Reverse of a denarius minted by Lucius Cassius Longinus in 63 BC, depicting a Roman citizen casting a ballot into an urn.[1]

A democracy is a political system, or a system of decision-making within an institution, organization, or state, in which members have a share of power.[2] Modern democracies are characterized by two capabilities of their citizens that differentiate them fundamentally from earlier forms of government: to intervene in society and have their sovereign (e.g., their representatives) held accountable to the international laws of other governments of their kind. Democratic government is commonly juxtaposed with oligarchic and monarchic systems, which are ruled by a minority and a sole monarch respectively.

Democracy is generally associated[vague] with the efforts of the ancient Greeks, whom 18th-century intellectuals[who?] considered the founders of Western civilization. These individuals attempted to leverage these early democratic experiments into a new template for post-monarchical political organization.[3][page needed] The extent to which these 18th-century democratic revivalists succeeded in turning the democratic ideals of the ancient Greeks into the dominant political institution of the next 300 years is hardly debatable, even if the moral justifications they often employed might be. Nevertheless, the critical historical juncture catalyzed by the resurrection of democratic ideals and institutions fundamentally transformed the ensuing centuries and has dominated the international landscape since the dismantling of the final vestige of the empire following the end of the Second World War.

Modern representative democracies attempt to bridge the gap between Rousseau's depiction of the state of nature and Hobbes's depiction of society as inevitably authoritarian through 'social contracts' that enshrine the rights of the citizens, curtail the power of the state, and grant agency through the right to vote.[4]


Prehistoric origins

Anthropologists have identified forms of proto-democracy that date back to small bands of hunter-gatherers that predate the establishment of agrarian, sedentary societies and still exist virtually unchanged[disputed ] in isolated indigenous groups today. In these groups of generally 50-100 individuals, often tied closely by familial bonds, decisions are reached by consensus or majority and many times without the designation of any specific chief.[4]

These types of democracy are commonly identified as tribalism, or primitive democracy. In this sense, a primitive democracy usually takes shape in small communities or villages when there are face-to-face discussions in a village, council or with a leader who has the backing of village elders or other cooperative forms of government.[5] This becomes more complex on a larger scale, such as when the village and city are examined more broadly as political communities. All other forms of rule – including monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, and oligarchy – have flourished in more urban centers, often those with concentrated populations.[6]

The concepts (and name) of democracy and constitution as a form of government originated in ancient Athens circa 508 BCE. In ancient Greece, where there were many city-states with different forms of government, democracy was contrasted with governance by elites (aristocracy), by one person (monarchy), by tyrants (tyranny), etc.

Potential proto-democratic societies

Although fifth-century BC Athens is widely considered to have been the first state to develop a sophisticated system of rule that we today call democracy,[7][8][9][10][11][12] in recent decades scholars have explored the possibility that advancements toward democratic government occurred independently in the Near East, the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere before this.[13]


The practice of "governing by assembly" was at least part of how ancient Phoenicians made important decisions. One source is the story of Wen-Amon, an Egyptian trader who travelled north to the Phoenician city of Byblos around 1100 BCE to trade for Phoenician lumber. After loading his lumber, a group of pirates surrounded Wen-Amon and his cargo ship. The Phoenician prince of Baylon was called in to fix the problem, whereupon he summoned his mw-'dwt, an old Semitic word meaning assembly, to reach a decision. This shows that Byblos was ruled in part by a popular assembly (drawn from what subpopulation and equipped with exactly what power is not known exactly).[14]


The tablet containing the epic of Gilgamesh

Studying pre-Babylonian Mesopotamia, Thorkild Jacobsen used Sumerian epic, myth, and historical records to identify what he has called primitive democracy. By this, Jacobsen means a government in which ultimate power rests with the mass of free (non-slave) male citizens, although "the various functions of government are as yet little specialised [and] the power structure is loose". In early Sumer, kings like Gilgamesh did not hold the autocratic power that later Mesopotamian rulers wielded. Rather, major city-states functioned with councils of elders and "young men" (likely free men bearing arms) that possessed the final political authority, and had to be consulted on all major issues such as war.[15][16]

The work has gained little outright acceptance. Scholars criticize the use of the word "democracy" in this context since the same evidence also can be interpreted to demonstrate a power struggle between primitive monarchy and noble classes, a struggle in which the common people function more like pawns rather than any kind of sovereign authority.[17] Jacobsen conceded that the vagueness of the evidence prohibits the separation between the Mesopotamian democracy from a primitive oligarchy.[18]

Indian subcontinent

Another claim for early democratic institutions comes from the independent "republics" of India, saṅghas and gaṇas, which existed as early as the 6th century BCE and persisted in some areas until the 4th century. The evidence for this is scattered, however, and no pure historical source exists for that period. In addition, Diodorus—a Greek historian who wrote two centuries after the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of India—mentions, without offering any detail, that independent and democratic states existed in India.[19] Modern scholars note the word democracy at the time of the 3rd century BCE and later suffered from degradation and could mean any autonomous state, no matter how oligarchic in nature.[20][21]

The Mahajanapadas were the sixteen most powerful and vast kingdoms and republics of the era, there were also a number of smaller kingdoms stretching the length and breadth of Ancient India. Among the Mahajanapadas and smaller states, the Shakyas, Koliyas, Mallakas, and Licchavis followed republican government.

Key characteristics of the gaṇa seem to include a monarch, usually known by the name raja, and a deliberative assembly. The assembly met regularly. It discussed all major state decisions. At least in some states, attendance was open to all free men. This body also had full financial, administrative, and judicial authority. Other officers, who rarely receive any mention, obeyed the decisions of the assembly. Elected by the gaṇa, the monarch apparently always belonged to a family of the noble class of Kshatriya Varna. The monarch coordinated his activities with the assembly; in some states, he did so with a council of other nobles.[22] The Licchavis had a primary governing body of 7,077 rajas, the heads of the most important families. On the other hand, the Shakyas, Koliyas, Mallakas, and Licchavis, during the period around Gautama Buddha, had the assembly open to all men, rich and poor.[23] Early "republics" or gaṇasaṅgha,[24] such as Mallakas, centered in the city of Kusinagara, and the Vajji (or Vṛji) League, centered in the city of Vaishali, existed as early as the 6th century BCE and persisted in some areas until the 4th century CE.[25] The most famous clan amongst the ruling confederate tribes of the Vajji Mahajanapada were the Licchavis.[26] The Magadha kingdom included republican communities such as the community of Rajakumara. Villages had their own assemblies under their local chiefs called Gramakas. Their administrations were divided into executive, judicial, and military functions.

Scholars differ over how best to describe these governments, and the vague, sporadic quality of the evidence allows for wide disagreements. Some emphasize the central role of the assemblies and thus tout them as democracies; other scholars focus on the upper-class domination of the leadership and possible control of the assembly and see an oligarchy or an aristocracy.[27][28] Despite the assembly's obvious power, it has not yet been established whether the composition and participation were truly popular. The first main obstacle is the lack of evidence describing the popular power of the assembly. This is reflected in the Arthashastra, an ancient handbook for monarchs on how to rule efficiently. It contains a chapter on how to deal with the sangas, which includes injunctions on manipulating the noble leaders, yet it does not mention how to influence the mass of the citizens—a surprising omission if democratic bodies, not the aristocratic families, actively controlled the republican governments.[29] Another issue is the persistence of the four-tiered Varna class system.[27] The duties and privileges on the members of each particular caste—rigid enough to prohibit someone sharing a meal with those of another order—might have affected the roles members were expected to play in the state, regardless of the formality of the institutions. A central tenet of democracy is the notion of shared decision-making power. The absence of any concrete notion of citizen equality across these caste system boundaries leads many scholars to claim that the true nature of gaṇas and 'saṅghas is not comparable to truly democratic institutions.[28]


Further information: Sparta

Bas-relief of Lycurgus, one of 23 great lawgivers depicted in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives

Ancient Greece, in its early period, was a loose collection of independent city states called poleis. Many of these poleis were oligarchies.[30] The most prominent Greek oligarchy, and the state with which democratic Athens is most often and most fruitfully compared, was Sparta. Yet Sparta, in its rejection of private wealth as a primary social differentiator, was a peculiar kind of oligarchy[31] and some scholars note its resemblance to democracy.[7][32][33] In Spartan government, the political power was divided between four bodies: two Spartan kings (diarchy), gerousia (Council of Gerontes (elders), including the two kings), the ephors (representatives of the citizens who oversaw the kings) and the ecclesia (assembly of Spartans).

The two kings served as the head of the government. They ruled simultaneously, but they came from two separate lines. The dual kingship diluted the effective power of the executive office. The kings shared their judicial functions with other members of the gerousia. The members of the gerousia had to be over the age of 60 and were elected for life. In theory, any Spartan over that age could stand for election. However, in practice, they were selected from wealthy, aristocratic families. The gerousia possessed the crucial power of legislative initiative. Apella, the most democratic element, was the assembly where Spartans above the age of 30 elected the members of the gerousia and the ephors, and accepted or rejected gerousia's proposals.[34] Finally, the five ephors were Spartans chosen in apella to oversee the actions of the kings and other public officials and, if necessary, depose them. They served for one year and could not be re-elected for a second term. Over the years, the ephors held great influence on the formation of foreign policy and acted as the main executive body of the state. Additionally, they had full responsibility for the Spartan educational system, which was essential for maintaining the high standards of the Spartan army. As Aristotle noted, ephors were the most important key institution of the state, but because often they were appointed from the whole social body it resulted in very poor men holding office, with the ensuing possibility that they could easily be bribed.[35][36]

The creator of the Spartan system of rule was the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus. He is associated with the drastic reforms that were instituted in Sparta after the revolt of the helots in the second half of the 7th century BCE. In order to prevent another helot revolt, Lycurgus devised the highly militarized communal system that made Sparta unique among the city-states of Greece. All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity. It is also probable that Lycurgus delineated the powers of the two traditional organs of the Spartan government, the gerousia and the apella.[37]

The reforms of Lycurgus were written as a list of rules/laws called Great Rhetra, making it the world's first written constitution.[38] In the following centuries, Sparta became a military superpower, and its system of rule was admired throughout the Greek world for its political stability.[39] In particular, the concept of equality played an important role in Spartan society. The Spartans referred to themselves as όμοιοι (Homoioi, men of equal status). It was also reflected in the Spartan public educational system, agoge, where all citizens irrespective of wealth or status had the same education.[33] This was admired almost universally by contemporaries, from historians such as Herodotus and Xenophon to philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. In addition, the Spartan women, unlike elsewhere, enjoyed "every kind of luxury and intemperance" including rights such as the right to inheritance, property ownership, and public education.[40]

Overall, the Spartans were relatively free to criticize their kings and they were able to depose and exile them. However, despite these democratic elements in the Spartan constitution, there are two cardinal criticisms, classifying Sparta as an oligarchy. First, individual freedom was restricted, since as Plutarch writes "no man was allowed to live as he wished", but as in a "military camp" all were engaged in the public service of their polis. And second, the gerousia effectively maintained the biggest share of power of the various governmental bodies.[41][42]

The political stability of Sparta also meant that no significant changes in the constitution were made. The oligarchic elements of Sparta became even stronger, especially after the influx of gold and silver from the victories in the Persian Wars. In addition, Athens, after the Persian Wars, was becoming the hegemonic power in the Greek world and disagreements between Sparta and Athens over supremacy emerged. These led to a series of armed conflicts known as the Peloponnesian War, with Sparta prevailing in the end. However, the war exhausted both poleis and Sparta was in turn humbled by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE. It was all brought to an end a few years later, when Philip II of Macedon crushed what remained of the power of the factional city-states to his South.


Further information: Athenian democracy

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze.

Athens is often regarded[i] by western scholars as the birthplace of democracy and remains an important reference point for democracy, as evidenced by the etymological origins of democracy in English and many other languages being traced back to the Greek words dêmos '(common) people' and krátos 'force/might'.[43] Literature about the Athenian democracy spans over centuries with the earliest works being The Republic of Plato and Politics of Aristotle, continuing with Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli.

Athens emerged in the 7th century BCE, like many other poleis, with a dominating powerful aristocracy.[44] However, this domination led to exploitation, creating significant economic, political, and social problems. These problems were exacerbated early in the 6th century; and, as "the many were enslaved to few, the people rose against the notables".[45] At the same time, a number of popular revolutions disrupted traditional aristocracies. This included Sparta in the second half of the 7th century BCE. The constitutional reforms implemented by Lycurgus in Sparta introduced a hoplite state that showed, in turn, how inherited governments can be changed and lead to military victory.[46] After a period of unrest between the rich and poor, Athenians of all classes turned to Solon to act as a mediator between rival factions, and reached a generally satisfactory solution to their problems.[47][48]

Solon and the foundations of democracy

Further information: Solon

Bust of Solon from the National Museum, Naples

Solon (c. 638 – c. 558 BCE), an Athenian (Greek) of noble descent but moderate means, was a lyric poet and later a lawmaker; Plutarch ranked him as one of the Seven Sages of the ancient world.[48] Solon attempted to satisfy all sides by alleviating the suffering of the poor majority without removing all the privileges of the rich minority.[49] Solon divided the Athenians into four property classes, with different rights and duties for each. As the Rhetra did in Lycurgian Sparta, Solon formalized the composition and functions of the governmental bodies. All citizens gained the right to attend the Ecclesia (Assembly) and to vote. The Ecclesia became, in principle, the sovereign body, entitled to pass laws and decrees, elect officials, and hear appeals from the most important decisions of the courts.[48] All but those in the poorest group might serve, a year at a time, on a new Boule of 400, which was to prepare the agenda for the Ecclesia. The higher governmental posts, those of the archons (magistrates), were reserved for citizens of the top two income groups. The retired archons became members of the Areopagus (Council of the Hill of Ares), which like the Gerousia in Sparta, was able to check improper actions of the newly powerful Ecclesia. Solon created a mixed timocratic and democratic system of institutions.[50]

Overall, Solon devised the reforms of 594 BCE to avert the political, economic, and moral decline in archaic Athens and gave Athens its first comprehensive code of law. The constitutional reforms eliminated enslavement of Athenians by Athenians, established rules for legal redress against over-reaching aristocratic archons, and assigned political privileges on the basis of productive wealth rather than of noble birth. Some of Solon's reforms failed in the short term, yet he is often[quantify] credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.[51][52]

Democracy under Cleisthenes and Pericles

See also: Cleisthenes, Ephialtes, and Pericles

The Pnyx with the speaker's platform, the meeting place of the people of Athens

Even though the Solonian reorganization of the constitution improved the economic position of the Athenian lower classes, it did not eliminate the bitter aristocratic contentions for control of the archonship, the chief executive post. Peisistratus became tyrant of Athens three times from 561 BCE and remained in power until his death in 527 BCE. His sons Hippias and Hipparchus succeeded him.[53]

After the fall of tyranny (510 BCE) and before the year 508–507 was over, Cleisthenes proposed a complete reform of the system of government, which later was approved by the popular Ecclesia.[54] Cleisthenes reorganized the population of citizens into ten tribes, with the aim to change the basis of political organization from the family loyalties to political ones,[55] and improve the army's organization.[56] He also introduced the principle of equality of rights for all male citizens, isonomia,[54] by expanding access to power to more citizens.[57] During this period, Athenians first used the word "democracy" (Greek: δημοκρατία – "rule by the people") to define their new system of government.[8] In the next generation, Athens entered its Golden Age, becoming a great center of literature and art.[58] Greek victories in Persian Wars (499–449 BCE) encouraged the poorest Athenians (who participated in the military campaigns) to demand a greater say in the running of their city. In the late 460s, Ephialtes and Pericles presided over a radicalization of power that shifted the balance decisively to the poorest sections of society, by passing laws which severely limited the powers of the Council of the Areopagus and allowed thetes (Athenians without wealth) to occupy public office.[59] Pericles became distinguished as the Athenians' greatest democratic leader, even though he has been accused of running a political machine.[citation needed] In the following passage, Thucydides recorded Pericles, in the funeral oration, describing the Athenian system of rule:

Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life.[60]

A bust of Pericles bearing the inscription "Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian". Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from ca. 430 BCE.

The Athenian democracy of Cleisthenes and Pericles was based on freedom of citizens (through the reforms of Solon) and on equality of citizens (isonomia) - introduced by Cleisthenes and later expanded by Ephialtes and Pericles. To preserve these principles, the Athenians used lot for selecting officials. Casting lots aimed to ensure that all citizens were "equally" qualified for office, and to avoid any corruption allotment machines were used.[61] Moreover, in most positions chosen by lot, Athenian citizens could not be selected more than once; this rotation in office meant that no-one could build up a power base through staying in a particular position.[62]

The courts formed another important political institution in Athens; they were composed of a large number of juries with no judges, and they were selected by lot on a daily basis from an annual pool, also chosen by lot. The courts had unlimited power to control the other bodies of the government and its political leaders.[6] Participation by the citizens selected was mandatory,[63] and a modest financial compensation was given to citizens whose livelihood was affected by being "drafted" to office. The only officials chosen by elections, one from each tribe, were the strategoi (generals), where military knowledge was required, and the treasurers, who had to be wealthy, since any funds revealed to have been embezzled were recovered from a treasurer's private fortune. Debate was open to all present and decisions in all matters of policy were taken by majority vote in the Ecclesia (compare direct democracy), in which all male citizens could participate (in some cases with a quorum of 6000). The decisions taken in the Ecclesia were executed by the Boule of 500, which had already approved the agenda for the Ecclesia. The Athenian Boule was elected by lot every year[64] and no citizen could serve more than twice.[65]

Overall, the Athenian democracy was not only direct in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also directest in the sense that the people through the assembly, boule, and courts of law controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business.[66] And even though the rights of the individual (probably) were not secured by the Athenian constitution in the modern sense,[ii] the Athenians enjoyed their liberties not in opposition to the government, but by living in a city that was not subject to another power and by not being subjects themselves to the rule of another person.[8]

The birth of political philosophy

See also: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

Within the Athenian democratic environment, many philosophers from all over the Greek world gathered to develop their theories. Socrates (470-399 BCE) was the first to raise the question, further expanded by his pupil Plato (died 348/347), about the relation/position of an individual within a community. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) continued the work of his teacher, Plato, and laid the foundations of political philosophy. The political philosophy developed in Athens was, in the words of Peter Hall, "in a form so complete that hardly added anyone of moment to it for over a millennium".[67] Aristotle systematically analyzed the different systems of rule that the numerous Greek city-states had and divided them into three categories based on how many ruled: the many (democracy/polity), the few (oligarchy/aristocracy), a single person (tyranny, or today: autocracy/monarchy). For Aristotle, the underlying principles of democracy are reflected in his work Politics:

Now a fundamental principle of the democratic form of constitution is liberty—that is what is usually asserted, implying that only under this constitution do men participate in liberty, for they assert this as the aim of every democracy. But one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn; for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is the principle of justice prevailing, the multitude must of necessity be sovereign and the decision of the majority must be final and must constitute justice, for they say that each of the citizens ought to have an equal share; so that it results that in democracies the poor are more powerful than the rich, because there are more of them and whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign. This then is one mark of liberty which all democrats set down as a principle of the constitution. And one is for a man to live as he likes; for they say that this is the function of liberty, inasmuch as to live not as one likes is the life of a man that is a slave. This is the second principle of democracy, and from it has come the claim not to be governed, preferably not by anybody, or failing that, to govern and be governed in turns; and this is the way in which the second principle contributes to equalitarian liberty.[68]

Decline, revival, and criticisms

The Athenian democracy, in its two centuries of life-time, twice voted against its democratic constitution (both times during the crisis at the end of the Pelopponesian War of 431 to 404 BCE), establishing first the Four Hundred (in 411 BCE) and second Sparta's puppet régime of the Thirty Tyrants (in 404 BCE). Both votes took place under manipulation and pressure, but democracy was recovered in less than a year in both cases. Reforms following the restoration of democracy after the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants removed most law-making authority from the Assembly and placed it in randomly selected law-making juries known as "nomothetai". Athens restored its democratic constitution again after King Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359-336 BCE) and later Alexander the Great (reigned 336–323 BCE) unified Greece, but it was politically over-shadowed by the Hellenistic empires. Finally, after the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BCE, Athens was restricted to matters of local administration.

However, democracy in Athens declined not only due to external powers, but due to its citizens, such as Plato and his student Aristotle. Because of their influential works, after the rediscovery of classics during the Renaissance, Sparta's political stability was praised,[69][70][9] while the Periclean democracy was described as a system of rule where either the less well-born, the mob (as a collective tyrant), or the poorer classes held power.[8] Only centuries afterwards, after the publication of A History of Greece by George Grote from 1846 onwards, did modern political thinkers start to view the Athenian democracy of Pericles positively.[71] In the late 20th century scholars re-examined the Athenian system of rule as a model of empowering citizens and as a "post-modern" example for communities and organizations alike.[72]


See also: Roman Republic

Rome's history has helped preserve the concept of democracy over the centuries. The Romans invented the concept of classics and many works from Ancient Greece were preserved.[73] Additionally, the Roman model of governance inspired many political thinkers over the centuries,[74] and today's modern (representative) democracies imitate more the Roman than the Greek models.[75]

The Roman Republic

See also: History of the Constitution of the Roman Republic and Elections in the Roman Republic

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th-century fresco.

Rome was a city-state in Italy next to powerful neighbors; Etruscans had built city-states throughout central Italy since the 13th century BCE and in the south were Greek colonies. Similar to other city-states, Rome was ruled by a king elected by the Assemblies. However, social unrest and the pressure of external threats led in 510 BCE the last king to be deposed by a group of aristocrats led by Lucius Junius Brutus.[76][77] A new constitution was crafted, but the conflict between the ruling families (patricians) and the rest of the population, the plebeians continued. The plebs were demanding for definite, written, and secular laws. The patrician priests, who were the recorders and interpreters of the statutes, by keeping their records secret used their monopoly against social change. After a long resistance to the new demands, the Senate in 454 BCE sent a commission of three patricians to Greece to study and report on the legislation of Solon and other lawmakers.[76][77] When they returned, the Assembly in 451 BCE chose ten men – a decemviri – to formulate a new code, and gave them supreme governmental power in Rome for two years. This commission, under the supervision of a resolute reactionary, Appius Claudius, transformed the old customary law of Rome into Twelve Tables and submitted them to the Assembly (which passed them with some changes) and they were displayed in the Forum for all who would and could read. The Twelve Tables recognised certain rights and by the 4th century BCE, the plebs were given the right to stand for consulship and other major offices of the state.

The political structure as outlined in the Roman constitution resembled a mixed constitution[78] and its constituent parts were comparable to those of the Spartan constitution: two consuls, embodying the monarchic form; the Senate, embodying the aristocratic form; and the people through the assemblies.[79] The consul was the highest ranking ordinary magistrate.[80] Consuls had power in both civil and military matters. While in the city of Rome, the consuls were the head of the Roman government and they would preside over the Senate and the assemblies. While abroad, each consul would command an army. The Senate passed decrees, which were called senatus consultum and were official advices to a magistrate. However, in practice, it was difficult for a magistrate to ignore the Senate's advice.[80] The focus of the Roman Senate was directed towards foreign policy. Though it technically had no official role in the management of military conflict, the Senate ultimately was the force that oversaw such affairs. Also, it managed Rome's civil administration. The requirements for becoming a senator included having at least 100,000 denarii worth of land, being born of the patrician (noble aristocrats) class, and having held public office at least once before. New Senators had to be approved by the sitting members.[80] The people of Rome through the assemblies had the final say regarding the election of magistrates, the enactment of new laws, the carrying out of capital punishment, the declaration of war and peace, and the creation (or dissolution) of alliances. Despite the obvious power the assemblies had, in practice, the assemblies were the least powerful of the other bodies of government. An assembly was legal only if summoned by a magistrate[80] and it was restricted from any legislative initiative or the ability to debate. And even the candidates for public office as Livy writes "levels were designed so that no one appeared to be excluded from an election and yet all of the clout resided with the leading men".[81] Moreover, the unequal weight of votes was making a rare practice for asking the lowest classes for their votes.[81][82]

Roman stability, in Polybius' assessment, was owing to the checks each element put on the superiority of any other: a consul at war, for example, required the cooperation of the Senate and the people if he hoped to secure victory and glory, and could not be indifferent to their wishes. This was not to say that the balance was in every way even: Polybius observes that the superiority of the Roman to the Carthaginian constitution (another mixed constitution) at the time of the Hannibalic War was an effect of the latter's greater inclination toward democracy than to aristocracy.[83] Moreover, recent attempts to posit for Rome personal freedom in the Greek sense – eleutheria: living as you like – have fallen on stony ground, since eleutheria (which was an ideology and way of life in the democratic Athens[84]) was anathema in the Roman eyes.[85] Rome's core values included order, hierarchy, discipline, and obedience. These values were enforced with laws regulating the private life of an individual. The laws were applied in particular to the upper classes, since the upper classes were the source of Roman moral examples.

Rome became the ruler of a great Mediterranean empire. The new provinces brought wealth to Italy, and fortunes were made through mineral concessions and enormous slave run estates. Slaves were imported to Italy and wealthy landowners soon began to buy up and displace the original peasant farmers. By the late 2nd century this led to renewed conflict between the rich and poor and demands from the latter for reform of the constitution. The background of social unease and the inability of the traditional republican constitutions to adapt to the needs of the growing empire led to the rise of a series of over-mighty generals, championing the cause of either the rich or the poor, in the last century BCE.

Transition to empire

See also: History of the Roman Empire

A fragment of a bronze equestrian order statue of Augustus, Roman Emperor, 1st century CE.

Over the next few hundred years, various generals would bypass or overthrow the Senate for various reasons, mostly to address perceived injustices, either against themselves or against poorer citizens or soldiers. One of those generals was Julius Caesar, where he marched on Rome and took supreme power over the republic. Caesar's career was cut short by his assassination at Rome in 44 BCE by a group of Senators including Marcus Junius Brutus. In the power vacuum that followed Caesar's assassination, his friend and chief lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, and Caesar's grandnephew Octavian who also was the adopted son of Caesar, rose to prominence. Their combined strength gave the triumvirs absolute power. However, in 31 BCE war between the two broke out. The final confrontation occurred on 2 September 31 BCE, at the naval Battle of Actium where the fleet of Octavian under the command of Agrippa routed Antony's fleet. Thereafter, there was no one left in the Roman Republic who wanted to, or could stand against Octavian, and the adopted son of Caesar moved to take absolute control. Octavian left the majority of Republican institutions intact, though he influenced everything using personal authority and ultimately controlled the final decisions, having the military might to back up his rule if necessary. By 27 BCE the transition, though subtle, disguised, and relying on personal power over the power of offices, was complete. In that year, Octavian offered back all his powers to the Senate, and in a carefully staged way, the Senate refused and titled Octavian Augustus — "the revered one". He was always careful to avoid the title of rex — "king", and instead took on the titles of princeps — "first citizen" and imperator, a title given by Roman troops to their victorious commanders.

The Roman Empire and late antiquity

The Roman Empire had been born. Once Octavian named Tiberius as his heir, it was clear to everyone that even the hope of a restored Republic was dead. Most likely, by the time Augustus died, no one was old enough to know a time before an Emperor ruled Rome. The Roman Republic had been changed into a despotic régime, which, underneath a competent and strong Emperor, could achieve military supremacy, economic prosperity, and a genuine peace, but under a weak or incompetent one saw its glory tarnished by cruelty, military defeats, revolts, and civil war.

Institutions in the medieval era

Further information: Medieval commune

Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker teaches the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung that the power resides with the people in 1018, Uppsala, drawing by C. Krogh, 1899.

Early institutions included:

Indigenous peoples of the Americas

See also: Great Law of Peace § Influence on the United States Constitution

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Professor of anthropology Jack Weatherford has argued that the ideas leading to the United States Constitution and democracy derived from various indigenous peoples of the Americas including the Iroquois. Weatherford speculated that this democracy was founded between the years 1000–1450, that it lasted several hundred years, and that the U.S. democratic system was continually changed and improved by the influence of Native Americans throughout North America.[97]

Elizabeth Tooker, a professor of anthropology at Temple University and an authority on the culture and history of the Northern Iroquois, has reviewed Weatherford's claims and concluded they are myth rather than fact. The idea that North American Indians had a democratic culture is several decades old, but not usually expressed within historical literature. The relationship between the Iroquois League and the Constitution is based on a portion of a letter written by Benjamin Franklin and a speech by the Iroquois chief Canassatego in 1744. Tooker concluded that the documents only indicate that some groups of Iroquois and white settlers realized the advantages of a confederation, and that ultimately there is little evidence to support the idea that eighteenth century colonists were knowledgeable regarding the Iroquois system of governance.[98]

What little evidence there is regarding this system indicates chiefs of different tribes were permitted representation in the Iroquois League council, and this ability to represent the tribe was hereditary. The council itself did not practice representative government, and there were no elections; deceased chiefs' successors were selected by the most senior woman within the hereditary lineage in consultation with other women in the clan. Decision making occurred through lengthy discussion and decisions were unanimous, with topics discussed being introduced by a single tribe. Tooker concludes that "...there is virtually no evidence that the framers borrowed from the Iroquois" and that the myth is largely based on a claim made by Iroquois linguist and ethnographer J.N.B. Hewitt which was exaggerated and misinterpreted after his death in 1937.[98][undue weight? ]

The Aztecs also practiced elections, but the elected officials elected a supreme speaker, not a ruler.[97] However, a contemporary civilisation, Tlaxcallan, along with other Mesoamerican city states, are likely to have practiced collective rule.[99]

Rise of democracy in modern national governments

Further information: Democratic transition

Early Modern Era milestones

The election of Augustus II at Wola, outside Warsaw, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, in 1697. Painted by Bernardo Bellotto.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century milestones

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National Assembly of France, 26 August 1789.
The establishment of universal male suffrage in France in 1848 was an important milestone in the history of democracy.

The secret ballot

Main article: Secret ballot

A British secret ballot paper, 1880

The notion of a secret ballot, where one is entitled to the privacy of their votes, is taken for granted by most today by virtue of the fact that it is simply considered the norm. However, this practice was highly controversial in the 19th century; it was widely argued that no man would want to keep his vote secret unless he was ashamed of it.[citation needed]

The two earliest systems used were the Victorian method and the South Australian method. Both were introduced in 1856 to voters in Victoria and South Australia. The Victorian method involved voters crossing out all the candidates whom he did not approve of. The South Australian method, which is more similar to what most democracies use today, had voters put a mark in the preferred candidate's corresponding box. The Victorian voting system also was not completely secret, as it was traceable by a special number.

Waves of democracy in the 20th century

See also: Wave of democracy

The three 20th century waves of democracy, based on the number of nations 1800–2003 scoring 8 or higher on Polity IV scale, another widely used measure of democracy.

The end of the First World War was a temporary victory for democracy in Europe, as it was preserved in France and temporarily extended to Germany. Already in 1906 full modern democratic rights, universal suffrage for all citizens was implemented constitutionally in Finland as well as a proportional representation, open list system. Likewise, the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 inaugurated a few months of liberal democracy under Alexander Kerensky until Lenin took over in October. The terrible economic consequences of the Great Depression hurt democratic forces in many countries. The 1930s became a decade of dictators in Europe and Latin America.

In 1918 the United Kingdom granted the women over 30 who met a property qualification the right to vote, a second one was later passed in 1928 granting women and men equal rights. On August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment (Amendment XIX) to the United States Constitution was adopted which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex. French women got the right to vote in 1944, but did not actually cast their ballot for the first time until April 29, 1945.

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted full U.S. citizenship to America's indigenous peoples, called "Indians" in this Act. (The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees citizenship to persons born in the U.S., but only if "subject to the jurisdiction thereof"; this latter clause excludes certain indigenous peoples.) The act was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on 2 June 1924. The act further enfranchised the rights of peoples resident within the boundaries of the United States.

Post–World War II

World War II was ultimately a victory for democracy in Western Europe, where representative governments were established that reflected the general will of their citizens. However, many countries of Central and Eastern Europe became undemocratic Soviet satellite states. In Southern Europe, a number of right-wing authoritarian dictatorships (most notably in Spain and Portugal) continued to exist.

Japan had moved towards democracy during the Taishō period during the 1920s, but it was under effective military rule in the years before and during World War II. The country adopted a new constitution during the postwar Allied occupation, with initial elections in 1946.

Decolonisation and civil rights movements

World War II also planted seeds of democracy outside Europe and Japan, as it weakened, with the exception of the USSR and the United States, all the old colonial powers while strengthening anticolonial sentiment worldwide. Many restive colonies/possessions were promised subsequent independence in exchange for their support for embattled colonial powers during the war.

In 1946, the United States granted independence to the Philippines, which preserved a democratic political system as a presidential republic until the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos.

The aftermath of World War II also resulted in the United Nations' decision to partition the British Mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. On 14 May 1948 the state of Israel declared independence and thus was born the first full democracy in the Middle East. Israel is a representative democracy with a parliamentary system and universal suffrage.[122][123]

India became a Democratic Republic in 1950 after achieving independence from Great Britain in 1947. After holding its first national elections in 1952, India achieved the status of the world's largest liberal democracy with universal suffrage which it continues to hold today. Most of the former British and French colonies were independent by 1965 and at least initially democratic; those that were formerly part of the British Empire often adopted the Westminster parliamentary system.[124] The process of decolonisation created much political upheaval in Africa and parts of Asia, with some countries experiencing often rapid changes to and from democratic and other forms of government.

In the United States of America, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act enforced the 15th Amendment. The 24th Amendment ended poll taxing by removing all tax placed upon voting, which was a technique commonly used to restrict the African American vote. The Voting Rights Act also granted voting rights to all Native Americans, irrespective of their home state. The minimum voting age was reduced to 18 by the 26th Amendment in 1971.

Late Cold War and post-Soviet democratication

Further information: Post-Soviet states and Post-Soviet conflicts

New waves of democracy swept across Southern Europe in the 1970s, as a number of right-wing nationalist dictatorships fell from power. Later, in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the communist states in the USSR sphere of influence were also replaced with liberal democracies.

Much of Eastern Europe, Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, and several Arab, central Asian and African states, and the not-yet-state that is the Palestinian Authority moved towards greater liberal democracy in the 1990s and 2000s.

By the end of the century, the world had changed from having in 1900 not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage, to 120 of the world's 192 nations, or 62% having become such democracies. 25 nations, or 13% of the world's nations had "restricted democratic practices" in 1900 and in 2000 16, or 8% of the world's nations were such restricted democracies. Other nations had, and have, various forms of non-democratic rule.[125] The numbers are indicative of the expansion of democracy during the twentieth century, the specifics though may be open to debate (for example, New Zealand enacted universal suffrage in 1893, but this is discounted due to lack of complete sovereignty of the Māori vote).

Democracy in the 21st century

By region

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq led to a toppling of President Saddam Hussein and a new constitution with free and open elections.[126][citation needed][neutrality is disputed]. Later, around 2011, the Arab Spring led to much upheaval, as well as to the establishing of a democracy in Tunisia and some increased democratic rights in Morocco. Egypt saw a temporary democracy[when?] before the re-establishment of military rule. The Palestinian Authority also took action to address democratic rights.

In Africa, out of 55 countries, democratization seems almost stalled since 2005 because of the resistance of some 20 non-democratic regimes, most of which originated in the 1980s.[127] In exception to this, in 2016, after losing an election, the president of the Gambia attempted to cling to power but a threatened regional military intervention forced him to leave. In 2018 dictatorships in Sudan and Algeria fell; As of 2019 it remains unclear what type of regimes will emerge in these two countries.

A large crowd of protesters, journalists, police and spectators gathered in front of a McDonald's restaurant in Wangfujing, Beijing during the 2011 Chinese pro-democracy protests.

In Asia, Myanmar (also known as Burma) the ruling military junta in 2011 made changes to allow certain voting-rights and released a prominent figure in the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest. Myanmar did not allow Suu Kyi to run for election. However, conditions partially changed with the election of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and her appointment as the de facto leader of Burma (Myanmar) with the title "state councellor", as she is still not allowed to become president and therefore leads through a figurehead, Htin Kyaw. Human rights, however, have not improved. In Bhutan, in December 2005, the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced that the first general elections would take place in 2008, and that he would abdicate the throne in favor of his eldest son. Bhutan is currently[when?] undergoing further changes to allow for a constitutional monarchy. In the Maldives, protests and political pressure led to a government reform which allowed democratic rights and presidential elections in 2008. These were however undone by a coup in 2018. Meanwhile, in Thailand military junta twice overthrew democratically elected governments ( 2006 and 2014) and in 2014 changed the constitution in order to increase their own power. The authoritarian regime of Hun Sen in Cambodia[128] dissolved the main opposition party (Cambodia National Rescue Party) in 2017 and effectively implemented a one-man dictatorship.[129]

In Europe, Ukraine saw several protest movements leading to a switch from effective oligarchy to more democracy; as of 2019, since the Maidan revolution of February 2014 Ukraine has seen two presidential elections and the peaceful transfer of power. Not all movement has promoted democracy, however. In Poland and Hungary, so-called "illiberal democracies" have taken hold, with the ruling parties in both countries considered by the EU and by civil society to be working to undermine democratic governance.[citation needed] Within English-speaking Western democracies, "protection-based" attitudes combining cultural conservatism and leftist economic attitudes were the strongest predictor of support for authoritarian modes of governance.[130]


Further information: Democratic transition

Since c. 2010, the number of countries autocratizing (blue) is higher than those democratizing (yellow)
Countries autocratizing (red) or democratizing (blue) substantially and significantly (2010–2020). Countries in grey are substantially unchanged.[131]

Despite the number of democratic states has continued to grow since 2006, the share of weaker electoral democracies has grown significantly. This is the strongest causal factor behind fragile democracies.[132] As of 2020, authoritarianism and populism are on the rise around the world,[133] with the number of people living in democracies less than the end of the Cold War.[134] "Democratic backsliding" in the 2010s were attributed to economic inequality and social discontent,[135] personalism,[136] poor management of COVID-19 pandemic,[137][138] as well as other factors such as government manipulation of civil society, "toxic polarization", foreign disinformation campaigns,[139] racism and nativism, excessive executive power,[140][141][142] and decreased power of the opposition.[143] Large parts of the world, such as China, Russia, Central and South East Asia, the Middle East and much of Africa have consolidated authoritarian rule rather seeing it weaken.

   Countries designated "electoral democracies" in Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2023 survey, covering the year 2022.[144]
Age of democracies at the end of 2015[145]

Determining the continuity and age of independent democracies depends on the criteria applied, but generally the United States is identified as the oldest democracy, while the country with longest history of universal suffrage is New Zealand.[146]

Contemporary innovations

Further information: E-democracy

Under the influence of the theory of deliberative democracy, there have been several experiments since the start of the new millennium with what are called deliberative fora, places (in real life or in cyber space) where citizens and their representatives assemble to exchange reasons. One type of deliberative forum is called a minpublic: a body of randomly chosen or actively selected citizens that represents the whole population. The use of random selection to form a representative deliberative body is known as citizens' assembly. Citizens' assemblies have been used in Canada (2004, 2006) and the Netherlands (2006) to debate electoral reform, and in Iceland (2009 and 2010) for broader constitutional change.

See also

Important documents and milestones include

Important figures in the history of democracy include


  1. ^
    Literature about the Athenian democracy spans over centuries with the earliest works being The Republic of Plato and Politics of Aristotle, continuing with Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli. The latest, listed in the References section, include works from scholars such as J. Dunn, J. Ober, T. Buckley, J. Thorley and E. W. Robinson, who examine the origins and the reasons of Athens being the first[7][8][9][10][11][12] to developed a sophisticated system of rule that we today call democracy. Despite its flaws (slavery, no women's rights) it is often considered the closest to the ideal democracy and called as classical democracy. It is often compared with modern (representative) democracies.[147][148]
  2. ^
    The ancient Greeks did not have a word to use for "rights".[149]
  3. ^
    The United States of America was and is, a republic, not a direct democracy. A direct democracy can be defined as a form of government in which the people decide matters directly, with prime example the Athenian democracy. A democratic republic, is a form of government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law. The delegates who wrote the Constitution were fearful of direct democracy; in the words of James Madison: "[D]emocracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."[150] Nevertheless, the framers recognized that the public is required to impose a check to the government, in Madison words: "dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government".[151] By popular usage, however, the word "democracy" came to mean a form of government in which the government derives its power from the people and is accountable to them for the use of that power. In this sense the United States can be called a democratic republic. Many states allow for policy questions to be decided directly by the people by voting on ballot initiatives or referendums. (Initiatives originate with, or are initiated by, the people while referendums originate with, or are referred to the people by a state's legislative body.)



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Further reading