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Ancient and modern

What would Jon Snow have said about the Athenian assembly?

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow announced at a recent ‘Leave’ rally that he had never seen so many white people in one place. But political action is above race, colour or creed, and different interest groups are essential to democracy. So what was it about all these citizens? Too ‘unrepresentative’? Too ill-educated? Too (oh horrors) poor? Snow would have been aghast at what the consequences of such a dreadful mob were in Athens of the 5th-4th c bc.

In the world’s first and last direct, radical democracy, Athenian citizens, defined as Athenian males over the age of 18, met in assembly every eight days to make final decisions about every issue put before them. On technical matters, we are told, only technical experts would receive a hearing. On matters of policy, however, it was open house for any ‘carpenter, metal-worker, leather-cutter, merchant or ship-owner, rich or poor, high or low-born’ to have his say. One can see why Snow would have been appalled.


But it gets worse. Since the assembly was open to all citizens, it was dominated by the poor. The poor, therefore, could make all decisions in their own favour. And they did. At various times they legislated that the state should pay for their jury service and attendance at assemblies, and that the rich should pay for their cultural extravaganzas (tragic, comic and musical competitions). In times of war, the rich paid for repairing and equipping triremes and paying the crew (all poor citizens), while other taxes on the rich were levied for wider purposes, with occasional emergency taxes too. As an ancient author moaned, ‘That is why the poor and common people in Athens rightly have more power than the noble and rich’; a comic poet made a character wonder ‘When will we get a break from trireme — and other special taxes clearing us out?’

This, then, was the obviously catastrophic result of radical democracy in times of peace, but especially during periods of mobilisation for war: total citizen power over state expenditure and the fortunes of the wealthy, leading to relative inequalities of wealth at, by modern standards, impossibly low levels. Not a world, one imagines, in which the likes of Jon Snow would feel at home.


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