I realize that many people say that Athens is where democracy started, but is there any solid proof that it was the first? On Wikipedia, it is stated that:

there is evidence to suggest that democratic forms of government, in a broad sense, may have existed in several areas of the world well before the turn of the 5th century.

What would this include? Any specific examples and evidence? If not, then probably just answer so.

  • 1
    Related history.stackexchange.com/q/3024/961
    – Luke_0
    Nov 26, 2012 at 15:00
  • @Luke It's similar, but I this question isn't really about the influence on Greeks, but is more focused on the origins of democracy itself, or where it first appeared (regardless of its impact). Nov 26, 2012 at 15:05
  • 6
    Two problems: 1) Define democracy (do quasi democratic tribal societies count?) 2) Lack of accurate historical records (For example: Spartans were quite democratic, and their body of laws predates Solon's by a century or two, but they had the bad habit of not keeping records).
    – yannis
    Nov 26, 2012 at 16:14
  • Interesting read: The Secret History of Democracy
    – yannis
    Nov 26, 2012 at 16:38

5 Answers 5


Democracy is usually understood as a system where decisions are taken by the method of voting among the citizens.

This means that essentially democracy shares its origins with the method of voting.

Historians know that tribe councils were popular among most ancient cultures, including Mycenean Greeks and ancient Germanic tribes.

Even more, arguably it was the most ancient form of government because authoritarian rule and compulsion require sufficient inequality in means and resources which became only possible with advent of neolithic.

Even more, if you look at an animal herd, you will see that the leader is usually chosen by "voting": the herd votes whom to follow with their legs.

The direction of movement is even chosen by voting among fish and even more primitive animals.

It is thus possible that "democracy" at least predates chordates.

  • @Reliable Source, sources for what part?
    – Anixx
    Nov 28, 2012 at 13:44
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    You say "Historians know that...." where did you get that? What historians? Also, where did you get the information on animals? Basically, any and all sources you had. Nov 28, 2012 at 14:19
  • @Reliable Source There are multiple instances of collective decision making in Homer's Iliad for example. Even more, it starts with a voting in Council of Gods. Regarding Germanic tribes, refer to Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico where he describes several Germanic congresses.
    – Anixx
    Nov 28, 2012 at 14:30
  • @ReliableSource The decision making in hunter-gatherer bands (the "before Neolithic" humans) is backed up by "Guns, Germs, and Steel".
    – kubanczyk
    Nov 28, 2012 at 14:38
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_democracy : "By far the most significant and well-understood example is Athenian democracy in Athens. However, other important cities like Corinth, Megara, Syracuse and others also had democratic regimes during part of their history. " May 8, 2016 at 9:52

I'll differ with Anixx here. There's no evidence that democracy was the "most ancient" form of government. Anything about that is pure speculation.

The origins of democracy are almost definitely in the council of kings. The Senate of the Roman Republic, for example, started out as a council of elders convened to advise the king. Elites in any situation have the motivation and the power to gain some say in the government by demand or by bargaining. The more elites, the larger the representativeness of the government.

The oldest known government that included a significant portion of its population was the Spartan government around the 700s BC. About 3% of the population could vote, where the winning choice was picked by which choice was shouted at the loudest. This can be said to be the first instance of range voting. The workings of the Spartan government were apparently kept reasonably secret and what's known of the Spartan system is largely known through the writings of outsiders, who would have obviously biased viewpoints.

Athens is the next oldest state to have a significantly representative government, allowing 10-20% of the population to vote.

I wrote a whole post on ancient democracies here: https://governology.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/government-behind-us/

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    I wouldn't call 3% "significant portion of its population". However, this comment is more for OP than for the answer: in order to distinguish "democracy" from "oligarchy" we'd need to agree on the "significant percentage" first.
    – Michael
    May 8, 2016 at 2:02
  • @Michael If you had lived in 800BC you would have definitely thought 3% of the population was a "significant portion". It was literally the broadest representation given to a population by FAR at the time. A milestone in history.
    – B T
    May 9, 2016 at 6:06
  • But I agree, the "oldest democracy" requires some definition. Good thing the question is about the origins of democracy, and not the "first" democracy.
    – B T
    May 9, 2016 at 6:12

In his lectures on iTunesU (link), Steven B. Smith reports that Aristotle wrote about many different systems of government that predated the Athenians.

  • I'm not sure how this answers the question.
    – MCW
    May 6, 2016 at 12:23
  • Just that there could have been democracies that predated classical Greece. May 6, 2016 at 12:26
  • Then the answer should say that.
    – MCW
    May 6, 2016 at 14:08

There were in ancient India "republics", for example, this one. I am not an expert on them, so I can't vouch for how democratic compared to the Greek polis they were; however, in some measure they do fit the bill.

  • This link has some good information.
    – Jayaram
    Nov 29, 2012 at 23:19
  • I find it worrying that political systems including only from 3% to 20% of the population can/are called democratic. I know Athens is traditionally cited as the first democratic experiment, but all ancient systems excluded resident aliens, freed persons, (except Rome) women and slaves.
    – TheHonRose
    May 6, 2016 at 15:40
  • @TheHonRose worrying? May 6, 2016 at 21:34
  • @FelixGoldberg Well, yes! I know people (free male citizens) voted, but it feels to me more like an extended oligarchy, defined in the Cambridge Online Dictionary as" government by a small group of powerful people" - ie not women (50% of the population), slaves and non-citizen residents.
    – TheHonRose
    May 7, 2016 at 1:21
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    @FelixGoldberg I know, bit of a red herring, and ancient democracies were very different to monarchies etc where all the power lay with one man or very small clique. In Athens, at least some ordinary citizens had a say in their government - it was a start. And, to be fair, it would take another 2.5 thousand years before women were included - not without a fight! So I fully take your point.
    – TheHonRose
    May 8, 2016 at 18:03

As far as I know, the answer is no. There were, for example, no other democracies in the Ancient Greek world, except for Athens. The vast majority of Ancient Greek states/regions, were governed by Tyrants, Monarchs or Oligarchs. Citizenship appears to have been a uniquely Athenian invention and a foreign concept to the vast majority of the Ancient Greek world-(both in Greece proper, as well as "Greater Greece" and "Anatolia"). Of course Athenian democracy, was far from perfect. Women could not vote, foreign residents had no hope of becoming citizens, slavery was widespread within Athens proper and in terms of numbers, citizens were in the minority of Athenian society though they wielded a great deal of power and influence. Few Athenians had the opportunity to join and speak within the Pnyx-(or Ancient Athenian Parliament).

The one figure who devoted a great deal of analysis to this question was Aristotle in his famed work, "The Politics". Aristotle analyzed the nature of various forms of government, including, Democracy-(or "Polity"). He discussed the Athenian Constitution and from what I remember, he also talked about the Carthaginian polity.

Carthage, was a great maritime empire that was located in the heart of North Africa and had dominated a sizable part of the Mediterranean sea region for centuries-(even during the period of Greek Mediterranean exploration and settlement, commonly known as, "Magna Grecia"). The Carthaginian empire had been the major imperial force within the Mediterranean region centuries before the Roman Empire. And while we tend to view Carthage as a major seafaring imperial power, according to Aristotle, the Carthaginians had their own unique version of a polity.

I don't have the exact chronology of Carthage's polity, though I know that Aristotle lived from 384 BC/BCE-322 BC/BCE and probably authored or lectured on "The Politics" during his years at The Athenian Lyceum-(around the 340's-320's BC/BCE). Most likely, the Carthaginian polity that he discussed, probably existed concurrently with Athens. Did the Carthaginian polity predate Pericles or Solon? I don't have the answer, though as I said before, it probably was contemporaneous with Athens.

I must admit that I am unaware of any "republics" in Ancient India. I was under the impression that most Indian states, in Ancient times, were ruled by Monarchs, though I would be interested in hearing more about Indian "republics" in Antiquity.

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