A key development in Ancient Greece is the establishment of democracy, albeit to a privileged section of the population. Athenian democracy was thus the earliest instance of this noble institution, whose example continues to inspire and encourage contemporary nation states in various parts of the world. Although, it might appear counter-intuitive at first, the fact that Ancient Greece was an established empire had what facilitated the flourishing of democracy during the period. For example, one of the major developments during the Hellenistic Age was the phenomenon of empire formation. Ancient Athens was truly one of the early models of capital imperialist cities, whose place would later be taken by Rome. Looking retrospectively, historians regard the empires of Romans and Greeks as pinnacles of human achievement. (Nikolaos, 2005, p.45)
Critics point out to the entrenched practices of slavery, brutality and exploitation that were part of the process of empire formation. But the emperors of Ancient Greece saw it in a benign light – equating it to “teaching civilized ways to primitive people”, “helping universal salvation through the spread of moral codes”, etc. More importantly, the political stability afforded by the sizeable empire made it easy for the nurturing of democratic processes within the domain, especially in its capital city. The internal organization within Athens also contributed towards its successful practice of democracy. In other words, the state of harmony and wilful co-operation that existed among the subjects of the kingdom helped it set about on their imperialist adventure. A common identity, feelings of brotherhood, voluntary co-operation and a uniting heritage; they all helped lay the foundation for implementing democracy while also building the empire. Such qualifiers as culture, language and economic life too helped build unity. (Austin, 1981, p.78)
But, this is not to say that political dissent was always welcome by the rulers. The tragic execution of Socrates illustrates this point. Socrates was brought to trial by the democratic Athenian jury, which had scores to settle with prominent members of the previous regime. Socrates’ association with the previous regime made him a target of persecution, irrespective of the validity of the alleged charges. He was accused of undermining religious and state authority and for also corrupting the minds of Athenians. But in reality, Socrates made no deliberate attempts to bring down the religious, state authorities. Instead, he encouraged his students to adopt a critical approach to moral actions, also suggesting that the Athenian rulers themselves are not exempt from such scrutiny. This shows that hypocrisy and double standards were evident in Ancient Greece. And ostracism and political exile (if not public execution) were employed to keep the population and courtiers under control. (Austin, 1981, p.223)
Ackrill, J. L. (1981). Aristotle the Philosopher. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Bakalis Nikolaos, (2005), Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing ISBN 1-4120-4843-5
Austin, Michel M., The Hellenistic world from Alexander to the Roman conquest: a selection of ancient sources in translation, Cambridge University Press, 1981. ISBN 0521228298