Peace Magazine: Shall We Try Athenian Democracy?

Peace Magazine

Shall We Try Athenian Democracy?

• published Jul 06, 2024 • last edit Jul 11, 2024

A Chat with Hugh Pope

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Hugh Pope, who was in Brussels, where he serves as the Chief of External Affairs at ACLED, the data experts on global conflict.

Our conversation focused on an intriguing project to which he has dedicated years of his life: editing and publishing his father’s manuscript on democracy.

Maurice Pope was a distinguished professor at Oxford, known for his scholarly works on ancient Greece. However, his magnum opus on democracy, titled The Keys to Democracy, was left unpublished. Years after his death, the lost manuscript was found and Hugh took it upon himself to polish and publish it, bringing to light his father’s profound ideas on direct democracy.

Hugh described his father’s radical vision of democracy, which aligned with Athenian practices, for he did not consider modern representative governments to be real democracies at all. The elder Pope’s work posited that true democracy involves direct participation by citizens rather than electoral representation. This idea, though revolutionary, is grounded in historical precedent.


Our conversation took us back to ancient Athens, where democracy – the direct involvement of citizens – lasted 180 years. The Athenians themselves attributed their amazing cultural efflorescence to their remarkable political system. Unlike today’s representative systems, Athenian democracy saw ordinary citizens taking turns in governance roles. This system, albeit limited to a subset of the population (excluding women, slaves, and foreigners), encouraged active civic participation.

Hugh noted that, while his father’s ideas seemed outlandish to his contemporaries, similar concepts were being independently explored in other parts of the world. In the late 20th century, at least three intellectual entrepreneurs in Germany and the United States were writing about and even successfully experimenting with random selection to improve public consultation ahead of policy decisions. This was unknowingly parallel to Pope’s work, and in those pre-internet days these individuals had also mostly not heard of each other at the time. Sortition, the selection of a decision-maker by the drawing of lots, is familiar to us when it comes to selecting juries. All citizens are obliged serve when randomly selected for jury duty.

Hugh said that today not everything is known about how the Athenian system worked, but he told me a little. It was so interesting that I kept reading later about the process. The population of Athens was about 30,000 but only 6,000 male citizens over age 30 participated in the governing system. It seems that eligible citizens were nominated or volunteered for public duties. These positions could range from jurors in a court to members of the Boule (the council) or other administrative roles.

The key element in this process was the kleroterion, a large stone machine used to randomly select citizens. That device had a series of slots and a mechanism for random selection. Each eligible citizen had a small token called a pinakion. These tokens had the citizen’s name and possibly a symbol representing which of the ten Athenian “tribes” (a nominal subdivision) they belonged.

The pinakia were inserted into the slots of the kleroterion. The slots were organized by the tribes to ensure fair representation. First, a series of white and black balls or tokens were dropped into the top of the kleroterion. The mechanism of the kleroterion ensured that one of these tokens would land randomly alongside each horizontal series of slots holding the pinakia. If a white token landed in a particular row, the citizens whose pinakia were in that row might be chosen for duty. Conversely, if a black token landed, those citizens would not be selected. Once the selection was complete, the names of the selected citizens were announced, and those individuals would then assume their duties.

This method prevented corruption and bias in the assignment of public roles. It was a cornerstone of Athenian democracy, ensuring that all eligible citizens had an equal chance to participate in governance. As Hugh explained, you’d never know who was going to be in what role, so you wouldn’t know whom to bribe. Also, when serving, you only represented yourself. You didn’t come to the assembly as the representative of any group, so you could just think independently, listening to the arguments.

The Assembly (Ekklesia) was the principal institution of Athenian democracy, where citizens gathered to discuss and vote on various issues. It met about 40 times a year on the Pnyx hill. Attendance was open to all male citizens, and typically, 6,000 made the decisions on critical matters like war, treaties, and laws.

The Council (Boule), 500 members chosen by lot, prepared the agenda for the Assembly. Members served for one year and were responsible for overseeing the execution of decisions made by the Assembly. The Boule met daily, ensuring that the administration of the city was continually managed.

Athenian democracy made extensive use of juries. Large juries, often composed of 500 or more citizens, were used to decide legal cases. Jurors were chosen by lot.

Many officials were selected by lot for short terms, ensuring a rotation of citizens in various roles. These included magistrates (archons), who handled judicial and religious duties, and other administrators who managed finances, public works, and more. Each day, a different citizen was selected to serve as the “epistates” or chairman of the Prytaneis, a committee of the Boule. This rotating leadership ensured that governance was not centralized and that many citizens gained firsthand experience in public administration.

Imagine having a new mayor of your city every day! We’re not likely to emulate the Athenians in that respect, but there is a growing movement to use ‘citizens’ assemblies’ to advise elected officials about policy issues that are somehow too sensitive for ordinary politics to handle.


Hugh and I discussed the resurgence of interest in direct democracy. In the past two decades – and mostly in recent years – over 800 citizens’ assemblies have met in various countries, bringing together randomly selected individuals to deliberate on public policy. For instance, Ireland’s assemblies on abortion and same-sex marriage demonstrated the potential of this democratic model.

Despite the potential, there are significant challenges. Usually the government sets up the assembly but after its work is complete and its decision announced, the elected government may reject its recommendations. The assembly has no political power. But I expect that to change after citizens’ assemblies have become a regular part of governance if they keep making more evidently sensible decisions than legislatures, which are controlled by political parties.

And in the real world, while the recommendations of citizens’ assemblies are not always implemented, they are usually remarkably reasonable. Indeed, some have been extremely influential. For example, France’s assembly on euthanasia provided a clear and well-supported recommendation that President Macron has taken forward seriously.


Although Hugh and I are both optimistic about the possibility of reviving direct, Athenian-style democracy, we did not hold the same opinion about whether these bodies must always convene in person. I think a global parliament is possible, with the members meeting online every day from their own homes. Hugh believes it essential for the members to get to know each other by interacting informally at meals, listening to the evidence of experts together and having facilitated deliberation about it. Trust can only be built, he argued, on the basis of face-to-face, in-person contacts.

I maintain that Zoom works just as well, and I pointed out that we were already becoming friends during this one-hour-long video conference – as much so as if I had flown to Brussels and sat on his sofa for the conversation.

Before parting, I suggested chatting again about his new job, and he joked, “It will be an honor to sit on your sofa again.” •

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Published in Peace Magazine Vol.40, No.3 Jul-Sep 2024
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