It is commonplace to speak of the ancient Greek (or, more exactly, Athenian) democracy, or less commonly nowadays of the Roman Republic, as the ancestor of our modern parliementary democracies. This view corresponds well with a larger interpretation, seeing the ancient world as a beacon of light which we have recovered, as opposed to the “dark” ages of mediaeval theocracies. Even if the latter interpretation seems to be more contested today, at least in the academic sphere, the idea that we are somehow the direct inheritors of the ancient democractic system is still very much alive.
Yet, are we correct in regarding ourselves as the successors of ancient democracies and republics, or in considering these as our ancestors? A more careful investigation negates, I believe, this idea. It may be remarked also from the beginning that this association was born with the 18th century and the genesis of popular governments, at a time when thinkers looked for alternatives to absolute monarchy, seen as a dated relic from earlier mediaeval times. One may only place both systems (the ancient democracy and its modern sister) side by side and compare them in order to see the differences.
If we consider the case of ancient Greece, for instance, we realize that there was a multiplicity of political systems, from Periclean democracy in Athens to the Lacedaemonian constitution in Sparta. All Greek cities had a form of government more or less resembling either of these two most famous cases (we could also add an exception, the Macedonian kingdom). Modern historians like to speak of Athens and Sparta as polar opposite, with analogies respectively to the US and the Soviet Union, and of the Peloponnesian War as an ancient variant of the Cold War. Such analogies, in my opinion, are more helpful to understand how we view ourselves than to understand the reality of things in Athens and Lacedaemon. There were, of course, real differences between the two constitutions. Sparta was a military, caste-based society, while Athens included all classes (but slaves) in her government; Spartan citizenship was severly restricted, while Athenian citizenship was more open; wealth was supressed, at least outwardly, in Sparta, while it was ostensibly displayed in Athens; Athens sponsored the arts, while Sparta was occupied exclusively with military affairs; etc. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that we moderns would feel more affinities with the Athenian democratic constitution than with Spartan aristocracy.
This polarizing model has come under attack recently, with critics especially pointing out the limited citizen pool (women and slaves were excluded) in Athens. But this is not the greatest nor the most important difference with our modern democracies. The central issue here lies in how we perceive society to exist.
Herodotus narrates a well known story, that of Solon, lawgiver of Athens, who left his city to travel for 10 years. Before leaving, he made the Athenians swear solemnly that they would not change his laws before his return to Athens. He never returned. It is rather striking that a very similar story exists for Sparta. Lycurgus implemented his laws and journeyed to Crete after asking the people of Lacedaemon not to change them until his return. Lycurgus, however, never returned and died in Crete.