Athenian judicial ballots (4th century BC)
Demos: How the People Ruled Athens
(under contract, Princeton University Press; expected fall 2023)
“Two things, then, constitute a Democracy. One, an uninterrupted schedule of meetings, makes a Demos or People (populus). The other, majority voting, constitutes to kratos or power (potestas).”
Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen VII.5 (1642)
Everyone knows what “democracy” means: rule by the people. But who are the people and how do they rule? Today, “the people” is normally interpreted as “everyone,” signifying either the entire electorate or, more broadly, the entire population. And “rule” is interpreted primarily as making decisions about law and policy. “Rule by the people” thus implies self-rule, principally via legislation, either directly through referenda or indirectly through representatives elected for that purpose.
This book shows, against prevailing understandings, that the meaning and practice of democracy (demokratia) in ancient Greece was radically different. Demos, “people,” indicated not everyone but specifically the collective common people, that is, those who were politically powerful when they came together physically, as in an assembly. Kratos, “power” or “rule,” implied domination, particularly physical. It signified the power to prevail through greater strength or capacity, such as by outnumbering the opposition.
Demokratia was thus a political system in which the collective common people prevailed—by sheer force of numbers—over the rest of the community, including most significantly over its own political leaders. That balance of power was visible in assembly meetings, where policy decisions were made by the majority vote of the mass audience rather than by the relatively few orators who argued publicly for one proposal or another. But the supremacy of the collective common people over those who were, as individuals, politically influential was secured by the popular courts. In all ancient Greek democracies, justice was administered by large panels of ordinary citizens, and that enabled the demos to hold politicians, generals and other office-holders to account. Demotic (popular) judicial power reached an apogee in classical Athens, and it was that, above all, that accounted for Athens’ pre-eminence as a democracy. It also prompted, in the writings of Plato, the most significant reaction against democracy yet seen—a reaction that continues, in profound though often implicit ways, to distort thinking about democracy today.
"The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer" by B. Barloccini (1849)
A Short History of Democracy
(under contract, Princeton University Press)
“It is thought that elections are oligarchic.”
Aristotle, Politics 1294b
Demokratia, democratia, democracy. What did this term mean to the ancient Greeks who coined it, to the Romans who borrowed it, to the early modern Europeans and Americans who discussed it—and what does it mean to men and women around the world today? Starting with the first attestations of da-mo (later demos) in the 12th century BC and ending with Iceland’s recent attempt to crowdsource its constitution, this book contrasts the ancient Greek idea and practice of rule by the collective common people (demos) over the elite with the modern idea of democracy as rule by all over all and its practice as rule by elected elites. It offers a concise and challenging exploration the history of democracy, aiming to broaden our imaginative horizons with respect to what democracy has been, is, and could become.
Polling at Covent Garden, 1807
The hustings outside St Paul's Covent Garden at an election, from The Microcosm of London (1808). © London Lives.