Democracy has ‘old’ roots, but they go beyond those of Ancient Greece

13 min read
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

The history of democracy is long and complex. There is more to the history of democracy than “the standard history of democracy” as Benjamin Isakhan, Professor of International Politics at Deakin University, refers to.1Isakhan, Benjamin. “Democracy: Critiquing a Eurocentric History.” Paper Presented at the Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) Conference, Canberra, Australia, 2015, https://dro.deakin.edu.au/eserv/DU:30079037/isakhan-democracycritiquing-post-2015.pdf. The history of democracy stretches beyond the familiar tale of Ancient Greece, then the “American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution” and then the last stop, that is the liberal democracies of the last 200 years that have dominated the world.2Isakhan, Benjamin. “Democracy: Critiquing a Eurocentric History.” Paper Presented at the Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) Conference, Canberra, Australia, 2015, https://dro.deakin.edu.au/eserv/DU:30079037/isakhan-democracycritiquing-post-2015.pdf.

This Eurocentric narrative of democracy that is taught in schools and universities around the globe is exclusionary. One point to remember is that each of the democracies outlined below are a product of their own time and therefore cannot be compared on equal footing to their contemporary counterparts.

Quick Summary

  • World history is full of stories and initiatives by people from all over the world who have struggled to gain power.
  • The history of democracy does not start and end with Greece.
  • Even the most iconic examples of democracy in recent history have been influenced by non-western cultures and traditions in “democracy.”

The origins of democracy in the Indian sub-continent

The West does not consider the Buddha as a political philosopher, but some of his views on life and society may have had political implications, especially for democracy.3Omvedt, Gail. “The Buddha as a Political Philosopher.” Economic and Political Weekly, edited by Kancha Ilaiah, vol. 36, no. 21, Economic and Political Weekly, 2001, pp. 1801–04. For example, the Buddha formed the Bhikku Sanghas, which were conceived as a monastic, ‘religious’ bodies. However, they also “embodied democratic and even communistic principles.”4Omvedt, Gail. “The Buddha as a Political Philosopher.” Economic and Political Weekly, edited by Kancha Ilaiah, vol. 36, no. 21, Economic and Political Weekly, 2001, pp. 1801–04. Prior to the Buddha, the sangha had a political, not a religious meaning.5 Murthy, K. Krishna. “Buddhist Sangha.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1989, pp. 3–18. Sangha refers to “multitude” but by the sixth century B.C. they were thought of as “self-governing multitudes. Even the most prominent and most sophisticated functioned like “sovereign governments,” which some historians referred to as “republics.”6Muhlberger as cited in Isakhan, Benjamin, and Stephen Stockwell, editors. The Secret History of Democracy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 51.

There is evidence that democracy, at least in some form of republicanism, existed for almost a millennium in the Indian sub-continent, between about 500 B.C.E. until about 400 A.D.7Democracy in Ancient India. https://uts.nipissingu.ca/muhlberger/HISTDEM/INDIADEM.HTM. Accessed 17 June 2021. Even by the accounts of Greek historians, such as Diodorus Siculus (90 B.C.E.–30 B.C.E.) or Megasthenes (350 B.C.E.–290 B.C.E.) who was a “Greek ambassador to the Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya,” there was a form of “democratic” rulership and “republicanism” in different states in Northern India.8Isakhan, Benjamin, and Stephen Stockwell, editors. The Secret History of Democracy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 51. Alongside these ‘republics’ there were also monarchical states and kingdoms ruled by kings and emperors.9Isakhan, Benjamin, and Stephen Stockwell, editors. The Secret History of Democracy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 51.

The sanghas functioned as assemblies with structured rules in place, involving holding sessions with all members having the right to vote, special questions being dealt in committees elected by the members of the sangha, and establishing rules and conditions so each member would cast a vote freely, i.e., not coerced.10Isakhan, Benjamin, and Stephen Stockwell, editors. The Secret History of Democracy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 53-54.

Although the sangha had democratic structures and rules in place, not all the population of these jurisdictions were members of these assemblies. Neither were the members of the sangha voted by the population of the jurisdiction where they lived. The sanghas had some exclusionary elements, such as not allowing women to be part of the sangha.11Omvedt, Gail. “The Buddha as a Political Philosopher.” Economic and Political Weekly, edited by Kancha Ilaiah, vol. 36, no. 21, Economic and Political Weekly, 2001, pp. 1801–04. It was Ananda, a female monk, who convinced the Buddha that women are equal to men in capacity for seeking enlightenment.12Omvedt, Gail. “The Buddha as a Political Philosopher.” Economic and Political Weekly, edited by Kancha Ilaiah, vol. 36, no. 21, Economic and Political Weekly, 2001, pp. 1801–04. The Buddha accepted the premise and allowed his initial view to be changed. Afterwards, the Buddha allowed women to form their sangha with different conditions from those of male monks.13Omvedt, Gail. “The Buddha as a Political Philosopher.” Economic and Political Weekly, edited by Kancha Ilaiah, vol. 36, no. 21, Economic and Political Weekly, 2001, pp. 1801–04.

Over time, the sanghas of the Indian subcontinent were under a constant threat of the kings and other hereditary rulers, who seemed to have had a different view on how to govern society. They wanted to subjugate the sanghas under their dominion. So, they worked towards undermining them through offering privileges and security to the members of the existing sanghas to be ruled by a single ruler, raja. Overtime, the sanghas accommodated to the changing realities and the ‘republican’ aspects of the Indian sovereign states disappeared around 5th century C.E.14Muhlberger as cited by Isakhan, Benjamin, and Stephen Stockwell, editors. The Secret History of Democracy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 55-57

These democracies and republics in Ancient India were not necessarily the democracies that we think of today. However, given their historical context, they are important to understand the origins of ‘democracy’ beyond the agora of Ancient Athens or the Roman Senate.

The origins of democracy in the pre-colonial Americas

There was democratic governance in the Americas even before the ‘Founding Fathers’ wrote the Constitution of the United States and established the world’s leading democratic country of the last two centuries.

The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, was founded by five nations: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. Since 1722, it has been known as the Six Nations.15“Iroquois Confederacy | Definition, Significance, History, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Iroquois-Confederacy. Accessed 17 June 2021. Each of these nations had their own council. When the Confederacy had to decide, each nation had one vote and unanimity was mandatory for all decisions.16“Iroquois Confederacy | Definition, Significance, History, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Iroquois-Confederacy. Accessed 17 June 2021. According to some sources, the Iroquois Confederacy is considered one of the oldest participatory democracies in the world (some date it back to 1142).17“Iroquois Confederacy | Definition, Significance, History, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Iroquois-Confederacy. Accessed 17 June 2021.,18Dating the Iroquois Confederacy, by Bruce E. Johansen. https://ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/DatingIC.html. Accessed 17 June 2021. It was even the inspiration for the U.S. Constitution.19“How the Iroquois Great Law of Peace Shaped U.S. Democracy | Native America.” How the Iroquois Great Law of Peace Shaped U.S. Democracy | Native America, https://www.pbs.org/native-america/blogs/native-voices/how-the-iroquois-great-law-of-peace-shaped-us-democracy/. Accessed 17 June 2021. In 1988, the United States Senate affirmed the influence of the democratic governance systems created by the Iroquois Confederacy on the United States Constitution and Government.

“…the confederation of the Original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself.”20United States Senate. Select Committee on Indian Affairs. (1988). H. Con. Res. 331. 21 Oct. 1988, https://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/hconres331.pdf.

Contrary to other approaches to documenting historical and governance documents, the Iroquois relied on oral tradition and recorded their traditions, laws, and agreements on wampum belts.21Payne, Samuel B. “The Iroquois League, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1996, pp. 605–20. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2947207.The fact that the Iroquois recorded their traditions and rules of governance on wampum belts and not paper made it more difficult for Western scholars and academics to recognize the contributions of the Iroquois in the formation of the United States Constitution and Government.

Even though the European settlers largely viewed the native tribes and nations as ‘primitives’ and ‘savages,’ the form of governance that the Iroquois Confederacy practiced has been the inspiration for the establishment of the United States. Namely, one of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, has been maintaining close relations with the Iroquois.22Feathers, Cynthia, and Susan Feathers. Franklin and the Iroquois Foundations of the Constitution. https://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0107/gaz09.html. Accessed 28 July 2021. In fact, he learned about and admired their governance system so much that in 1754, during the meeting of the thirteen British North American colonies, he proposed the Albany Plan of Union.

In the plan, Benjamin Franklin advocated for the union of the thirteen colonies under a single federal government, which would be governed by a “Grand Council” comprising delegates from each of the colonies, and a “President General” appointed by the British Government.23Milestones: 1750–1775 – Office of the Historian. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1750-1775/albany-plan. Accessed 28 July 2021. Modeled after the Iroquois governance, each of the colonies would maintain their internal sovereignty, while they would jointly agree on common matters such as defense and foreign affairs.

Although the plan was adopted by the seven participating colonies on July 10, 1754, it was never carried out. Despite its failure, the Albany Plan was an important milestone in the formation of the democratic structures of the United States government. It laid the seed that the colonies of North America had their own identity and should act as one. This followed the recommendations of Canasatego of the Iroquois, who, in a 1744 meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with envoys from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, relayed that the colonies should unite following the example of the [original] Five Nations.24Feathers, Cynthia, and Susan Feathers. Franklin and the Iroquois Foundations of the Constitution. https://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0107/gaz09.html. Accessed 28 July 2021.

The origins of democracy in Ancient Greece

In the Western world, it is commonly believed that democracy comes from Ancient Greece. As noted earlier, other parts of the world had democratic forms of governance before or around the same time as Ancient Greece. They just did not use the Greek word “democracy.” Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell’s book, The Secret History of Democracy,unveils more details about the non-western history of democracy for those interested in a further read. It bears reminding, democracy over 2,000 years or even a couple of hundred years ago, whether in Europe, Asia or elsewhere, was not the same as it is today, but there are important lessons to be drawn about the evolution of democracy around the world, including Ancient Greece.

Ancient Greece was composed of many city-states, mostly slave-owning societies. Each had their own form of governance. The city-state where democracy thrived the most was Athens between the 6th and 4th century B.C.E. Democracy in Athens was a gradual evolution. It was not until 508 B.C.E. under Cleisthenes’ leadership that democracy was shaping into the model that persisted in Ancient Athens for nearly two centuries.25“Democracy | Definition, History, Meaning, Types, Examples, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/democracy. Accessed 1 Aug. 2021. The innovation that Cleisthenes, considered by some to be the “father of Athenian democracy,” introduced was putting political responsibility in the hands of the individual citizen, not members of the aristocrats or members of a hereditary ruling clan.26“Cleisthenes of Athens | Biography & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cleisthenes-of-Athens. Accessed 2 Aug. 2021.

Compared to contemporary representative democracies, the Athenian model was a form of direct democracy. There were three key institutions in Athens: “Assembly of the Demos, The Council of 500, and the People’s Court.”27Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. This is not to say there were no other institutions. They are merely beyond the scope of this blog post.

The central and most prominent institution was the Assembly (ekklesiai).28Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. Unlike contemporary democracies, there were narrower definitions of who could take part in political life in Athens. Participation in political life included being part of the Assembly, where laws and decrees were debated and passed, The Council of 500, where Counselors were elected from the representatives of each of the ten tribes that lived in Athens and they ran the Assembly and deliberated on laws and decrees, and the People’s Court, which presided over criminal cases. By contemporary standards, the democratic institutions of Athens were simpler and fewer. There was also no clear separation of powers. Members of the Assembly, which would be the equivalent of the legislative branch, also presided in court cases at the People’s Court, which would be akin to the present-day judicial branch. This is unlike the intentional division of power in contemporary democratic governments: executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Nonetheless, the Athenian governance structure provided an early basis for the concept of separation of power.

Just like in Ancient Greece, contemporary democracies have population groups that are excluded from voting in elections. These typically include foreigners, temporary residents, children under the age of 18 and, in some countries, convicted felons. In the case of Ancient Athens, the population that could take part in political life were young men, who could prove they were Athenian, were 18 years of age, had served two years of military training, had no public debts, and were not slaves. Women could not take part in political life.29Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. Scholars estimate that up to 15% of the Athenian population was taking part in the Assemblies, but it is difficult to verify the data as there is no reliable census data.30“Democracy | Definition, History, Meaning, Types, Examples, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/democracy. Accessed 1 Aug. 2021.

The Assembly would meet 40 times a year and they paid citizens to participate. This was to ensure that people of all socio-economic backgrounds, including the poor, could set aside time to take part in political life.31Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. Even in today’s representative democracies, the elected officials, namely members of parliament, prime Ministers, ministers, and presidents, who form part of the various branches of governments, are compensated for their participation in political life. The difference is that in Ancient Athens, the demos, the politically eligible part of the population, included daily laborers who were not professional or career politicians. Today, most politicians generate their primary income from holding offices or representing their constituents.

The Council of 500, the other key democratic institution in Athens, comprised 50 representatives. These representatives, or Counselors came from each of the ten tribes in Athens and prepared the agenda for the Assemblies.32Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. The city was governed by laws and decrees that were passed by the Assembly, the Council, or both.33Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. Laws superseded decrees in importance. Ancient Athens had no constitution like present day United States or most other democracies.

Agora Athens Greek Art Ancient  - IvanPais / Pixabay
Ancient Athenian Agora. Image by IvanPais / Pixabay

What is noteworthy is that the Athenians had a special Assembly session once a year where they took a review of all the existing laws to ensure that there were no contradictions or redundancies.34Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. As it can be imagined, the lack of contemporary technologies would have limited the efficient review and access of all laws to all concerned members of the demos. In those days, it could not be assumed that all Athenian citizens were literate or had access to the laws at their fingertips as our contemporary representatives have. Given the technological and literacy limitations, reviewing all laws and decrees must have been immensely more difficult for the Ancient Athenians than it would be for contemporary lawmakers.

The last important institution was the Court. The jurors in the People’s Court were elected from the demos. Athens had no trained judges or lawyers. The citizens had to swear on their knowledge and faithful interpretation of the laws and decrees of Athens. To thwart bribery, jurors were assigned to court cases at random and at the last minute.35Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. 

Although there were major crises between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C.E. where the elites unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the rule of the people in favor of oligarchic rule, the conquest of Athens by Philip II of Macedon during the 4th century B.C.E. put a nail in the coffin for democracy in Athens.36Blackwell W., Christopher. Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview. 2003, https://stoa.org/demos/democracy_overview.pdf. Athenian democracy limped on for some time after the conquests by the Macedonians, but it dissolved as power and decision-making were transferred to the subjects of Philip II of Macedonia and subsequently Alexander the Great. Nonetheless, the experiments in democracy that the Athenians conducted for almost two centuries left a civilizational mark on the development of the rule of the people for millennia to come.

Action Items

  • QUESTION: Mainstream narratives may not always capture the full scope of what has happened in the past.
  • CONSULT: Review multiple credible sources prior taking a position on an issue.
  • BE FLEXIBLE: Sometimes democracy does not come under the Ancient Greek brand name of democracy. Sometimes it has a different name, but the principles of empowering individuals and communities is there.

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