Greece & You
Joe Greenwald, Champlain Valley
Union High School, VT
Development of Ancient Greek Democracy
450 - 500 BCE
"It is called a government of the
people (demokratia) becaue we live in considertion of not the few, but of the majority." - Thucydides on Pericles' view of democracy
Evolution of Democracy
Democracy in Greece was first introduced
in Athens in the 505 BCE by Cleisthenes. Previous to democracy
Greek city-states were ruled by a an elite few, rich, powerful
men, known as tyrants. This Oligarchy limited the power to very
few people. Democracy was a government structured to serve the
people. All white, male citizens had the right to vote under
a democratic democracy. Unlike present democracy, citizens would
convine and openly discuss and vote for elections. This type
of democracy is called direct democracy. As a society it benefited
the majority, which were the middle and lower classes. The middle
and lower classes received a voice , giving them power. The upper
class, aristrocrats, lost power through a democratic government.
They no longer received more power because of thier social standing.
The Athenian Constitution was written by Aristotle and was titled Constitution of Athens (Athenaion Politeia). It described the responsibility of Athenian government and the respensibility of the different branches it is made up of.
The Greek father of democracy was Solon,
a political leader in the late 500's BCE. After his death in
559 BCE, the economic, social reforms, and constitutional reforms
he made eventually influence democracy in Athens. Under Solon's
many radical reforms some some even consider Solonian Athens
In 508 BCE Cleisthenes gained political
power in Athens. From 508 to 502 BC, he began to develop a series
of major reforms leading to the formation of Athenian Democracy.
He made all free men living in Athens and Attica citizens, giving
them the right to vote as part of a democratic society. He also
established a council (boule). All citizens over the age of thirty
were eligible to sit on the council, encouraging public involvement
in the government.
The council (boule) of 500 male citizens
was the executive committee of a larger group called the Assembly.
The assembly, which any male citizen could attend, had the capacity
of 30,000 to 40,000 people. Usually only around 5,000 people
would participate in the Assembly though.
The Great Pericles
Preceding Cleisthenes, Pericles, Cleisthenes
great-nephew continued to strengthen Athenian political power.
From 460 to 429 BCE, when he died of sickness, Pericles controlled
Athenian affairs. During Pericles rule, Athens reached it's greatest
political, social, and economical power. He established a bulding
project, which included the Parthenon, which today is still visible
on the acropolis.
Acropolis in Athens
In 431 BCE the Peloponnesian Wars began, eventually in 429 BCE leading to a great plauge.
Pericles' Funeral Oration
Thucydides recounts the funeral oration given by Pericles.
An excerpt from Pericles' Funeral Oration...
Our political system does not compete with
with institutions which are elsewhere in force. We do not copy
our neighbors, but try to be an example. Our administration favors
the many instead of the few: this is why it is called a democracy.
The laws afford equal justice to all alike in their private disputes,
but we do not ignore the claims of excellence. When a citizen
distinguishes himself, then he will be called to serve the state,
in preference to others, not as a matter of privilege, but as
a reward of merit; and poverty is no bar.
... The freedom we enjoy extends also to
ordinary life; we are not suspicious of one another, and we do
not nag our neighbor if he chooses to go his own way. ... But
this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to respect
the magistrates and the laws, and never to forget that we must
protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those
unwritten laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling
of what is right....
Our city is thrown open to the world; we
never expel a foreigner.... We are free to live exactly as we
please, and yet, we are always ready to face any danger.... We
love beauty without indulging in fancies, and although we try
to improve our intellect. this does not weaken our will.... To
admit one's poverty is no disgrace with us; but we consider it
disgraceful not to make an effort to avoid it. An Athenian citizen
does not neglect public affairs when attending to his private
business.... We consider a man who takes no interest in the state
not as harmless, but as useless; and although only a few may
originate a policy, we are all able to judge it. [Emphasis in
Popper.] We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block
in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary
to acting wisely....
More from Pericles' Funeral Oration. This excerpt explains what democracy meant to him and to Athens...
"Our form of government is called
a democracy because..."
"... Our form of does not imitate
the laws of neighboring states. On the contrary, we are rather
a model to others. Our form of government is called a democracy
because its administration is in the hands, not of a few, but
of the whole people. In the settling of private disputes, everyone
is equal before the law. Election to public office is made on
the basis of ability, not on the basis of membership to a particular
class. No man is kept out of public office by the obscurity of
his social standing because of his poverty, as long as he wishes
to be of service to the state. And not only in our public life
are we free and open, but a sense of freedom regulates our day-to-day
life with each other. We do not flare up in anger at our neighbor
if he does what he likes. And we do not show the kind of silent
disapproval that causes pain in others, even though it is not
a direct accusation. In our private affairs, then, we are tolerant
and avoid giving offense. But in public affairs, we take great
care not to break law because of the deep respect we have for
them. We give obedience to the men who hold public office from
year to year. And we pay special regard to those laws that are
for the protection of the oppressed and to all the unwritten
laws that we know bring disgrace upon the transgressor when they
Timeline of Athenian Democracy (621
- 399 BCE)
Note: all dates BCE. (Before the Common
Publication of the
law of Draco.
Solon appointed sole
archon (ruler), with plenipotentiary powers to inaugurate reforms.
Cancelled all land debts, freed all debt slaves; instituted a
milder code of laws; established plutocratic distribution of
political powers (based on land income, with the most powerful
offices reserved for the wealthiest class). Although hardly democratic,
the reform did provide the laboring class (the theses) with official
status within the political structure (that is, they now had
the right to observe Assembly deliberations -- though not the
right to contribute to them).
Peisistratus the tyrant
rules Athens. A prolific builder and, by all accounts, a charismatic
and popular leader, he brought limited land reform to the Attic
countryside, buttressing his own support, as well as strengthening
the hand of an important sector of the rural proletariat. Introduced
the cult of Dionysus to Athens, with the aim of weakening the
influence of the hereditary priesthoods.
A period of instability,
marked by succession struggles and civil strife. Culminates in
the ascension of Cleisthenes, who institutes sweeping democratic
reforms. At the foundation of these reforms is a re-drawing of
the demographic map. Citizenship is no longer defined in terms
of tribal ties, but in terms of residence in one of the over
150 demes. This has the effect of dissolving the grip of the
four great tribes on political power, and redistributing it to
the neighborhood level. New political institutions are created,
and the Assembly becomes the sovereign legal authority of the
land. Finally, the right of free speech for all freemen in the
Assembly is secured.
Athenians lead Greek
forces to victory over Persian invaders, at the Battle of Marathon.
Xerxes launches massive
invasion of Greece, by both land and sea. Spartans annihilated
at Thermopylae, and the citizens of Athens are evacuated to Salamis.
The city is destroyed. Themistocles subsequently leads Athenian
fleet to overwhelming victory over Xerxes' navy at Salamis. The
following year, the Persians retreat from Greece.
Establishment of the
Delian League, with Athens by far the pre-eminent member.
Naxos attempts to
withdraw from the League. Athens razes its walls, and doubles
At Pericles' bidding,
the Athenian Assembly votes to move the treasury of the Delian
League from the neutral
site of Delos, to
War. The fundamental rivalry of Greek politics, between the empires
of Athens and Sparta, erupts into hostilities which eventually
involve the entire Greek world.
Pericles' Funeral Oration
The plague, to which
Pericles, among thousands of others, succombs.
Cleon succeeds to
leadership of the democratic faction, which favors war.
The Peace of Nicias
416 The seige of Melos
The Sicilian Expedition.
The Oligarchic Revolution,
put down by Theramenes and Alcibiades.
Athenian fleet annihilated
The war ends. The
long walls are pulled down, and the Piraeus' fortifications destroyed.
The Thirty, under the leadership of Critias (one of Plato's uncles,
incidentally), ascend to power, with Spartan sponsorship. Repression
drives thousands into exile, who subsequently organize a force
which drives the Thirty out of power, and re-establishes the
democracy. A general amnesty is declared.
The trial and death
(Information in chronology was taken from
Ancient Greece Web site. The link to this web site is the title
As you can see Ancient Greek democracy
really isn't that different than present day democracy in America.
Today we still have the right to vote, the balance of power within
the government body, and a voice as the people. It's amazing
that a form of government, which existed thousands of years ago,
is still used.