The road began with Draco. In the early 7th century BC Athens, and the surrounding area of Attica, was a community governed not by laws but by tradition. If a family member was killed (deliberately or accidentally) it was up to the family to seek retribution. That could take the form of killing a member of the offending family or obtaining a suitable financial penalty from them. (In fact there were established sanctuaries in which families in danger could take refuge while the financial details of a settlement were being negotiated.)
The poor and the weak were at a disadvantage in this system against powerful households. Eventually this caused considerable unrest. So, by some unknown process, an individual named Draco was chosen as a lawgiver, to put crimes and punishment into a body of laws that everyone had to obey. This he did during the 39th Olympiad (between 624-621 BC). For the first time the Greeks had the rule of law to guide them rather than individual discretion or preference. This had the effect of making the state and not the family responsible for enforcing the law and the intention was that the law would apply equally to all men, rich or poor.
For the first time a distinction was made between someone killed deliberately and someone killed accidentally. Previously there had been no distinction made and the penalty was the same. (Even things could be punished. There is a story told about a statue falling on top of someone and killing him. The statue was flogged and cast into the sea as punishment.)
Draco's laws may have been fair but they were severe. Death was the punishment for offences that we might consider minor. Generations later a Greek orator lamented that Draco's laws were written not in ink but in blood. The laws also did not address a major problem at the time- people were being put into prison or forced into slavery because of debt. Soon it became evident that the laws needed to be reviewed and revised.
The man chosen by the people for this task had a reputation for wisdom. Solon was both a politician and poet. Since most of his writing has survived it is possible to get an insight into his philosophy and thinking. His task was challenging- to address social inequities that by this time had Athens hovering on the brink of civil war - and to do so without alienating either the rich or those crushed by debt.
What was urgently needed and what Solon provided was economic reform. He forgave debts secured by either land or personal liberty and he forbade entering into such contracts in the future. He sidestepped the issue of land re-distribution while offering poor farmers the prospect of a brighter future. The laws of Draco were repealed and replaced with a more humane code of conduct that covered civil, criminal and religious matters. This became the foundation of the Athenian legal system for at least the next three centuries. New standards were set in place for weights and measures, coinage and other economic instruments. Wealth, not birth, determined eligibility for political office with those contributing most to the economy having a greater voice in managing it. Then, after securing a promise from the citizens not to tinker with the new system for a decade, Solon left Greece to travel abroad.
Although Solon's legal legacy remained in use for some fifteen generations his political system did not last beyond his lifetime. An economic tug of war broke out among the various factions over the issue he did not address- the redistribution of land. Finally, a wily nobleman named Peisistratus seized power and formed a dictatorship to rule over Athens. In addition to land reform, he also made other economic improvements, carried out an extensive public works building program and was a strong supporter of the arts. Although called a “tyrant”, a better description would be a benevolent dictator, who earned a reputation during his reign as a principled, fair and humane ruler.
His son Hippias did not do as good a job and was forced from office. A Greek aristocrat named Cleisthenes, who deserves recognition as the father of Athenian democracy, fought for the concept of greater citizen involvement in the political life of Athens. He recognized that the traditional tribal organization of the city had become a divisive rather than a unifying force. A new re-organization split up the tribes and balanced representation. From then on, individuals were not only encouraged to participate in what became known as Athenian democracy; they were required to participate.
The next great leader of Athens was Pericles who believed strongly that society functions best when all citizens are free and share in the running of the state. So, in the space of 150 years the center of power had moved from those of aristocratic birth, to those with wealth, to the common people. Although the style of government under Pericles was called a democracy the great Greek historian Thucydides said, “It was in theory, a democracy, but in fact it became the rule of the first Athenian.” (Pericles) The viewpoint of Pericles was expressed best in a funeral oration he gave in 430 BC, of which some excerpts follow.
“Our system of government does not copy the systems of our neighbors: we are a model to them, not them to us. Our constitution is called a democracy, because power rests not in the hands of the few but of the many. Our laws guarantee equal justice for all…as for the election of public officials, we welcome talent to every arena of achievement nor do we make our choices on the grounds of class but on the grounds of excellence alone…we differ from other states in regarding the man who keeps aloof from public life not as “private” but as useless…great indeed are the signs and symbols of our powers…men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today…”
Athenian democracy was quite different from what we would consider to be democratic today. At that time, not everyone was considered a citizen and eligible to vote. Women were not citizens and so could not participate in any fashion. Neither could Greeks from other city-states living in Athens, nor foreigners, nor the large slave population. In a city of perhaps 300,000 less than 40,000 males were citizens and participants in the new democracy. But it was a giant step forward as far as government of, by and for the people was concerned.
One might ask, “Why did democracy develop first in Athens?” Answers vary. Some have suggested that the inhospitable soil (which Plato compared to a bony skeleton) played a part. A Greek myth speaks of Zeus apportioning the land of the World. First he ran all the soil through a sieve and distributed it to the various nations. Left in the sieve were rocks, pebbles and parched earth. This he tossed over his shoulder saying “That's for Greece”. In those conditions people had to fight the soil and it toughened their spirit.
Others credit the sea as the source of independence, still others the isolation of communities and the need to make one's voice heard whatever the eventual outcome. As Pericles noted “Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an essential preliminary to any wise action at all. “
It was likely a unique combination of circumstances and individuals that converged to create a system of government built around the contributions of the common man.