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What is so ‘primitive’ about ‘primitive democracy’? Comparing the ancient Middle East and classical Athens

posted on 01.01.2012, 00:00 authored by Benjamin IsakhanBenjamin Isakhan
This chapter seeks to delve deeper into the ancient history of democracy than is normally permitted, back to a time preceding the developments of classical Athens, when the earliest signs of organized society and complex governmental systems emerged across the ancient Middle East. It then seeks to compare and contrast these ancient Middle Eastern examples with those of classical Athens and to offer new insights into, and questions about, the nature and history of democracy. Building on some recent work (Fleming, 2004; Isakhan, 2007a; Keane, 2009: 78–155), this chapter also hopes to move the discussion beyond the phrase usually associated with ancient Middle Eastern democracies, that of ‘primitive democracy’. This chapter also argues that, while the Middle Eastern experiments were less rigid and formalized, they were in no measurable sense more ‘primitive’ than the later example offered by classical Athens. However, this essay also cautiously notes that, while not all of the elements which made ancient Athens significant occurred in the same way and at the same time in the ancient Middle East, all of them did exist at varying times and in varying guises across these earlier civilizations. To demonstrate this thesis, the remainder of the chapter utilizes several of the key criteria by which we commonly measure Athenian democracy – the functioning of its assembly, the mechanisms of justice and of the law, the varying voting and elective procedures, the rights and freedoms of the citizens, and the systematic exclusion of ‘non-citizens’ – and discusses precedents and parallels drawn from the extant evidence concerning the ancient Middle East.


Title of book

The secret history of democracy

Chapter number



19 - 34


Palgrave Macmillan

Place of publication

London, Eng.





Publication classification

B Book chapter; B1.1 Book chapter

Copyright notice

2011, Palgrave Macmillan




B Isakhan, S Stockwell

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