by Dan Morgan*
In these troubling times, it has been reassuring to walk on a hot September afternoon among the ruins of Athens’ ancient agora. It was once the busy heart of what is often described as the world’s first democracy.
Athens and Washington, D.C.
Five thousand miles away, and a few days before my Athens excursion, U.S. President Joe Biden had stood in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, warning that the United States’ democracy was “under assault.”
A violent mob seeking to toss out the valid votes of millions had “held a dagger to the throat of our democracy.” That threat remains, Biden asserted.
Athens’ old agora, at the foot of the Acropolis hill on which sits the Parthenon, provides relief of sorts from these anxieties.
The sources of democracy’s resilience
Looking back, those marble and limestone ruins testify to democracy’s extraordinary resilience, and to the enormous energies released by a self-governing political system based on justice, laws and freedom to criticize the powerful.
In those nine acres where Pericles and Socrates once walked, you can pick up a thread that runs through fallen empires, barbarian invasions, dictatorships, holocausts, wars and the passing of the old gods – and the coming of a new one.
Kratos to Demos from Athens to Philadelphia
At the other end of what originally commenced in Athens is the city of Philadelphia. It was there in 1787 that the United States’ founders drafted a constitution based on the earlier Athens’ model of power (“kratos”) to the people (the “demos”).
The message is unmistakable: Somehow the democratic idea that took root in Athens 2,500 years ago survives.
Agora means “gathering place” in Greek. It was the center of civic life – a mix of politics, markets, festivals with sword swallowers and friends meeting for ouzo at the “stoas,” which were buildings with covered walkways to protect against the wind and sun.
Digging out the agora and ancient Greek democracy
For centuries, that venue disappeared completely from view, like democracy itself. Slavic raiders sacked it and left it deserted. It was buried under meters of earth, vegetation and, finally, houses that made up Athens’ “plaka” district. Astonishingly, not until 1934 did archeologists pinpoint the agora’s exact location.
So far, excavations by the American School of Classical Studies, which began in 1931, have revealed no eye-popping revelations that fundamentally change the story.
The surviving writings of historians such as Thucydides, Herodotus, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder, or philosophers such as Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle, have passed on the story.
Yet, the results of the digging – of what was lost and then hidden – make ancient democracy come alive and give the agora a striking relevance for today.
A visitor sees the actual ruins of the law courts, the boule (the senate where hundreds of citizens, selected by lottery, initiated legislation) and other important public buildings. Displayed in the museum are the coaster-sized discs that citizen jurors used to signify guilt or innocence of the accused.
There are shards of pottery on which citizens wrote the names of politicians they wished to banish for abusing power. Experts are still analyzing tiny cups from which condemned prisoners – possibly even Socrates – may have drunk potions of poisonous hemlock.
“It couldn’t be worse than what we have today”
I came away wondering what the United States’ political system would look like in 2022 if Athens’ direct democracy were applied. I could imagine 5,000 people selected by lottery crammed into RFK Stadium in Washington for a vote on aid to Hurricane Ian victims.
For example, that many legislators would be hard to bribe – and, if chosen by lot, “dark money” in campaign war chests would be irrelevant. I heard more than one archeologist suggest in jest that the results “couldn’t have been worse than what we have today.”
A miracle, considering its environs
For that ancient democracy amidst the tyrannies that surrounded it was a true miracle.
The United States’ founders had the intellectual tailwinds of the Renaissance – itself a revival of Greek ideas – and the Enlightenment to guide them.
In contrast, the Athenians Solon, Cleisthenes and Ephialtes had nothing but their own political instincts to draw on as they crafted their codes and reforms.
The miracle of democracy succumbs
And yet, for all that impressive founding history, Athens first lost its democracy briefly at the end of the fifth century BC.
In 404, it succumbed to a harsh Sparta-imposed dictatorship of aristocrats and oligarchs known as the Thirty Tyrants. The Thirty ousted the democratic assembly and launched a reign of terror.
The death of some 1,500 people was ordered simply “for their reputation as law-abiding and politically moderate citizens,” reports Anthony Everitt in his meticulous history, “The Rise of Athens.”
In what may be an ominous sign to the 21st century “Trumpian” United States, the previously relatively civil politics of Athens deteriorated into chaos. A “posse of blue-blooded young thugs assassinated leading democratic politicians and terrorized the population,” Everitt notes.
Democracy restored – but without its original energy
Thanks to the action of several pro-democratic admirals, the Thirty were ousted and democracy restored after only a year. However, Everitt writes, “the old energy was missing” in the century that followed the coup. And, in 336, Athens was conquered by Philip II of Macedonia, ending its independence.
This is exactly the part of the story that intrigued me – an aging newspaper reporter with only a rudimentary education in the classics, but a fascination with democracy’s struggle in the era of Xi, Putin and Bolsonaro.
Given what has been happening in the United States, I also wonder: Could the rise and fall of Athens’ unique political system be a distant mirror of the country’s future? Does it hold lessons — and warnings — for 21st century democrats? Or are democracies simply too proud to learn from their mistakes?
Scholars, historians and archeologists say many factors contributed to Athens’ political turmoil.
Democracy, yearning for military conquest and failure
The Peloponnesian War – into which hardliners such as the slippery, unreliable but charismatic leader Alcibiades dragged Athens against the advice from several top military commanders – cost thousands of lives and ended in its decisive defeat.
Of course, it didn’t help that a terrible plague swept through Athens at the start of the long conflict, playing havoc, as all plagues do.
During a brief peace, the ecclesia, the all-powerful upper assembly, approved a reckless naval expedition to invade Sicily, with disastrous results.
The Aegean was a tough neighborhood, and the Athenian democracy could be a difficult, even ruthless “friend” that squandered allies and terrorized neutral ones.
If the United States had its My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Athens had its shameful war crime in Melos in 417, a tiny volcanic island in the Cyclades that refused to join Athens’ maritime league. Athens invaded, murdered all the men and deported the women and children into slavery.
Clues to domestic tensions in Athens
As to the domestic tensions which surely contributed to the unraveling of its democracy, we have no public opinion polls or TV clips of street rallies to draw on. But there are many clues.
Although many in the educated, affluent higher classes joined the democracy, others despised it and hoped for its failure.
In those times, in which slavery was commonplace and women had an inferior place in much of the Mediterranean world, it was no surprise that the democratic codes denied citizenship to women, new residents, ex-slaves and the landless poor.
Even so, contempt for the abilities of ordinary citizens to govern themselves ran high among the rich and elite.
Socrates’ contempt for democracy
The great philosopher Socrates himself was no fan of democracy. In his best-selling 1988 book, “The Trial of Socrates,” journalist I.F. Stone quotes the philosopher’s disparaging remarks about “the cobblers, or the builders or the [black]smiths, or the farmers or the merchants… who never gave a thought to public affairs.”
Critias, a leader of The Thirty, had been Socrates’ student and was a distant relative of Plato, an advocate of elitist rule by philosopher-kings.
“Socrates was believed to be misodemos, a hater of democracy, and a good case can be made that his circle was a breeding ground of political reaction,” despite the philosopher’s occasional acts of courage in resisting the Thirty, Everitt writes.
Yet, lovers of democracy can’t blame just a disloyal opposition for Athens’ failures.
Getting too big for their boots
In 454, the ecclesia, the all-powerful upper assembly, sent Athens’ storied fleet to Egypt to deliver one more kick to the hated Persians. Instead, the Athenians were humiliated.
“They got too big for their own boots,” I was told by John Papadopoulos, the professor of archeology and classics at the University of California at Los Angeles who directs the excavations at the agora.
Risky comparisons, nevertheless…
It’s risky, of course, to suggest comparisons with today’s United States, the sizes of the two democracies are so far apart.
The United States is an intercontinental superpower that still has no military or economic peers. Its currency and language are the lifeblood of the global economy. If it loses its democracy, it won’t happen at the hands of an outside conqueror.
Athens, by contrast, was a tiny city state allied at times with 150 or so sparsely settled and often fractious islands and colonies scattered around the eastern Mediterranean.
The survival of its democracy was constantly threatened by jealous neighbors such as Sparta and Thebes, great empires such as Persia as well as rising new hegemons such as Macedonia.
But both ancient Athens and the United States earned their exalted places in history by defeating great empires: The American colonists ousted the British, Athens scored a stunning final victory over Persia in 480.
At what point does confidence tip over into hubris?
Out of those upsets came the confidence to accomplish big things – but also the hubris and arrogance to risk foolish adventures.
Perhaps tellingly, Athens was at the peak of its “golden age” when its fleet was humbled in Egypt. Pericles, a general from an aristocratic background who became a towering democratic leader, was building temples and public buildings with money from silver mines — not to mention funds diverted from taxes which Athens’ allies had paid for mutual defense.
The Parthenon, a temple to the goddess Athena, scored points with the religious community and was a giant public works project that put thousands to work. To foes and friends alike, it glorified Athens’ mastery of geometry, mathematics, architecture, sculpture and engineering.
Meanwhile, Pericles’ philosopher friends, such as Anaxagoras and Protagoras, were advancing radical new ideas that substituted science and reason for pagan gods and oracles, in a movement that would influence the ages.
Can democracies sustain eras of peak influence?
Fast forward to the Vietnam War, when the United States was at peak influence, too.
At the time, the country seemed unstoppable. It was wowing the world with moon shots, mass production of the integrated circuit, poverty programs, a sweeping civil rights act and new protections for consumers and workers.
Tiny Vietnam sends the U.S. packing
Yet, it turned out that a tiny, far-off communist country sent the mighty United States packing. The casualty toll was 55,220 dead Americans.
For both Athens and Washington, those setbacks marked the beginning of “endless wars” that accomplished little and left permanent scars.
Within only a little more than a generation after their brightest moments, Athens lost a war and its democracy. As for the United States, it further discovered the limits of its power in 9-11, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Is democracy to blame?
Was democracy, with its public divisions, vulgarity, gridlock and sporadic violence, to blame?
As my wife and I sat in a shady spot in the agora near where Socrates is reputed in 398 to have drunk the hemlock after his conviction by a democratic court for blasphemy and corruption of the youth, I asked our guide. “Even the people can be arrogant,” she suggested.
We can’t know what might have happened to its democracy if Greece had not been absorbed by the Macedonian and Roman Empires. The democratic government, before it ended, was initiating small steps to expand its base, such as bringing in poorer landowners and paying them for time spent legislating.
The fragility of democracies
We know from our own times that democracies are fragile, and easy prey to lies, conspiracy theories and economic hard times.
Hitler practiced violence. But he used Germany’s depression-era ills and lies about Jews to win votes and take power initially using constitutionally established institutions.
In modern Greece itself, a right-wing military junta seized power for seven years in 1967 and imprisoned many adversaries, claiming it was saving the country from an unproven “communist conspiracy.”
The longevity of U.S. democracy, so far
But there is an example of a democracy that has achieved remarkable longevity. That country is the United States, whose constitution has lasted 234 years.
Scholars will argue about the reasons, but its steady, though slow expansion of the rights, privileges and protections of citizenship to a widening base of constituents has surely been a factor in its durability over the decades.
It was that hope of progress and evolution that kept immigrants coming and “the people” patient enough with the slow but steady pace of change.
The American founders, in the Declaration of Independence, pronounced all men as equal and all possessing a God-given right to life, liberty and a shot at happiness.
Just how democratic were the Founders?
But the wealthy, superbly educated and aristocratic men who founded the U.S. Republic wrote a constitution that covered white men only (and mainly property owners). It left important rights, such as voting, to the tender mercies of the states.
Scholars argue about the founders’ personal feelings toward democracy. Did they really wish for participation by the masses? Did they yearn for women, ex-slaves and dirt-poor people with limited educations to decide issues of war and peace, public investments and the impeachment of presidents?
Whatever they believed, the country’s narrative has been one of steady, if slow expansion of voting rights, marriage rights, gender and racial equality. Equality wasn’t a goal of the Athens’ codes, but it is in United States’ declaration.
And there have been gains for minorities, including blacks, women, the handicapped, the elderly, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. Workers can form unions and get compensated for injuries on the job.
And yet, for all the country’s proud – but by no means linear – history, it is unclear how this “American spring” will end. It is possible that many of the Republican Party candidates who refuse to renounce a lie will be victorious.
The “Trumpification” of the – erstwhile establishment – Republican Party is not a good sign. But neither is the violence of the militant leftist group Antifa or the total dismissal of any right- wing thinking by campus radicals a good sign.
Fortunately for the Democrats, while those sentiments are similarly intense, they are far from winning over a majority in their party.
Anti-democratic moves the world over
In Egypt, Belarus, Turkey and elsewhere, political springs have been quelled with bullets and Billy clubs. In the United States, a right-leaning Supreme Court that has scuttled reproductive rights for women seems ready to take on the police man’s role.
Benjamin Franklin knew how fragile democracy was. Famously, he told an inquirer that the United States was a republic — but only “if you can keep it.”
But even the worldly Franklin would be unnerved by the challenges democracy faces in the United States and abroad. Many polls have found dwindling support for freedom of speech on left and right.
Anti-politics populism, unfounded conspiracy theories, far-fetched faiths, MAGA, antisemitism, racism, cancel culture on university campuses, right-wing militias as well as Internet chat groups advocating death for politicians and even Civil War have gone mainstream.
Conclusion: Time to heed the Greeks?
Looking back upon my visit to Athens, the solid stones of the agora provide something firm to stand on. After all, Greek-style pillars hold up many of our public buildings.
Jefferson read ancient Greek. Franklin mulled over it as a national language for a new democracy. And Pericles provided words that presidents such as Lincoln absorbed.
“It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many but not of the few,” Pericles said in a famous funeral oration for fallen Athenian soldiers in the Peloponnesian war.
Then he added a phrase more relevant to today: “A spirit of reverence pervades our public acts. We are prevented from doing wrong by our respect for authority and for the laws.”
*independent journalist & author, he covered national and international affairs for The Washington Post for more than 40 years
**first published in: Theglobalist.com