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The Presentation of Athenian Democracy in the Works of Herodotus and Thucydides - by Peter Xiao

Herodotus and Thucydides were considered to be the two most important and influential historians in 5th century BCE Greece. Their works cover the outbreak and duration of the Greco-Persian War and also the Peloponnesian War. However, their works also serve as great platforms for us to study and analyse the democratic institution of Classical Athens. Through studying Herodotus and Thucydides’ works, it is clear that both historians believed that the democratic institution of Athens was the main reason for Athens’ rise to power. And they also believed that it was the system of democracy that gave birth to citizens who came to the city’s aid in its most difficult time.

In Book Five of the ‘Histories’ by Herodotus, he famously highlighted the main reason for Athens’ rise to power by suggesting ‘Thus Athens went from strength to strength, and proved, if proof were needed, how noble a thing equality before the law is.’ In this assertion, Herodotus argued that the main reason for Athens’ ascent to power was the democratic mechanism established by Cleisthenes which enabled the citizens to willingly sacrifice and contribute to the well-being of the state. This is mainly because the system itself protected the legal interest of the citizens by enforcing the concept of rule of law. He further enhanced this idea by suggesting it was the democratic system of Athens that caused the collapse of ‘the yoke of the people’. And once the yoke was flung off, the citizens had a taste of freedom and became interested in the cause of the city. It was the institution of the city that guaranteed the freedom of the citizens, and it was the responsibility of the citizens to protect and defend their system in order to preserve this noble way of life. Herodotus argued that it was this reciprocal relationship between the citizens and the city that led to Athens’ liberation from tyrants and the rise to power.

The same concept was also developed by Thucydides in his work ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War.’ In Book Two of this work, Thucydides presented the famous ‘Funeral Oration of Pericles’ to us and demonstrated the ideals and power of Athenian democracy. Thucydides agreed with Herodotus that the political system of Athens enabled the male citizens to take charge of the direction of state affairs and enabled the reciprocal relationship between the interest of the citizens and the interest of the state. He wrote that ‘our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.’ This explanation of Athenian democracy corresponds with Herodotus’ assertion that the democratic institution of Athens led to the citizens’ willingness to defend the city because they see their private interest jointly intertwined with the public interest of the city. The real power is in their hands rather than a tiny minority of the population. Thucydides also believed in the idea that democracy leads to the practice of the ideal of rule of law. He suggested that ‘when it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law’ and also that ‘we give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which is an acknowledged shame to break.’ Democracy could only work when it was assisted by an independent and respected judiciary system because it is apparent that democracy leads to arguments and conflicts between different factions of power. And a well-respected judiciary institution is important for the democracy to solve these conflicts and disputes through the legal channel.

Both historians also believed that the democratic system was the main reason for Athens to defeat a strong adversary like Persia. Many scholars do argue that Herodotus over-exaggerated the strength and numbers of the Persian expeditionary forces in order to demonstrate the bravery of the Greeks and the Athenians in particular. The size of the Persian armies was described by Herodotus as ‘incomparably larger than the armies which the stories tell us Agamemnon and Menelaus led to Troy’ and ‘was there a nation in Asia that he did not take with him against Greece.’ From these descriptions made by Herodotus, we can tell that the Persians were much stronger than the Athenians in terms of military preparedness and capability.

However, Herodotus argued that the most important factor in determining the outcome of a battle was the purpose of fighting rather than the mere size of the army. The Athenians understood well that they were defending their precious democratic institution and way of life when they were fighting against the Persians. They knew clearly that this battle will determine freedom or slavery for their posterity. In fact, freedom versus slavery has always been considered as a major theme in Herodotus’ ‘Histories’. Herodotus himself firmly believed in the idea that it was the democratic institution of Athens that gave her citizens the power and purpose of resisting. Thucydides echoed this idea made by Herodotus in his work; he wrote that ‘when our fathers stood against the Persians they had no such resources as we have now; indeed, they abandoned even what they had, and then it was by wisdom rather than by good fortune, by daring rather than by material power, that they drove back the foreign invasion and made our city what it is today.’ Even Thucydides himself acknowledged that Athens was inferior compared to the Persians in terms of their financial and military capability. However, it was Athens’ democratic institution that gave the Athenian soldiers the daring spirit to resist the Persians.

Both Herodotus and Thucydides also emphasised the importance of leadership in the practice of democracy. Herodotus emphasised the importance of great and selfless political leaders for the Athenian democracy by arguing that it was under the guidance of generals like Themistocles and Miltiades that Athens eventually managed to defeat the mighty Persians. The presentation of Miltiades in the Battle of Marathon in Book Six and the presentation of Themistocles in Book Eight served this particular purpose. They were both presented by Herodotus as selfless leaders who prioritised the interest of the city. In Book Six of the ‘Histories’, Miltiades himself told the War Archon Callimachus that ‘It is now in your hands, Callimachus, either to enslave Athens or to make her free and to leave behind you for all future generations a memory more glorious than even Harmodius and Aristogeiton.’ For a great leader like Miltiades, he understood his responsibility as the defender of Athenian freedom and liberty well. He was also motivated by the legacy of Harmodius and Aristogeiton who were tyrant slayers and were later glorified by the Athenians as defenders of liberty. Themistocles was also presented by Herodotus as a selfless and patriotic leader in Book Eight. Before the outbreak of the sea battle at Salamis, he voluntarily abandoned his rivalry with Aristides by suggesting ‘At this moment, more than ever before, you and I should be rivals, to see which of us can do most good to our country.’ Herodotus argued that for the political leaders in democratic Athens, the interest of the city was of paramount importance and personal rivalry must be abandoned when the freedom of Athens was under threat. It was also Themistocles who gave the soundest advice and strategies before the Battle of Salamis by telling the other Greek generals that ‘fighting in a confined space favours us but the open sea favours the enemy.’ It was by adopting this advice that the Greek confederates eventually secured the victory of the naval battle. Like his predecessor, Thucydides also firmly believed in the importance of political leadership to the practice of democracy. He argued in his work that Athens was at the zenith of her greatness when she ‘was wisely led and firmly guarded’ by a leader like Pericles since Thucydides believed that Pericles was a leader of integrity who prioritised the interest of the state over personal political well-being. Thucydides described the quality of Pericles’ leadership that he ‘could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check.’ And he believed that ‘so in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.’ It was Thucydides’ contention that the democratic institution of Athens was only at its best form when the city was guided and led by a first citizen like Pericles. Thucydides also expressed his utmost regret at the future development of Athenian democracy when the political power began to be possessed by radical demagogues such as Cleon and Alcibiades. These demagogues manipulated the irrational demos for personal political gains while putting the interest of democratic Athens in peril. Thucydides admitted that it was by the political intrigues of these people that Athens was destroyed by internal strife and was forced to surrender.

The works of Herodotus and Thucydides are a masterclass as they tell us about the image of Athenian democracy in 5th century BCE Athens, a period where poetry, comedies, tragedies and philosophy flourished. Athens was truly at the height of its power and democracy must be one of the most important factors leading to its political greatness at the time. In order to fully appreciate the beauty and magnificence of Classical Athens, it is important to study and analyse the works of Herodotus and Thucydides.


Herodotus - Aubrey De Selincourt (Translator), Penguin Classics

History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides - M. Finley (Introducer), Rex Warner (Translator)

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