In March, 2003, a US-led military coalition toppled Iraq’s government. Within a few weeks the United States found itself running Iraq, a country of some 31 million people. Then president George W. Bush put the war in context of the “2500 year-old story of democracy.” Bush represented the US occupation of Iraq as a continuing effort to bring democracy to the rest of the world: “Are the peoples of the Middle East,” he asked, “somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?”[1] Skeptics scoffed at the presumption of introducing democracy to the Middle East, arguing that in western nations it had taken thousands of years for it to evolve. How could it possibly be imposed from above, by foreign forces? Others argued that democracy was actually completely alien to Iraq, and the Middle East in general, both in recent memory, and way back into ancient history.

In 2005, Iraq held its first elections for a national assembly, beginning the long process of building democratic institutions. History will ultimately judge Iraq’s future, but is participatory government, which is at the heart of democracy, alien to the non-western world?

Government in the ancient world often appeared to be a minority affair, involving precious few people after you count the elites. The history of government often looks like a progression from the despotism of ancient rulers, to modern democracies, in which people have a say in the running of their own lives.

But not only does this optimistic picture of progress ignore modern dictatorships, but what is much less-often discussed is that there were also numerous ancient societies organized around the notion of participatory government. But this contradicts the accepted story of democracy. This credits the ancient Greeks, in particular the Athenians, with coming up with the idea of democracy, in about 508 BCE, while saying little about what preceded it. The “light” of democracy, as the story has it, moved from Greece to Rome, and then, after several centuries of ‘Dark Ages’ it popped up again in Renaissance Europe, and the rest is… well… history.

Seeing the beginning of democracy’s story here is like missing the opening scene of a movie—without that context you never quite understand the film. Democracy, like many other human innovations, has a history, and many scholars now believe that Athens was not the beginning of this lineage. As sociologist John Keane puts it: “…one of the first matters to be straightened out in any present-minded history of democracy is what might be described as the Greek plagiarism of democracy.” [2] British anthropologist Jack Goody, attacking Eurocentric visions of history in general, questions the narrative of democracy, referring to Europe’s claims to many of humanity’s greatest innovations as the “Theft of History.” [3]

Whenever it began, the struggle for self-determination itself has been a defining theme of human history, as various peoples have experienced the swing of the political pendulum from tyranny to democracy…and back again to tyranny, via all types of intermediary positions. In what is perhaps one of the most unequivocal demonstrations of the fallacy of “progress” in history, the story of democracy shows us how freedom comes and freedom goes, the Athenian male citizens of the fifth century arguably enjoying far more of it than, for instance the citizens of Romania in 1985. Or The Soviet Union in 1935. Or Syria in 2013.

What is Democracy?

The word democracy comes from ancient Greek—Demokratia, demos meaning “people,” and kratia, meaning “power.”[4] Another reason why the West has for so long developed the story of ancient Greek origins of democracy is that the Greeks wrote about it, in texts that have survived, more than any other people. Giving their particular form of government a name, therefore, certainly helped to cement the idea that this was their invention. But “democracy does not consist of a single unique set of institutions,” say political scientists Phillipe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl. “There are many types of democracy and their diverse practices produce a similarly varied set of effects.”[5] According to Karl and Schmitter, systems of governance are “ensembles” of different patterns determining the methods of access to the offices of government. In other words, what kind of regime you have depends upon how the leaders gain leadership positions, how they make decisions, and what role different members of the community play in those decisions. Democratic states typically allow all their citizens (usually of a certain age) to play a role—participate—in government through voting for representatives. The people don’t usually “sweat the small stuff,” because there is too much small stuff, and not enough time. This is known as “representative democracy,” and is different from “direct democracy,” in which votes are taken by all citizens on all key decisions.
The basic procedures of democracy—voting, elections, etc., are the concrete representations of the key principles at stake in a democracy, the biggest one perhaps being the idea of “consent of the people.” But this can be expressed in multiple different systems, and it is this diversity of democratic forms that has made democracy so slippery to define. Behind the institutions is a basic idea at the heart of democracy, played out in assemblies of arguing citizens, and summed up in the word itself—“People power.” Economist Amartya Sen says that public debate is at the heart of democracy and is more important than the specifics of the ballot box. ‘The broader view of democracy,” Says Sen, “in terms of public reasoning also allows us to understand that the roots of democracy go much beyond the narrowly confined chronicles of some designated practices that are now seen as specifically “democratic institutions.” [6] Rigged elections and flawed electoral processes occur with such frequency and in so many different places that most people hardly take notice.

What part did participatory government play in early civilizations?

Alexis De Tocqueville (1805-59) called democracy in the eighteenth century part of “the most continuous, ancient, and permanent tendency known to history.”[7] Before we look at what, exactly, happened in Athens in the fifth century BCE, lets tell the story the old fashioned way—from the beginning. Political scientist John Keane has traced what he believes to be the “seeds” of democracy’s basic institution, “self-government through an assembly of equals” through “many different soils and climes, ranging from the Indian sub-continent and the prosperous Phoenician empire to the western shores of provincial Europe.”[8] Did these civilizations know any meaningful participation in politics, and therefore present us with a more nuanced vision of ancient government?

How was tyranny kept at bay in Mesopotamia?

The “assembly,” was in fact the central democratic innovation in Athenian democracy of the fifth century BCE. But as it turns out, this was not so innovative. Historians have given us little reason to believe that there was any meaningful participation in politics on the part of your average Joe (and certainly not by Josephine) in the ancient world. In fact, the earliest literature from Mesopotamia concerns almost exclusively kings and gods, sometimes fighting, sometimes cooperating, but generally not ruling at the pleasure of their people. Scholars have conventionally depicted Sumerian life as overwhelmingly dominated by royalty. “This convention,” says Keane, “needs a kick in the pants. Kings, in fact, were neither almighty nor omnipresent—despite whatever those with Western prejudices have said.”[9]

The tribes of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE, both tent-dwelling, sedentary people, and nomadic animal herders, actually possessed an extensive vocabulary of shared politics. Much of this would probably have been an ancestral inheritance from hunter-gatherer culture, which is known for being less hierarchical and more egalitarian than settled civilization. There is evidence of assemblies among the ruins of some of the earliest cities in that region (the first on earth), among them Ur, Uruk, Nippur and Babylon, whose populations left us with many of their thoughts and beliefs, inscribed in Cuneiform on clay tablets.  These cities, built around rich agricultural land, heavily irrigated and inhabited by dense clusters of farmers, artisan, traders, priests and soldiers, also developed innovative political practices.

Most students of Mesopotamia should be paying attention by now. Were Mesopotamians really freer and more politically engaged than we thought? And in what ways were their mighty kings not so mighty? The kings, Keane argues, were actually “hemmed in” by the omnipresent Sumerian institution of the Temple. The temple housed the city god, the entity who held all ultimate power in the city, and was believed to maintain the king as one of his or her subjects.

Hammurabi, for example, the legendary law-making king of Babylon (d. 1750 BCE), who conquered large parts of southern Mesopotamia, was seen as extending the realm of Marduk, the city god of Babylon. The Mesopotamians, in this context, saw Hammurabi as merely the human steward of the god. In the city of Lagash, to take another example, the temple was dedicated to the god Ningirsu. The temple’s assets were considerable, and included acres of land and an army of servants to manage them, including goatherds, brewers and armorers among others. As Keane puts it: “Such arrangements connected with the sacred served to keep kings in check, making them more humble than they might otherwise have been.”[10] This presents a fascinating alternative to the idea that deities in the ancient world served to legitimate the leaders, since the leaders often claimed a unique relationship with them, often being semi-divine themselves—the “Kings Lists” which represent some of the earliest literature from the area show that many of them lived for centuries! Clearly many kings overrode this hierarchy of god-over-king, or found ways around it, but having a belief system in which gods were more powerful than kings could have benefitted the people as much as, or instead of, their king. The social organization of the deities provided a blueprint for human society in at least one important way. Religious myths, originating in the fourteenth century BCE, posited that the chaotic world was only ordered by the deities, working in assemblies.

When mere mortals, therefore, gathered together in assemblies to discuss the business of the community—whether or not to wage war, how to distribute goods, to enact laws, etc.— they were engaging in a sacred activity, mimicking the gods themselves, and keeping the world from chaos.

The words Ukkin in Sumerian and Purhum in Akkadian refer both to informal gatherings of people and to a governing body. Is it possible that in these humble terms lie the origins of later democracies? Historian Daniel E. Fleming has studied thousands of letters from the palace of Mari, in what today is Syria. Mari’s king, Zimri-Lim (c. 1785-1760 BC), was essentially a tribal leader, and we can see the influence of tribal politics on town life through these letters. Key among these influences is the use of assemblies. What is interesting about Mari is that it represents a link between ancestral, tribal/nomadic culture and the “new” Syrian-Mesopotamian sedentary life of cities. “It is in the political life of towns,” says Fleming, “that we confront a world before democracy in the Greek sense, certainly not democratic in the Greek sense, but displaying the foundations of collective decision making against which Greek democracy may be profitably examined.”[11] Is it possible then that Mesopotamian towns inherited a tendency towards collective decision making from their nomadic ancestors—who, in a world before cities, states, and their attendant inequalities, understood collective action better—and this morphed with city life into more organized assemblies? Such groups kept despots in check, as Fleming puts it: “In much of the Near East, individual rule existed only in dynamic tension with a range of other individual and collective leaderships.”[12]

If the ancients imagined their deities participating in assemblies, does this not suggest that they were familiar with the idea of assemblies, following Aristotle’s observation that humans “imagine not only the forms of their gods but their ways of life to be like their own”?[13]

From Nippur, 60 miles south of Baghdad, we have evidence of a trial for homicide from the early second century BCE. A tablet reads: “Their case was taken to…. King Ur-Ninurta [who] ordered that their case should be decided by the assembly of Nippur.” [14]

The assembly, which, by the way, was made up of “ordinary people” such as gardeners, bird catchers and potters, found the defendants guilty:

“Nanna-sig, son of Lu-sin, Ku-enlila, son of Ku-Nanna, the barber, Enlil-ennam, slave of Adda-kalla, the gardener, and Nin-dada, daughter of Lu-Ninurta, wife of Lu-Inanna, were given up to be killed. Verdict of the assembly of Nippur.” [15]

But these assemblies were more than courts; they did in fact have the ability to interfere with kingly authority. A letter from an assembly of Babylon addressed jointly to King of Babylonia, Shamash-shuma-ukin, and his brother the Assyrian king Assurbanipal, reminds them of the earlier Babylonian kings’ guarantee to protect the inhabitants of Babylon. Another text, The Advice to a Prince, from the world’s oldest library at Nineveh, around the end of second millennium BCE, went even further, in warning sovereigns that if a prince “takes silver of the citizens of Babylon and adds it to his own coffers [or] if he hears a lawsuit involving men of Babylon and treats it frivolously, Marduk, lord of Heaven and earth, will set his foes upon him [and] will give his property and wealth to his enemy.”[16] This text goes on to remind princes that the assemblies of Nippur, Babylon and Sippar had been granted immunity from despots, by the gods themselves, and that “Anu, Enlil, and Ea the great gods who dwell in heaven and earth, in their assembly, affirmed the freedom of those people from such obligations.” [17]

By now we are getting a clearer picture of the culture of assemblies, and the mighty kings appear somewhat diminished. But how much power did these assemblies have? And were they not just stacked with the “king’s men?” It is difficult to know this in much detail. Political scientist Benjamin Isakhan sees a little more than “primitive democracy,” in the assembly culture of Mesopotamia and the wider Middle East. In law, for example, which was a core element of later Athenian democracy, “it is instructive to turn to the extensive legal codes developed across the region in order to ensure that justice was served in cases as diverse as crime, slavery, agriculture, debts and loans, marriage, property rights, sexual offenses, theft, and, of course, the important matter of goring oxen.”[18]

Even the notion of voting which is a hallmark of Athenian—and modern—democracies, finds some precedent much earlier: Very early city states convened assemblies in order to elect kings in times of military emergencies. Often these positions were to be terminated upon the cessation of the emergency. Around 2500 BCE the king of Elba was elected by popular vote “for a seven-year-term and shared power with a council of elders.”

In matters of rights and freedoms, another cornerstone of Athenian democracy, we find similar examples from Mesopotamian cities such as Lagash, around 2500-2300 BCE, where struggles between the King and the Temple resulted in the king establishing liberty as one of the main tenets of society (possibly offering us the first historical example of the word “freedom”), making the king (Urukagina) the first social reformer in history.

Many questions remain, but what we have is a view of ancient Mesopotamia that conflicts with how many scholars have traditionally viewed power in that region. “Few ancient voices deny outright the unquestioned authority of the king,” says Fleming, “but his actual power seems to be a matter of constant negotiation as he engages a panoply of traditional leaderships, each with its own constituencies and assumed prerogatives.”[19] This is not majority rule by any means, but neither is it dictatorship, as such constant negotiation means both a check on the ruler’s power, and effective participation—by some part of the population.

What do we know about ancient African political culture?

Some scholars, such as Martin Bernal, have attempted to link Greek democracy to traditions originating in North Africa, including those of the Phoenicians and even some of the tribal/nomadic traditions from further south. While his thesis in Black Athena, (1987) has not been wholly accepted, there is a strong case to be made for the existence of many of the principles and procedures of participatory government among ancient Africans. Several points should be made at the outset of this discussion, however. As with much of early African history, we have little or no documentary evidence for acquiring and understanding of political practices. This leaves us with archaeology, which is also limited in some areas and time periods, and ethnology. We cannot, therefore, assign specific dates to the developments we discuss here. However, we can with some confidence point to traditions and customs that most anthropologists (and many historians) see as long-lasting, and likely to have origins in the very distant past.

Among these traditions was that of “tribal democracy,” which was by no means an African monopoly; it was part of the assembly culture of early Mesopotamia, and can be found wherever a tribal culture prevails. South African scholar Joe Teffo has written that many African rulers were, like Mesopotamian kings, restricted in their powers by the need for consensus. Tribal kings ruled at the pleasure of their people, he claims, not despite the people. “For every king, the possibility of being deposed by the people on grounds of unpopularity was always a live contingency that it was unwise to discount.” [20]

The Ghanaian historian Kwame Gyekye offers a similar insight:

“It appears that the most important injunction was that the chief should never ever act without the advice and full concurrence of his councilors, the representatives of the people. Acting without concurrence and advice of his council was a legitimate cause for his deposition. Thus the chief was bound by law to rule with the consent of his people.” [21]

As in Mesopotamia and Phoenicia, we hear echoes of a belief system that posits powers greater than the king. Potentially, at least, this arrangement considered the welfare of the common people. Discussing the Bugandan traditional political culture of Uganda, historian Edward Wamala makes the point that monarchs represented merely the head of a system of councils: working up from the bottom, heads of families made up tribal councils, the heads of these met in clan councils, and representatives of these advised the monarch. Certainly, there were hierarchies in this system, notably of men over women and of age seniority, but such a system represented a bottom-up approach to government: “Consensus was central to this operation of democracy in Buganda society and, indeed, in many African societies… If after due deliberations the council reached a consensus, it was taboo for the monarch to oppose or reject it.”[22]

Such systems were common in Africa, and although there is a lack of precision over dates, these traditional systems generally represented practices that occurred over long stretches of time, very possibly back into the ancient past. Teffo mentions similar practices among the Zulu of South Africa, the Bugandans of Uganda, and the Akans of Ghana. It may be difficult to think of this system as “democratic” because of the presence of an unelected king, but Teffo suggests we can think of the system as a “communocracy” in which consensus is sought out. “Any system that gives such priority to consensus is quite clearly democratic in a far deeper sense than any system in which decision making proceeds on the principle that the majority carries the day.”[23]

What is the evidence for ancient Indian republics?

Several hundred years after the beginnings of the great Athenian experiment with radical democracy, Alexander of Macedon, the future Alexander the Great, occupied Athens and brought a more or less permanent end to its democracy and its independence. Then he embarked on a whirlwind project to conquer the rest of the world. When he crossed the River Indus and entered India, in 327 BCE, according to his chroniclers, he met with some philosophical opposition to the idea of a supremely powerful monarch-like figure—which he represented so audaciously. Having conquered large swathes of the country, Alexander comes across as off-putting to some Indian philosophers, who give him a piece of their mind:

“King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, traveling so far from your home, a nuisance to yourself and others! You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of the earth as will suffice to bury you.” [24] Alexander was reportedly delighted with this idea (considering himself open-minded), and thought the sages made some excellent points, although this did not appear to change his behavior. But the question for us is: Was this hostility towards—or distaste for—monarchical power reflected in the political traditions of India at that time?

There is reliable evidence that parts of ancient India were, in fact, familiar with the notion of self-governing republics, and contained city states which, as historian Steven Muhlburger puts it, have “as good a claim to be called democracies as the communities in the West that gave us the term.” [25] This has been largely ignored by Western scholarship, perhaps because most manuscripts from ancient India were written by elite Brahmin sects, whose political sensibilities favored their own political traditions, and who therefore disapproved of people governing themselves. These texts, collectively known as the Brahmanical literature, include works such as the Manu-Smrti (c. 100 BCE) and Kautilya’s Arthasastra (c. 300 BCE). Early European readers of these works found it easy to identify with tales of kings and nobles: this matched the European experience. When they looked at modern India, all they saw was kings and nobles, so they imagined an unbroken chain between modern and ancient made of…kings and nobles.

Evidence for self-ruling “republics” goes back into the Vedic period (the period of the Vedas–hymns and prayers in Sanskrit forming the earliest Hindu literature dating back as far as 1500 BCE). The bulk of it, however, comes from the later Buddhist period (600-200 BCE). Just as we find words in Mesopotamia and Phoenicia referring to assemblies and councils, there is similar linguistic evidence in India: Gana and Sangha, in particular, were different types of self-governing bodies. Gana, refers to those who claim to be of equal status, and sangha, means “assembly.” These two words signified more than this, however, because they represented communities that were distinct from the kingdoms that were prevalent in many parts of India.

Indian historian Romila Thapar refers to these entities as “proto-states,” or possible chiefdoms: “The gana-sangha… was unlike a kingdom, since power was diffused, the stratification of its society was limited, and the ramifications of administration and coercive authority were non-existent.”[26] In other words they lacked the kind of centralized, bureaucratic authority represented by kings and emperors, familiar to us from most ancient civilizations. And these polities were resilient, says Thapar. Despite being repeatedly conquered, they often re-appeared, not fully disappearing until the first millennium AD. They were not simply an early form of the state, therefore, but possibly alternatives to the state, and are found in multiple parts of India. It is possible that more independent-minded peoples, less inclined to submit to the will of a monarchic state might have occupied these more difficult-to-control areas, comprised of less-fertile, hilly terrain. We have to look mostly to the Buddhist—or Pali— canon of literature for mentions of these states in the north, but the Hindu Mahabaratalso mentions similar systems known as Vrishnis in western India.

Although lacking kings, Thapar thinks that “republic” would be a better description for the gana-sanghas than democracy, however, as the participatory piece was likely restricted to certain families, and was certainly not universal. “These were systems where the heads of families belonging to a clan, or clan chiefs in a confederacy of clans, governed the territory of the clan, or the confederacy through an assembly, of which they alone were members.”[27] The corporate aspect of the gana-sanghas was considered their major strength; meetings were held in assemblies presided over by clan heads. Matters of debate were put before them, and members voted on the issues. In addition to these familiar mechanisms of governance, certain democratic principles were also in play among gana-sanghas. One of these was tolerance for unorthodox views and the ability to express divergent opinions, and it is notable that both Jainism and Buddhism (both offshoots from Brahmanical Hinduism) emerged from these communities.

Apart from the Brahmanical texts and the Buddhist Pali, we also have descriptions of India from Greek sources. One of them, Diodorus of Sicily, from the first century BCE, wrote of how Alexander and his men, having wandered into India regularly encountered self-governing communities. Having described what seems like a mythical Indian past populated, and ruled, by (what else?) Greek gods, Diodorus then, in a somewhat more believable tone, goes on to describe the current state of political affairs in that part of India: “At last, however, after many years had gone, most of the cities adopted the democratic form of government, though some retained the kingly until the invasion of the country by Alexander. Of several remarkable customs existing among the Indians, there is one prescribed by their ancient philosophers which one may regard as truly admirable: for the law ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave, but that, enjoying freedom, they shall respect the principle of equality in all persons.”[28]

Even if Indian assemblies were limited in their franchise, restricted as they were by the infamous Indian caste system—which privileged the Kshatriya, or warrior, caste over all others—several scholars have made the point that the caste system was not as rigid as it was later to become. In addition to this, many of the northern city-states were, in the Buddhist period, becoming wealthy through trade, and thus evolved a merchant class, which could, by virtue of its economic power, demand an increasing say in government. If all else failed, a group could split off from its polity and form its own sangha.

Taken as a whole, these different pieces of data pieces provide significant evidence of an ancient and participatory vein in India’s early history. Visions of self-rule by members of villages or guilds and other groups with shared interests, jostled for position alongside monarchies.

Was Greece Exceptional?

Anti-slavery laws such as were described by Diodorus were not so evident in Ancient Greece, for all its laudable institutions and accomplishments. Athens’ massive reliance on slavery and complete exclusion of women, while not uncommon in the ancient world, remain the most evident flaw in their democracy. “An ocean separates the democracy of the ancient polis from the democracies of the western nation-states,” says historian Ryan Balot. “Frankly, modern democracies have progressed beyond the inequalities and abuses of human dignity that were characteristic of the ancient world. We are not slave-holders; modern democrats are repelled by the idea of excluding women from politics; we are attracted by political and cultural pluralism; we have reduced the role of luck in human life in ways that were unimaginable to the ancients; we have developed unthinkably rich private and social lives because of our distinctive individualism; and we have developed much more complete concepts—and practices—of freedom and equality.”[29] These profound differences between ancient and modern must be taken into account while discussing ancient democracy. In Athens, for example, “The good citizen,” says John Keane, “came equipped with a phallus,” and this fact prompts him to label the Athenian democracy a “Phallocracy,”[30] relying as it did exclusively on men. This might appear odd, on the face of it, for demokratia is itself a feminine noun. And Athena, the city’s patron deity and protector, was a goddess, the very goddess, in fact, who presided over and guaranteed the city’s democratic institutions, nay democracy itself! Women played a major role in family life and in the public life of the city that concerned festivals—which were a central feature of Athenian civic life. But when it came to political decision-making they were shut out. Nor were slaves able to participate, lacking any rights whatsoever. Since these two groups comprised a large portion of the population of Athens’ hinterland this falls far short of democracy as we know it.

In Athens between 508 and 322 BCE the evidence for democracy becomes voluminous, and less equivocal than anything that has preceded it. While marred by serious shortcomings, it is hard to argue that there is nothing new in the historical record, either in quantity of quality. In Athens kings are absent entirely—and thoroughly repudiated; thoughtful mechanisms like elections, peoples’ courts, and assemblies of representative (male) citizens are in evidence. These elements were not all inherited from tradition (although some may have been). But the Athenians of the fifth century BCE generated most of these innovations to solve specific challenges in the wielding of power in their part of Greece. “In a very real sense,” notes historian Christopher Blackwell, “the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains.” [31]

Whereas much of the traditional story of Greek democracy highlights these events as a radical break with the despotic (and Eastern) past, however, we have argued that much of the thinking, and even some of the institutions that fueled Athens’ revolution were already in place elsewhere. To that extent Athens represents a continuation of a tradition that began elsewhere—perhaps inherited from the Phoenicians, via the Mesopotamians. But is it also possible, bearing in mind the history of India and Africa, that democracy is not a Greek invention, but part of the human inheritance, pursued by all peoples in their own ways, and to no particular schedule? As Jack Goody writes: “The Greeks, of course, invented the word ‘democracy,’…but they did not invent the practice of democracy. Representation in one form or other has been a feature of the politics and struggles of many peoples.” [32]

Where does democracy come from? Perhaps after all is considered, democracy is not the right term, for the problem addressed by democracy in all its forms is that of participation in one’s own government. This search for self-determination has been a theme of history for generations. It continues unabated today in many parts of the world, as British parliamentarian and diplomat Rory Stewart put it, while talking about his experience nation-building in Afghanistan: “I have not met, in Afghanistan, in even the most remote community, anybody who does not want a say in who governs them.”[33] This is the drive, then, that sets people everywhere searching for a way to control their lives. And even if the forms “democracy” takes differ, and even if it is more or less complete here or there, the underlying quest is the same, and is something that mattered in ancient times as much as today: “Democracy matters because it reflects an idea of equality and an idea of liberty. It reflects an idea of dignity, the dignity of the individual, the idea that each individual should have an equal vote, an equal say in the formation of their government.”[34] What has changed over the millennia (and only very recently in fact) are ideas of individualism, human rights and suffrage, permitting women to gain access to the political process just as men had, and outlawing the practice of slavery. The idea of representation has always been around; the bigger question was who deserved it.

So if the desire for participation is a part of the human heritage, what about the role of Greece? Certain things happened in Greece to advance the cause of democracy, arguably beyond any previous society that we know much about (with the possible exception of tribal societies). But the idea that Athens was the well-spring of this innovative human practice is difficult to swallow, much less that all democracy as we know it today originated there, travelled to Rome and thence informed modern nation states. As historian Ian Morris puts it: “It takes a heroically selective reading of history to see a continuous spirit of democratic freedom stretching from classical Greece to the Founding Fathers (who, incidentally, tended to use the word “democracy” as a term of abuse, just one step above mob rule.”)[35]

Ultimately there are two answers to the question of democracy’s origins. One addresses the principles behind the many systems we see as “democratic.” The origins of these principles reach as far back as you care to go, intertwined with human DNA. The other looks at the particular practices and institutions that we associate with democracy, and these too have a long lineage. While admirably expressed in classical Athens, that city has a dubious claim to the patent for democracy. We should recognize its contribution, while also understanding that other places, buried deeper in the dust of history, were major stake-holders in the struggle for a voice in their own governance.

[1] George W. Bush, speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, November 6, 2003. http://www.ned.org/node/658

[2] John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (New York, W.W. Norton, 2009), x.

[3] Jack Goody, The Theft of History, (Cambridge, CUP, 2006).

[4] Here we use Josiah Ober’s 2007 definition, using demos to mean “people” as opposed to demes, the Greek word for “administrative district”—discussed below. Ober, J., The original meaning of “democracy”: Capacity to do things, not majority rule. (Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, Version 1.0, September, 2007.)

[5] Phillipe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl, “What Democracy is….and is Not,” in The Global Resurgence of Democracy (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 50.

[6] Amartya Sen. “Democracy and Its Global Roots: Why Democracy is not the same as Westernization.” New Republic Oct 2003, 29.

[7] Sen, 29

[8] John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy, (New York, W.W. Norton, 2009) xvi.

[9] Keane, 109.

[10] Keane, 111

[11] Daniel E. Fleming, Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors: Mari and Early Collective Governance, (Cambridge and New York, 2004), 171.

[12] Fleming, xi

[13] Aristotle, Politics, 1252b. Cited in Keane, 116

[14] Cited in Keane, 118.

[15] Cited in Keane, 119.

[16] cited in Keane, 119

[17] W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford, 1960) 112-5

[18] Isakhan, 25.

[19] Fleming, xv.

[20] Joe Teffo, “Democracy, Kingship, and Consensus: A South African Perspective,” in A Companion Guide to African Philosophy, Kwasi Wiredu (ed) (Malden, Blackwell, 2004), 443.

[21] Kwame Gyekye, The unexamined Life: Philosophy and the African Experience, (Accra: Ghana UP, 1988), 11

[22] Edward Wamala, “Government by Consensus: An analysis of a Traditional Form of Democracy,” in A Companion to African Philosophy, Kwasi Wiredu (ed) Malden, Blackwell, 2004, 440.

[23] Teffo, P.445

[24] From Arrian’s Annabasis of Alexander (quoted in Sen, P.30).

[25] Steven Muhlburger, “Republics and Quasi-Democratic Institutions in Ancient India,” in The Secret History of Democracy, Isakhan and Stockwell (eds). P. 49

[26] Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. (Berkley, UCLA Press) 2002,137.

[27] Thapar, P. 147

[28] Diodorus Siculus, “General Description of India,” II, 39. Quoted in R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India (Calcutta, 1960), 236.

[29] Ryan Balot, Greek Political Thought (Malden, Blackwell, 2006), 51/2.

[30] Keane, 20.

[31] Christopher W. Blackwell, “Athenian Democracy: a brief overview,” in Adriaan Lanni, ed., “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context” (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, edd., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities [www.stoa.org]) edition of February 28, 2003.

[32] Goody, 50

[33] Rory Stewart. Why Democracy Matters, TED talk, London, June, 2012. http://www.ted.com/talks/rory_stewart_how_to_rebuild_democracy.html

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ian Morris, Why the Rest Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History and What they Reveal About the Future. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 286.


About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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