Athenian Democracy

Athenian Democracy

Athenian democracy refers to the system of democratic government used in Athens, Greece from the 5th to 4th century BCE. Under this system, all male citizens - the dēmos - had equal political rights, freedom of speech, and the opportunity to participate directly in the political arena.

In Athenian democracy, not only did citizens participate in a direct democracy whereby they themselves made the decisions by which they lived, but they also actively served in the institutions that governed them, and so they directly controlled all parts of the political process.

Ancient Sources

Other city-states had, at one time or another, systems of democracy, notably Argos, Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai. In addition, sometimes even oligarchic systems could involve a high degree of political equality, but the Athenian version, starting from c. 460 BCE and ending c. 320 BCE and involving all male citizens, was certainly the most developed.

The word democracy (dēmokratia) derives from dēmos, which refers to the entire citizen body: the People.

The contemporary sources which describe the workings of democracy typically relate to Athens and include such texts as the Constitution of the Athenians from the School of Aristotle; the works of the Greek historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon; texts of over 150 speeches by such figures as Demosthenes; inscriptions in stone of decrees, laws, contracts, public honours and more; and Greek Comedy plays such as those by Aristophanes. Unfortunately, sources on the other democratic governments in ancient Greece are few and far between. This being the case, the following remarks on democracy are focussed on the Athenians.

The Assembly & Council

The word democracy (dēmokratia) derives from dēmos, which refers to the entire citizen body, and kratos, meaning rule. Any male citizen could, then, participate in the main democratic body of Athens, the assembly (ekklēsia). In the 4th and 5th centuries BCE the male citizen population of Athens ranged from 30,000 to 60,000 depending on the period. The assembly met at least once a month, more likely two or three times, on the Pnyx hill in a dedicated space which could accommodate around 6000 citizens. Any citizen could speak to the assembly and vote on decisions by simply holding up their hands. The majority won the day and the decision was final. Nine presidents (proedroi), elected by lot and holding the office one time only, organised the proceedings and assessed the voting.

Specific issues discussed in the assembly included deciding military and financial magistracies, organising and maintaining food supplies, initiating legislation and political trials, deciding to send envoys, deciding whether or not to sign treaties, voting to raise or spend funds, and debating military matters. The assembly could also vote to ostracise from Athens any citizen who had become too powerful and dangerous for the polis. In this case there was a secret ballot where voters wrote a name on a piece of broken pottery (ostrakon). An important element in the debates was freedom of speech (parrhēsia) which became, perhaps, the citizen's most valued privilege. After suitable discussion, temporary or specific decrees (psēphismata) were adopted and laws (nomoi) defined. The assembly also ensured decisions were enforced and officials were carrying out their duties correctly.

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There was in Athens (and also Elis, Tegea, and Thasos) a smaller body, the boulē, which decided or prioritised the topics which were discussed in the assembly. In addition, in times of crisis and war, this body could also take decisions without the assembly meeting. The boulē or council was composed of 500 citizens who were chosen by lot and who served for one year with the limitation that they could serve no more than two non-consecutive years. The boulē represented the 139 districts of Attica and acted as a kind of executive committee of the assembly. It was this body which supervised any administrative committees and officials on behalf of the assembly.

It was in the courts that laws made by the assembly could be challenged & decisions were made regarding ostracism.

Then there was also an executive committee of the boulē which consisted of one tribe of the ten which participated in the boulē (i.e., 50 citizens, known as prytaneis) elected on a rotation basis, so each tribe composed the executive once each year. This executive of the executive had a chairman (epistates) who was chosen by lot each day. The 50-man prytany met in the building known as the Bouleuterion in the Athenian agora and safe-guarded the sacred treasuries.

In tandem with all these political institutions were the law courts (dikasteria) which were composed of 6,000 jurors and a body of chief magistrates (archai) chosen annually by lot. Indeed, there was a specially designed machine of coloured tokens (kleroterion) to ensure those selected were chosen randomly, a process magistrates had to go through twice. It was here in the courts that laws made by the assembly could be challenged and decisions were made regarding ostracism, naturalization, and remission of debt.

This complex system was, no doubt, to ensure a suitable degree of checks and balances to any potential abuse of power, and to ensure each traditional region was equally represented and given equal powers. With people chosen at random to hold important positions and with terms of office strictly limited, it was difficult for any individual or small group to dominate or unduly influence the decision-making process either directly themselves or, because one never knew exactly who would be selected, indirectly by bribing those in power at any one time.

Participation in Government

As we have seen, only male citizens who were 18 years or over could speak (at least in theory) and vote in the assembly, whilst the positions such as magistrates and jurors were limited to those over 30 years of age. Therefore, women, slaves, and resident foreigners (metoikoi) were excluded from the political process.

The mass involvement of all male citizens and the expectation that they should participate actively in the running of the polis is clear in this quote from Thucydides:

We alone consider a citizen who does not partake in politics not only one who minds his own business but useless.

Illustrating the esteem in which democratic government was held, there was even a divine personification of the ideal of democracy, the goddess Demokratia. Direct involvement in the politics of the polis also meant that the Athenians developed a unique collective identity and probably too, a certain pride in their system, as shown in Pericles' famous Funeral Oration for the Athenian dead in 431 BCE, the first year of the Peloponnesian War:

Athens' constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. (Thuc. 2.37)

Although active participation was encouraged, attendance in the assembly was paid for in certain periods, which was a measure to encourage citizens who lived far away and could not afford the time off to attend. This money was only to cover expenses though, as any attempt to profit from public positions was severely punished. Citizens probably accounted for 10-20% of the polis population, and of these it has been estimated that only 3,000 or so people actively participated in politics. Of this group, perhaps as few as 100 citizens - the wealthiest, most influential, and the best speakers - dominated the political arena both in front of the assembly and behind the scenes in private conspiratorial political meetings (xynomosiai) and groups (hetaireiai). These groups had to meet secretly because although there was freedom of speech, persistent criticism of individuals and institutions could lead to accusations of conspiring tyranny and so lead to ostracism.

Critics of democracy, such as Thucydides and Aristophanes, pointed out that not only were proceedings dominated by an elite, but that the dēmos could be too often swayed by a good orator or popular leaders (the demagogues), get carried away with their emotions, or lack the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions. Perhaps the most notoriously bad decisions taken by the Athenian dēmos were the execution of six generals after they had actually won the battle of Arginousai in 406 BCE and the death sentence given to the philosopher Socrates in 399 BCE.


Democracy, which had prevailed during Athens' Golden Age, was replaced by a system of oligarchy in 411 BCE. The constitutional change, according to Thucydides, seemed the only way to win much-needed support from Persia against the old enemy Sparta and, further, it was thought that the change would not be a permanent one. Nevertheless, democracy in a slightly altered form did eventually return to Athens and, in any case, the Athenians had already done enough in creating their political system to eventually influence subsequent civilizations two millennia later.

In the words of historian K. A. Raaflaub, democracy in ancient Athens was

a unique and truly revolutionary system that realized its basic principle to an unprecedented and quite extreme extent: no polis had ever dared to give all its citizens equal political rights, regardless of their descent, wealth, social standing, education, personal qualities, and any other factors that usually determined status in a community.

Ideals such as these would form the cornerstones of all democracies in the modern world. The ancient Greeks have provided us with fine art, breath-taking temples, timeless theatre, and some of the greatest philosophers, but it is democracy which is, perhaps, their greatest and most enduring legacy.

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One of the indispensable words we owe ultimately to the Greeks is criticism (derived from the Greek for judging, as in a court case or at a theatrical performance). Another is theory (from the Greek word meaning contemplation, itself based on the root for seeing). An early example of the Greek genius for applied critical theory was their invention of political theory, probably some time during the first half of the fifth century BC.

The first concrete evidence for this crucial invention comes in the Histories of Herodotus, a brilliant work composed over several years, delivered orally to a variety of audiences all round the enormously extended Greek world, and published in some sense as a whole perhaps in the 420s BC. The evidence comes in the form of what is known as the Persian Debate in Book 3.

According to the writer's dramatic scenario, we are in what we would now call the year 522 BC. The mighty Persian empire (founded in Asia a generation earlier by Cyrus the Great and expanded by his son Cambyses to take in Egypt) is in crisis, since a usurper has occupied the throne. Seven noble Persians conspire to overthrow the usurper and restore legitimate government. But what form of government, what constitution, should the restored Persian empire enjoy for the future? That at any rate is the assumed situation. In hard practical fact there was no alternative, and no alternative to hereditary autocracy, the system laid down by Cyrus, could seriously have been contemplated. So what we have in Herodotus is a Greek debate in Persian dress.

An early example of the Greek genius for applied critical theory was their invention of political theory.

Three of the seven noble conspirators are given set speeches to deliver, the first in favour of democracy (though he does not actually call it that), the second in favour of aristocracy (a nice form of oligarchy), the third - delivered by Darius, who in historical fact will succeed to the throne - in favour, naturally, of constitutional monarchy, which in practice meant autocracy. The main interest for us centres on the arguments of the first speaker, in favour of what he calls isonomy, or equality under the laws.

Ancient Greece, part 4 – Athenian Democracy

Before the introduction of democracy in 508 BC, Athens was ruled by a tyrant.

(In Ancient Greece, the word ‘tyrannos’ did not have the same negative connotations that our English word ‘tyrant’ does. The word simply referred to an autocratic ruler who was not answerable to any other person or body.)

The members of the family that ruled Athens were known as the Pisistratids. They were named after Pisistratus, the man who had originally established the dynasty.

Hippias was the son of Pisistratus, and he took over from his father in 530 BC.

His rule was unpopular and many Athenian aristocrats soon became opposed to it.

In 514 BC, two aristocratic lovers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, murdered Hipparchius, a brother of Hippias. After this event, Hippias’ rule became even more oppresive.

Many Athenian aristocrats appealed to the Spartans for help. Eventually, the Spartan king Cleomenes led an army to Athens and drove out the Pisistratids.

Hippias rule was initially replaced with an oligarchic form of government, in which power was mainly in the hands of a body known as the Areopagus.

The Areopagus had existed as an institution since long before the time of Pisistratus. It had supposedly been set up by the legendary Athenian statesman Solon.

We cannot be certain as to whether or not Solon actually existed.

The Areopagus was made up mainly of those who belonged to the wealthier classes.

This oligarchic system of government was not to last for very long however.

In 508 BC, the reformer Cleisthenes pushed through a series of reforms which shifted power from the Areopagus to the general Assembly (known in Classical Greek as the Ekklesia) at which all Athenian citizens, whether rich or poor, had the right to vote.

The Athenian Citizen

Although much is made of Athenian democracy, it is important to bear in mind that democratic rights were only available to full Athenian citizens.

The concept of citizenship in Classical Athens was very different from our modern concept of ‘citizenship’.

Only men were allowed to be citizens. Women did not have any political rights.

In one sense, Athenian women were not even considered to be fully ‘Athenian’. The Greek term for Athenian women, for example, is ‘hai Attikai’ which roughly translates as ‘women of Attica’.

Simply having been born in Athens did not qualify a person for Athenian citizenship. One actually had to be the son of an Athenian citizen.

In the latter half of the fifth century. Athenian citizenship was made even more exclusive by being restricted only to those men who had been born to Athenian mothers as well.

What all this meant in real terms was that only a minority of the population had political power.

The Ekklesia

The ‘ekklesia’ was the central organ of the Athenian democracy.

The word ‘ekklesia’ refers to a body that is ‘called out’ in Classical Greek.

All citizens of the city of Athens were eligible for membership in the ‘ekklesia’. The ‘ekklesia’ usually met on a low hill called the Pnyx located in the southwest of the city.

It was at meetings of the ‘ekklesia’ that important matters were debated. Decisions were made by voting, and the ‘ekklesia’ actually had the power to make practically any kind of decision that it wanted to.

In the “Apology of Socrates”, Plato refers to an incident in which the ‘ekklesia’ decided to make a group of naval commanders who had failed to rescue a group of drowning sailors stand trial in one group. By right, each of the commanders should have been tried individually.

Although such a trial was not legal in the strictest sense, the ‘ekklesia’ pushed ahead with it, had the naval commanders condemned to death and even had some of them executed (two of them had fled Athens before the trial).

This incident serves to point up the fact that the ‘ekklesia’ was in a certain sense all-powerful in the Athenian democratic system.

What makes this story all the more remarkable is the fact that these selfsame commanders had just won a major battle (the battle of Arginoussae).

Although most of the important decisions regarding the city were made in the ‘ekklesia’, it seems as though not everyone actually did attend (or was even interested in attending) its meetings.

In practice, many of the rural inhabitants of Attica (the area surrounding Athens) would not have been able to attend these meetings simply because it would have been too much trouble for them to make the journey to the city.

We must remember that many of these people were farmers. Time was therefore precious to them, and many of them would have preferred to spend their day working on their farms rather than attending the political debates in the ‘ekklesia’.

In one of his plays, “The Acharnians”, the great comic playwright Aristophanes refers to the use of a “red rope”. This supposedly refers to the practice of sending out the Athenian equivalent of the police, the Scythian archers (see Lesson 5), with a rope that had been soaked in red dye to herd people who were hanging around in the market-place into the Pnyx.

If such a measure was indeed used, then it does seem that many Athenians would indeed have been reluctant to attend these meetings of the ‘ekklesia’.

In fact, in the fourth century BC, pay for attendance at these meetings had been introduced in order to make up for the time spent there!

The Boule

The ‘boule’ was an elected council of 500 citizens who were chosen to serve for a period of one year. Members could only serve on two separate occasions in their lifetimes.

This body handled most of the day-to-day running of the Athenian state. It did not actually make any major decisions, but instead was responsible for seeing to it that the decisions made by the ‘ekklesia’were actually carried out.

To illustrate how this works, we can consider the example in the last section about the trial of the naval commanders at the battle of Arginoussae.

All the decisions about how the trial was to be held, and the actual proceedings of the trial itself would have been carried out by the ‘ekklesia’. It was only after these decisions had been made that the members of the ‘boule’ were given instructions to actually see to it that they were put into force.

These two words are sometimes translated into English as “Assembly” and “Council”. Such translations can be misleading, as the English translations can actually obscure the nature of the relationship between the two bodies.

The function of the members of the ‘boule’ were rather different from what we would expect the function of a “councillor” to be in our own society!

Anti-democratic elements in Athens

The impression that many people have nowadays about the Ancient Greeks is that they were die-hard freedom-lovers. Such ideas are propagated not only by those who are ignorant, but even by many teachers of the Classics.

The reality is that a very large number of Athenians were violently opposed to democracy.

Opposition to the ideals of democracy was to be found mainly among the wealthier aristocratic classes, as it was they who had lost most with the institution of the democracy in 508 BC.

Many of the most well-known classical authors speak disparagingly about the democratic system, and some even criticise it in no uncertain terms.

Among the famous classical critics of democracy are Plato, Thucydides and Aristophanes. All of these authors came from relatively well-to-do backgrounds, and their criticisms are sometimes tinged with an irritating snobbishness.

In fact, in 411 BC, while the Peloponnesian War was raging, there was a ‘counter-revolution’ in Athens which did away with the democracy and replaced it with an oligarchic form of government.

(This did not last for long however, and was quickly replaced with a democratic system. However, it does illustrate the point that a substantial proportion of Athenians did not like the idea of a democratic state.)

The lottery of Greek democracy

Visitors to Greece often miss the Epigraphical museum in central Athens. Indeed the last time I went in there, the guards stopped me in the doorway, saying “you do know this is not the National Archaeological museum don’t you?” They looked almost surprised when I told them that I was aware and still wanted to enter.

It’s not really surprising – what is epigraphy after all? It’s the study of texts inscribed on anything except papyrus – that means texts inscribed on stone, pottery, marble and bronze amongst other things. Do such texts matter? Emphatically, yes. Many ancient Greek cities inscribed all sorts of public documents on stone and bronze, while many individual ancient Greeks inscribed texts of every kind of pottery as well as on stone.

Lists of casualties, official treasury figures, honours to particular citizens, names of those voted out of Athens, commemoration of the dead, laws, decrees, oaths and honours to the gods amongst many other subjects can be found inscribed in the Epigraphical museum. All these texts are a fabulous window into both the official and very personal workings of ancient Greek society. To walk through the Epigraphical museum is to immerse yourself in one of the key ways in which the ancient city of Athens presented itself to itself and to the wider world.

My favourite item in the Epigraphical museum is in fact not an inscription per se, but actually a machine made originally of wood and stone: the kleroterion. A what? A kleroterion was used to ensure absolute randomness in the allocation of particularly important civic positions, in particular the allocation of men to juries that sat in the many Athenian court rooms.

The machine is simple to operate. Holes in the stone, cut in several vertical lines, held the ‘tokens’ of each potential dikast or juror (see the photos for the kleroterion in the Epigraphical museum and a reconstruction of one). A wooden tube was held in place next to the lines of tokens. A series of white and black balls were put into a funnel at the top of the wooden tube and allowed to percolate down its length. The horizontal lines of dikast tickets that ran opposite where one coloured set of balls had landed (we are not sure if the Athenians used the black or white balls as the ‘picking’ colour), were chosen to act as jurymen for that day.

This machine was, in essence, just like the lottery machines used in so many national lotteries in countries around the world today. It provided the Athenians with a definitive way of ensuring that the important organs of their system of democracy were not tainted by corruption. This machine, combined with the fact that most juries were 500 people strong, made bribing juries in advance a practical impossibility and helped reassure the citizens of Athens that when a decision was made, it was made on the strength of the arguments alone. The kleroterion is thus a remarkable testament to a remarkable civilization.

Athenian Democracy: The Greek Origins of Rule by the People

It is a well-established historical fact that Democracy began with the Greeks but how similar was this system to those in the modern world?

“Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Such an observation on the nature of democracy is surely accurate. Democracy – government by popular will of the people – is really the only structure of social politics that has ever been proven truly effective. And as much as it may seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon, with a look back through history this thought is a bit short-sighted.

Democracy, in one form or another, has probably existed as long as humanity. From the first time a group of cavemen got together and allowed a majority of the group to decide to go hunt a mastodon, democracy has been here, even if not fully sanctioned by the powers that be.

Officially Organized Democracy

As far as the first real use of fully organized democracy goes? Well, so much of antiquity is based on myth and legend it is understandably difficult to be fully sure though it can be certain that the democracy of the Greek City-State of Athens has got to be somewhere near the beginning of the list.

Surely Athenian Democracy was one of the more important forerunners of modern political theory. What is known to historians is that there were a series of social reforms during the fifth through the third centuries, B.C. (from the time of Solon to the reign of Alexander the Great), each of which brought Athens closer and closer to being a true democracy (what was it prior to this? It’s not clear, but apparently there were many elements which would today probably be best described as anarchy). By the latter portion of this period – during the time of Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., there were hundreds of vaguely democratic city-states throughout Greece, but Athens was arguably the first.

The Phrase is Coined

It is surely from ancient Greece, probably from somewhere around this time, that the word democracy was first used. It comes from a combination of the Greek words demos (demos), meaning “people” and kratos (kratos), meaning “power.”

An interesting possible explanation regarding the word democracy (though do not take this as fact, just an interesting theory) is that the word kratos is a very strong word, and often used when referring to abuses of power, or tyranny. More often, when governmental rule or politics were being referred to, the root word used was arche (arch), which means “rule,” as in oligarchy, anarchy, and monarchy. So the theory is that the word democracy was first coined by people who were critical to the system, but somehow their choice of words backfired and became popular.

The Greek System

Even at its most democratic moments (probably during the reign of Pericles, 461-429 B.C.), there were limits to the purity of the Athenian system, but this is to be expected. For instance, voting rights were held only by adult male citizens who had completed the required military training. Yes, to modern ears this idea may seem somewhat barbaric, but living during this time – in a world where war was commonplace and defense of the city essential – it was surely a necessity for every body politic to keep a well-equipped standing army at all times, especially those relatively small city-states such as Athens (with somewhere between two and three hundred thousand people at the most).

War, quite simply, could not possibly be avoided, and so this law was a good way of making sure that there were plenty of soldiers around.

It is from among the legal voters of the public that the highest of the governmental positions were elected, much like in the democratic countries of the world today. But in fact, there are some elements of Athenian Democracy which make it almost more democratic than most democratic systems know today (whether or not this is a good thing is open to debate). For instance, many of Athens’ laws were created in assembly meetings, which in some ways resemble British Parliament, except that one needn’t have been elected to attend. Anyone in Athens (providing they were a legal, voting citizen) could simply show up at will and vote on any of the popular issues of the day. In this way, Athens was a direct democracy, rather than the representative democracy that we see more often today (the latter system being the only effective possibility when dealing with territories as big as, say, America).

Sortition: Election at Random

Another peculiar thing about Athenian politics during the democratic years was the acceptance of an interesting process called sortition, which was used for choosing the holders of certain governmental positions. Sortition is, quite simply, election by way of lottery. For these particular positions (mostly bureaucratic positions with no real power), any voting citizen could enter their name into the running (which they had to do at least a year before the actual lottery), and then by random choice, the positions were given out. While the downsides to this method are quite obvious, there are upsides, as well – mostly, such a system prevents only the social elite and higher class citizens from total control over the government, and rather ordinary citizens could suddenly find themselves holding cushy government jobs.

Of course this has not even scratched the surface on the massive subject that is the history of Athenian Democracy, and how this relates to modern forms of governments, but perhaps this has shown that the subject itself is both a fascinating and relevant one.

There are positive and negative things that we can learn from looking at such civilizations of antiquity as this.

Studies of political systems, both modern and from antiquity, help one to think more clearly about how governments have behaved in the past, and how they perhaps should evolve from here.

How Athenian Democracy Developed in 7 Stages

The Athenian institution of democracy emerged in several stages. This occurred in response to political, social, and economic conditions. As was true elsewhere in the Greek world, the individual city-state (polis) of Athens had once been ruled by kings, but that had given way to an oligarchic government by archons elected from the aristocratic (Eupatrid) families.

With this overview, learn more about the gradual development of Athenian democracy. This breakdown follows sociologist Eli Sagan's model of seven stages, but others argue that there are as many as 12 stages of Athenian democracy.

Was Athenian Democracy really that bad?

The Athenians were persuaded by demagogues to do many silly things, Cleon was one of their most notorious speakers. They condemned Socrates in the law courts and they also condemned 4 generals to death for losing a fleet in a storm. Then there's the ambitious Sicilian expedition put forward by Alcibiades which Nicias bungled.

Was the Athenian form of government really that bad for the time though? Or would they have been better off with Spartan/Persian styled royal Kings or a Tyrant?

It could be argued that the Athenian government comprised some of the most learned people in the world, due to the fact that they would have participated in debates for at least a decade and heard numerous points of view from specialists. Votes would also be cast extemporaneously without the benefit of notes, this was a far more true and honest style of debate than even our modern style of politics.

It also led to a flourish of energy in the arts, architecture and philosophy which has perhaps never been equaled.



Peisistratus's tyranny was incredibly beneficial for Athens. He developed many of the institutions of the city and fixed a lot of the plaguing problems that the previous systems had failed to do. Consequently though, he brought up people in the social ranks based on their utility rather than their birthright, and facilitated a fertile landscape for a thriving democracy.

The downfall of tyranny though is that not every tyrant will be a Peisistratus. What's the best way to select a Tyrant to lead?

World Focker

It could be argued that the Athenian government comprised some of the most learned people in the world, due to the fact that they would have participated in debates for at least a decade and heard numerous points of view from specialists. Votes would also be cast extemporaneously without the benefit of notes, this was a far more true and honest style of debate than even our modern style of politics.

It also led to a flourish of energy in the arts, architecture and philosophy which has perhaps never been equaled.

Oh dear, not really. For the latter, how do you rate art? we're taught classical Athenian stuff was great therefore we think so. This is a meaningless statement. Moreover from the pov of the Greeks themselves it was somewhat incorrect. The idea of classical Athens being this golden age of literature was basically due to later factors. The spread of drama (possibly, tragedy at least) and the subsequent Roman fascination with it and especially the kind of literary history put together from the second sophistic. As far as the Greeks were concerned classical Athenian literature (which in essence was drama focused) never comes close to earlier modes of thought, especially lyric and epic. In essence the classical stuff is for the masses. Moreover a lot of what we label as classical Athenian actually grew out of tyrannical influence. Also if you want the technical apex of Greek writing then that is the Hellenistic period.

As for the other stuff, frankly I've always found the Athenian arguments against their democracy satisfying enough but look at something like Aristophanes' Wasps to get a better picture of what happens as to "learned voters". You just get an unlearned but interested voting block or two which can then be manipulate by demagogues. If you want a learned voting public, you need something like an oligarchy or an aristocracy (two sides of the same coin for Aristotle).


Just a minor point. Sparta was not a tyranny. At least, not in the sense of being ruled by a single tyrant. Even the Spartans had two kings, and each could veto the other. It was a bit like the Consuls of the Roman Republic in that respect.

The superior political systems of the Greeks brought victory against the Persian Empire. That should vindicate them. But even more than this, the art of Athens speaks volumes in defence of liberty.


Oh dear, not really. For the latter, how do you rate art? we're taught classical Athenian stuff was great therefore we think so. This is a meaningless statement. Moreover from the pov of the Greeks themselves it was somewhat incorrect. The idea of classical Athens being this golden age of literature was basically due to later factors. The spread of drama (possibly, tragedy at least) and the subsequent Roman fascination with it and especially the kind of literary history put together from the second sophistic. As far as the Greeks were concerned classical Athenian literature (which in essence was drama focused) never comes close to earlier modes of thought, especially lyric and epic. In essence the classical stuff is for the masses. Moreover a lot of what we label as classical Athenian actually grew out of tyrannical influence. Also if you want the technical apex of Greek writing then that is the Hellenistic period.

As for the other stuff, frankly I've always found the Athenian arguments against their democracy satisfying enough but look at something like Aristophanes' Wasps to get a better picture of what happens as to "learned voters". You just get an unlearned but interested voting block or two which can then be manipulate by demagogues. If you want a learned voting public, you need something like an oligarchy or an aristocracy (two sides of the same coin for Aristotle).

Was there a realistic style of art prior to the Athenians? Their artwork of the classical period was the first, AFAIK, to embrace human proportions and celebrate human beauty. Compare that to the Egyptian art and the Egyptian stuff is unchanging for centuries, flat (quite literally for Hieroglyphics) and archaic. The Romans basically copied the Greeks and the barbarian artwork in the Dark Ages was primitive in comparison. That's not to say that the barbarians couldn't produce great works of art, quite the contrary, the very narrowness of their existence gives their work a gritty and harsh style. Having said that I've always admired the Minoan art too, which of course came before Athenian Democracy.

I'm obliged to agree with you to some extent about the drama, but surely it came of age under Athenian Democracy? Epics would be held in higher regard than bawdy comedy, but the fact that comedy flourished under the democracy is evidence of the uniqueness of Athens imho. Only a truly free society could afford to take the piss out of itself and then laugh about it. Demagogues like Cleon were certainly a threat, but we should consider that many of the Athenian citizens would have attended the Ekklesia for the best part of a decade, heard various viewpoints from numerous specialists/shipwrights/generals/tradesmen etc. They would also have participated directly in government offices, the army/navy and as a result have quite a lot of practical experience to draw upon. To suggest they were unlearned is inaccurate imho, unless you mean in a purely literary and academic sense. Surely with such experience they would have been some of the most enlightened voters from any period in History?

Cimon · Christopher Blackwell

Ephialtes · Christopher Blackwell

Scythian Archers: policing Athens · Elizabeth Baughman

Poetry and the Dēmos: State Regulation of a Civic Possession · Casey Dué

Portraits of historical individuals · Amy Smith

The Eponymous Heroes of Athens · Amy Smith

Images of personifications of political ideas · Amy Smith

A Bibliography of Democratic Art · Amy Smith

Greek Influence on U.S. Democracy

The United States has a complex government system. One important tenet of this system is democracy, in which the ultimate power rests with the people. In the case of the United States, that power is exercised indirectly, through elected representatives. Although the U.S. has been a strong proponent of democracy, it did not invent democracy. The Greeks are often credited with pioneering a democratic government that went on to influence the structure of the United States. Read this article that describes how elements of ancient Greek democracy heavily influenced the figures that designed the United States government.

Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History

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After declaring independence from England in 1776, the founders of the United States possessed a unique opportunity to create a government of their choosing. This was a momentous task, and for guidance they looked to what they deemed the best philosophies and examples of government throughout world history. Along with the Roman model, the democratic model of ancient Greece&rsquos system of self-government greatly influenced how the founding fathers set out to construct the new United States government.

Prior to independence, the east coast of what is today the United States was divided into 13 separate colonies. The founders of the United States decided to keep the country divided into states rather than dissolving the colonial boundaries. They did this so that each region could be governed at a local level, with a national government acting as a dominant authority over all. These 13 colonies would become the first states of the newly established country.

A U.S. state resembles the community structure of an ancient Greek polis, or city-state. A polis was composed of an urban center and the land surrounding it, developments similar to that of the major cities and state capitals in the United States and the rural areas surrounding them. In ancient Greece, some of the main city-states were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Syracuse. These city-states acted independently for the most part. However, sometimes they engaged in war against each other. They also banded together to defend Greece from foreign invaders.

All Greek city-states had sets of rules by which the people lived in observance and laws they were required to obey. In ancient Greece the idea of rule of law came from the philosopher Aristotle&rsquos belief in natural law. He claimed the existence of a higher justice in nature&mdashcertain essential rights&mdashthat superseded the laws written by humans. Aristotle believed that people should align themselves with this natural law and govern by its ethics.

In the United States today, the rule of law is a principle that ensures that all laws are publicly accessible, equally enforced, and independently judged, and that they adhere to international human rights ethics. The rule of law is important because it allows all individuals and institutions (including the government itself) to be held accountable for their actions. By agreeing to follow the rule of law, the United States can prevent abuses of power by leaders who might act as if they are above the law.

Another important ancient Greek concept that influenced the formation of the United States government was the written constitution. Aristotle, or possibly one of his students, compiled and recorded The Constitution of the Athenians and the laws of many other Greek city-states. Having a written constitution creates a common standard as to how people should behave and what rules they must follow. It also establishes clear processes by which people who break the law are judged and those who are harmed as a result can be compensated or given justice.

Like The Constitution of the Athenians, the U.S. Constitution is a vital document. It lays out the government&rsquos structure and how the checks and balances of power within it relate to one another. The U.S. Constitution acts as the supreme law of the country and establishes individual citizens&rsquo rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to a trial by a jury of one&rsquos peers. Today, the U.S. Constitution is still regularly referenced in law as the supreme law of the land and is enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court, the country&rsquos highest court.

The original U.S. voting system had some similarities with that of Athens. In Athens, every citizen could speak his mind and vote at a large assembly that met to create laws. Citizens were elected to special councils to serve as organizers, decision-makers, and judges. However, the only people considered citizens in Athens were males over the age of 18. Women, slaves, and conquered peoples could not vote in the assembly or be chosen to serve on councils.

The founders of the United States similarly believed that only certain people should be allowed to vote and elect officials. They chose to structure the United States as a representative democracy. This means that citizens elect officials, such as senators and representatives, who vote on behalf of the citizens they represent in Congress. It also means that instead of each individual citizen voting for president directly, a body called the Electoral College officially casts the votes of each state for president. As in Athens, when the United States was founded only white, landowning men were allowed to vote. Over time, however, all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 who have not been convicted of a felony have gained the right to vote.

The principles behind the ancient Greeks&rsquo democratic system of government are still in use today. The United States and many other countries throughout the modern world have adopted democratic governments to give a voice to their people. Democracy provides citizens the opportunity to elect officials to represent them. It also allows citizens to choose to elect a different person to represent them if they are dissatisfied with their current elected officials. Today, democracy and the rule of law provide people around the world with a means of protecting their human rights and holding each other accountable as equals under the law.

Lysander outside the walls of Athens. 19th century lithograph.

The Pnyx (right), sits across from the Acropolis (left)

Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants, ordering the execution of Theramenes, a fellow member of the oligarchy that ruled Athens in 404–403 BCE.
Prisma Archivo/Alamy

Thrasybulus (? – 389 Bc), Athenian soldier and statesman. A drawing by Mary Evans Picture Library.

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.