens depended on the subjugation and exploitation of others,” declares the University of New Brunswick classicist Matthew Sears in a 2018 piece in the Conversation. Sears had two forms of subjugation and exploitation particularly in mind: slavery and imperialism. “There was a nearly perfect inverse correlation,” he writes, “between the degree of political freedom and equality for Athenian citizens and the rise of chattel slavery and imperial depredation.” (“Inverse” must be a slip: what Sears is arguing is that democracy rose and fell in tandem with slavery and imperialism, i.e. that there was a positive correlation between freedom for Athens’ citizens and oppression for others).
Sears’ comments are only the latest in a long line of criticisms of Athenian democracy. For most of the more than two millennia that separate us from the Greek classical period (480–323 B.C.), Athenian democracy was held up as a paradigm of mob-rule. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, following the mould-breaking work of George Grote (1794–1871) and with the rise of representative democracy around the world, Greek democracy came to be viewed in a more positive light. The work of the left-leaning ancient historian Moses Finley (1912–1986) carried on this trend in the twentieth century. For Finley, classicists who were critical of Athenian democracy had yet to explain how what was supposedly the worst of all political systems had led to what they themselves acknowledged was an extraordinary cultural efflorescence.
Finley delivered the lectures that were later collected under the title Democracy Ancient and Modern in 1972, but as the 70s drew on, new lines of criticism of ancient democracy opened up. This time the problem wasn’t that Athens was too democratic, but that it wasn’t democratic enough (or perhaps at all). Perhaps its most glaring deficiency to modern eyes was that only a minority of the city’s population could actually take part in the city’s political system. Women and resident foreigners were excluded from formal political institutions, and so, of course, were slaves. All in all, “the people” who attended the Assembly or served in the city’s randomly selected council and courts only constituted around a fifth of the city’s total adult population at most. These criticisms point to real limitations in the Athenian system, and most scholars of the period (myself included) have long been happy to take them on board in their writing and teaching on the period.
As this critique has been integrated into serious work on Athenian popular rule, though, the two deficiencies highlighted by Sears, slavery and imperialism, have gained in prominence. Classicists don’t work in a vacuum, and scholars have been prompted to return to certain themes because of their contemporary salience. That link with contemporary topics seems especially evident in a column by the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard that appeared in the Guardian in 2006 (three years after the US-led invasion of Iraq) in which she states that Athens “imposed democratic government on its satellites with as much ruthlessness (and probably as little understanding) as George Bush and his allies.”
As for slavery, the past two or three years have seen a renewed focus on historical slavery and its possible legacies, especially in America. Undoubtedly the most high-profile example of this trend was the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which argues that the US Republic was inextricably bound up with slavery at every stage of its development. Classicists have been discussing Athenian slavery for a long time now, and the French ancient historian Paulin Ismard’s 2015 book on Athens’ public slaves—slaves owned directly by the democratic state—is a fine recent contribution to that ongoing discussion. But Sears’ intervention seems as much a reaction to the kinds of concerns that led to the 1619 Project as it is an attempt to carry forward a pre-existing debate in the scholarship about Athens.
One of the striking things about Sears’ article is the boldness of some of his claims. As well as suggesting that Athens’ democracy depended on slavery and imperialism, and that all these things were correlated, Sears also states that Athenian democracy would have been impossible without imperialism and slavery—in other words, that imperialism and slavery were necessary conditions for popular rule in Athens.
Sears states, “The Parthenon and the broad democracy it hailed were expensive. Athens could only pay for such extravagances because it had grown into an imperial power.” We’ll have to pass over the question of whether the Parthenon could have been built if it weren’t for Athens’ empire. That several Greek city-states that lacked empires built even larger temples suggest that it could have been. And if Sears is suggesting that imperial tribute was used to fund the Parthenon’s construction, that is far from certain.
But what about the idea that Athens “could only pay” for “broad democracy” because of its imperial power? This doesn’t square with historian David Pritchard’s careful research into Athenian public spending, which reveals that the city’s political system represented a relatively small outlay—only about 10% of military expenditure in the late fifth century.
If we date the beginnings of Athenian democracy to the reforms of Kleisthenes in 508/7, the city enjoyed democracy for at least three decades before it took over the leadership of the alliance of Greek city-states that had fought off the great Persian invasion of 480–79 BC. And even that alliance, it’s generally accepted, didn’t harden into an empire until around 469 (at the very earliest), when the island of Naxos was forced back into the league after trying to withdraw.
Some scholars, admittedly, have argued that we shouldn’t date the emergence of true democracy until the reforms of Ephialtes in 462/1, which opened up most public offices to all but the poorest citizens. This view seems to be a minority one, but even if we decline to call Athens a democracy until 462/1, the theory that Athens could only pay for its democracy because of its empire would still fail to explain the persistence of popular rule for most of the fourth century BC.
The Athenian Empire came to an end at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404, when it was dismantled by the victorious Spartans. For a brief time, democracy came to an end, too, replaced by a narrow and violent oligarchy that came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants. Within less than a year, though, a popular uprising had restored popular rule. Athens remained a democracy for most of the subsequent century.
From the middle of that century on, the rise of Macedon and the spectacular conquests of Alexander changed the world of the city-states forever. When Alexander died in 323, Athens led an uprising against Macedonian domination; after a few early successes, the rebellion was crushed by the veteran commander Antipater, whom Alexander had left behind in Macedonia to keep an eye on the Greeks. In 321, Antipater imposed a property requirement for participation in Athenian politics, cutting poorer citizens out of the political process. Democracy was restored a couple more times during the third century, but the nearly two centuries during which the constitution of Kleisthenes had enjoyed an almost uninterrupted reign were now in the past.
From 403 to 321 (at the very least), then, democracy flourished in Athens, despite the fact that the city’s fifth-century empire had been dismantled in 404. Granted, from 378/7 Athens attempted to cobble together a new naval alliance (known as the Second Athenian League) which some see as an Athenian Empire 2.0. But this was markedly smaller than the fifth-century Empire, and gained Athens much less in terms of tribute. It had also ceased to exist by 355, when Athens was no longer capable of forcing recalcitrant allies to return to the fold.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we view the Second Athenian League as an empire in the fullest sense, we still have three longish periods—from the reforms of Kleisthenes after 508/7 to the mid-fifth century; from the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 to the foundation of the Second Athenian League in 378/7; and from 355 to 321—when Athens had a democracy but no empire of any sort. Imperialism clearly wasn’t a necessary condition for democracy in Athens. Athens had a democracy without an empire for significant stretches of its history.
Might empire have been a necessary condition for Athens to become a democracy, though? Again, if we date the beginning of the democracy to 508/7 (as most do), the idea is contradicted by the historical record. Athens didn’t have to wait until it had acquired an empire to set up a democracy; it set up a democracy and acquired the empire later. In addition, as ancient historian Eric Robinson has shown, Athens almost certainly wasn’t the first Greek democracy. There’s evidence for about a dozen earlier democratic city-states, none of which had an empire when they made the transition to popular rule.
But what about the evolution of the anti-Persian alliance into an Athenian Empire over the course of the fifth century? That the rule of the masses played a nefarious role in that development has long been alleged. Ancient critics of the democracy already drew attention to lower-class rowers’ tendency to vote themselves onto naval campaigns which they were then paid to serve on by the state. But almost every ancient state that we know of sought to expand its borders and dominate its enemies; and these included not only democracies, like Athens, but oligarchies like Sparta and autocracies like Persia.
The real question, then, isn’t why Athens sought to dominate its neighbours, but why it succeeded in doing so. That’s a question that the existence of a radical democratic government in Athens might well help answer; as ancient historian Josiah Ober has shown, the flourishing of Athens’ democracy broadly correlates with the city’s state capacity. The Athenians’ domination of others may have been less a direct product of democracy than a downstream result of the economic and military success that democracy enabled.