Democracy in Athens

The Agora, Athens, April 2010.

“What a way to spend your holiday!” a tourist shouts down from the street.  We’re several meters below him, chipping away at the earth with our picks before sweeping it into a pan where we can sift through it for pottery and coins.  A graduate student in Ancient History, I’ve joined the American excavation in the Athenian Agora for a season and have started to wonder myself about how this constitutes a vacation.  Though this summer’s been unusually mild, the Greek sun still pushes the temperature well past thirty degrees Celsius most days, and instead of lying under a beach umbrella with a cold drink, I’m hacking at layers of earth that settled sometime in the twelfth century AD.  But several meters below us, we know, are the remains of the Painted Stoa, where the ancient Athenians displayed paintings commemorating their greatest military victories.

The Agora was at the heart of classical Athens, the city where Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King, where Aristophanes indulged in scatological humor, and where Plato and Aristotle set up the earliest institutes of higher learning.  The Agora was primarily a marketplace but also functioned as public space, and was surrounded by the shrines and administrative buildings of the democratic state, which flourished here in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.  It’s in the Agora that one of the distinctive practices of the democracy took place, voting on whether to “ostracize” (that is, send into temporary exile) politicians who had incurred the people’s displeasure.  Hundreds of ostraka, sherds of pottery with the names of statesmen scratched onto them, have been found by my predecessors on the excavation, which began in 1931.


Why are there Americans digging in the middle of Athens?  There’s a long answer and a short answer to that question.  The long answer is that by the 19th century, educated Europeans (and North Americans) had long since decided that they owed their politics and a good deal of their culture to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome.  As a corollary, demonstrating that you belonged in the club of civilized nations meant advertising your commitment to classical antiquity.  By the second half of the century, the great powers were founding foreign schools in Athens as launch-pads for excavations and explorations further afield.  The German Archaeological Institute was founded in 1874, the American School opened its doors in 1881, and the British established their center in 1886.

At the same time, there was a scramble to establish claims on sites that held the promise of concealing the most spectacular remains of the ancient past.  The British were the first to Knossos, where Sir Arthur Evans uncovered evidence of a previously unknown civilization (the Minoans) based around vast palaces which collected and redistributed resources.  The French set up camp in Delphi, a sanctuary to Apollo centered on the god’s infallible (if often obscure) oracle and sacred to all Greeks. In Athens itself, the Germans established themselves in the ancient graveyard and potter’s quarter of the Kerameikos, and the Americans got down to work in the area they felt certain must lay over the classical Agora.

In other words, there are Americans in the Agora partly because of a tradition of Western nations looking for themselves in classical Greece.  That’s the long answer.  The short answer is: money.  Though everything we dig up belongs to the Greek state (and ultimately to the people of Greece), the excavation is funded entirely by American money.  (In the early days, John D. Rockefeller paid the bills; now the excavation is supported mainly by the Packard Humanities Institute.)  There are some fine archaeologists in Greece, but it’s a small country, and it doesn’t have the personnel or resources to excavate all of the astounding number of ancient sites on its territory in the expensively scientific manner demanded by modern archaeology.  Especially in the context of the debt crisis, granting permits to the foreign archaeological schools to undertake excavations on Greek sites with overseas funding makes a lot of sense.


Why have the excavations in the Agora been going on for such a long time—eighty years and counting?  Haven’t they found everything by now?  And if not, why not?  That excavations are ongoing is primarily a function of the Agora’s importance to the ancient Athenian democratic state, and by extension to our understanding of its history.  In past decades, archeologists working here have excavated the Tholos, the round building where Athens’ steering committee used to dine at public expense (and where a third of them would sleep, ready to deal with emergency business at any time).  They’ve excavated the Royal Stoa, where one of Athens’ most important officials, the King Archon, had his offices (the title was purely symbolic; Athens, as one of the world’s first democracies, had of course no real king).  They’ve partially excavated the Sanctuary of the Twelve Gods, sacred to the Olympian pantheon and now the subject of litigation by neo-pagans against the Greek government, which wants to cover its recently discovered altar up again.  (A major metro line runs right beside it, and the government wants to press ahead with scheduled renovations).

The Agora, then, isn’t really an archaeological site—it’s several archaeological sites.  And there’s plenty of work left to do; the season lasts for eight weeks every summer.  Today I’ve woken up at six in the morning, as usual, to be ready to start digging at seven.  I’ve worked through the relatively cool morning, cherishing my half-hour lunch break at eleven before heading back to the trench to dig and sweep under the raging afternoon sun for two and a half more hours.  When the bells of the nearby church ring for two o’clock, I climb up from the trench and put away my tools.  Then I trudge towards the iron gate separating what remains of the ancient city of Athens from its bustling modern successor.  Overtaking tourists and stepping nimbly around beggars, I walk past the rows of cafés on Adrianou, the souvenir shops on Monastiraki Square, and the clothing stores that line Ermou.

Greece is a country of contradictions, nowhere more so than in its chaotic capital.  You’re clearly in the rich West—all the designer brands on the clothes of the people bustling past you make you pretty sure of that, as do the Mercedes and BMWs that whizz by on the streets.  At the same time, the sidewalks where Athens’ elegant denizens strut their stuff are often overgrown with weeds, and the streets are a cacophony of car horns and road rage.  Everywhere you go in central Athens, the contrast between private affluence and public squalor, between the immaculate self-presentation of individuals and an apparently dysfunctional society, is stark.  It’s particularly glaring in the upmarket neighborhood of Kolonaki, where the American School is located, as well as many of the flats we excavators are living in for the summer.   To get there I have to walk through Syntagma Square, which opens onto the national parliament and has turned into a gathering point for those protesting against the austerity measures proposed by the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.


I pass through the square virtually every day.  Sometimes I skirt the northern edge of the space, where the marble steps of the Hotel Grande Bretagne are constantly being repaired after another round of protests.  This time I go through the middle of the square.  On both sides of me, there are makeshift campsites with dozens of tents; I catch sight of a guy with dreadlocks lazing about in a hammock slung between two trees.  I linger a while at a table stacked with leaflets under a banner reading ‘Real Democracy’ and strike up a conversation with one of the protestors, a middle-aged man who looks as dirty as I am but speaks decent English.  He offers me a biscuit, which I accept, and a cigarette, which I decline, and begins to talk, at first calmly, then more excitedly, about the debt crisis, his country, and the reigning political order.

George (for that was his name, though it hardly blows his cover in Athens) wanted above all to make one thing clear: the Greeks don’t owe anybody anything.  He had three ways of getting back to this conclusion, and seized hold of them whenever the conversation threatened to stray away from it. First, the Germans never compensated the Greeks for the damage they did in World War II; second, the terms of the loans the Greeks took out were unfair; and third, the loans were arranged by politicians but will have to be paid back by ordinary people.  I responded briefly to some of his points, and interjected a few comments of my own, but for the most part I was content to hear him out.

I found it hard to agree with George’s first two points.  Last year, Greece’s Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos accused Germany of failing to pay Greece any reparations for its brutal occupation of the country seventy years ago.  The German foreign ministry quickly issued a rebuttal, claiming that Germany had paid around 115 million Deutschmarks to Greece in formal war reparations in 1960, and adding that some 30 billion more had flowed from Berlin to Athens in European Union transfers since then.  This has since been contested, even by some Germans, such as Albrecht Ritschl, a financial historian at the London School of Economics.  But saying that the Greeks don’t owe Germany anything is something of a red herring, since even if they didn’t, they would still owe huge amounts to other creditors, from individuals to banks, in other wealthy countries, especially France.

George made his second point with particular vividness.  “If I can’t pay you back money you’ve lent me, and you come to my house, kill my children, and fuck my wife, would you consider that fair?”  I assumed he was referring to the austerity measures demanded by foreign financial institutions, but the analogy seemed to me far-fetched.  But that hasn’t stopped some commentators from taking up similar lines of argument.  Thomas Fricke, the editor of the German edition of the Financial Times, has insisted that his countrymen, who claim to be helping the Greeks, are actually helping themselves since their “bailout” loans will have to be paid back in time, with interest.  But creditors charge interest because lending money entails the risk that they’ll never see it again; it may be profit, but it’s hardly theft.  And the German bailouts do help the Greeks, because nobody in their right minds would lend them money nowadays without being muscled into it.


All the same, George’s third point struck a chord with me.  Every day after digging, the two Greek girls in our team go to their other jobs, putting in six-hour shifts on top of their seven hours in the trenches.  Today’s generation of Greeks is being made to pay for economic decisions they never sanctioned; at most, they voted in political parties who were then given something close to a free hand with the economy for years at a time.  I could have put to George that his compatriots also benefited from the loans their politicians took out for the past decade, but that didn’t ring true: rather than investing in infrastructure and industry, successive governments blew money on prestige projects like the Olympics.  If George wasn’t entirely clear on why the crisis was happening, he felt sure—and increasingly frustrated—that he and his fellow citizens had almost no power over the events that were shaping their lives.

Why is Greece going bust?  On the simplest level, it’s going bust for the same reason that you and I would go bust: because it’s spending more money than it makes.  (As Aristotle put it two and a half thousand years ago, there are two ways to get richer: increasing income and decreasing expenditure. Greece currently has a lot of expenditures and not much income.)  It’s spending so much money now mainly because it has to pay back all the money it has borrowed over the last decade, with interest.  This makes you want to ask two questions.  First, why did Greece borrow so much money?  And second, why does it not make enough now to pay all that money back?

The answer to the first question is easy. Greece borrowed so much money primarily because it could.  It could because on January 1, 2002, Greece became one of the first countries to adopt a new currency, the Euro.  Since investors figured that the other members of the EU would never allow one of their kind to default on its loans, they were happy to lend Greece money.  At the same time, the Euro ensured that interest rates that were suitable only for central European manufacturers would also apply in southern Europe.  The Greeks—along with the Portuguese, Spanish, and Irish—borrowed vast sums of money at the new, attractive rates of interest.

The second question isn’t so easy to answer. Greece can’t make enough money to pay off the debts it then incurred for a range of reasons.  Some are peculiarly Greek–Greece suffers from higher levels of official corruption and tax evasion than most of its EU peers.  But others can again be traced to Greece’s adoption of the Euro a decade ago.  When Greece still had the Drachma, it could depreciate its currency to make tourism and its few exports more competitive on the global market (since a weaker currency makes things cheaper).  With the Euro, that familiar, handy tool of monetary policy was pushed beyond the country’s reach.

Though Euro-skeptics in the UK and elsewhere can paint an exaggerated picture of the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’—all its key treaties have, at the very least, been ratified by the elected parliaments of its various member states—it’s hard to deny that the common currency was mainly the creation of a idealistic political elite, who saw in the Euro the culmination of the decades-long progress of once belligerent states into ever closer union.  Though the national governments of the EU’s member nations agreed to move towards a single currency in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, only one country—Denmark—has so far held a referendum on the adoption of the Euro. They rejected it. (The UK obtained an opt-out from the Euro provisions under the terms of the treaty.)

The rest of Europe’s political leaders, when they adopted the Euro, made a hugely consequential economic decision on their people’s behalf.  It looks increasingly certain that they also made an enormous mistake, the kind of mistake that the economic technocrats who have been trusted to run the show were, almost by definition, not expected to make.  Increasingly, the sovereign debt crisis is leading Europeans to question the assumptions supporting the political structures currently in place at both the international and national levels.


The argument that direct democracy doesn’t work is often founded on individual policy errors committed by participatory systems.  Athenian democracy was clearly faulty, it’s often said, because otherwise it never would have made the mistake of condemning the saintly Socrates to death or pursuing a wasteful, suicidal war against Sparta. Recently, the Economist denounced participatory elements in Californian democracy because of various questionable ballot initiatives (such as Proposition 13, which restricted certain types of taxation, making it difficult to balance budgets without cutting social programs).

But it may be unrealistic to judge political systems against ideal orders in which nothing ever goes wrong, and more helpful to assess them against their alternatives in the real world.  Trying to assess direct democracies in this light doesn’t mean forgetting that the Athenians forced their greatest philosopher to drink hemlock, or denying that Californians have sometimes come up with the wrong answers in their referenda.  But it does encourage us to remember that the political leaders of our quasi-democratic representative systems also make mistakes—quite a lot of them, in fact, and some of them quite serious.

When I asked George what system he would prefer to Greece’s current representative order, he said, “the system of Pericles.”  (I took this to be shorthand for classical democracy in general, and not as excluding certain innovations, like paying citizens for attending the popular assembly, that were introduced after the statesman’s death during the plague in 429 BC.)  I told him I shared his enthusiasm for ancient participatory politics, provided that women were enfranchised and there weren’t any slaves.  I was particularly quick to suggest these conditions, because the criticism most commonly leveled against the classical Athenian constitution is that a system in which only a tiny male elite was allowed to participate was a democracy in name only.

It’s true that only adult, male citizens were allowed to participate in the city-state’s politics.  It’s also true that the adult, male citizens made up only between 10 and 20 percent of the total population, which also included women and children of citizen class, slaves, and resident foreigners.  And it’s also true that no matter how impressive the rights to political involvement a particular society confers upon its citizens, there’s a point at which it can’t seriously be called democratic if its definition of citizenship is too restricted.  For a simple reductio ad absurdum of the alternative position (that all you need for democracy is to grant full powers of participation to all citizens, however few), consider Athens’ sometime enemy, Persia.  You could say that Persia provided impressive powers to all its citizens—it’s just that there happened to be only one of them, the emperor.  But it would be hard to find anybody, either in Herodotus’ world or our own, who would call Persia democratic.

Despite all this, classical Athens remains an important example of direct democracy, one that the politicians in Greece’s Parliament might well profit from thinking about just as much as the protestors outside.  The Athenian achievement needs to be seen in its proper context, some two and a half millennia before the evolution of our modern, representative democracies. The great civilizations of the Near East had without exception been sharply hierarchic in structure, headed by kings or emperors who justified their positions by claiming a special relationship with the gods.  Against this backdrop, the appearance of egalitarian city-states run by thousands of citizens enjoying equal rights among themselves should seem nothing short of miraculous.

But we should also beware of being too cocky—and too complacent—about the democratic credentials of our own societies.  Sure, slavery has for the most part vanished from first-world nations, and in them women have long since gained full political rights.  But though these rights were hard-won, it’s questionable how much actual power over state policy they’ve really brought us.  In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau mocked the English for thinking themselves free all the time, when in fact they were free only once every four years during elections for parliament.  Two and a half centuries later, not much has changed, in England, America, or in Greece.  The votes guaranteed to modern Athenians gave them almost no control whatsoever over their country’s entry into the Euro or over its level of debt.  And that goes a long way towards explaining why there are so many angry citizens in Syntagma Square.


In classical Athens, the citizens themselves formulated, debated, and voted on policies in every sphere of action, from religion to war.  There were two main institutions.  In the Council, citizens chosen by lot from Athens’ constituent villages would prepare motions for the people and act as an executive body taking care of various sorts of state business (such as entertaining foreign embassies).  The popular Assembly would then debate and vote on the motions put to it by the Council—on whether to go to war with Sparta, say.  (The Assembly was open to any citizen to attend; the usual attendance seems to have been around 5000.)  Any citizen could show up, make a speech, and vote, regardless of wealth or background.  Picture to yourself regular referenda in America on such matters as whether to go to war in Iraq, and you’ll have some idea of the gulf separating ancient and modern conceptions of democracy.

You’ll also have some idea of the impracticality of reviving ancient institutions in a modern context.  A lot of things have changed since the 5th century BC (I know—I’ve been digging through all the dirt that has settled since then).  For a start, modern nation-states are almost inconceivably large compared to ancient city-states, which Aristotle characterized as places where there wasn’t anyone you didn’t recognize (though Athens itself was a sort of super city-state, with about 40,000 citizens at its peak in the 5th century BC).  How is it possible to have a meeting at which modern America’s three hundred million citizens deliberate about policy?  Then there is the problem of technical progress.  The most advanced item of technology the ancient Athenians used was probably the trireme, a lightning-quick warship with three banks of rowers.  Athenians citizens rowed the ships themselves, and probably had a pretty good grasp of how they worked.  But are modern citizens really clued up enough about the latest military hardware to make good decisions about ordering stealth bombers?

Anyone who wants classically inspired participatory democracy to be taken seriously will have to think hard about these problems and others.  All the same, some modern communities—from New England towns to Swiss cantons—are run in ways strikingly similar to ancient Greek city-states and offer heartening counters to charges of impracticality.  Switzerland in particular is a fine example of how a principle of subsidiarity—nesting smaller communities within larger ones—can permit strong forms of democracy at local levels while capturing the benefits of scale provided by a united nation-state.  And recent developments in mass collaboration—most famously exemplified by, yes, Wikipedia—have suggested that given meticulous institutional design, expert knowledge can make itself heard above the din of uninformed opinion on subjects of technical complexity.

Few people would advocate reviving classical participatory institutions in their precise ancient forms.  All the same, the ancient Greek democratic experience remains one that is “good to think with,” as Josiah Ober, a political scientist at Stanford, likes to say.  In the past few decades, political philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas have articulated an ideal of deliberative democracy in which decisions would be made by citizens engaging in discussions grounded in reason, evidence, and mutual respect.  It’s a noble ideal but may not commit strongly enough to what many would take to be a necessary ingredient in any genuine concept of democracy—the regular and substantive participation of ordinary people in government.  If ancient Athens is still relevant to its modern successor, and if the excavators in the Agora have anything to offer to the protestors in Syntagma, it may be this—an actual, historical society where people (or men at least) came as close as we’ve ever come to combining deliberative rationality with the regular participation of the masses.


The day after I talked to George, I was sent to wash some of the pottery we’d dug up.  Washing pottery is a pleasant enough task, especially compared to digging.  You sit with two or three other excavators around a big tub of water, picking up muddy sherds of pottery from one bucket, cleaning them with a toothbrush, and putting them into another bucket.  After we get through a bucket, we’ll lay out the sherds on a rack so that our trench supervisors can get an idea of what century we’ve gotten to in the stratigraphy.  That day I was huddled around a tub with a couple of Athenian students and got to hear what they thought about the University of Athens, archaeology in Greece, and the current Greek government.  (They didn’t think much of it.)

As we walked across Monastiraki Square at the end of the day, one of my Greek colleagues got a phone call.  She said it was a friend telling her to come join the protests at Syntagma.  I’d heard that there would be protests that day, though the crunch vote on the austerity measures wouldn’t take place till the day after. We went up Ermou until we hit Philhellenon, which seemed to have turned into a boundary between the rest of the city and the square, now full of protestors milling around.  As we crossed it, a man in a mask came up to my friend with a bottle and sprayed water on her face.  He then turned to me, gave me time to shut my eyes, and pulled the trigger twice.  When I looked over at my friend she had what looked like white stage make-up on.  It was Maalox, a stomach medicine the protestors believe mitigates the effects of tear-gas.

When we got closer to the Parliament building I wished her well and turned towards home.  Though I’d sympathized the day before with George the protestor’s desire for more popular rule, our conversation had made it pretty clear that I didn’t agree with many of the other points on the protestors’ agenda.  More than that, as I listened to the crowds chanting slogans at the police, I wondered how close demonstrations like this one really came to the ideal alloy of popular participation and deliberative articulacy.  And in any case, the big day was tomorrow.  That much was clear even at six the following morning, as I tried to make my way through Syntagma and was turned away by a dozen or so policemen backed up by three or four armored vans.  When I tried to walk through the square after work the same way I had the day before, I realized immediately that things were different this time.

This time the square was overflowing with people, many of them made up with Maalox.  I passed a tall, bald German man talking loudly in a reporter’s tones into a cell phone, then a young Greek man shouting at a group of others, presumably urging them on to some great deed.  I tried to make my way towards Kolonaki, where I live, but the northeast corner of the square turned out to be where a lot of the action was.  People in the crowd were throwing stones from six or seven rows back at a phalanx of policemen who were moving towards them.  After a while the police shot tear-gas canisters at the front row of protestors, which made most of them turn around and move towards where I was, a hundred or so meters back.  After a few seconds, everyone around me also turned, and started walking westwards, out of the square.

I had to turn around too.  Swept up in the crowd, I began walking more quickly now, my nose and mouth starting to tingle with the peppery taste of tear-gas.  I jumped as the stun grenades the police were firing exploded behind me.  At this point a column of about a dozen policemen made their way through the crowd from the opposite direction, apparently on their way to Parliament.  The people around me booed and hissed at them; some threw bottles or stones at them from a few feet away.  I gradually made my way through the crowds to Panepistimiou, one of the last streets I needed to cross before I was back in perpetually unperturbed Kolonaki.  Beyond the piles of garbage people had set on fire in the street, I could see the frontline of the battle between the police and the protestors.  I felt a surge of sympathy and excitement inside me, urging me to join them.  Was this the moment when my theory would finally issue in practice, when I would finally take action to make democracy, people power, mean what it says once more?

I crossed the street and didn’t look back.  Though I’m convinced that participatory reforms are the only way of bridging the gulf that currently separates masses from elites in our quasi-democratic systems, I also believe that our polities are just about open and accountable enough to make violence unacceptable as a means of achieving change.  At the head of the protesting crowds I’d seen a huge banner reading AMESI DIMOKRATIA—direct democracy—but the bold slogan was clouded by tear-gas and wilting under the impact of the stones that people were hurling at the police.  The following day, George and his friends would continue to camp out in Syntagma, debating the future and fighting every new measure by the Papandreou government.  I, meanwhile, would be in the Agora, monotonously and painstakingly sweeping dust off stones, all pieces of a bigger picture that might show us how the ancients could do something we now can’t.

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