Athens Did It Better: Ancient Democracy

I am currently reading Walter Scheidel’s “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century”. It gives a very interesting picture on how mass wars have had the effect of equalizing societies, in terms of wealth and democracy.

One of the most interesting parts is the section that focuses on equality/inequality in the Ancient Greece. Mass mobilization in warfare is one of Scheidel’s “four horsemen” of leveling and, as he puts it, Greek civilization developed “a culture of citizenship associated with mass participation” in warfare (Scheidel 189). The Greek world, at its zenith, came to comprise more than 1,000 separate poleis or city-states and a population reaching over 7 million.

Scheidel points to different examples of democracy and equality in the Greek world but, like many scholars, he refers to the two most prominent examples: Athens and Sparta. These pre-modern empires serve as the benchmark of Greek society.

Both had their notions of egalitarianism. But which one had the best program? In order to effectively curtail wealth inequality as Scheidel defines it, a state has to implement progressive reforms that target the common mass and encumber the rich with higher financial responsibilities, or else deprive them of assets completely.

Specifically, in “The Great Leveler” this can come in the form of four shocks: mass warfare, violent revolution, state collapse, and pandemics. The example of Ancient Greece focuses primarily on warfare and its effect on democracy.

Athens and Sparta were, of course, two ancient states that centered on military. But in different ways. While Scheidel chooses to classify democracy/equality in terms of wealth, it is also important to examine the political framework of the two premodern states.

Let’s start with Athens:

By the start of the early Iron Age much of the Greek world was mired in poverty. By 600 BCE, Athens suffered from “growing inequality fueled by population growth and abundant labor” (Scheidel 192). Many poor were in debt to the rich, on pain of enslavement.

So how did they start to change this? Athens took a cue from one of its neighboring states, Megara, which had introduced debt relief that required creditors to repay loan interests that would have otherwise fallen on the poor. Athens noticed that this progressive policy led to popular military mobilization, enhancing its naval power. As a result, Athens began to expand civic rights through measures that instituted debt cancellation and outlawed debt bondage.

According to Scheidel this progressive measure was driven by war, or rather the desire to avoid defeat by neighboring states. With a supreme military force, Athens would be unstoppable.

It was after a war with Sparta, in 508 BCE, that Athens began to restructure its population. Because the poor were in debt to the rich, aristocratic families could effectively control voting blocs. It was Cleisthenes, an Athenian noble and political expert, who rearranged the political structure of Athens.

Originally sectioned into four ancestral tribes, Cleisthenes divided Athens into ten tribes, each one with an equal population. Typically, in Athens there were three kinds of territory: the coast, the hills, and the plain. Under Cleisthenes’s system, each tribe contained a mixture of peoples from different territories. This measure established a new diversity within the ten tribes, and effectively released them from control by the aristocrats. All sorts of new groups began to coalesce around areas such as trades, religious cults, military units, and education (Cline 138).

In addition, the Athenian Council of 400, with 100 men selected from each ancestral tribe, was changed to 500 under Cleisthenes, with 50 men selected by lottery from each of the ten tribes.

Another famous statesman, Pericles, introduced legislation providing daily wages for jurors, in order to compensate poorer workers and also encourage them to participate in democratic assemblies. Another one of Pericles’s accomplishments was instituting a building program, through which many unskilled men could establish a trade in areas such as sculpting, wagon-building, and rope-making. Among the great, completed projects was the Parthenon.

As Athens became an inspiration by model, many other city-states pressed for expanded rights, often seeking Athens for help in the process. Tribute money from allies provided substantial state revenue that was used to not only feed its population but also supply a growing workforce.

Another tactic that Athens adopted to prevent tyranny was the imposition of term limits, namely one year, for those in office. Only those in the Areopagus court were exempt from this, since they served for a lifetime. All major decisions were made by committees, consisting of one man from each tribe. And what’s more, Another check was imposed on the power elite: ostracism. Through this, Athenians (during a three-week period) would come together and decide which powerful elites posed a threat to democracy. That person, after receiving 6,000 votes, would be sent away for ten years, with their property left intact (Cline 143).

The obvious, not-so-noble setback to Athenian democracy: it left out women, slaves, and landless poor.

If Athens could be described as more of a representative democracy, Sparta could be characterized as more of an oligarchy. You’ve probably seen 300: with the noble, warrior king leading his men into battle.

The Spartan oligarchy consisted of actually two kings (mostly as a matter of checking power) and a group of 28 nobles over the age of 60. Together they formed the “Council of Elders” (Martin, An Overview).

The council of elders would submit laws to a Spartan assembly that consisted of all free, adult males. While the assembly could amend proposals, they were more or less expected to approve them, as much of Spartan culture emphasized respect for the elders. The highest check on power was the board of “ephors”: five overseers elected each year (by the assembly) that, not only convened the council of elders, but also exercised significant judicial powers, namely judgment and punishment. The task of the ephors was to “ensure the supremacy of the law” and could even hold the king accountable for violations (Martin, An Overview).

In Athens, war played its role in expanding democracy and leveling the economic playing field. More soldiers was crucial to protection: wars like the Persian invasion of 490 BCE involved up to 40 percent of the adult male population, while another Persian war in 480 BCE resulted in a decree that mobilized the entire population (Scheidel 193).

Athens encouraged state participation in war through an expanded system of rights. The Peloponnesian War led to higher payments to the lower, impoverished classes.The military was democratized, as commanders could now be elected by citizen assemblies.

Additionally, mass mobilization encouraged domestic bargaining, which led to state subsidies in the form of higher assembly pay and sponsored attendance of state festivals. By the time of the war against Macedonia, following the death of Alexander the Great, all male citizens up to age forty were mobilized.

The rationale hinges on nationalism: you want to have a strong population with a strong, shared identity. The citizens must feel encouraged to participate, knowing that the laws will provide for them. Progressive laws help to ensure this, since they ease the burden on commoners, who are the primary participants of war and military campaigns.

As Scheidel argues, war promoted egalitarianism (to an extent) in Athens. It provided citizens with a reason to fight for their state by offering them land, wages, political participation rights, and better representation. The mobilization took place on two fronts: war and politics.

In Athens military operations “heavily relied on domestic taxation of the rich” (another progressive move), and because of its naval focus in battle, “warmaking involved redistribution to poorer citizens who crewed and rowed ships” (Scheidel 195).

Indirect taxes, specifically after the fall of the Athenian empire, relied on tolls, harbor dues, and lease income from public land, whereas direct taxes included a poll tax for “resident aliens”, a property tax for military expenses, and “liturgies”, which were contributions imposed on the richest Athenian citizens (Scheidel 195).

Through liturgies the rich had to pay for the outfitting of warships, provide for the crew, purchase equipment, manage repairs, and even cover losses in battle.

Soon large estates were made to contribute to this as well, further taxing the wealthy. And the naval liturgies were so high (8 times minimal subsistence income for an Athenian household of five) that some had to borrow and mortgage in order to raise public funds (Schiedel 195).

A few more facts about this upper “liturgical class”: they paid for 300 warships, public festivals, and property taxes. Their obligations may have completely absorbed any annual returns on fortunes clearing the wealth threshold. While compensated later with state funding, the richest Athenians may yet in still have had a tax burden equal to almost a quarter of their income. Call it Eisenhower in the making.

Yet in still the Athenian electorate held the rich in check by ensuring they carried the lion’s share of financial burdens. Liturgies reduced wealth concentration for the power elites. During a period of rapid economic growth (one of Scheidel’s conditions for inequality, ie. surplus economy), this kept wealth inequality consistently low when it would have otherwise growth to excess.

Additionally, the land was subject to more equitable distribution among the population. According to Scheidel’s estimates, 7.5–9 percent of Athenians owned 30–40 percent, while as little as 20 to 30 owned no land. The middling “hoplite” population (aka citizen soldiers) held about 35–45 percent (Scheidel 197).

Landownership in Ancient Athens implies a wide distribution of resources; the absence of large estates, or rather the lack of evidence for them (as the author asserts) points to a fairly egalitarian society. I should reiterate/paraphrase the author’s point and say “thus far”, according to modern research. However, Scheidel does note that non-agrarian assets may have been more unequally distributed.

What can be said for certain is that wages in Athens were considerably high by ancient standards. The state’s share in GDP was more than modest, as more than half of public expenditures (during non-war years) went to festivals, welfare programs, infrastructure, and subsidized political/judicial participation.

If egalitarianism in Ancient Athens was a matter of practice over time, then then model used in Sparta could be described as an ingrained tradition. Under Lycurgus, the famous lawgiver/reformer, certain constitutional norms were introduced. These included shared mess halls, which required all men, regardless of rank, to dine together every day in small groups. Each member of the group had to contribute their fair share, in food contributions.

Failure to meet this obligation was met harshly: those who contributed below the threshold were exiled and classified as perioikos, or “dwellers round about”, having lost their citizenship (Cline 118). After that you could never become a Spartan again.

Sparta is now notorious for being recognized as an “pre-modern communist” society. It is estimated that all farmland in Laconia, Sparta’s core, was split into 30,000 equal plots; 9,000 of them went to the male citizens and were cultivated by “helots,” a class of slaves, captured from territories, who were bound to the land.

Redistribution extended to moveable possessions, in order to prevent inequality. Another interesting fact about Sparta is that their currency was strictly iron, as one of Lycurgus’s constitutional laws effectively banned “the circulation and possession of gold, silver, and other precious metals as a means of transacting business” (Encyclopedia of Money).

All of this was established to foster equality and to keep citizens from engaging in non-military ambitions. Why: because I think we all know very, very well that MILITARY was the driving force in Sparta.

Take the Athens example and put it on steroids: mass mobilization was mandatory by tradition. For starters, ALL boys/men from ages 7 to 29 were put through an arduous physical training and discipline. They completed this training in military communes where all boys were kept together, away from their families.

A Spartan education emphasized strength and rigorous discipline. Boys were trained in weights and gymnastics; they were taught the value of survival by being sent out to forage and hunt for themselves.

Respect for authority was crucial, as Spartan boys were taught strict obedience to their trainers. In addition, they had to prove their endurance to pain through beatings and floggings.

Though required to show obedience, Spartan boys were also trained to steal, undetected, in order to provide for themselves. This ensured survival skills, as well as stealth. Since the Spartans carried no food provisions with them into war, they had to rely on finding it wherever possible during military campaigns.

The goal of Spartan boys was to steal without being caught, or else face a harsh punishment. A story by Plutarch recounts the extreme level of discipline required of Spartan youths: and the lengths to which they took it.

According to Plutarch “So seriously do Spartan children go about their stealing that a boy, having stolen a young fox and hid it under his cloak, let it tear out his guts with its teeth and claws and died right there, rather than let it be seen” (Carr, The Boy and the Fox). This was seen as a model of bravery for other Spartan boys to follow.

Spartan girls were likewise trained to be physically fit, but not for war or protecting their homeland. Instead they were bred for the purpose of reproduction: producing a strong, healthy (and preferably male) heir was integral to preserving the state. It was so much a requirement that mothers were encouraged not to become too attached to their children, since infants judged as “unfit” by the council of elders could be thrown over a cliff (Cline 119). As far as marriage went, Spartans could wed by 20 but would not live with their wives until 30.

Military society was designed to create a citizenry of equals, or homoioi,defined by their prowess in war (Scheidel 190). Unlike Athens they had a permanent system of military mobilization that was deeply ingrained in tradition.

While egalitarian in nature and ideology, Sparta may have been less so in actual practice. Scheidel’s notes indicate that Spartan property, imagined in equal portions, was always private and distributed unequally. One of the reasons for this is that land allotments were fluid, and could be passed down through generations. Inheritance leads to concentration of land, rather than distribution.

Also, Spartan citizenship depended on each person’s contribution to mess halls. If their wealth declined to the point where they could no longer contribute, they lost their status. Thus these mess requirements, according to Scheidel, were effectively “regressive” as they imposed “fixed levies regardless of personal wealth” on the Spartan population (Scheidel 192).

Gradually wealth concentration diminished the Spartan citizenry over time, from 8,000 in 480 BCE, to no more than 700 by the 240s BCE (Scheidel 191). Egalitarian norms and forced redistribution may have sustained the Spartan war machine but in the lack of progressive reforms, they failed to equalize to the same extent Athens did.

In the case of Athens and Sparta, the equality experiment succeeded in two separate ways: theory and practice. Mass mobilization advanced and sustained them in both cases, giving credence to Scheidel’s theory of wars as an equalizing force. Nonetheless one case is clearly more apparent as a model of pre-modern democracy.

Quite simply, Athens “did it better” because it conceived the state as parts of a whole, not a whole of parts. And it did so on a wider array of fronts, from politics and law to military and income. For all its shortcomings, the Athenian state was much closer than Sparta to a full, pre-modern democracy.


Scheidel, Walter. (2017). The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Cline, Diane Harris. (2016). The Greek: An Illustrated History. Washington, DC: National Geographic Partners

Martin, Thomas R. “Spartan Oligarchy”, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander. Perseus Digital Library Project. Retrieved from:

Spartan Iron Currency, “Encyclopedia of Money”. Retrieved from:

Gerber, H. A. (2013). The Story of the Greeks. The Baldwin Project. Retrieved from:

Carr, K.E. “The Boy and the Fox”. Quatr.Us Study Guides. Retrieved from:


About achavers22

I am a young writer: very ambitious and always trying to come up with new ideas, while working with the ones I have. I really love sci-fi, fantasy, and any type of fiction. And I'm a huge movie lover so you may see me posting impassioned reviews of films I've watched. And I love to read in my spare time (classics, history, fiction, etc.). Reading really helps me to sharpen my writing skills. Other than that I'm usually on my iPod, laptop, plumbing through 70s music. Disclaimer: my blog does not take credit for pictures that appear in posts. If you are the owner of any of the images and do not wish them to be posted here please let me know via email:
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