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Considering the city-state of Athens and its interesting idea of a direct democracy (550 B.C.), I am comparing and contrasting the political activity of ancient Athenians and modern Americans. Americans in particular are some of the least politically active people in the world. Reading about Athens I have always wondered how the Athenians made it work.

So my question is, back in the city-state of Athens why were the citizens so politically active? Was it just because citizenship had to be earned instead of just being given? Was it because Athenian citizenship was hard to get? And not available to everyone (slaves, women, etc.)? It just seems to be that civic duty back then required so much more time and attention and somehow people did it. Today even the simplest things like voting once a year or being on a jury once a year is such a great burden and people try to get out of it as much as possible. What was so different back then? Thank you.

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"Americans in particular are some of the least politically active people in the world" - Cite please? – DVK Nov 22 '13 at 15:33
With an insane system such as "first pass the post", nobody should be surprised that in the USA many people just stays home... – o0'. Dec 1 '13 at 21:27
They probably just did not want to be called an "idiot". – Jonathon Wisnoski Aug 21 at 17:51
US: 10% of the people vote for their candidate of choice, but don't directly affect the outcome. DPRK: 100% of the people vote for King Jong-un, or else. – CGCampbell Oct 1 at 11:18
lol. OK, for the benefit of those who thought the @JonathonWisnoski comment might be offensive, from Wikipedia: "An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs". This attitude could possibly the be core of a decent answer to the question. – T.E.D. Oct 1 at 14:01

5 Answers 5

up vote 16 down vote accepted

First of all, less than 20% of Athenians were citizens, so comparing to the total population voter turnout in the USA may actually be higher.

Second, because of the smaller size of Attica as compared to USA the decisions the citizens would vote for had direct consequences to each of them.

Third, the voting class was also the class with most citizenship responsibilities. In particular, if the decision was made to go to war each citizen was expected to gear up and physically go to war.

Fourth, this was a direct democracy. This means that the decision were likely to have immediate and final effect.

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Number 3 is probably the most crucial. – Felix Goldberg Nov 24 '13 at 6:59
Short and succinct. Thanks! – Fixed Point Nov 30 '13 at 1:30
Since you brought it up, the last POTUS election in the USA had 129million voters, which was about 41% of the population, and about 55% of the voting age population. This is roughly in the range its been in for the last 100 years. Our last midterm was in the mid 30's (and was considered shockingly low). So yeah, the USA has much better overall participation Athens had. But of course our systems are very different. – T.E.D. Oct 1 at 14:25

Michael's answer is a very good one but I'd like to add a couple of details. First, Athenian citizens were not always as enthusiastic about voting as you'd think: voting required a whole day which meant they'd be missing out on one day of revenue from labor. To compensate for this, Athenians were paid (type f3 and search for paid) about as much as the daily wage of a craftsman (IIRC). Despite this the assembly would sometimes end up with to few to vote;

They met every ten days in a small auditorium called the Pnyx. Many polices were debated in the ekkiesia, the most frequently debated polices were regarding money from public taxes where to go, declarations of war, and/or the signing of treaties. These were decided on by a vote, requiring 6,000 voters be present for a vote to take place. If there were less than 6,000 male voters present then slaves would be sent out with a rope soaked in red paint, to gather the late comers. They would wrap the rope soaked in paint around the late comers. Having red paint on your clothes was considered disgraceful and in addition, those individuals would be subject to a fine.

To summarize: I think your view of Athenian democracy might be too positive, I see no reason why Athenians would be any more enthusiastic than modern Americans.

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You are right. I did (erroneously) have a too positive view of the Athenian citizenry. Thanks. – Fixed Point Nov 30 '13 at 1:31

I believe this question puts the cart before the horse.

It is not that (aspects of) Athenian democracy somehow motivated its citizens to great political activity; but that the highly motivated political activity of Athenian citizens created and sustained Athens' democracy.

A people always get the government they deserve, and the citizens of ancient Athens earned their democracy through their own participation in its political decision making process: day by day; week by week; and year by year.

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A further clarification of the issue would also be to remember that a lot of Athenian citizens actually did not live in the city of Athens itself, but in the smaller cities spread out over Attica. Many of them were situated so far from the city that they did not participate in the day-to-day politics of the state at all.

Also, I guess we should ask ourselves what it means to be politically active. If we just mean turning out to vote on issues at the Pnyx, then yes, the Athenian citizens were politically active, at least those living in the main city. However, the actual political "craft" was undertaken by a select elite of generally wealthy citizens. For example, while all citizens in theory could voice their opinion during the assembly meeting, the reality was that those that spoke were usually a part of the semi-professional group of "politicians", with the wealth and rhetorical training needed for a long and sustained political career.

Not that these individuals ruled the city (even Pericles experienced defeats in the assembly from time to time).

So, I guess it all depends on what we mean by being "politically active". Also, comparing Athenian direct democracy to our own representative democracy is in my opinion comparing apples and oranges. But that is a whole other discussion.

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Of course 'spread out over Attica' isn't that spread out. Greek city-state territories were tiny. – Oldcat Jan 10 '14 at 19:29
Naturally, but you have to calculate the time it would take a citizen outside of the city of Athens to walk to the main city, in time for the peoples assembly meeting, then getting back home again. All the while using a less than good road network. Then take into account that he had to work and that the assembly actually met somewhat frequently. Even if you account for the use of slave labour and that the Athenians eventually introduced payment for attending the democratic institutions, it is hard to believe that the citizens outside the city were as active as those living in Athens itself – Morten Hansen Jan 13 '14 at 6:32

First of all, Athens was a "city state," that is one where "everyone" (of consequence) knew everyone else. Imagine a smaller version of "New York City" as opposed to a whole country.

Second, only a fraction of people (free males with enough property to arm themselvs) could vote. That is about 20% of the population. Because they represented a "subgroup" within a group, they were motivated to maintain this status against the other 80%.

Third, Athens was periodically threatened by powerful enemies; Sparta among other Greeks, the Persians among "foreigners." When people are living "under the gun" (almost literally), it is a powerful motivator for them to "do things."

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