Democracy's Beginning: The Athenian Story by Thomas N. Mitchell

Book Review by Alex Johnston

Well it’s another presidential election year in the good ole US of A! Fun and games; reality TV at its finest! Will the voters choose the Trump card? Will America’s favorite socialist get high Marx on Election Day? Will the Republicans host a broken convention? Uh, sorry – brokered.

Or will it simply be politics as unusual?

Seems like a particularly appropriate time to revisit Democracy’s Beginning, which is the title of Thomas Mitchell’s excellent book. The book tells how far democracy has come in the last 2,500 years, give or take, from its birthplace in Athens. And it has come a long way indeed! To the modern mind, it’s hard to imagine such primitive practices as:

Trial by jury - jurors were chosen by lot, out of a panel of six thousand. Rich or poor, didn’t matter. “Ah,” you say, “maybe not, but only the rich could afford to take the time to serve.” Except, no, jurors were paid for their service. One tenth of the jurors were from each tribe. Actual jurors were chosen on the day of the trial, to prevent bribery.

Government – of course, as is always the case, the Assembly was ruled by a brutal elite. Senior military officials and wealthy orators were the ones who called the shots. Okay, well maybe that was kind of because they were good at their jobs, and freely chosen by the broad body of the group, which contained a wide representation of the people, including the poor. And why not? Like the jurors, the poor Assembly members were paid for their service. And they were more than happy to let the rich and powerful do the jobs that they were good at. Talk about tyranny!

Taxes – Okay, now for some real barbarism and class warfare! Taxes went to the military, and the poor didn’t see any of them! Except that the poor were the military, which in Athens primarily meant the navy. It was manned by the thetes, the poorest citizens. Their importance to Athens’ defense gave them work, influence, and political power. Taxes on the rich were light, but they encountered social pressure to contribute to festivals and other aspects of cultural life in Athens. They did this willingly, for the most part, and gained great prestige by so doing. Complaints about the divergence between rich and poor were largely absent.

O, how I pity those poor Athenians, condemned to the brutal drudgery of jury service and high office, and so servile that they didn’t even seem to begrudge the rich their property! Yep, democracy sure has come a long way! It’s hard to imagine living in such unenlightened times! I grabbed all of the above from different sections of Mr. Mitchell’s book. Of course, as he ably chronicles, democracy in Athens was hard won, and the utopia hinted at above was not without problems and not a static condition. Interspersed with periods of startling political equality were times of tyranny, poverty and disease, brutal warfare, chaos, and youthful rebellion.

The book is so well researched and documented that it has the feel of a journal of modern politics, as if the facts and occurrences were happening today, not millennia back. The author paints a picture of a glorious experiment in human organization. Ushered in by Cleisthenes’ constitution in the late sixth century BCE, the Athenian democracy was put to death only a couple of centuries later by the Macedonians. But during that time it reached heights of cooperation and effectiveness that we moderns can only regard with wondrous awe! Unless, ahem, you were a slave or a woman. But then, nobody’s perfect, right?

Solon, Socrates, Pericles, Cleophon, Aristotle – they’re all here, and many more. Mr. Mitchell does more than present rote biographies, however. What I found fascinating was the interplay between all of the different characters, classes, and roles. Should the ignorant unwashed have a say in running things, or will that lead to tyranny by the masses? Plato thought the latter. (Our noble “SPA” philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were kind of uppity. And students trying to remember which was whose pupil can thank me for the acronym). But his inclinations were not without some justification – mob rule can get ugly.

Turned out, though, that he was wrong. The Athenians developed the brilliant concept of rule by law to head that particular apocalypse off at the pass. Let the people rule, regardless of wealth or learning, so long as they don’t break the law while so doing. Sometimes the people let emotion get in the way of due process – like when the eight generals who won a victory at Arginusae were unlawfully condemned to death by the Assembly for failing to rescue shipwrecked sailors. But for the most part they pulled it off.

I found particularly interesting the book’s description of the Thirty Tyrants, especially of their demise. This group of oligarchs came to power after Athens’ defeat by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War in the late fifth century BCE. During their reign, they killed or exiled hundreds of their opponents, and their rule was marked by cruelty. But they only lasted for a year or so – and their overthrow was largely inspired by the people’s love of democracy. That engagement in and appreciation for the democratic process sometimes seems to have fallen on hard times these days, and I experienced a kind of nostalgia-like feeling while reading that chapter.

It is the human element of this book that really rounds out the very detailed history contained in its pages. I was able to develop a real appreciation for the motives and feelings of all parties, from the lowly to the powerful. A lot happened during those seminal two centuries that is still exerting a powerful influence on our world.

Democracy's Beginning: The Athenian Story is a splendid, entertaining, and thorough portrayal of the “big bang” of one of mankind’s most enduring and still-evolving political systems. I highly recommend it!

Alex Johnston is the author of several fiction books about Marcus Mettius, a minor character in Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War. Marcus brings a salesman's amused and worldly perspective to the major characters, locales, and events of the late Roman Republic period.

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