Pnyx, the cradle of democracy

Monday, February 23, 2009

Athens, 5th century AD. A few thousand people are gathered on the Pnyx hill, overlooking the agora, hundreds of meters away from the Acropolis. Each attendant listens carefully to the speaker despite the tremendous heat. They all have their opinion on the question being debated, reflecting on their vote as responsible citizens. Some dare to express themselves in front of the imposing audience. The ones most involved in the debate make proposals of new texts to vote. But none of them realizes what is currently unfolding. None realizes he is witnessing the birth of a concept, main pillar of civilization, that men have fought for since 2500 years ago on the hill of Pnyx. A concept that has owed its continuity to the will and struggle of the people: Democracy.

Around 6000 people are estimated to be part of the Ekklesia, voting every two weeks with raised hands on laws, budget or election of new Athens lawmakers and "Boule" members. All adult Athenians, born of Athenian citizens, could participate. They were probably sitting on the ground, each choosing his location freely on a 2,500 sqm. seating area opposite the stone speakers' platform, the "Bema". On the platform also seat the Prytanes (highest circle of Athens citizens) who until 378 call and preside to the Ekklesia. The board is composed of the head of the Prytanes, the herald and one secretary. Order is ensured by the Scythian Archers, armed with ropes dipped in red paint.

Before the vote the herald would announce “Who wishes to speak?". The speaker, assuming the myrtle wreath, assumes the control of the audience. He stands on the Bema, seen and heard of all. The right of "Isegoria", of "equal speech" allows all to participate, and the right of Isopoliteia, "equal in politics", allows all to vote and take political office, granting power to the people. As a counterpart to this freedom, the speaker is liable for his words and exposes himself to heavy charges in case of abuse. The graphe Paranomon can punish whoever makes a proposal against the law, up to one year following the proposal.

Although in the facts poor farmers don't have the time or means to go to the Pnyx or don't dare to, leaving the stage to prevailing Athenians from higher classes, the form of political organization invented by the City of Athens, Democracy - union of demos and cratos, the people and the power -, constitutes an exceptional model of representation, allowing citizens to exercise their political rights and to participate in public matters.

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