Citizens Defending Democracy

Ancient Greece introduced a new view of the relationship between the individual and the larger society.  Suddenly the world was no longer understood solely from the point of view of gods and kings. For the Greeks, the rights and responsibilities of individuals becomes an important focus of understanding the world. The participation of individuals in the politics of the community is considered a high achievement. The word idiot originates from the ancient Greek and refers to people who do not or who are incapable of participation in the political processes of their community.

This new “Western” philosophy led to the birth of functioning democracies in many Greek city-states. The most famous, of course, being Athens. Though the mechanics of Athenian democracy evolved over time (see Athenian Democracy) it was a direct democracy, that is most decisions were made by direct vote of all citizens meeting in the “Assembly”. A small number of officials were elected to positions, and some positions were filled by lottery. Though these positions conferred some power to those holding them, they were in large part administrative in nature.

It is important to note that voting privileges were limited to male citizens over 20 years old. Athens included a large foreign born population as well as a large number of slaves who were not eligible for citizenship. With the additional excluding of women, it is estimated that between 15 and 20% of the population was eligible to participate in government. But even this limited enfranchisement represented a radical departure from prior forms of large scale political organization. It is also important to note that ownership of property was NOT a requirement for Athenian citizenship.of participating in the public sphere.


Pnyx – The rocky hill below the Acropolis where the Athenian Assembly met. Photo by Adam Carr


Athens produced many famous orators who, through their speaking ability, exercised significant influence on Athenian public policy, but they never held positions that granted them special political power. The famous Pericles, who is said to have led Athens for many years, was just another citizen. One of beauties of a direct democracy is that there is no “professional political class”.  Anyone can fill any position, which is reflected in the Athenian use of the lottery to fill some positions.  This none-professional aspect of direct democracy has a number of advantages.

My children attend a private school called the Sudbury Valley School. This school is organized around a radical direct democracy similar to that of Athens. The school’s legal system is based on a judicial committee which is staffed by a combination of elected and lottery chosen students and staff.  In the past, large complex cases have occurred that totally occupied those elected and lottery selected staff for many days. Unlike the US judicial system where justice can take years, the school tries to investigate and make judgements within a matter of hours or days.  The long complicated cases can cause routine cases to become delayed.  Given the non-professional nature of this judicial system, the school simply empowers an additional judicial committee to manage the more routine cases, while the more complex one is being handled by the original judicial committee.

Student gives testimony at a Sudbury Valley School Judiciary Committee meeting.

In this way direct democracy begets a kind of radical political equality (among citizens at least). Each citizen is fully capable to carrying out any role of the body politic. So not only are individuals allowed to participate in the governance of their polis, there is a certain empowerment of the individual to be prepared to, at any moment, act on behalf of the body politic.

I would like to highlight 4 situations during the Peloponnesian war where Athenian citizens found themselves in a situations where they spontansioulsy stepped out of the their civilian or military roles to take on governance roles in the defense of Athenian democracy.

1 Spartan allies urge Sparta to declare war on Athens:

After a series of conflicts between Athens and cities allied with Sparta, those cities allied with Sparta have come before Sparta to urge Sparta to declare war on Athens.  Thucydides recounts in great detail the arguments put forth by the representative of Corinth, (Allied with Sparta) as well as arguments put forth by both pro-war and anti-war factions within Sparta. Also presented is an Athenian argument against war.

“There happened to be Athenian envoys present at Lacedaemon (Sparta) on other business. On hearing the speeches they thought themselves called upon to come before the Lacedaemonians (Spartans). Their intention was not to offer a defense on any of the charges which the cities brought against them, but to show on a comprehensive view that it was not a matter to be hastily decided on, but one that demanded further consideration….”
– Book III Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides includes their lengthy argument in his text, the nature of which is not important here. What intrigues me is that some small number of Athenians who were in Sparta on other business, with no advance notice, no authorization from Athens herself, felt compelled, able and willing to seek permission to speak to Sparta and her allies on behalf of Athens.  These Athenians could not communicate with Pericles back in Athens via their encrypted cell phone messaging applications prior to speaking. In a direct democracy, anyone can suddenly function as an ambassador.

Despite their efforts, the ambassadors for a day, fail in their effort. The debate is fascinating and well worth a read. Once the Spartans go into their private consultations (which somehow Thucydidis is privy to) the final Spartan speaker says:

“The long speech of the Athenians I do not pretend to understand. They said a good deal in praise of themselves, but nowhere denied that they are injuring our allies…”

He urges Sparta to support their allies and prepare for war with Athens. His argument carries the day.

Oligarchic Coup of 411

In 411 BCE the war had not been going well for Athens. The defeat at Syracuse (Sicily, not New York) in 410 resulted in the loss of a significant part of the Athenian Navy.  Rebuilding the fleet, vital to securing a food supply to Athens was a severe financial strain. A group of anti-democrats organized a form of Coup in Athens. They argued to the assembly that desperate times required desperate measures. Allowing power to be held by a smaller number of people would save time and increase government efficiency. One of the important inventions of Athenian democracy, was that people were paid to execute their elected and lottery assigned roles. This was an important innovation because without it, only the independently wealthy could afford to fully participate in the polis. The coup leaders turned this argument to advantage and explained that they would rule Athens and not draw any salaries. I can’t help but think of Paul Manafort, who agreed to serve as the Trump Campaign Chair without drawing any salary!

Map showing Spartan and Athenian alliances during Peloponessian war. Island of Samos is center right. Athens (Athenai) is on the opposite side of the Aegean sea.

The anti-democrats ruled the day and the Assembly voted to vest all political power in a select committee of 400 citizens drawn heavily from the landed aristocracy. This change occurred while the Athenian Navy was stationed at the Aegean Island of Samos near Asia minor. The fleet was stationed far from home because the Spartans had finally realized that to defeat Athens, Sparta would need a navy.  The Sparta Navy was working to cut off Athenian food supplies from cities around the Aegean and Black seas. The Athenian Navy was based in Samos to defend Athenian supply lines and prevent rebellion in their empire. There were at least  200 Athenian Triremes active at the time. Each trireme would have a crew of 100 rowers and a few other officers and crew. At this point in time the majority of crew, including rowers, were Athenian citizens. So at the time of the coup in Athens, a significant percentage of the voting population of Athens was actually deployed with the Navy, outside of Athens, which likely made it much easier for the Oligarchs to take power.

The suspension of Democracy in Athens led to several instances of individuals and groups of Athenians taking extraordinary actions to defend their democratic rights.

2: Crew of Messenger Ship Paralus during the Oligarchic Coup of 411

At the time of the Coup, it was unclear how the Athenian Navy at Samos would respond. Among the Oligarchic leaders there was a faction prepared to ally themselves with Sparta to ensure their power.  To protect themselves from the possibility that the Navy might restore the power of the Assembly, a faction of the Oligarches  arranged to start construction of a fortification within Pireaus (Athen’s port city) that would allow a small number of soldiers to control the city. At the same time representatives of this faction were dispatched aboard the Athenian Messenger ship Paralus on a secret mission to Sparta.

Image of an Greek trireme with its three banks of rowers.


The crews/rowers on Athenian military and messenger ships tended to be very pro democratic. The majority of crew members were Athenian citizens often drawn disproportionally from the less wealthy sections of Athenian citizens.  This segment of the population tended to be pro-democratic, lacking land or wealth, their ability to have control over their own lives in the Polis was highly dependent upon the city’s democratic institutions. For the most part the Athenian Citizen-soldier had to supply their own military equipment. The ancient Greek Hoplite soldier used in land battles required expensive equipment that was only available to the wealthier citizens of Athens. The crew of the Paralus messenger ship were known to be particularly fervent supporters of democracy.

En-route to the Peloponnesus,  the crew either guessed or learned of the mission of their passengers. They seized the representatives, and dropped them in the city of Argos, a sister democracy opposed to Sparta, for safe keeping.  Fearing trouble if they returned to Athens, the Paralus headed to Samos to meet up with rest of the Athenian Navy.

3 Athenian Garrison at Piraeus swart plans of Oligarchic faction.

Since the Sparta backed surprise attack on the Athenian port city of Piraeus from Megara 429 BCE, the Athenians had stationed a small garrison force in Piraeus to defend the city.

Image of Athens and port city of Piraeus. Connected by a pair of walls.


Though the details are not clear in Thucydides’ history, at some point there is some sort of confrontation between the garrison and perhaps members of the “pro-Sparta” faction of the oligarchs. One of the leaders of the pro-Spartan faction is killed. Shortly after that event, the Piraeus Garrison takes it upon itself to deconstruct the fortress within Piraeus started by the pro-Spartan faction. The assumption being that it was to be used by a garrison of Spartan Hoplites to occupy Piraeus once a surrender was negotiated by the secret embassy to Sparta.

4 Athenian Navy at Samos during the Oligarchic Coup of 411

Among the leaders of the Athenian Navy in Samos there were a number who were at a minimum, sympathetic to the coup in Athens. It also possible they were part of the planning of the coup.  However, the city of Samos itself was fiercely democratic and the vast majority of Athenian crews manning the fleet were strongly pro-democratic. After a couple days of uncertainty, the Athenian citizens on the fleet took maters into their own hands and constituted themselves as the Assembly of Athens. They elected new pro-democratic navel leaders and committed themselves to the restoration of full democracy in Athens, as soon as the threat posed by the nearby Spartan fleet was eliminated.

Several months later, a portion of the fleet was sent to Athens to complete the work of the crew of the Paralus and members of the garrison of Piraeus. The group of 400 was disbanded and the direct democracy of the Athenian Assembly was restored.

I particularly like the events at Samos, because like the example of creating a second Judiciary Committee at my children’s school, it illustrates the power of citizens in a direct democracy. The ability for democratic institutions to function is not bound to a professional political class of people, nor is it bound to some sort of sacred place such as the Pnyx in Athens or the halls of the US congress.

A well functioning direct democracy results in a situation where citizens assume it is their responsibility to act in the defense of the democratic rights. Without professional politicians each citizen is capable of almost any role within the political system, and can assume those roles on short notice.

In these times where our American Democracy seems at times to be under threat, I turn to the history of the Peloponessian War for inspiration.





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