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Ancient Greece & You
Joe Greenwald, Champlain Valley Union High School, VT

Development of Ancient Greek  Democracy in Athens

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 a democracy.

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.

Council Convening

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 are broken.

Timeline of Athenian Democracy (621 - 399 BCE)

Note: all dates BCE. (Before the Common Era)

        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 its tribute.
        At Pericles' bidding, the Athenian Assembly votes to move the treasury of the Delian League from the neutral
        site of Delos, to Athens.
        The Peloponnesian 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 at Aegospotami.
        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 of Socrates.

(Information in chronology was taken from Ancient Greece Web site. The link to this web site is the title above.)


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. 

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