Over the past month, the world has watched the United States in the throes of a struggle over a democratic system that they thought was invincible. Then more recently, in Myanmar we saw the borrowed false accusations of a corrupted election succeed in overthrowing a democracy, at least temporarily.
It’s felt for many of us as if the foundations of democratic processes are on trial, and democracy’s source in the ancient world has been looked to for answers. But the widely accepted story that democracy was a brilliant, even miraculous, invention of 5th-century BCE Athens, and that the West is the heir to that moment in time, has obscured the universal hard work that’s required to make democracy work well.
My research, among others’, suggests that the struggle to create social and political systems that serve the wider populace existed long before, and in regions far distant, from classical Athens.
From armed mobs descending on the US Capitol, to the cleansing installation of a new American president, the world peered with a mixture of horror and bemusement as the self-professed greatest democracy in the world played out its internal battles. Democrats’ Twitter was awash with teary American exceptionalism citing the victory and drawbacks of the “world’s greatest deliberative body”.
People around the world wanted to rejoice, but felt themselves balking at the only-in-America stance of the rhetoric.
At the same time, another more bizarre thread ran through all of this: The mobs descending on the Capitol wore the insignia of a variety of Greek and Roman fictionalised histories, and on the other side a Democratic senator condemned the chaos by citing Roman history, only minutes after regaining the Senate floor from the mob attack.
This equivalence between American democracy and the ancient world has a very long and problematic history – the so-called founders evoked the Roman republic in defence of both their representative democracy and their adherence to slavery. By and large, the academic world has been willing to concede the parallels – if Athens and Rome were the progenitors of democracy, the US was their most prominent heir.
The discipline of classics – the study of ancient Greece and Rome – has been undergoing some serious soul-searching in the past few years, just as classical history was increasingly picked up and distorted by the alt-right. The events of the past few months have brought this scholarly argument into the public forum, with the increasingly heated debate coming to a head in the past week.
Scholars have pointed out the huge fault lines in Athenian democracy (most of the population of Athens could not participate), and the largely manipulated history of the early Roman republic.
Many (but not all) classicists have balked at the myth of a legacy of an exclusive Western civilisation, but the origins of democracy have remained fairly stubbornly rooted in classical soil. That ultimate arbiter of history and culture, Wikipedia, tells us that “the concepts of democracy … originated in ancient Athens circa 508 BC”. There’s been surprisingly little push-back in classics to challenge that idea.
American exceptionalism has been uncannily mirrored by ancient Athenian exceptionalism.
A large part of this is definitional – the Greek historian Herodotus first calls the political system of the 5th century BCE a “democracy”, and anything that doesn’t fit that exact pattern is dismissed. (In fact, Herodotus puts the earliest use of the term “democracy” not in the mouths of Athenians, but in a speech debating the merits of different political systems by that notorious Persian, Darius I – but that’s another story).
Pedants will tell you that the US is a republic (after Rome) and not a democracy (following Athens), but that’s a rhetorical ploy. When we say democracy, we mean a political system where decisions are made by the majority of its populace, or their elected representatives, in some kind of formalised way.
And that the practice of democracy plays out in a variety of ways across the world. Don’t tell the protestors in the Republic of Myanmar that their stolen parliamentary system was not a democracy because it doesn’t fit the Athenian model; they know better.
It is, only because it was written
In large part, the legacy of Athens and Rome is the result of documentation. They’re the models because they recorded what they did (or at least others wrote about them later). But if we look harder at the traces of world history, other examples emerge that indicate that the practice of democracy has wider roots and more diverse branches.
If the debate around the validity of the classical tradition goes anywhere, it will be to acknowledge that democracy wasn’t the brilliant invention of an elite group of men in Iron-Age Greece.
My research on the Medes of the Zagros Mountains in Iran suggests that a few hundred years before Athens, Median communities responded to the encroaching Assyrian Empire by formalising their consensus decision-making; we don’t have written confirmation for this transition, because the Medes probably purposefully avoided the record-keeping that would have made it easier for the Assyrians to extort taxes and tribute from them.
But archaeological excavations revealed a new Median form of columned meeting house that seems designed specifically for communal gatherings not unlike the famous Athenian hillslope meeting ground. My research team is now undertaking further analyses of the pottery and animal bones from these sites to find out just how far people were willing to travel to participate in these deliberations.
Early states in Africa also seem to have shared many components with the democratic tribal system of 5th-century BCE Athens, although, again, oral histories silenced by colonialism make it difficult to confirm details.
Larissa Behrendt has argued that Indigenous Australian communities used a variety of institutionalised democratic principles in their governance before colonialism imposed its own structure on them.
Jettisoning the exceptionalism of Athenian democracy isn’t about rejecting that heritage. Athenian democracy, deeply flawed as it was, nonetheless provided a model for the benefits of a political system where decision-making was widely (but not widely enough) distributed. The fact that Athenians and later Romans wrote so convincingly of their reservations about this system may have been the best thing about it.
But if the debate regarding the validity of the classical tradition goes anywhere, it will be to acknowledge that democracy wasn’t the brilliant invention of an elite group of men in Iron-Age Greece.
Democracy is an answer to an ancient question: How can communities serve all their members? Answering this question is an essential part of the functioning of human societies, and democracy is one solution that has both flourished and been quashed across history and around the world.
Greece and Rome are notable, but not exclusive, examples of the merits and failures of these systems. The false origin story of a democracy born in Athens with the West as its heir creates a barrier between democratic ideals and the establishment of enduring systems of governance around the world.
It’s time to look more carefully for the democratic impulse in all our communities.
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