Today we often hear representative governments called both democracies and republics. We seem to use those words interchangeably, though we have a vague notion that we shouldn’t. Is there a difference between the two? I think the best way to answer that question is to look at the two states that first practiced the two ideas.
The first state to implement democracy was the ancient Greek city of Athens. In 514 BC, the people of Athens threw out their tyrant, then a legitimate title for ruler, and began “the people’s power” or democracy. The Athenians drew up a system of laws based on the code of Solon, and instituted the concept of a popular vote and majority rule. Here all free male landowners would vote at an assembly and decide the policy of the state. While the theory of this system sounds compelling, its practice proved ruinous.
After obtaining power, the popular assembly became vulnerable to corruption, bribes, and partisan factions. Indeed, once the people realized that they could elect people in the assembly that would give them a share of the public treasury, then the state became bankrupt. During the Peloponnesian War, Athens exiled its most gifted general, Alcibiades, because he had enemies in the assembly. After this, the assembly executed one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Socrates. Evidently, the direct rule of the people and the lack of checks and balances meant that Athens became just as tyrannical as the Tyrants they had overthrown. Minorities of opinion were overrun by the majority and were persecuted. This state of turmoil meant that Athens eventually fell to Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.
Although Athens was able to introduce self rule and democracy, the direct rule of the people degenerated the government into a tyranny that destroyed the freedom of the people. Next week, we'll take a look at the first of the republics. While Athens was wresting itself from the tyrants, a city on the Tiber was growing weary of its own monarch.