One assumes that when the true history of antiquity became widely known during the enlightenment, popular opinion of the ancient political systems was equal to that held today. This is not so. In those days, Sparta was seen as the model political system – structured, authoritarian, and efficient. Democracies, like Athens, were seen as idealistic examples of excess power given to the common people.
According to Paul Cartledge, the noted historian, the English writer Edward Bulwer Lytton was the first to proclaim the virtues of the Athenian society and its contribution to the founding of modern democracies. Lytton was a prolific writer, having penned such popular novels as The Last Days of Pompeii. He also wrote Athens, Its Rise and Fall, completed in 1837, but not published until after his death.
“This principle settled, it may perhaps be generally conceded, that on comparing the democracies of Greece with all other contemporary forms of government, we find them the most favorable to mental cultivation—not more exposed than others to internal revolutions—usually, in fact, more durable,—more mild and civilized in their laws—and that the worst tyranny of the Demus, whether at home or abroad, never equaled that of an oligarchy or a single ruler. That in which the ancient republics are properly models to us, consists not in the form, but the spirit of their legislation. They teach us that patriotism is most promoted by bringing all classes into public and constant intercourse—that intellect is most luxuriant wherever the competition is widest and most unfettered—and that legislators can create no rewards and invent no penalties equal to those which are silently engendered by society itself—while it maintains, elaborated into a system, the desire of glory and the dread of shame.”
Since Lytton’s time, the stock of the Athenians of the Golden Age has risen – helped along by the stain on Sparta caused by its association with failed the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. The Athenians, today, bask in the glory of association with the great modern democracies of the United States and Europe: their incredible intellect and concept of freedom standing as a beacon for mankind to evolve his political systems.