History of democracy

History of democracy

The history of democracy traces back to Athens to its re-emergence and rise from the 17th century to the present day. According to one definition, democracy is a political system in which all the members of the society have an equal share of formal political power. In modern representative democracy, this formal equality is embodied primarily in the right to vote.



Pre-historic origins

Although it is generally believed that the concepts of democracy and constitution were created in one particular place and time — identified as Ancient Athens circa 508 BCi[›] — 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.[1]

Within this broad sense it is plausible to assume that democracy in one form or another arises naturally in any well-bonded group, such as a tribe. This is tribalism or primitive democracy. A primitive democracy is identified in small communities or villages when the following take place: face-to-face discussion in the village council or a headman whose decisions are supported by village elders or other cooperative modes of government.[2]

Nevertheless, on larger scale sharper contrasts arise when the village and the city are examined as political communities. In urban governments, all other forms of rule – monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, and oligarchy – have flourished.[1]

Proto-democratic societies

In recent decades scholars have explored the possibility that advancements toward democratic government occurred somewhere else (i.e. other than Greece) first, as Greece developed its complex social and political institutions long after the appearance of the earliest civilizations in Egypt and the Near East.[3]


The tablet containing the epic of Gilgamesh.

Thorkild Jacobsen has studied the pre-Babylonian Mesopotamia and uses Sumerian epic, myth and historical records to identify what he calls primitive democracy. By this he means a government in which ultimate power rests with the mass of free male citizens, although "the various functions of government are as yet little specialized, the power structure is loose". In the early period of Sumer, kings such as Gilgamesh did not hold the autocratic power which later Mesopotamia rulers wielded. Rather, major city-states had a council of elders and a council of "young men" (likely to be comprised by free men bearing arms) that possessed the final political authority, and had to be consulted on all major issues such as war.[4][5]

This pioneering work, while constantly cited, has invoked little serious discussion and less outright acceptance. The criticism from other scholars focuses on the use of the word "democracy", since the same evidence also can be interpreted convincingly to demonstrate a power struggle between primitive monarchs and the nobility, a struggle in which the common people act more as pawns than the sovereign authority.[6] Jacobsen concedes that the vagueness of the evidence prohibits the separation between the Mesopotamian democracy from a primitive oligarchy.[7]


A serious claim for early democratic institutions comes from the independent "republics" of India, sanghas and ganas, which existed as early as the sixth century BCE and persisted in some areas until the fourth century CE. The evidence is scattered and no pure historical source exists for that period. In addition, Diodorus (a Greek historian writing two centuries after the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of India), without offering any detail, mentions that independent and democratic states existed in India.[8] However, modern scholars note that the word democracy at the third century BC and later had been degraded and could mean any autonomous state no matter how oligarchic it was.[9][10]

The main characteristics of the gana seem to be a monarch, usually called raja and a deliberative assembly. The assembly met regularly in which at least in some states attendance was open to all free men, and discussed all major state decisions. It had also full financial, administrative, and judicial authority. Other officers, who are rarely mentioned, obeyed the decisions of the assembly. The monarch was elected by the gana and apparently he always belonged to a family of the noble K'satriya Varna. The monarch coordinated his activities with the assembly and in some states along with a council of other nobles.[11] The Licchavis had a primary governing body of 7,077 rajas, the heads of the most important families. On the other hand, the Shakyas, the Gautama Buddha's people, had the assembly open to all men, rich and poor.[12]

Scholars differ over how to describe these governments and the vague, sporadic quality of the evidence allows for wide disagreements. Some emphasize the central role of the assemblies and thus tout them as democracies; other scholars focus on the upper class domination of the leadership and possible control of the assembly and see an oligarchy or an aristocracy.[13][14] Despite the obvious power of the assembly, it has not yet been established if the composition and participation was truly popular. The first main obstacle is the lack of evidence describing the popular power of the assembly. This is reflected in the Artha' shastra, an ancient handbook for monarchs on how to rule efficiently. It contains a chapter on dealing with the sangas, which includes injunctions on manipulating the noble leaders, yet it does not mention how to influence the mass of the citizens – a surprising omission if democratic bodies, not the aristocratic families, actively controlled the republican governments.[15] Another issue is the persistence of the four-tiered Varna class system.[13] The duties and privileges on the members of each particular caste – which were rigid enough to prohibit someone sharing a meal with those of another order – might have affected the role members were expected to play in the state, regardless of the formal institutions. The lack of the concept of citizen equality across caste system boundaries lead many scholars to believe that the true nature of ganas and sanghas would not be comparable to that of truly democratic institutions.[14]


Bas-relief of Lycurgus, one of 23 great lawgivers depicted in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ancient Greece, in its early period, was a loose collection of independent city states called poleis. Many of these poleis were oligarchies.[16] The most prominent Greek oligarchy, and the state with which democratic Athens is most often and most fruitfully compared, was Sparta. Yet Sparta, in its rejection of private wealth as a primary social differentiator, was a peculiar kind of oligarchy[17] and some scholars note its resemblance to democracy.[18][19][20] In Spartan government, the political power was divided between four bodies: two Spartan Kings (monarchy), gerousia (Counsil of Gerontes (Elders), including the two kings), the ephors (representatives who oversaw the Kings) and the apella (assembly of Spartans).

The two kings served as the head of the government. They ruled simultaneously but came from two separate lines. The dual kingship diluted the effective power of the executive office. The kings shared their judicial functions with other members of the gerousia. The members of the gerousia had to be over the age of 60 and were elected for life. In theory, any Spartan over that age could stand for election. However, in practice, they were selected from wealthy, aristocratic families. The gerousia possessed the crucial power of legislative initiative. Apella, the most democratic element, was the assembly where Spartans above the age of 30 elected the members of the gerousia and the ephors, and accepted or rejected gerousia's proposals.[21] Finally, the five ephors were Spartans chosen in apella to oversee the actions of the kings and other public officials and, if necessary, depose them. They served for one year and could not be re-elected for a second time. Over the years the ephors held great influence into forming foreign policy and acted as the main executive body of state. Additionally, they had full responsibility of the Spartan educational system, which was essential for maintaining the high standards of the Spartan army. As Aristotle noted, ephors were the most important key institution of state, but because often they were appointed from the whole social body it resulted in very poor men holding office, with the ensuing possibility that they could easily be bought.[22][23]

The creator of the Spartan system of rule was the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus. He is associated with the drastic reforms that were instituted in Sparta after the revolt of the helots in the second half of the 7th century BC. In order to prevent another helot revolt, Lycurgus devised the highly militarized communal system that made Sparta unique among the city-states of Greece. All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness and austerity. It is also probable that Lycurgus delineated the powers of the two traditional organs of the Spartan government, the gerousia and the apella.[24]

The reforms of Lycurgus were written as a list of rules/laws called Great Rhetra; making it the world's first written constitution.[25] In the following centuries Sparta became a military superpower, and its system of rule was admired throughout the Greek world for its political stability.[26] In particular, the concept of equality played an important role in Spartan society. The Spartans referred to themselves as όμοιοι (Homoioi, men of equal status). It was also reflected in the Spartan public educational system, agoge, where all citizens irrespective of wealth or status had the same education.[20] This was admired almost universally by contemporaries, from historians such as Herodotus and Xenophon to philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. In addition, the Spartan women, unlike elsewhere, enjoyed "every kind of luxury and intemperance" including elementary rights such as the right to inheritance, property ownership and public education.[27] Overall the Spartans were remarkably free to criticize their kings and they were able to depose and exile them. However, despite these democratic elements in the Spartan constitution, there are two cardinal criticisms, classifying Sparta as an oligarchy. First, individual freedom was restricted, since as Plutarch writes "no man was allowed to live as he wished", but as in a "military camp" all were engaged in the public service of their polis. And second, the gerousia effectively maintained the biggest share of power of the various governmental bodies.[28][29]

The political stability of Sparta also meant that no significant changes in the constitution were made. The oligarchic elements of Sparta became even stronger, especially after the influx of gold and silver from the victories in the Persian Wars. In addition, Athens, after the Persian Wars, was becoming the hegemonic power in the Greek world and disagreements between Sparta and Athens over supremacy emerged. These lead to a series of armed conflicts known as the Peloponnesian War, with Sparta prevailing in the end. However, the war exhausted both poleis and Sparta was in turn humbled by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. It was all brought to an end a few years later, when Philip II of Macedon crushed what remained of the power of the factional city states to his South.


Athens is regarded as the birthplace of democracy and it is considered an important reference point of democracy.i[›]

Athens emerged in the 7th century BC, like many other poleis, with a dominating powerful aristocracy.[30] However, this domination led to exploitation causing significant economic, political, and social problems. These problems were enhanced early in the sixth century and as "the many were enslaved to few, the people rose against the notables".[31] At the same period in the Greek world many traditional aristocracies were disrupted by popular revolutions, like Sparta in the second half of the 7th century BC. Sparta's constitutional reforms by Lycurgus introduced a hoplite state and showed how inherited governments can be changed and lead to military victory.[32] After a period of unrest between the rich and the poor, the Athenians of all classes turned to Solon for acting as a mediator between rival factions, and reaching to a generally satisfactory solution of their problems.[33][34]

Solon and the foundations of democracy

Bas-relief of Solon, one of 23 great lawgivers depicted in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Solon, an Athenian (Greek) of noble descent but moderate means, was a Lyric poet and later a lawmaker; Plutarch placed him as one of the Seven Sages of the ancient world.[34] Solon attempted to satisfy all sides by alleviating the suffering of the poor majority without removing all the privileges of the rich minority.[35]

Solon divided the Athenians, into four property classes, with different rights and duties for each. As the Rhetra did in the Lycurgian Sparta, Solon formalized the composition and functions of the governmental bodies. Now, all citizens were entitled to attend the Ecclesia (Assembly) and vote. Ecclesia became, in principle, the sovereign body, entitled to pass laws and decrees, elect officials, and hear appeals from the most important decisions of the courts.[34] All but those in the poorest group might serve, a year at a time, on a new Boule of 400, which was to prepare business for Ecclesia. The higher governmental posts, archons (magistrates), were reserved for citizens of the top two income groups. The retired archons were becoming members of Areopagus (Council of the Hill of Ares), and like Gerousia in Sparta, it was able to check improper actions of the newly powerful Ecclesia. Solon created a mixed timocratic and democratic system of institutions.[36]

Overall, the reforms of the lawgiver Solon in 594 BC, devised to avert the political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens and gave Athens its first comprehensive code of law. The constitutional reforms eliminated enslavement of Athenians by Athenians, established rules for legal redress against over-reaching aristocratic archons, and assigned political privileges on the basis of productive wealth rather than noble birth. Some of his reforms failed in the short term, yet he is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.[37][38]

Democracy under Cleisthenes and Pericles

The Pnyx with the speaker's platform, the meeting place of the people of Athens

Even though the Solonian reorganization of the constitution improved the economic position of the Athenian lower classes, it did not eliminate the bitter aristocratic contentions for control of the archonship, the chief executive post. Peisistratus became tyrant of Athens three times and remained in power until his death in 527 BC. His sons Hippias and Hipparchus succeeded him.[39]

After the fall of tyranny and before the year 508–507 was over, Cleisthenes proposed a complete reform of the system of government, which later was approved by the popular Ecclesia.[40] Cleisthenes reorganized the population into ten tribes, with the aim to change the basis of political organization from the family loyalties to political ones,[41] and improve the army's organization.[42] He also introduced the principle of equality of rights for all, isonomia,[40] by expanding the access to power to more citizens.[43] During this period, the word "democracy" (Greek: δημοκρατία - "rule by the people") was first used by the Athenians to define their new system of government.[44]

In the next generation, Athens entered in its Golden Age by becoming a great center of literature and art.[45] The victories in Persian Wars encouraged the poorest Athenians (who participated in the military exhibitions) to demand a greater say in the running of their city. In the late 460s Ephialtes and Pericles presided over a radicalization of power that shifted the balance decisively to the poorest sections of society, by passing laws, which severely limiting the powers of the Council of the Areopagus and allow thetes (Athenians without wealth) to occupy public office.[46] Pericles was distinguished as its greatest democratic leader, even though he has been accused of running a political machine. In the following passage, Thucydides recorded Pericles, in the funeral oration, describing the Athenian system of rule:

Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life.[47]
Bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from ca. 430 BC.

The Athenian democracy of Cleisthenes and Pericles, was based on freedom, through the reforms of Solon, and equality (isonomia), introduced by Cleisthenes and later expanded by Ephialtes and Pericles. To preserve these principles the Athenians used lot for selecting officials. Lot's rationale was to ensure all citizens were "equally" qualified for office, and to avoid any corruption allotment machines were used.[48] Moreover, in most positions chosen by lot, Athenian citizens could not be selected more than once; this rotation in office meant that no-one could build up a power base through staying in a particular position.[49] Another important political institution in Athens was the courts; they were composed with large number of juries, with no judges and they were selected by lot on a daily basis from an annual pool, also chosen by lot. The courts had unlimited power to control the other bodies of the government and its political leaders.[1] Participation by the citizens selected was mandatory,[50] and a modest financial compensation was given to citizens whose livelihood was affected by being "drafted" to office. The only officials chosen by elections, one from each tribe, were the strategoi (generals), where military knowledge was required, and the treasurers, who had to be wealthy, since any funds revealed to have been embezzled were recovered from a treasurer's private fortune. Debate was open to all present and decisions in all matters of policy were taken by majority vote in Ecclesia (compare direct democracy), in which all male citizens could participate (in some cases with a quorum of 6000). The decisions taken in Ecclesia were executed by Boule of 500, which had already approved the agenda for Ecclesia. The Athenian Boule was elected by lot every year[51] and no citizen could serve more than twice.[52] Overall, the Athenian democracy was not only direct in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also directest in the sense that the people through the assembly, boule and courts of law controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business.[53] And even though the rights of the individual (probably) were not secured by the Athenian constitution in the modern sense,ii[›] the Athenians enjoyed their liberties not in opposition to the government, but by living in a city that was not subject to another power and by not being subjects themselves to the rule of another person.[44]

Birth of political philosophy

Within the Athenian democratic environment many philosophers from all over the Greek world gathered to develop their theories. Socrates was the first to raise the question, and further expanded by his pupil Plato, about what is the relation/position of an individual within a community. Aristotle continued the work of his teacher, Plato, and laid the foundations of political philosophy. The political philosophy created in Athens was in words of Peter Hall, "in a form so complete that hardly added anyone of moment to it for over a millennium".[54] Aristotle systematically analyzed the different systems of rule that the numerous Greek city-states had and categorized them into three categories based on how many ruled; the many (democracy/polity), the few (oligarchy/aristocracy), a single person (tyranny or today autocracy/monarchy). For Aristotle, the underlying principles of democracy are reflected in his work Politics:

Now a fundamental principle of the democratic form of constitution is liberty—that is what is usually asserted, implying that only under this constitution do men participate in liberty, for they assert this as the aim of every democracy. But one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn; for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is the principle of justice prevailing, the multitude must of necessity be sovereign and the decision of the majority must be final and must constitute justice, for they say that each of the citizens ought to have an equal share; so that it results that in democracies the poor are more powerful than the rich, because there are more of them and whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign. This then is one mark of liberty which all democrats set down as a principle of the constitution. And one is for a man to live as he likes; for they say that this is the function of liberty, inasmuch as to live not as one likes is the life of a man that is a slave. This is the second principle of democracy, and from it has come the claim not to be governed, preferably not by anybody, or failing that, to govern and be governed in turns; and this is the way in which the second principle contributes to equalitarian liberty.[55]

The decline, its critics and revival

The Athenian democracy, in its two centuries of life-time, twice voted against its democratic constitution, both during the crisis at the end of the Pelopponesian War, creating first the Four Hundred (in 411 BC) and second Sparta's puppet régime of the Thirty Tyrants (in 404 BC). Both votes were under manipulation and pressure, but democracy was recovered in less than a year in both cases. Athens restored again its democratic constitution, after the unification by force of Greece from Phillip II of Macedon and later Alexander the Great, but it was politically shadowed by the Hellenistic empires. Finally after the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC, Athens was restricted to matters of local administration.

However, the decline of democracy was not only due to external powers, but from its citizens, such as Plato and his student Aristotle. Through their influential works, after the rediscovery of classics during renaissance, Sparta's political stability was praised,[56][57][58] while the Periclean democracy was described as a system of rule, where either the less well-born, the mob (as a collective tyrant) or the poorer classes, were holding power.[44] It was only centuries afterwards, with the publication of "A history of Greece" by George Grote in 1846, that the Athenian democracy of Pericles started to be viewed positively by political thinkers.[59] Over the last two decades scholars have re-examined the Athenian system of rule as a model of empowering citizens and a "post-modern" example for communities and organisations alike.[60]

Roman Republic

Even though Rome is classified as a Republic and not a democracy, its history has helped preserve the concept of democracy over the centuries. The Romans invented the concept of classics and many works from Ancient Greece were preserved.[61] Additionally, the Roman model of governance inspired many political thinkers over the centuries,[62] and today's modern (representative) democracies imitate more the Roman than the Greek models.[63]

The Republic

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th century fresco

Rome was a city-state in Italy next to powerful neighbors; Etruscans had built city-states throughout central Italy since 13th century BC and in the south were Greek colonies. Similar to other city-states, Rome was ruled by king. However, social unrest and the pressure of external threats led in 510 BC the last king to be deposed by a group of aristocrats led by Lucius Junius Brutus. A new constitution was crafted, but the conflict between the ruling families (patricians) and the rest of the population, the plebeians continued. The plebs were demanding for definite, written, and secular laws. The patrician priests, who were the recorders and interpreters of the statutes, by keeping their records secret used their monopoly against social change. After a long resistance to the new demands, the Senate in 454 BC sent a commission of three patricians to Greece to study and report on the legislation of Solon and other lawmakers.[64][65] When they returned, the Assembly in 451 BC chose ten men - a decemviri - to formulate a new code, and gave them supreme governmental power in Rome for two years. This commission, under the supervision of a resolute reactionary, Appius Claudius, transformed the old customary law of Rome into Twelve Tables and submitted them to the Assembly (which passed them with some changes) and they were displayed in the Forum for all who would and could to read. The Twelve Tables recognised certain rights and by the 4th Century BC, the plebs were given the right to stand for consulship and other major offices of the state.

The political structure as outlined in the Roman constitution resembled a mixed constitution[66] and its constituent parts were comparable to those of the Spartan constitution: two consuls, embodying the monarchic form; the Senate, embodying the aristocratic form; and the people through the assemblies.[67] The consul was the highest ranking ordinary magistrate. Consuls had power in both civil and military matters. While in the city of Rome, the consuls were the head of the Roman government and they would preside over the Senate and the assemblies. While abroad, each consul would command an army. The Senate passed decrees, which were called senatus consultum and were official advices to a magistrate. However, in practice it was difficult for a magistrate to ignore the Senate's advice. The focus of the Roman Senate was directed towards foreign policy. Though it technically had no official role in the management of military conflict, the Senate ultimately was the force that oversaw such affairs. Also it managed Rome's civil administration. The requirements for becoming a senator included having at least 100,000 denarii worth of land, being born of the patrician (noble aristocrats) class, and having held public office at least once before. New Senators had to be approved by the sitting members. The people of Rome through the assemblies had the final say regarding the election of magistrates, the enactment of new laws, the carrying out of capital punishment, the declaration of war and peace, and the creation (or dissolution) of alliances. Despite the obvious power the assemblies had, in practice the assemblies were the least powerful of the other bodies of government. An assembly was legal only if summoned by a magistrate[68] and it was restricted from any legislative initiative or the ability to debate. And even the candidates for public office as Livy writes "levels were designed so that no one appeared to be excluded from an election and yet all of the clout resided with the leading men".[69] Moreover the unequal weight of votes was making a rare practice for asking the lowest classes for their votes.[69][70]

Roman stability, in Polybius’ assessment, was owing to the checks each element put on the superiority of any other: a consul at war, for example, required the cooperation of the Senate and the people if he hoped to secure victory and glory, and could not be indifferent to their wishes. This was not to say that the balance was in every way even: Polybius observes that the superiority of the Roman to the Carthaginian constitution (another mixed constitution) at the time of the Hannibalic War was an effect of the latter’s greater inclination toward democracy than to aristocracy.[71] Moreover, recent attempts to posit for Rome personal freedom in the Greek sense – eleutheria: living as you like – have fallen on stony ground, since eleutheria (which was an ideology and way of life in the democratic Athens[72]) was anathema in the Roman eyes.[73] Rome’s core values included order, hierarchy, discipline, and obedience. These values were enforced with laws regulating the private life of an individual. The laws were applied in particular to the upper classes, since the upper classes were the source of Roman moral examples.

Rome became the ruler of a great Mediterranean empire. The new provinces brought wealth to Italy, and fortunes were made through mineral concessions and enormous slave run estates. Slaves were imported to Italy and wealthy landowners soon began to buy up and displace the original peasant farmers. By the late 2nd Century this led to renewed conflict between the rich and poor and demands from the latter for reform of constitution. The background of social unease and the inability of the traditional republican constitutions to adapt to the needs of the growing empire led to the rise of a series of over-mighty generals, championing the cause of either the rich or the poor, in the last century BC.

Transition to Empire

Fragment of a bronze equestrian statue of Augustus, 1st century AD

Over the next few hundred years, various generals would bypass or overthrow the Senate for various reasons, mostly to address perceived injustices, either against themselves or against poorer citizens or soldiers. One of those generals was Julius Caesar, where he marched on Rome and took supreme power over the republic. Caesar's career was cut short by his assassination at Rome in 44 BC by a group of Senators including Marcus Junius Brutus. In the power vacuum that followed Caesar's assassination, his friend and chief lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, and Caesar's grandnephew Octavian who also was the adopted son of Caesar, rose to prominence. Their combined strength gave the triumvirs absolute power. However, in 31 BC war between the two broke out. The final confrontation occurred on 2 September 31 BC, at the naval Battle of Actium where the fleet of Octavian under the command of Agrippa routed Antony's fleet. Thereafter, there was no one left in the Roman Republic who wanted, or could stand against Octavian, as the adopted son of Caesar moved to take absolute control. Octavian left the majority of Republican institutions intact, though he influenced everything and ultimately, controlled the final decisions, and had the legions to back it up, if necessary. By 27 BC the transition, though subtle and disguised, was complete. In that year, Octavian offered back all his powers to the Senate, and in a carefully staged way, the Senate refused and titled Octavian Augustus — "the revered one". He was always careful to avoid the title of rex — "king", and instead took on the titles of princeps — "first citizen" and imperator, a title given by Roman troops to their victorious commanders. The Roman Empire had been born. Once Octavian named Tiberius as his heir, it was clear to everyone that even the hope of a restored Republic was dead. Most likely, by the time Augustus died, no one was old enough to know a time before an Emperor ruled Rome. The Roman Republic had been changed into a despotic régime, which, underneath a competent and strong Emperor, could achieve military supremacy, economic prosperity, and a genuine peace, but under a weak or incompetent one saw its glory tarnished by cruelty, military defeats, revolts, and civil war.

The Roman Empire was eventually divided between the Western Roman Empire which fell in 476 AD and the Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire) which lasted until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD.

Local Medieval institutions

Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker is teaching the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung that the power resides with the people, 1018, Uppsala, by C. Krogh

Most of the procedures used by modern democracies are very old. Almost all cultures have at some time had their new leaders approved, or at least accepted, by the people; and have changed the laws only after consultation with the assembly of the people or their leaders. Such institutions existed since before the Iliad or the Odyssey, and modern democracies are often derived or inspired by them, or what remained of them. Nevertheless, the direct result of these institutions was not always a democracy. It was often a narrow oligarchy, as in Venice, or even an absolute monarchy, as in Florence, in renaissance period but during medieval period they were guild democracies.

These early institutions include:

  • The collegia of the Roman period: associations of various social, economic, religious, funerary and even sportive natures elected officers yearly, often directly modeled on the Senate of Rome.
  • The Christian Church well into the 6th century AD had its bishops elected by popular acclaim.
  • The election of Gopala, founder of the Bengali Pala Empire, in the 8th century.
  • Medieval guilds of economic, social and religious natures elected officers for yearly terms.
  • The German tribal system described by Tacitus in his Germania.
  • The Witan of Early Medieval England, councils of advisors to the kings of the petty kingdoms and then that of a unified England before the Norman Conquest.
  • The Frankish custom of the Marzfeld or "March field".[74]
  • Tynwald, on the Isle of Man, is the oldest continuous Parliament in the world, which began in 979, although its roots go further back to the late 9th century. Tynwald was also the first place to offer universal suffrage in 1893.
  • The Althing, the parliament of the Icelandic Commonwealth, founded in 930. It consisted of the 39, later 55, goðar; each owner of a goðarð; and membership, which could in principle be lent or sold, was kept tight hold of by each hereditary goði. Thus, for example, when Burnt Njal's stepson wanted to enter it, Njal had to persuade the Althing to enlarge itself so a seat would be available. But as each independent farmer in the country could choose what goði represented him the system could be claimed as an early form of democracy. The Alþing has run nearly continuously to the present day. The Althing was preceded by less elaborate "things" (assemblies) all over Northern Europe.[75]
  • The Thing of all Swedes, which was held annually at Uppsala in the end of February or early March. Like in Iceland, the assemblies were presided by the lawspeaker, but the Swedish king functioned as a judge. A famous incident took place circa 1018, when King Olof Skötkonung wanted to pursue the war against Norway against the will of the people. Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker reminded the king in a long speech that the power resided with the Swedish people and not with the king. When the king heard the din of swords beating the shields in support of Þorgnýr's speech, he gave in. Adam of Bremen wrote that the people used to obey the king only when they thought his suggestions seemed better, although in war his power was absolute.
  • The túatha system in early medieval Ireland. Landowners and the masters of a profession or craft were members of a local assembly, known as a túath. Each túath met in annual assembly which approved all common policies, declared war or peace on other tuatha, and accepted the election of a new "king"; normally during the old king's lifetime, as a tanist. The new king had to be descended within four generations from a previous king, so this usually became, in practice, a hereditary kingship; although some kingships alternated between lines of cousins. About 80 to 100 túatha coexisted at any time throughout Ireland. Each túath controlled a more or less compact area of land which it could pretty much defend from cattle-raids, and this was divided among its members.
  • The city-states of medieval Italy, as Venice and Florence, and similar city-states in Switzerland, Flanders and the Hanseatic league had not a modern democratic system but a guild democratic system. The Italian cities in middle medieval period had "lobbies war" democracies without institutional guarantee systems (a full developed balance of powers). During late medieval and renaissance periods, Venice became an oligarchy and others became "Signorie". They were, in any case in late medieval not nearly as democratic as the Athenian-influenced city-states of Ancient Greece (discussed in the above section), but they served as focal points for early modern democracy.
  • Veche, Wiec - popular assemblies in Slavic countries. In Poland wiece have developed in 1182 into Sejm - Polish parliament. The veche was the highest legislature and judicial authority in the republics of Novgorod until 1478 and Pskov until 1510.
  • The elizate system of the Basque Country in which farmholders of a rural area connected to a particular church would meet to reach decisions on issues affecting the community and to elect representatives to the provincial Batzar Nagusiak/Juntos Generales.[76]
  • Rise of parliamentary bodies in other European countries.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas

Historian Jack Weatherford has argued that the ideas leading to the American Constitution and democracy derived from various indigenous peoples of the Americas including the Iroquois. Weatherford claimed this democracy was founded between the years 1000-1450, and lasted several hundred years, and that the American democratic system was continually changed and improved by the influence of Native Americans throughout North America.[77] Temple University professor of anthropology and an authority on the culture and history of the Northern Iroquois Elizabeth Tooker has reviewed these claims and concluded they are myth rather than fact. The idea that North American Indians had a democratic culture is several decades old, but not usually expressed within historical literature. The relationship between the Iroquois League and the Constitution is based on a portion of a letter written by Benjamin Franklin and a speech by the Iroquois chief Canasatego in 1744. Tooker concluded that the documents only indicate that some groups of Iroquois and white settlers realized the advantages of a confederation, and that ultimately there is little evidence to support the idea that eighteenth century colonists were knowledgeable regarding the Iroquois system of governance. What little evidence there is regarding this system indicates chiefs of different tribes were permitted representation in the Iroquois League council, and this ability to represent the tribe was hereditary. The council itself did not practice representative government, and there were no elections; deceased chiefs' successors were selected by the most senior woman within the hereditary lineage in consultation with other women in the clan. Decision making occurred through lengthy discussion and decisions were unanimous, with topics discussed being introduced by a single tribe. Tooker concludes that "...there is virtually no evidence that the framers borrowed from the Iroquois" and that the myth that this was the case is the result of exaggerations and misunderstandings of a claim made by Iroquois linguist and ethnographer J.N.B. Hewitt after his death in 1937.[78]

The Aztecs also practiced elections, but the elected officials elected a supreme speaker, not a ruler.[77]

Rise of democracy in modern national governments

Pre-Eighteenth century milestones

The humanist philosophers looked for secular principles on which society could be organized, as opposed to the concentration of political power in the hands of the Church. Prior to the Renaissance, religion had been the dominant force in politics for a thousand years.
Humanists looked at ancient Greece and found the concept of democracy. In some cases they began to implement it (to a limited extent) in practice.
The election of Augustus II at Wola, outside Warsaw, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in 1697. Painted by Bernardo Bellotto

Eighteenth and nineteenth century milestones

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789.
  • 1755: The Corsican Republic led by Pasquale Paoli with the Corsican Constitution
  • Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 (based on the English Bill of Rights)
  • United States Constitution ratified in 1788 (although it was left to the individual states to decide how delegates to Congress were selected). and the United States Bill of Rights ratified in 1791. The framers, including James Madison of the Constitution did not plan on the development of a democracy for the new republic.iii[›]
  • 1780s: development of social movements identifying themselves with the term 'democracy': Political clashes between 'aristocrats' and 'democrats' in Benelux countries changed the semi-negative meaning of the word 'democracy' in Europe, which was until then regarded as synonymous with anarchy, into a much more positive opposite of 'aristocracy'.
  • From late 1770s: new Constitutions and Bills explicitly describing and limiting the authority of powerholders, many based on the English Bill of Rights (1689). Historian Norman Davies calls the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 "the first constitution of its kind in Europe".[81]
  • 1791: The Haitian Revolution a successful slave revolution, established a free republic.
  • 1789-1799: the French Revolution
  • 1790s First Party System in U.S. involves invention of locally-rooted political parties in the United States; networks of party newspapers; new canvassing techniques; use of caucus to select candidates; fixed party names; party loyalty; party platform (Jefferson 1799); peaceful transition between parties (1800)
The establishment of universal male suffrage in France in 1848 was an important milestone in the history of democracy.
  • Extension of political rights to various social classes: elimination of wealth, property, sex, race and similar requirements for voting (See also universal suffrage).
  • 1807: The U.K. Slave Trade Act banned the trade in the British Empire.
  • 1831: The passing of the Reform Act in the UK which gave representation to previously under represented urban areas and extended the franchise to a wider population.
  • 1833: The U.K. passed the Slavery Abolition Act and used the Royal Navy to combat foreign slave traders.
  • 1848: Universal male suffrage was definitely established in France in March of that year, in the wake of the French Revolution of 1848.[83]
  • 1848: Following the French, the Revolutions of 1848, although in many instances forcefully put down, did result in democratic constitutions in some other European countries among them Denmark and Netherlands.
  • 1850s: introduction of the secret ballot in Australia; 1872 in UK; 1892 in USA
  • 1853: Black Africans given the vote for the first time in Southern Africa, in the British-administered Cape Province.
  • 1870: USA - 15th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibits voting rights discrimination on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of slavery.
  • 1879 and 1880: William Ewart Gladstone's UK Midlothian campaign ushered in the modern political campaign.
  • 1893: New Zealand is the first nation to introduce universal suffrage by awarding the vote to women (universal male suffrage had been in place since 1879).

The secret ballot

The notion of a secret ballot, where one is entitled to the privacy of their votes, is taken for granted by most today by virtue of the fact that it is simply considered the norm. However, this practice was highly controversial in the 19th century; it was widely argued that no man would want to keep his vote secret unless he was ashamed of it.[citation needed]

The two earliest systems used were the Victorian method and the South Australian method. Both were introduced in 1856 to voters in Victoria and South Australia. The Victorian method involved voters crossing out all the candidates whom he did not approve of. The South Australian method, which is more similar to what most democracies use today, had voters put a mark in the preferred candidate's corresponding box. The Victorian voting system also was not completely secret, as it was traceable by a special number.

20th century waves of democracy

The end of the First World War was a temporary victory for democracy in Europe, as it was preserved in France and temporarily extended to Germany. Already in 1906 full modern democratic rights, universal suffrage for all citizens was implemented constitutionally in Finland as well as an proportional representation, open list system. Likewise, the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 inaugurated a few months of liberal democracy under Alexander Kerensky until Lenin took over in October. The terrific economic impact of the Great Depression hurt democratic forces in many countries. The 1930s became a decade of dictators in Europe and Latin America.

Post World War II

World War II was ultimately a victory for democracy in Western Europe, where representative governments were established that reflected the general will of their citizens. However, many countries of Central and Eastern Europe became undemocratic Soviet satellite states. In Southern Europe, a number of right-wing authoritarian dictatorships (most notably in Spain and Portugal) continued to exist.

Japan had moved towards democracy during the Taishō period during the 1920s, but it was under effective military rule in the years before and during World War II. The country adopted a new constitution during the postwar Allied occupation, with initial elections in 1946.

Decolonisation and Civil Rights Movements

World War II also planted seeds of freedom outside Europe and Japan, as it weakened, with the exception of the USSR and the United States, all the old colonial powers while strengthening anticolonial sentiment worldwide. Many restive colonies/possessions were promised subsequent independence in exchange for their support for embattled colonial powers during the war. The United States, itself a former colony and emerging colonial power in its own right, flexed its new influence in support of the decolonisation process, for example supporting prominent Arab nationalist Nasser during the Suez Crisis in 1956, often cited as the last gasp of European colonialism[citation needed].

The aftermath of World War II also resulted in the United Nations' decision to partition the British Mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. On May 14, 1948 the state of Israel declared independence and thus was born the first full democracy in the Middle East. Israel is a representative democracy with a parliamentary system and universal suffrage.[84][85]

India became a Democratic Republic in 1950 after achieving independence from Great Britain in 1947. After holding its first national elections in 1952, India achieved the status of the world's largest liberal democracy with universal suffrage which it continues to hold today. Most of the former British and French colonies were independent by 1965 and at least initially democratic. The process of decolonisation created much political upheaval in Africa and parts of Asia, with some countries experiencing often rapid changes to and from democratic and other forms of government.

In the United States of America, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act enforced the 15th Amendment, and the 24th Amendment ended poll taxing, removing all tax placed upon voting. Which was a technique which was commonly used to restrict the African American vote. The minimum voting age was reduced to 18 by the 26th Amendment in 1971.

Late Cold War and after

New waves of democracy swept across Southern Europe in the 1970s, as a number of right-wing nationalist dictatorships fell from power. Later, in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the communist states in the USSR sphere of influence were also replaced with liberal democracies.

Much of Eastern Europe, Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, and several Arab, central Asian and African states, and the not-yet-state that is the Palestinian Authority moved towards greater liberal democracy in the 1990s and 2000s.

Countries highlighted in blue are designated "Electoral Democracies" in Freedom House's 2006 survey Freedom in the World.

An analysis by Freedom House shows that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that in 2000, 120 of the world's 192 nations, or 62% were such democracies. They count 25 nations, or 13% of the world's nations with "restricted democratic practices" in 1900 and 16, or 8% of the world's nations today. They counted 19 constitutional monarchies in 1900, forming 14% of the world's nations, where a constitution limited the powers of the monarch, and with some power devolved to elected legislatures, and none in the present. Other nations had, and have, various forms of non-democratic rule.[86] While the specifics may be open to debate (for example, New Zealand actually enacted universal suffrage in 1893, but is discounted due to a lack of complete sovereignty and certain restrictions on the Māori vote), the numbers are indicative of the expansion of democracy during the twentieth century.

21st century waves of democracy

In the 21st century, democracy movements have been seen across the world. In the Arab world, an unprecedented series of major protests occurred with citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and other countries across the MENA region demanding democratic rights. This revolutionary wave was given the term Tunisia Effect. The Palestinian Authority also took action to address democratic rights.

In Iran, following a highly-disputed presidential vote wrought with fraud, Iranian citizens held a major series of protests calling for change and democratic rights (see: the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests and the 2011 Iranian protests). The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq led to a toppling of Saddam Hussein and a new constitution with free and open elections and democratic rights.

In Asia, the country of Burma (also known as Myanmar) had long been ruled by a military junta, however in 2011, the government changed to allow certain voting rights and released democracy-leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. However, Burma still will not allow Suu Kyi to run for election and still has major human rights problems and not full democratic rights. In Bhutan, in December 2005, the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced to that the first general elections would be held in 2008, and that he would abdicate the throne in favor of his eldest son. Bhutan is currently undergoing further changes to allow for a constitutional monarchy.

Contemporary trends

See also




^ i:  Literature about the Athenian democracy spans over centuries with the earliest works being The Republic of Plato and Politics of Aristotle, continuing with Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli. The latest, listed in the References section, include works from scholars such as J. Dunn, J. Ober, T. Buckley, J. Thorley and E. W. Robinson, who examine the origins and the reasons of Athens being the first[18][44][58][87][88][89] to developed a sophisticated system of rule that we today call democracy. Despite its flaws (slavery, no women's rights) it is often considered the closest to the ideal democracy and called as classical democracy. It is often compared with modern (representative) democracies.[90][91]
^ ii:  The ancient Greeks did not have a word to use for "rights".[92]
^ iii:  The United States of America was and is, a republic, not a direct democracy. A direct democracy can be defined as a form of government in which the people decide matters directly, with prime example the Athenian democracy. A democratic republic, is a form of government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law. The Framers of the Constitution were fearful of democracy; in the words of James Madison: "[D]emocracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."[93] Nevertheless, the Framers recognized that the public is required to impose a check to the government, in Madison words: "dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government".[94]

By popular usage, however, the word "democracy" came to mean a form of government in which the government derives its power from the people and is accountable to them for the use of that power. In this sense the United States be called a democratic republic. Many states allow for policy questions to be decided directly by the people by voting on ballot initiatives or referendums. (Initiatives originate with, or are initiated by, the people while referendums originate with, or are referred to the people by, a state's legislative body.)


  1. ^ a b c Democracy Encyclopedia Britannica Online
  2. ^ Political System Encyclopedia Britannica Online
  3. ^ Robinson, 1997, pp. 16-17
  4. ^ Jacobsen, 1943, pp. 159-172
  5. ^ Isakhan, B. (2007). Engaging "Primitive Democracy," Mideast Roots of Collective Governance. Middle East Policy, 14(3), 97-117.
  6. ^ Bailkey, 1967, pp. 1211–1236
  7. ^ Robinson, 1997, p. 20
  8. ^ Diodorus 2.39
  9. ^ Larsen, 1973, pp. 45-46
  10. ^ de Sainte, 2006, pp. 321-3
  11. ^ Robinson, 1997, p. 22
  12. ^ Robinson, 1997, p. 23
  13. ^ a b Bongard-Levin, 1996, pp. 61-106
  14. ^ a b Sharma 1968, pp. 109-22
  15. ^ Trautmann T. R., Kautilya and the Arthra' shastra, Leiden 1971
  16. ^ Ostwald 2000, pp. 21-25
  17. ^ Cartledge 2001, p. xii, 276
  18. ^ a b Dunn, 1994, p. 2
  19. ^ Plato, Laws, 712e-d
  20. ^ a b Aristotle, Politics, 1294b
  21. ^ Pomeroy, 1999, pp. 149-153
  22. ^ Buckley, 1996, p. 76
  23. ^ Rhodes 1981, pp. 498-502
  24. ^ Lycurgus Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  25. ^ Raaflaub 2007, p. 37
  26. ^ Buckley, 1996, pp. 65-85
  27. ^ Pomeroy, 1999, p. 143
  28. ^ Pomeroy, 1999, p. 152
  29. ^ Raaflaub 2007, pp. 40-1
  30. ^ Pomeroy, 1999, pp. 159-164
  31. ^ Raaflaud, 2007, p. 50
  32. ^ Raaflaud, 2007, p. 51
  33. ^ Pomeroy, 1999, pp. 164-5
  34. ^ a b c Solon, Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  35. ^ Robinson, 2003, pp. 54-5, 76-98
  36. ^ Raaflaud, 2007, pp. 60-8
  37. ^ Robinson, 2003, p. 76
  38. ^ Raaflaud, 2007, pp. 67-72
  39. ^ Peisistratus Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  40. ^ a b Cleisthenes Of Athens Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  41. ^ Buckley, 1996, pp. 138-140
  42. ^ Raaflaud, 2007, p. 77
  43. ^ Raaflaud, 2007 pp. 144-9
  44. ^ a b c d Clarke, 2001, pp. 194-201
  45. ^ Ober, 2008, p. 63
  46. ^ Raaflaub, 2008, p. 140
  47. ^ Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.37.2-3
  48. ^ M. H. Hansen, J. A. Crook, The Athenian democracy in the age of Demosthenes, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8061-3143-8, Google Books link
  49. ^ L. Carson, B. Martin, Random Selection in Politics, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, ISBN 0-275-96702-6, Google Books link
  50. ^ Exception was Boule of 500, where the poor could refuse.
  51. ^ Boule (Ancient Greek Council) Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  52. ^ Powell, 2001, pp. 300-4
  53. ^ Raafaub, 2007, p. 5
  54. ^ Hall, 1999, p. 24
  55. ^ Aristotle, Politics.1317b (Book 6, Part II)
  56. ^ Plato, Republic
  57. ^ Aristotle, Politics
  58. ^ a b Seminar Notes by Prof. Paul Cartledge at University of Cambridge, The Socratics' Sparta And Rousseau's Institute of Historical Research
  59. ^ Hansen, (1992), pp. 14-30
  60. ^ Ober, 1996, pp. 15-6
  61. ^ Watson, 2005, p. 285
  62. ^ Livy, 2002, p. 34
  63. ^ Watson, 2005, p. 271
  64. ^ Livy, 2002, p. 23
  65. ^ Durant, 1942, p. 23
  66. ^ This view was already ancient when Polybius brought it to bear on Rome (Walbank 2002: 281).
  67. ^ Balot, 2009, p. 194
  68. ^ Balot, 2009, p. 216
  69. ^ a b Liv 1.43.11
  70. ^ Dion. Ant. Rom. 4.20.5
  71. ^ Polyb. 6.51
  72. ^ Balot, 2009, pp. 164-5
  73. ^ Balot, 2009, p. 176
  74. ^ Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapters XLIX, LII; pp. 1685,1857 Heritage Club edition (1946). For a recent view, see David Nicolle; Carolingian cavalryman, AD 768-987, p. 45 ff. Intermediate sources tend to be colored by the "Free institutions of our Germanic ancestors" meme.
  75. ^ Burnt Njal's Saga, tr. Magnus Magnusson, introduction.
  76. ^ Kasper, M. Baskische Geschichte Primus: 1997
  77. ^ a b Weatherford, J. McIver (1988). Indian givers: how the Indians of the Americas transformed the world. New York: Fawcett Columbine. p. 133. ISBN 0-449-90496-2. 
  78. ^ Tooker E (1990). "The United States Constitution and the Iroquois League". In Clifton JA. The Invented Indian: cultural fictions and government policies. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers. pp. 107–128. ISBN 1-56000-745-1. 
  79. ^ Professor Norman Davies on the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth -- the Noble Democracy, which deliberately wanted to avoid an Emperor
  80. ^ See for example Chapters 1-2 in Maciej Janowski, Polish Liberal Thought Before 1918: Before 1918, Central European University Press, 2004, ISBN 963-9241-18-0
  81. ^ Davies, Norman (1996). Europe: A History. Oxford University Press. p. 699. ISBN 0198201710. http://books.google.com/books?id=jrVW9W9eiYMC&pg=PA699. 
  82. ^ Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. "Decree of the National Convention of 4 February 1794, Abolishing Slavery in all the Colonies". http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/291/. Retrieved 2009-09-26. 
  83. ^ (French) French National Assembly. "1848 « Désormais le bulletin de vote doit remplacer le fusil »". http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/histoire/suffrage_universel/suffrage-1848.asp. Retrieved 2009-09-26. 
  84. ^ Rummel 1997, p. 257. "A current list of liberal democracies includes: Andorra, Argentina, ... , Cyprus, ... , Israel, ..."
  85. ^ "Global Survey 2006: Middle East Progress Amid Global Gains in Freedom". Freedom House (2005-12-19). Retrieved on 2007-07-01.
  86. ^ Freedom House. 1999. "Democracy’s Century: A Survey of Global Political Change in the 20th Century."
  87. ^ Robinson, 1997, pp. 24-5
  88. ^ Thorley, 1996, p. 2
  89. ^ Dunn, 2006, p. 13
  90. ^ Strauss, 1994, p. 32
  91. ^ Cartledge, 1994, p. 27
  92. ^ Ober, 1996, p. 107
  93. ^ The Federalist No. 10
  94. ^ The Federalist No. 51


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