The ancient Greek work demokratia emanates ambiguity. With the word’s literal meaning being ‘people power’, it has puzzled many historians as to where exactly was the power originally meant to lay, i.e. with the aristocratic elite and an oligarchy or with the commoners and a proletariat.
The origins of democracy can be traced back to around 600 BC to an Athenian poet and statesman by the name of Solon, who is often credited with having laid the foundations of Athenian democracy. But ironically, Solon was no democrat. He never aligned himself with the conception of ‘people power’. Instead, his political, economic and moral reforms paved the way for Cleisthenes, a progressive Athenian aristocrat, who pioneered and fronted Solon’s works almost a hundred years later. Cleisthenes was the son of an Athenian and the grandson and namesake of a foreign Greek tyrant, the ruler of Sicyon in the Peloponnese.
He was also the brother-in-law of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus who usurped power three times before instituting a stable dictatorship. It was during the harsh rule of Peistratus’ eldest son that Cleisthenes impelled for a radical political and constitutional reform which subsequently ushered the advent of democracy for the first time on Athenian soil. For this, historians often refer to him as the ‘Father of Athenian Democracy’.
By 400 BC, Greece boasted more than a hundred different democracies. In those times, instead of being a single political entity, the country was a collection of more than a thousand different poleis or cities, dispersed around the Mediterranean. The cities where democracy was still an alien concept were either oligarchies or monarchies.
It was under Cleisthenes’ constitutional reforms that Athens thwarted many Persian incursions, most notably in the battles of Marathon and Salamis. The internal political structure saw the rise of public voice, especially the common people, who demanded a greater say in the running of Athens.
By the late 460’s BC, Ephialtes, an Athenian democratic leader and Pericles, arguably one of the most influential statesmen in Greek history, presided over the city that saw a comprehensive shift in power to the poorest sections of society. This ‘people-led’ Athens built the Parthenon , gave a platform to Greek literary legends like Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.
Like every other political system, democracy had its fair share of critics. And during the cataclysmic Peloponnesian War between 431-404 BC, when Athens was weakened, counter revolutionaries led by the several sects of aristocracy, managed to establish an extreme oligarchy. The oligarchs were supported by Athens’ arch-nemesis, the Spartans.
But the government failed after only a year and democracy was restored. The system flourished for nearly a century until 322 BC, when the kingdom of Macedon under the ruling of King Philip and his son Alexander the Great became suzerain to all of Aegean Greece and ended a fine run of people led government.