History of Democracy

By Aamir Butt



Historically democracy was established in Greek city states, most notably in Athens in the 5th century BC.

The concept of an ideal democracy was based on the following requirements:


1. The citizens in a democracy should share a common good.

2. For the above to be the case the citizens body should be homogenous with same religion, language, culture, income, wealth etc.

3. The citizens should be few and personally know each other.

4. The citizens should be able to make decisions in an assembly so direct and not representative democracy.

5. Besides taking part in the democracy, every citizen is obliged to take part in services required to run the city.

6. The democratic city should be independent and thus self sufficient economically and militarily.


 The Greek model suffered from the fact that family and friendships created groups whose interests were given preference over the common good of the whole city (polis). Also as the population of the city grew it became harder and harder to engage everyone in a direct democracy.

While the Greeks were developing their democracy a few hundred miles to the west the Romans were developing a similar system. This shared many concepts with the democracy but it differed in a fundamental way for to make it work people in a democracy needed to be homogenous with regards to culture, language, ethnicity, education, wealth etc. so that they share a common good. Romans acknowledged that this can’t happen, they accepted that a city state will have the rich, the aristocracy who would be less in number and the poor, plebs who would be many. The republican idea was to produce a constitution that can balance the aims of these two groups and produce a concordance of ideas, in later republics a third group, the ruling class or monarchy was also included.

While the Greek model was never tried outside the Greek city states as the Greeks never built an empire the Roman Republic did grow to a vast empire and then democracy was not possible, for how can people living hundreds of mile away attend the assembly and how can millions of people fit into an assembly?

Therefore to have a working democracy it had to be restricted to a small number of individuals. Thus when a city became too big and even more so when it became a nation state due to the weaknesses as detailed above for democracy, it failed.

Here it would be interesting to mention another situation where the democratic system can work. This is in relation to tribes and clans. Once again tribes and clans consist of a limited number of individuals who often know each other, share a common heritage, culture, aspirations etc and can sit together to make decisions. Therefore most tribes are quite democratic, and while Rome became a tyranny across the Danube the Germanic tribes remained rather democratic.

The same was the case for Arab Bedouin tribes before Prophet Mohammad, they followed a lot of democratic principles for example it was not essential in fact rather unusual that the son of a tribal leader would become the chief after his father and the most capable among a group of tribal elders was elected as the Chief. When Prophet Mohammad united the tribes the same democratic principles were retained but when under the Caliphs an Islamic-Arab empire was created it suffered from the same weaknesses regarding governance as did Greek democracy or Roman republic.

Therefore till the 18th century it was not possible to govern large Nation states democratically. This changed in 17th century when first the government was separated into legislature, executive and judiciary and then  in the 18th century when government by representation was invented and accepted.

Still democracy is not a perfect system of governance and has many flaws. The problem remains that while it has many faults we are at the moment unable to find a better system of governance and until we can do this we have to defend democracy for while an imperfect democracy is a misfortune for its people, but an imperfect authoritarian rule is a catastrophic disaster.

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