Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ The Dangers of Bad Government.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of March 26, 2003
page 22 of 23
The Athenians themselves were well aware of the potential dangers of direct democracy as exercised by the Assembly, and the orators, particularly, mention them often. Demosthenes says, “A man can do no greater wrong than by telling lies to a popular assembly; for, where the political system is based upon speeches, how can it be safely administered if the speeches are false?” (Dem. 19.184). He complains of partisanship and the dangers it poses to orderly process: “You conduct your politics by syndicates (συμμορίας); each syndicate has an orator for chairman, with a general under him, and three hundred to do the shouting.” (Dem. 2.29). He complains that the Assembly was given to hysteria, describing how, on one occasion, someone broke into the Parthenon and stole a few oars, and at the ensuing meeting of the Assembly “all those coming forward to speak” (οἱ παριόντες ἅπαντες) cried that the democracy was overthrown and all the laws were null and void (Dem. 13.14). Aeschines complains that actions by the Assembly could interfere with justice, noting an occasion on which a jury acquitted someone of corruption, not based on the evidence, but on the fact that the Assembly, earlier, had awarded him a crown (Aeschin. 3.10). He also complains of the reverse, that lawsuits (or the threat thereof) could stand in the way of proper deliberation in the Assembly (Aeschin. 3.146).
The most famous example of the Assembly behaving rashly and inconsistently comes from Xenophon. He describes the case of the generals at the battle of Arginousae in
Plot on a Map
The affair of the Arginousae generals was one of the darkest moments of the Athenian democracy, an over-reaction following the temporary oligarchic revolution of
page 22 of 23