Democracy and Political Rights

The Surprising Roots of Democracy


By Sameer Abdullah 

Today many people credit the Greeks for the creation and establishment of democracy, yet historical records have shown that democracy is much more ancient than we deem it to be. Anthropologists, people who study various aspects of humans within past and present societies, have discovered that democracies were actually present in pre-Babylonian and India ages before they appeared anywhere else in the world. These places can be considered the actual pioneers in democracy, preceding Greek democracies by centuries. That is why, prior to looking at how Greek democracy influenced democracy as we know it today, it is necessary to look at the forms of democracy that were present in ancient Mesopotamia and India.

The democracies present in pre-Babylonian Mesopotamia were quite different and ancient, and as such are termed as primitive democracies. Although there were many differences between the democracies seen in Greece and those in pre-Babylonian Mesopotamia, the two major ones distinguishing them from each other are as follows:

  • Nominal Oligarchy: The primitive democracies in Mesopotamia had a king who ruled over them. Although it seemed like an oligarchy (rule by a monarch), the final political power was actually in the hands of a council of elders and young men who the king had to convince and consult. In contrast Greek democracies did not have kings and the common people were the ones with all the power and did not have to deal with a higher authority.
  • Unintended Democracy: The primitive democracies in Mesopotamia were just a byproduct of the early stages of the Babylonian oligarchy, and were not intended to actually give the power to the general people. Once the oligarchy began to gain power, the representatives of the democracy were arguably reduced to just being pawns, and had no actual power. In contrast Greek democracies were made keeping the people in mind, being the central idea and not just a byproduct of another form of government.

Due to cases like this, pre-Babylonian Mesopotamia may not seem like a democracy today. However, ancient civilizations cannot be judged based on our standards, they have to be judged by standards based on historical context. Historians and anthropologists that look at the historical context believe that pre-Babylonian Mesopotamia could be considered democratic in a broad sense of the word.

Independent democratic institutions were also present in India. In the past, the Indian subcontinent was divided and was not a whole country in and of itself. There are historical claims that there were republics in the subcontinent, known as “Sangas” and “Ghanas,” which lasted approximately 2 to 3 centuries. The fact remains that these republics did indeed have many democratic elements and that they attempted to create and establish a government based on democracy. Here are two of the most prominent democratic characteristics these republics possessed:

  • Equal power among people: The Sangas’ governmental hierarchy had a king and a deliberative assembly. The deliberative assembly was open to all free men, so everyone could provide input in the government. The power was held by the people in this manner, and through the assembly the people decided all major state matters through regular meetings. The assembly was in charge of all governmental affairs, having complete administrative, judicial, and financial authority. Considering that the central tenet of democracy is the decision-making power of a state being shared equally by the people, Sangas and Ganas could indeed be compared to democracies.
  • Elected Representative: In the governmental hierarchy, above the deliberative assembly laid the king. Although the king at the top of the hierarchy, the king actually held little power. Although a king, he was actually just elected into the position by the deliberative assembly. In a sense, the king could be compared to a president who is elected by the people. Even the powers and role are greatly similar when compared. The king has to work with the assembly and coordinate his activities with theirs. An interesting fact remains that most of the people who were elected were from the Ksatriya Varna noble family, even though the people were free to elect others.

The fact remains however, that there is evidence against the fact that these states were truly democratic. Looking at the caste system present during that time, historians are skeptical of the fact that equality was achieved, and that the governmental power was equally shared. There is also the fact that the Sangas and Ghanas did not have legally defined concepts of what a citizen is, so the people suffered further from inequality. There are also doubts regarding the historical documents of that time due to their sporadic manner and a general lack of evidence.

When talking about the history of democracy, the influence of the Greeks cannot be left unmentioned. At its initial stages, Greece was no more than a loose collection of states. Many of these states were democratic and shaped democracy into what we now today. In the democratic sense, the most notable and radical of these states was Athens. Among the numerous radical things that Athenian democracy did, the most notable are the following:

  • Feasibility: The Athenian democracy had a population of approximately 250,000 people, and still functioned properly as a state. In the initial stages of democracy, it was unthinkable for a government with such a large population to successfully maintain the state’s affairs. However, Athenian democracy proved it was possible for a state with a large population to be democratic. Although it may not seem like a great feat in our modern day and time, if looked at in historical context, it was a near impossible feat.
  • Selection by lot: Every government position was selected by the drawing of lots, so all the citizens had an equal chance of participation. Although it gave everyone equal opportunity, often times people unsuitable for the government jobs got them. If poor people got the jobs, they were often times susceptible to bribes, while others would abuse their powers. Although the selection by lot system was good on paper, it was quite detrimental and problematic.
  • Ostracism: The Athenian democracy had a reverse election. In this system, the people would vote on which leading politician they wished exiled. The “winner” of this election would be exiled for 10 years, unable to exert influence in any way. The voters would cast their votes by writing the names of the politicians they disliked on broken poetry. Although it sounds like an overly harsh system, during its implementation, it prevented civil unrest and civil wars.

Today, democracy has become very different than what the world had seen in the past. However, the fact that the democracies in the past influenced democracy today is undeniable. If one is to look at the past in historical context, the importance of the past and its relevance in modern day democracy can easily be seen. This only comes to show how much democracy has progressed since its inception, and how much progress is yet to be made.


About the Author 

Sameer Abdullah
Chief Editor of the Democracy and Political Rights department

Sameer is a student at William Carey Academy. He likes to walk the path less trodden and advocate for the devil. He also loves online gaming and learning new stuff. Too often, he finds himself pondering and analyzing society, constructs, the human mind, and anything that affects the lives of those of us living on earth.

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