The Ancestors of Democracy: Ancient Athens vs. Roman Republic

In the last decade of the 6th century BCE, Athens and Rome installed political systems that formed the basis of popular representation henceforth.

Jun 24, 2023By Uriel Kantor, BA Liberal Arts & Humanities w/ History Concentration

athenian democracy roman republic


In 508 BCE, the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes issued a series of reforms that transformed what was previously an oligarchy into a new democratic state. The word democracy has its roots in the ancient Greek word “demokratia,” combining the terms “dêmos” (the people) and “krátos” (power), hence referring to power by the people. Simultaneously, in 509 BCE, dissatisfied with their rule, Roman elites overthrew their monarch in a historical revolt engraved in their epos and installed the long-lasting Roman Republic. The word republic is derived from the ancient Latin phrase “res publica,” meaning public matter, denoting that politics was a public affair.


Though these governments arose concurrently, they varied profoundly in form, constituting the basis for direct and representative democracies.


Solon: The Founder of Athenian Democracy

portrait solon
Portrait of Solon, 1721-1735 CE, via The British Museum, London


Born in 630 BCE, Solon is widely considered one of the fathers of democracy. He was appointed chief archon of Athens in 594 BCE, responsible for overseeing the other archons, who were in charge of legislative, judicial, and other governmental matters.


While in office, Solon enacted various reforms that saw the abolition of debt slavery, a transformation to a more equitable system of laws, and a division of the population into four classes based on wealth, each class having different rights and privileges.

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What most contributed to the progress of democratic politics, however, was Solon’s inauguration of a new constitution. This novel government consisted of the Council of Four Hundred, which decided upon legislation; the Council of the Areopagus, which acted as a supreme court; and a Popular Assembly through which all citizens were eligible to participate in the legislative process. The introduction of these three branches of the Athenian state laid the foundations for democracy. Today, every democratic constitution incorporates the concepts of the executive, judicial, and legislative arms that were birthed by Solon’s reforms.


Solon’s democracy would be short-lived. In 561 BCE, a year before Solon’s death, wealthy Athenian statesman and general Peisistratus seized power in a coup and established a tyranny where he ruled as a benevolent despot. In 527 BCE, Peisistratus died, but Athens was subsequently ruled by his son, the tyrant Hippias.


It was not until 508 BCE that Athens again experienced a democratic regime when the Constitution of Cleisthenes was implemented.


Cleisthenes: Return to Democracy

cleisthenes modern image
Bust of Cleisthenes, by Anna Christoforidis, 2004, via The Kosmos Society, Ohio Houses and Statehouse


In the years that preceded Cleisthenes’ rise to power, Hippias ruled Athens with an iron fist. Cleisthenes’ noble family, the Alcmaeonids, were predominantly exiled. Their faction represented democratic elements that threatened Hippias’ tyranny. As such, Cleisthenes, with the help of the Oracle of Delphi, enlisted the Spartans to overthrow Hippias’ regime. With Spartan support, the dissidents successfully overthrew Hippias. Thus, Cleisthenes was a key candidate for the new nascent Athenian government.


However, the leadership of the Athenian government was contested by Isagoras. After appealing to the Spartan King Cleomenes I, Isagoras secured his position and exiled Cleisthenes. While in power, Isagoras banished hundreds of Athenians and attempted to dissolve the Boule, a fundamental council that charged citizens with running the city’s daily affairs. This latter move was heavily resisted by the council and many Athenian citizens. As a result, Isagoras and his supporters were banished, Cleisthenes was recalled, and he assumed leadership of Athens.


The Reforms of Cleisthenes

The interior of the Old Bouleuterion ca. 500 BCE, American School of Classical Studies at Athens.


While in power, Cleisthenes instated revolutionary reforms. One of his most significant motions was to transform the basis of political organization from kinship groups to locality. Rights and duties were allocated based on membership within a geographical region with its own bureaucracy rather than familial and clan ties. This new organization organized citizens into ten tribes based on geographical location. Furthermore, Cleisthenes established a system in which government positions were filled based on randomly selected citizens rather than hereditary reputations.


Cleisthenes reformed the Boule, enlarging the participation from Solon’s four hundred to five hundred citizens, thus creating the Council of Five Hundred, as it would be thenceforth called. These 500 citizens were chosen based on the ten geographical tribes and included fifty citizens from each of these tribes.


Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was the introduction of ostracism. This allowed the Athenian people to vote on exiling citizens they viewed as a threat to the democratic system. A safeguard to democracy, ostracism was vital in preventing the rise of tyrants.


Finally, Cleisthenes expanded citizenship to many foreigners and slaves, increasing the number of participants in the democratic system.


Overall, Cleisthenes is not considered the father of democracy by mistake. His reforms rebuilt the Solonian yet-developing ideas into a fully-fledged democracy in which citizen participation was the pillar of society. Of course, it was still a long way from the modern idea of democracy, as, for example, though all citizens could vote, citizenship was reserved only for free, adult males.


Roman Revolution and the Founding of the Republic

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Storie di Lucrezia, by Sandro Botticelli, 1504, via Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, Boston


According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753 BCE and was ruled by monarchs until 509 BCE, when the last king was overthrown. The last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), committed a series of violent and unjust acts that angered the Roman people. The deed that most outraged the Roman public, was when Tarquin’s son raped the virtuous noblewoman Lucretia, who subsequently committed suicide. Her death catalyzed a popular revolt against the monarchy.


The uprising was led by Rome’s prominent aristocrats, including Lucius Junius Brutus, ancestor of the Brutus, who would much later see it as his moral duty to lead the killing of Julius Caesar. Support was gathered from the patrician class, as well as certain plebeians. Eventually, the rebels succeeded in driving Tarquin and his family out of Rome.


Following the fall of the monarchy, the Republic was established. Leadership was reserved for two elected consuls, each serving one year. The consuls were responsible for the military and governing the city. Furthermore, a consul had the power to veto the other, a powerful mechanism used as checks and balances against a would-be-tyrant.


These consuls were elected through a council called the Comitia Centuriata, which consisted of adult male citizens. The assembly was separated into groups according to wealth and military service. The wealthiest citizens held the most power and influence. Yet the poorest of citizens were not wholly devoid of influence and still had some sway on political affairs.


Though after 509 BCE, the Roman Republic exhibited many democratic principles, it was still very limited in citizen participation. Its development into a more inclusive system was an evolutionary process that took centuries.


The Evolution of the Roman Republic

secession of plebs ancient rome
The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, engraved by B.Barloccini, 1849, via copia-di-arte


At first, Rome was solely ruled by the patricians (aristocrats that were part of the ruling class during the monarchy). However, the plebeians (commoners), soon began to fight for their rights to political participation. The process of gaining political equality was ripe with intense political struggle and tensions between the plebeians and the patricians. This struggle was called the Conflict of the Orders, which began in 500 BCE and lasted until 287 BCE.


The first major event in the Conflict of the Orders took place in 494 BCE. During this year, Rome was at war with three neighboring Italic tribes. The plebeian soldiers who made up the bulk of the Roman army, however, refused to fight and instead seceded to the Sacred Mount outside of Rome. The Roman leadership was desperate, and thus a settlement was negotiated, in which the plebs received the right to their own assembly, the Plebeian Council, and to elect their representatives, namely the plebeian tribune.


Though the secession to the Sacred Mount proved to be a most significant act in plebeian liberation, in practice, the common class had yet to achieve real power. Initially, the plebeian tribune was elected in the Curiate Assembly, a council that highly prioritized the upper class in its voting procedure. The Lex Publilia was enacted in 471 BCE, transferring the election of the tribunes from the Curiate Assembly to the Tribal Assembly. This assembly involved all Roman citizens organized according to tribes or geographical regions. Thus the plebeian class gained crucial leverage in electing their representative magistrates.


gracchi brothers statue
The Gracchi Brothers, by Jean-Baptiste-Claude-Eugène Guillaume, 1847, via web gallery of art


Eventually, the plebeian tribunes gained extensive powers, including the ability to veto senatorial proceedings. Finally, the Conflict of the Orders resulted in concessions for the plebeians, allowing those of the common class to run for consulship. Under the ensuing system, the political and often economic divide between the patrician and plebeian classes became dissolved. With the end of the Conflict of the Orders, the Roman Republic became truly representative of its male citizens, at least in theory.


Democratic Legacies: Athens and Rome

josh stewart parthenon colosseum
The Parthenon in Athens (left) and the Colosseum in Rome (right), via Josh Stewart/David Köhler/Unsplash


Until today, ancient Rome and Athens represent pinnacles of emerging democracies that would evolve and inaugurate the foundations of modern liberal systems. It is extremely important to take into consideration that these early systems were inherently limited in how democratic they were. Women were not considered citizens and hence could not participate politically. The cities were rampant with slaves, almost entirely devoid of rights. Though, in theory, any male citizen could participate in elections and other political activity, the systemic limitations prevent the lower class from voicing their demands fully. Nevertheless, these early democracies were among the first to fully experiment with the idea that politics was a public matter and that the state was the people’s voice.


The Democracy of Athens vs. The Roman Republic

Pericles’ Funeral Oration, engraving Philipp Foltz, 1852, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


One of the critical differences between ancient Athens and Rome was that the first was but one city-state, while the latter eventually evolved into an immense empire. Athens was mainly concerned with its defense, while Rome was ever hoping to expand its imperial boundaries. As a result, Rome had a much wider voting populace that required an increasingly complex government.


Furthermore, Athens was a direct democracy, where citizens had a first-hand vote regarding decisions of law and politics. On the other hand, Rome was a representative democracy, which elected officials that subsequently decided on state matters.


Finally, Athenian democracy originated in response to social and economic events that unfolded in the 5th century BCE and remained relatively stable without reform. In contrast, the Roman Republic was in constant flux throughout centuries up until the rise of the Roman Empire in 27 BCE.

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By Uriel KantorBA Liberal Arts & Humanities w/ History ConcentrationUriel has been writing creatively and academically for about ten years, with a keen interest in the humanities. Particularly passionate about ancient history, he believes that the past is not merely a story but a formative identity that should not be ignored. Aiming to illuminate the colorfulness of history, Uriel wishes to help people breach narrow-minded approaches to history and hopes to bring about awareness of the diversity inherent in humanity’s story.