by DR PETER JONES, CLASSICIST
With great pleasure, we welcomed Dr Peter Jones back to the April Meeting of the Civic Society.
Dr Jones challenged our perception of democracy, suggesting that the Athens of the 5th and 4th century BCE was the first and last true democracy – that is a state truly run by the people. However, he clarified that the ‘people’ were males over 18 who had been born in Athens and had both parents born in Athens. These were the citizens, regardless of status, wealth or class, who were able to participate equally in the procedures of state.
Fundamental to the system were three main bodies: the Assemblies – open meetings held throughout the year every eight days to which all citizens were free to attend; The Council of 500 which was composed of citizens chosen by random selection from those that put their names forward. However, Citizens taking responsible roles were not without accountability and were scrutinised by their fellow citizens. Punishments, a fine, exile or execution, were given when performance failed to meet required standards and thirdly Groups of Citizens over the age of 30 were also chosen by lot to act as jurors in daily Court proceedings. The only exception to this ‘equality by lot’ system were 10 Generals who dealt with such issues as finance and religion.
Dr Jones went on to describe the importance of the trireme as a factor in the success of the Athenians’ domination of the sea at this time and the important contribution the three-tiered system of oarsmen working harmoniously together in cramped conditions. These oarsmen were not slaves but paid citizens, and their skill was highly valued and was a factor in Athenian maritime power. The contribution of these citizens could be seen as an extension of their democratic beliefs.
Dr Jones contrasted the Athenian direct democratic system with modern day representative democracies where citizens vote for politicians to make decisions for us. One could debate how much the ‘demos’ ruled rather than just the section of Society composed of of adult males but we are indebted to the Athenians for being the birthplace of Democratic ideals. Dr Jones is an advocate of making the Classics attainable to all and his love of the subject and fascinating and humorous talk gave us an insight that has left us questioning our own use of the term ‘democracy’ but eager for his next visit to learn more.
Sandra Y Gann 4/23