Do you remember when we were kids in elementary school and your teacher announced that we would be learning about the Ancient Greek civilization? Sure you do. We were excited to learn about our ancestors. Besides, how many kids in your class could say they were descendants of an Ancient people? Look around. There are no more Romans, Babylonians, or Aztecs. It was pretty cool.
And the one thing they taught us about was that the Greeks, specifically the Athenians, invented democracy and that our Founding Fathers founded the United States upon the ideals of the Ancient Greeks and democracy. You remember that picture in our history books of Pericles standing near the Parthenon in his chiton pointing in the air looking… well, very democratic? We Greek-American kids were so proud.
But, what our teachers failed to tell us was that during this time of Athenian democracy, my ancestors, the Greek-Macedonians, were preparing to end democracy by taking over Athens and all of the other Greek City-States. Oh, come on, Theo Phillip and Cousin Alexander just wanted to have fun – there was no Las Vegas back then so Alexander did the next best thing – he conquered the world! Besides, those rascally Athenians and their friends were getting too uppity, especially that Demosthenes, always putting down Alexander and his father in his orations… and you see what that got him.
Back to the Athenians. They also invented ostrakismos (ὀστρακισμός) or ostracism. Any citizen whose name appeared on the most pieces of broken pottery (Ostraka), and received at least 6,000 votes, would be expelled from Athens for ten years. Wow, ten years! Can you imagine using that in today’s politics? With that hanging over their head, our politicians would think twice about how they voted. The good old days. Hmmm, maybe…
Our teachers also didn’t tell us what happened after the Athenians invented democracy because they only taught us about the Ancient Greeks and, for some reason, our school system decided Greece didn’t contribute anything noteworthy to the world after our chiton-wearing ancestors passed on. What can I say?
So here’s a breakdown of what happened to democracy in a nutshell:
Unfortunately, our glorious ancestors proceeded to lose democracy when Ancient Rome took over. After that, Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, which became Constantinople and for the next 1,000 years, no democracy, just kings. Then the Ottoman Turks got a big gun and conquered Constantinople and continued to keep democracy at bay. Instead of kings, we got sultans – whoopee. The Turks stuck around for about 400 years until the Greeks decided that they had enough of drinking Turkish coffee and wearing funny-looking fezzes and wanted to drink Greek coffee and wear pom-poms on their tsarouchia, so they revolted in 1821. They won their independence, assassinated their heroes, and set up the 1st Hellenic Republic – democracy, yeah! But that lasted only three years and in 1832 the Greeks quickly set up… no, not another democracy, but a monarchy. More kings and queens. So much for Greek democracy! Poor Pericles was turning in his grave.
They tried democracy again in 1924 when they established the 2nd Hellenic Republic. Eleven years later in 1935 the Greeks decided they had enough democracy, and thinking for themselves, so they took the throne out of the basement, dusted it off and restored the monarchy. At least the throne was clean. Funny thing about monarchs, they are like a bad relative, they just keep showing up and drink all your booze. And can someone tell me why all monarchs are Germans? They couldn’t find any pure-bred Greeks to be kings? Okay, King Constantine I was Greek-born (born in Athens), but his father was George I, of Danish ancestry and born in Copenhagen – that’s close to Germany.
Then there was that little period of time (1967-1974) when the military dictatorship, otherwise known as the Junta, decided that they knew what was good for the country – that didn’t work out too well so then democracy came back in style with the 3rd Hellenic Republic, which is what the Greeks have at present. You need a scorecard to keep track. Today, Greece is a parliamentary democracy or republic. Since the Junta departed, democracy has worked well in Greece… but has it? Karamanlis then Papandreou. Papandreou then Karamanlis. Kings without blue-blood or a throne?
Now democracy in Greece is under attack again. The Left, the Right, the Germans (again with those Germans… can’t they just stay home?), all promising the people of Greece they know better. But in the end, I think Thomas Jefferson summed up everything about democracy when he said, “Democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” A very insightful quote not only for Greece, but all democracies throughout the world.
The Ancient Greeks invented democracy, but can the modern Greeks keep it?
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