Lessons (?) on democracy from ancient Athens

I happened to read recently this review of a book on democracy in ancient Athens and the class of civil servants that used to run it. As I read it, I felt an urge to draw some sort of lesson… without being able to find them.

Anyway, here are the two parts of that article that drew my attention.


Cleisthenes is the ancient Athenian leader who “extended the vote to the landless masses”, which is basically the main reason why Athenian democracy is celebrated to this day. Why did he do so? The details are unknown, but what we know is enough to claim that he did so “as a last desperate resort, by an unsuccessful politician in search of votes.” Basically, he changed the rules for personal benefits and for clinging to power. Besides, “Cleisthenes himself was suspected – in all likelihood with justice – of gerrymandering the allocation of coastal, urban and rural deme divisions in such a way as to give special benefit to [his family]".

This seems very much in line with how contemporary politics work: momentous changes, both good and bad, stemming from less-than-glorious moments where petty interest and short-term considerations prevail. But this also made me think about “the anachronistic habit […] of crediting civic leaders of the [past] with sophisticated abstract thinking, and motivation, of which they were almost certainly innocent, and seriously underestimating the degree to which they were driven by hard political realities.” This rings true also for more recent historical events.

Here’s another segment of that article that made me think.


At the time, civil servants in democratic Athens were slaves. They were powerful, but were actually slaves, who were “mostly bought in the slave market – not the most obvious source for literate experts”.

“It looks as though the cunning deal offered to such slaves was a strikingly privileged existence, but one without any possibility of emancipation or familial betterment. The first generation would have to learn on the job; replacements would be apprenticed to the old, unrelated experts early enough to acquire their knowledge before taking over.”

The key component of the formula was that they were in a position of privilege that could not be left to their progeny in any possible way: the next generation of bureaucrats would be again bought on the slave market. “The life obtained was, by servile standards, one of quite extraordinary privilege: those granted it could own property (though technically property themselves), and in certain respects had control over citizens, not least as police or executioners. But any hint of corruption would expose them to a whipping and the loss of their position: they had little to gain by dishonesty and, literally, everything to lose. Their reputation for uprightness is hardly surprising.”

Largely as a consequence (“slaves, unlike citizens, could be flogged”), it seems that for about two centuries of Athenian democracy corruption was all but non-existent in the state bureaucracy.

So… it is tempting to find some sort of lesson for the present from these readings. However, as anticipated, I have found none.

Giorgio Comai
Researcher, data analyst