How did it end for classical Greece?
Mostly rather poor people, they are now taking their place in politics more and more self-confidently. And the new face of the city strengthens them in this.
If you enter Athens, for example, from the southwest, you immediately notice the Pnyx on the edge of the market square. Popular assemblies are held 40 times a year in this stately building.
Every male citizen over the age of 18 is allowed to take part - and it is accordingly lively. According to most traditions, everyone, regardless of age or origin, has a real chance to intervene in the debate.
Because in order to break the dominance of particularly eloquent speakers, you can only speak once per topic. "Everyone gets up and consults," writes Plato in the "Protagoras": "in the same way carpenter, blacksmith, shoemaker, merchant, ship owner; poor as rich; of high and low descent."
Of voices and broken pieces
In terms of content, there are also no limits to the discussions. The popular assembly argues about the armament of the fleet as well as about the price of public theater performances or the construction of new places of worship on the Acropolis. In addition, the work of political incumbents is reviewed.
If there is evidence of abuse of power or well-founded fear of a coup, the suspect can be banned from Athens for ten years by vote. The voters have to scratch his name on a shard - hence the term of the proverbial "shard court".
Since then, it has been repeatedly asserted that Attic democracy sometimes gets out of hand in a populist way, precisely because of this instrument. However, the laws alone draw strict limits on the Athenians.
For example, a shard court can only be held once a year, and only if at least 6,000 people entitled to vote - about a fifth of all full citizens - are present.
In addition, the people's assembly itself is often very prudent and revises all too hectic decisions in retrospect: Quite a few exiles have apparently been brought back to the city after a short time.
The dark secret of Athens' prosperity
The direct democracy of Athens is open to attack for a completely different reason: depending on the estimate, only between 15 and 20 percent of the population are entitled to participate in political life.
Women are confined to the house. The numerous slaves are usually shown respect, some even manage to buy themselves out - they are not allowed to take part in the popular assembly.
Athens treats the numerous immigrants who live in the city at least as strictly. They are forbidden to own real estate, they have to pay a poll tax, and only a few of them achieve full citizenship - even though economic life could not do without them.
To this day it is hotly debated in antiquity research whether the Athenians would have been able to carry out their comparatively time-consuming political engagement without the work of slaves and women: they kept everyday life going while the men entitled to vote lively discussed in the marketplace.
The diets introduced by Perikles, one of the most important statesmen of Athens, are a counter-argument: he allows a fee to be paid to each participant in the popular assembly.
This means that nobody is really dependent on others to make up for their loss of earnings. Nevertheless, this question testifies to the blind spot of the Athenian love of freedom.
An end and a beginning
It is easy to tell what finally heralds the end of Attic democracy. Athens survived the Peloponnesian War against Sparta (431 to 404 BC) and held on even after Alexander the Great steadily expanded his power from Macedonia.
The proud democrats then have to admit defeat to the onslaught of Alexander's successor Antipater.
After several defeats by both the Athens fleet and the land forces, Antipater occupied the Athens port of Piraeus in 322 BC and established an oligarchy from there - a rule of the wealthy that ended more than a century and a half of popular rule.
However, the effects of Attic democracy can hardly be overestimated. Many modern democratic movements would later refer to them.
And one thing is already certain: with the temples of the Acropolis built during this time, with philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, with the tragedies of Sophocles and the comedies of Aristophanes, this short and lively period still shapes our image of ancient Greece today.
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