Impact of Alexander and Development of Democracy

Ancient Greece

Greek History

The Impact of Alexander and the Development of Democracy

The development of democracy in Greece came about due to many factors, each playing a significant role in a slow process. It can be traced back to the election of Solon and his impact on the polis of Athens. He created a four-tier class system, awarding political privileges to those in each class (Ober, 1998). While more say was given to the people, it was not until the polis of Athens went to war with Sparta did great change commence. The growth of the Athenian navy was pivotal in the creation of democracy, as Athens became a predominant military power (Ober, 1998). Thereafter, equal powers were dispersed among the people, as their role in defending the state grew greater.

According to author Josiah Ober (1998), “the rise of the navy was contemporary with the flowering of Athenian democracy” (p. 64). This contributed to the defeat of the Persians in 480 B.C. And growth of the Athenian empire. Aristotle believed ” the growth of Athenian naval power was linked to the development of democracy because traditional Greek ideology linked the value of the citizen to his role in the defense of the state” (Ober, 1998, p. 64). Citizens rowed the warships and thus poorer citizens began to play a larger role in the state.

It was around this time that the hoplite class was overcome by ordinary citizens (Ober, 1998). Poverty in ancient Greece was also a provocative force that led to “a continuous pressure either to preserve, or to dismantle, the position of privilege enjoyed in each community by those whose control of the ownership of land… had allowed them to concentrate resources” (Davies, 1993, p. 25). This led to a “pressure to abolish or to render more widely accessible formal political or cultic privileges and extend downwards, to the rest of the descent-group, the applicability and appropriateness of aristocratic life-styles and values” (Davies, 1993, p. 25).

Thus, the polis gave birth to democracy, particularly with the constitution of Athens (Mavrommatis, 2004, p. 7). The polis had been the preferred form of government in ancient Greece because it brought together city-states, unifying a clan/family unit against the tyranny of ancient Greece. The Greeks disfavored a monarchy, oligarchy, or tyranny and wanted to remain independent so best to serve their specific needs.

Before the defeat of the Persians and the unification and buildup of the Greek military, a polis allowed each city to have its own identity and there was an “unwilling-ness to share a city’s history and pride” (Mavrommatis, 2004, p. 4). In Athens particularly, they “did not wish to share the advantages of being Athenian” (Mavrommatis, 2004, p. 4). They felt “blood-bonds” with the cities they came from, providing a loyalty to their polis unlike that for Greece as a whole.

With the spread of democracy, however, it was seen as necessary to employ ostracism and political exile in order to maintain a political balance in Ancient Greece. It is believed “the integral relation between ostracism and political power arises from the importance of exile in the exercise of power in the pre-democratic period and at the time of the foundation of the democracy” (Forsdyke, 2005, p. 144).

Cleisthenes enacted the law of ostracism, ultimately as a punishment for wrongs against the community. The first step in undertaking ostracism was to take a vote on whether to hold one. This was done once a year. The reasoning behind such an action was that it “reinforced a fundamental distinction between elite and non-elite forms of rule” (Forsdyke, 2005, p. 144). It gave non-elites the power to check intra-elite politics and abuses of power, while allowing non-elites to become a more dominant power in politics. Its main purpose was to “avoid the destabilizing consequences of violent intra-elite politics of exile by allowing for only a limited and lawful form of exile” (Forsdyke, 2005, p. 145).

The end result did little to harm the reputation of the elites being ostracized, as it was common for elites to face this fate. It was an “extremely moderate way of regulating intra-elite conflict” as it limited “the extent of damage to the citizens chosen for expulsion,” creating “incentives for the ostracized to wait out their term of exile rather than attempt to return by force” (Forsdyke, 2005, p. 153). Ultimately, it provided an extra checks and balance to the political scene, by offering “an extra-judicial means of pressuring the elite to conform to the political and moral norms of the community” (Forsdyke, 2005, p. 158).

The operations and balance of a direct democracy in Athens were groundbreaking, and yet the unrest between city-states prior to Greek unification made for an uneasy environment. Macedonia’s King Phillip saw an opportunity to invade, extending “Macedonian influence deep into southern Greece and gained the support of his Greek subjects” (Pomeroy, 1998, p. 395). Philip’s plan was to push onward toward Asia, yet his assassination stunted this invasion. His death did not mark the end of the expansion of an empire, however, as his son, Alexander, would seamlessly take the reigns (Pomeroy, 1998). Thus began his conquest, based upon “his determination to equal or excel the exploits of his legendary ancestors, Heracles and Achilles” (Pomeroy, 1998, p. 395).

Alexander’s successes in building an empire are legendary. So much so, that he has been referred to as “the agent of the diffusion of Greek civilization,” who “influenced the course of Mediterranean civilization throughout the rest of antiquity” (Wilcken, 1967, p. xiii). His success can be traced back to his education. Taught by Aristotle, he used his innovative education throughout life, constantly spreading new ways of thought. As he went throughout Asia, he would report back to Aristotle on “information concerning the conditions of the people of every country through which he passed” (Savill, 1990, p. 222). He was taught to work for the people.

It was his innovative ideas that allowed such an expansive empire to form. His ideas were “so novel as to sound revolutionary and impracticable” (Savill, 1990, p. 142). For instance, he did not believe in making all those in captured lands slaves, but rather sought out equal partnerships (Savill, 1990). Described as a genius in the art of war, he was a great conqueror and military strategist. His military moves were novel and unexpected during his time. Unafraid to take on seemingly more than he could handle, he knew how to win. He was “the hegemon of the Hellenic league as well as king of Macedonia, and, on liberating the Greek cities in Asia, from Persian control, he had added them to the league” (Fergusson, 1913, p. 130).

Although born in Macedonia to King Phillip, Alexander’s empire would spread Greek culture, ensuring that Greek rule would extend beyond the borders of the homeland. He made it so that all liberated Greek cities “were to replace oligarchies with democracies” (Hammond, 1998, p. 73), spreading political theory and government throughout his conquests. He relied heavily on the use of alliances to secure Greek staying power in the lands he conquered. By arranging marriages between Macedonian soldiers and Persian women, a practice in which Alexander even undertook, he could fuse Greek culture with the traditional lifestyles of the places he conquered.

In what has become known as Hellenism, Alexander spread Greek culture as he conquered new lands. For instance, he spread Greek culture throughout Asia by founding cities there. The leaders of these cities were “being educated in ‘Greek letters and in Macedonian weaponry’ in the schools which Alexander established” (Hammond, 1998, p. 199). These cities “spread Greek skills in agriculture, land reclamation and capitalism,” as well as “a knowledge of the Greek language” (Hammond, 1998, p. 100). Greek would be the official language of all conquered cities. By spreading new ideas of art, economics, government, and athletics, the legacy of Greece would far outlive the life of Alexander as well as that of the empire.


Davies, J.K. (1993). Democracy and classical Greece. Boston, MA: Harvard University


Fergusson, W.S. (1913). Greek imperialism. Boston, MA: The University Press


Forsdyke, S. (2005). Exile, ostracism, and democracy: The politics of expulsion in ancient Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hammond, N. (1998). The genius of Alexander the Great. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Mavrommatis, P.P. (2004). City-states and alliances in ancient Greece:

Underlying reasons of their existence and their consequences. Retrieved from

Ober, J. (1998). The Athenian revolution: Essays on ancient Greek democracy and political theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pomeroy, S. (1998). Ancient Greece: A political, social, and cultural history. New York:

Savill, A. (1990). Alexander the Great and his time. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble.

Wilcken, U. (1967). Alexander the Great. New York, NY: Norton and Company.

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