According to the author Paul Cartledge, in his Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (Oxford University Press)book, in the United Greece article paragraph, if you liked demokratia, it could mean People Power, but if you hated it – if, say, you were a member of the wealthy elite – then it could stand for the ancient Greek equivalent of Lenin's dictatorship of the proletariat.
Furthermore the Greeks' unexpected victories over the Persians of 490 and 480-479BC unleashed an era of unparalleled cultural creativity – from Aeschylus's tragic drama Persians of 472BC to the mathematical genius of Archimedes. However, united though they were by religion and common social customs and by at least partly fictional self-images, these Greeks were very much not united by one of their major contributions to the sum of human achievement – politics.
Much of our everyday political language is of ancient Greek derivation: monarchy, tyranny, oligarchy, aristocracy, plutocracy, democracy – not to mention the word "politics" itself. Much of the rest is Latin-derived: constitution, republic, empire, among others. But the Latin for "democracy" was democratia, a loan-word, because actually the Romans didn't do democracy – at least not in the original ancient Greek sense of the term; and they recognised, as we all do or should, that in this sphere the Greeks had been the original pioneers.
However, the ancient Greeks' demokratia was hugely different not just in scale but in kind from any modern political system that claims the title of "democracy". That was partly because the fundamental ancient Greek political unit, the polis, was a strong community in a very exclusive sense: only adult male citizens could consider themselves politically entitled. Even then, the ancient Greeks typically ruled themselves directly, in that they did not select rulers to rule over and for them. Theirs were direct, participatory self-governments, whereas ours are notionally "representative".
But democracy, so far from being the ancient Greek norm, was at first a rare and rather fragile plant: only later did it become about as widely distributed as various forms of oligarchy. And only in a few cases – in Athens, above all – was it both deeply rooted and conspicuously radical. At all times and in all places it remained more or less controversial. And there was a good linguistic reason for this. Demokratia was a compound of demos and kratos. But whereas kratos unambiguously meant "grip" or "power", demos could be interpreted to mean either "people" (in a vague sense, as in Abraham Lincoln's famous words at Gettysburg: "government of the people, by the people, for the people" or very specifically "the masses": the poor majority of the enfranchised citizen body (which might range in size from as few as 500, as on the island-state of Melos in the Cyclades, to as many as the 50,000 citizens of democratic Athens).
By and large the Romans took the second view, which is why they went to great lengths to stamp it out within their empire – the eastern half of which was basically Greek – in the end with total success. It therefore took a great deal of effort and ingenuity in the 19th century to rehabilitate "democracy" as a viably positive term of political discourse – and even then only at the cost of draining it of the active, participatory, class-conscious dimension the Athenians had given it.
Thumbnail Credit: Alexander the Great mosaic, it is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or fewer since publication.