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The US government was built on the model of ancient Greece: what stuck and what did not

The Acropolis of Athens is a powerful symbol in the history of democracy. However, many aspects of Greek democracy in the modern world have not taken root, writes MC Today.

Photo: Shutterstock

“What Athens was in miniature, America will embody on a full scale,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1792. This statement became both a prediction and a promise in equal measure, and in many respects it did come true.

The basic elements of the American political system (from popular referendums to secret ballot and the duty to serve on a jury) were taken from the ancient Greek system.

The ancient Greeks are often referred to as the forefathers of democracy, but despite this, American practice was influenced by only a few aspects. But in the politics of Ancient Greece there was a lot of interesting and already forgotten: voting by show of hands or acclamation (making or rejecting decisions based on the reaction of participants: applause, exclamations, remarks, etc. - Ed.), Removal from power by popular vote, participation of ordinary citizens in the management of state affairs and much more.

What did the United States take from the classic models, and what was discarded?

Removal from power

Many modern politicians would gladly take the opportunity to get rid of competitors by popular vote. In 5th century BC Athens it was possible.

Once a year, citizens gathered in the agora (the market square where general civic meetings were held) and decided by voting whether any figure in power had stayed too long. The man with the most votes was banished from Athens for ten years.

The names of candidates for exile were carved into pieces of clay. For removal and expulsion, a candidate had to gain at least 6 thousand votes. In ancient Greece, these shards were called "ostracons". From this name the concept of "ostracism" originated.

Acclamations (voting with exclamations, applause, remarks and the like)

Modern politicians are sometimes not averse to competing who shouts louder. However, few people remember that in ancient Sparta the people voted in this way.

Of course, this was not very similar to the current practice of voting in the US Senate (in this way, the result can be disputed, after which a repeat roll-call vote is taken).

In Sparta, candidates were introduced to the people in turn, people shouted support for them, and then experts evaluated the noise level. For whoever was shouted the loudest, he won. The closest modern analogy is the applause meter used in stadiums.

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Vote by show of hands

The ancient Greek term for voting comes from the word "pebble". Early sources mention that the Athenians voted by throwing small stones into urns or amphorae. By the fifth century, they were already voting with a show of their hands or with small bronze discs.

In jury trials and in some other cases, secret ballot was used. Each citizen received two bronze discs - one with a solid core in the middle, the other with a hollow one. These discs represented votes for or against any proposal or for or against the defendant at trial.

The discs were taken with the thumb and forefinger, closing the rods so that at the time of voting it was not visible exactly how the person voted.

Fee for votes

The Athenians received a small fee for jury service or participation in the highest deliberative body - the Assembly. This democratic innovation allowed even the poorest citizens to participate in public life.

In Athens, there was even some ancient analogue of the "Go and Vote" campaigns. The famous playwright Aristophanes describes a rope, smeared with fresh red paint, with the help of which citizens were herded to the place of voting or public meeting.

It was believed that paying for participation in public life compensated for the time spent, and therefore more people could participate in governance. Nevertheless, Athenian democracy was rather limited in many ways.

Only adult men could serve on the jury, participate in the Assembly, or hold any public office. Women, foreigners and slaves were strictly forbidden.

Who has the right to vote

In many other respects, Athenian democracy was more inclusive and more transparent than the modern American system. All citizens had the right to vote in the Assembly. The Assembly was convened every ten days at Pnyx Hill near the Acropolis.

It could accommodate 5-6 thousand people. The Assembly decided military, financial and religious issues. In addition, it was convened to confer citizenship or awards on individuals.

A gathering of 500 citizens prepared the agenda for the Assembly. It also resolved issues of foreign policy and could issue decrees on the conclusion of pacts and alliances.

The 500 members of this assembly were randomly elected from among the urban population. Athens was administratively divided into 10 tribal communities (phil), which canceled the division according to class, tribal and geographic characteristics. From each community, 50 people were selected to participate in the meeting.

This system was introduced by Cleisthenes in 508 BC. This administrative organization helped reduce fragmentation and unite local communities. Each such community included residents from the hills, and from the plains, and from coastal zones that previously competed with each other. Community members fought together, feasted, participated in sacrifices and religious festivals.

You may be interested in: top New York news, stories of our immigrants and helpful tips about life in the Big Apple - read it all on ForumDaily New York.

Should the USA be turned into a second Greece?

If the American political system faithfully inherited all the traditions and institutions of ancient Greek democracy, it would be largely unrecognizable. For example, senators and congressmen would be elected by random lottery, with frequent changes of new members.

Had America adopted a similar administrative organization, Appalachian miners would find themselves in the same community as New York stockbrokers, California IT executives, and Montana pastoralists. Popular referendums available to all citizens would play a much more important role in the adoption of national laws and the conduct of foreign policy.

Of course, there would be no place for women or migrants in such a system. And the idea of ​​expelling unpopular leaders in general seems absolutely undemocratic in the current realities.

Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers admired the ancient Greeks, but also feared the consequences of such a radically direct democracy. James Madison wrote in Federalist 55: "In all overly numerous congregations, whoever they may be, passion always snatches the scepter from the mind."

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