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The Evolution of Democracy: From Ancient Greece to the Present

Updated: Jan 29

Written by Yusuf Deniz Kuten


Democracy is the people’s participation in government and determination of their destiny. In countries governed by democracy, people participate in elections and elect their leaders. This management system has been adopted by many countries today. So how and when did democracy emerge? Let’s examine it together.


Between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, the Ancient Greeks spread over a wide area in the Mediterranean basin. This expansion brought with it many problems. The main cause of these problems was that the Greek city-states were ruled by aristocrats with cruelty and exploitation. As a result, the people of Athens revolted against the government. (1) The actions of the Athenians set an example for other Greek city-states.


After the Greek people overthrew the aristocratic governments, conflicts arose between different social classes. Thereupon, the people of Athens consulted Solon, an important statesman. (2) To ensure social balance, Solon established popular assemblies in which all free citizens could participate, regardless of class with the creation of the popular assembly, Athenians could elect judges and administrators, and make decisions regarding the governance of the country. This parliamentary system and the new decisions taken went down in history as the first known example of democracy. In the following years, this new system was called democracy, a combination of the words “demos” (people) and “kratos” (govern). (3) This new form of government, the foundations of which were laid by Solon, was also adopted in the neighboring Greek city-states.


By the 5th century BC, Athens was in its golden age and became a center for science, art, and literature. Many scholars and philosophers came to Athens, a democratic and free place, from other Greek cities. One of the issues discussed by philosophers in Athens was state governance and democracy. In the following years, the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle also thought about this issue and wrote his work called “ Politics” by analyzing the governance of many Greek states. In this work, he started the basic principles of democracy.


While there were discussions about democracy in Greece, there was a similar administration in the Roman State on the Italian Peninsula. The Romans, who were influenced by the Greeks, and governed by the Republican regime, were following the developments in Greece by sending many delegations during this period. (4) Over the next few centuries, The Romans strengthened the administration with the influence of democracy, embarked on conquest movements, and established a great state. Even though Rome later turned into an empire, the parliaments continued their existence and undertook an important mission throughout Roman history. Although only free men had the right to speak, this system made a great contribution to today’s democracy. After the collapse of Rome, assemblies similar to those in Rome were established in many states.


In 1215, the nobles in England rebelled against King John. In this situation, John signed the Magna Carta, which is considered the world’s first constitution, to protect his throne. With this constitution, John’s powers were restricted. The Magna Carta represents an important turning point in world history.


By the 18th century, in some countries, there were administrations such as parliaments and elections but only a certain part of the society, such as nobles and men, participated in these administrations.


During this period, under the influence of the Age of Enlightenment, many thinkers especially Rousseau, Voltaire, Descartes, and Montesquieu advocated that the will of the people dominate the government. (5) In 1775, Americans seeking independence in England’s colonies in North America, started a struggle. Americans won the war and declared the founding of the USA. Influenced by the thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, Americans accepted the American Constitution in 1788. In this constitution, it was written that the presidents would be determined by the elections, and human rights and freedoms were also included in this constitution. One year later, the people of France rebelled against the king and took over the governance. This event had consequences that would affect the whole world, especially Europe. Human rights were secured in “The Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights” publicized then. (6) After this revolution, republican ideas spread across Europe and gained many supporters. The masses of people affected by these ideas wanted a similar government in their own countries, which caused internal unrest.


At the beginning of the 20th century, unrest in Europe led to the First World War, monarchical states collapsed and new states with a democratic structure were established in their place. During this period, women were also given the right to vote and be elected in most countries. With the recognition of this right, all citizens regardless of religion, language, race, and gender would have a say in governance. This system began to be used in a large part of the world over the years.


Democracy, which emerged due to people’s need for freedom and equality, enables people to make decisions that concern themselves. It aims to ensure that every member of the public has equal rights and freedom. Although there are many different ideas about democracy, we can easily say that democracy has provided many benefits to humanity.



References:

  1. Aktaş, M. (2015). Demokrasi Kavramına Eleştirel Bir Bakış https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/20450

  2. K. Rooflaub vd. , Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520258099/origins-of-democracy-in-ancient-greece

  3. Sarah Pomeroy, Antik Yunanistan: Siyasi, Sosyal, Kültürel Bir Tarih https://global.oup.com/ushe/product/ancient-greece-9780190686918

  4. 4-Livy, T. (2002). The early history of Rome: Books I-V of the history of Rome from its Foundation. National Geographic Books. https://archive.org/details/titus-livius-roma-tarihi-i

  5. 5-Salim Işık, J.J. Rousseau ve Egemenlik Anlayışı Üzerine https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/pub/inuhfd/issue/30360/336067

  6. 6-Civelek, J. (1989) 1789 Fransız İnsan Hakları Bildirisi ve 1974 İnsan Hakları Bildirisi https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/99710



















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