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Government of Ancient Athens

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 2 months, 2 weeks ago




This page discusses the origins of democracy and democratic government in ancient Greece. 


Topics on the page


Athenian Democracy


A. the Athens "city-state" (508 - 322 BCE)


B. the “polis” or city-state 


C. civic participation and voting rights
  • Disenfranchised Women in Greek Democracy
D. legislative bodies 


Pnyx Hill, Athens where the Athenian Assembly met to enact legislation 

Pnyx Hill, Athens where the Athenian Assembly met to enact legislation 

E. constitution writing
  • Solon
  • Cleisthenes and the Council of 500  
F. rule of law


G. demagoguery


Digital Government in Estonia


Link to AP World History Period 2.2:  States and Empires




Focus Questions

    • What were the main principles of Athenian Government?


    • How did the theory differ from the practice?


    • What parallels can we draw between ancient Athens and our government today?




7 Things to Know about Ancient Greek Government

Link here to learn about the other types of political regimes that were apparent in the Greek city-states: Monarchy, Tyranny, Oligarchy, Magistrates


Pericles' Funeral Oration

For a classic statement about democracy, read "Pericles' Funeral Oration" from The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.



Athenian Democracy:  A Brief Overview

external image Slide19.JPGThe Venn Diagram to the right shows the differences and similarities between Athenian and US democracy

Visit Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy for an overview of classical Athenian democracy and access to a growing database of sources.


Here is an article explaining democracy in Ancient Greece and democracy now in the United States.

Visit here for great overview of Greek Democracy centered around excavated artifacts.


Visit here for a comparison between Greek civilizations and the Persian Empire. For info on city-states go to the 5 minute mark.


  To see how democracy has spread and influenced the world, check out these interactive resources!




    • Click here to see 4,000 years of Democracy in 90 seconds


        • Click here to view and interactive timeline of democracy's development from Athens to Iraq.



Ancient Greek Democracy

Timeline of Democracy in Ancient Athens



A. City-State of Athens (508-322 BCE)


  • Athens had an estimated population of 310,000
    • 67,000 free-born Athenians (33,500 men and 33,500 women)
    • 40,000 foreigners, and
    • 203,000 slaves.


Bust of Solon 

Bust of Solon



  • The Athenian statesman Solon is widely credited with beginning the transition of Athens to a direct democracy in the late 600's and early 500's BCE.


    • An account of his life and political work is provided in Who Was Solon? from the PBS series The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization.




The Athenian system of democracy was a direct system that did not have representatives speaking for the people.


Athenian Male citizens had a voice and could participate directly in government through The Assembly (Ecclesia) and the Council of 500(Boule).






Cleisthenes, Father of Democracy


Cleisthenes, Father of Democracy

The Council of 500

  • The Council of 500, created by Cleisthenes, had 50 citizens from 10 tribes of Greece with 50 presidents elected per month.


  • The Council broke the monopoly that wealthy families had on Athenian government.


  • Ostracism allowed all citizens to vote for one man a year to be exiled for ten years, without appeal. Functioned like impeachment to remove unpopular figures from government


  • Slavery was essential to the operation of the system.
    • Those who served on the Assembly and Council had slaves do their work while they were running the government (material based on notes provided by University of Massachusetts student Lauren Hebert, 2/13/11).


A framework for why and how Athenian democracy developed.

Click here for an overview of the development of Athenian democracy.

B. The "Polis"


Our word "politics" originates from the Greek word “polis,” literally meaning "city."


  • However, to the Ancient Greeks the word "city" did not just mean a location; rather, it described a political entity.


  • This reflects the Ancient Greek notion that to be part of a city meant to be actively involved in making political decisions for that city.

Unlike ancient Mesopotamian cities, which were ruled by a monarch, Athens in the classical period was administered as a democracy. The polis consisted of everyone in the community (World History, William J. Duiker & Jackson J. Spielvogel, p. 101), but with distinctions:


  • Citizens with political rights (adult males; about 10 percent of the population)


  • Citizens without political rights (women and children)


  • Non-citizens (slaves and resident aliens) 


Map of the major city-states in Ancient Greece


Image result for map of ancient greek city states

Here is an interactive website that explains the rise of the polis and the roles the different city-states played. 

Here is a link that further shows the distinctions of citizenship in Athens. Note, for a male to become a full citizen they had to finish their military service.3

Click here for a lightly informative, kid-friendly, webpage describing the conditions of slavery in the Greek city-states.


This website includes information on slaves within the city-states with a focus on women slaves and their tasks.


 Click here to watch a short video for women's roles in the Greek society.

In order for direct Athenian democracy to work, the population had to be somewhat small in size (although Athens had a population of 250,000 by the fifth century BCE). Thus, the size of city-states allowed them to be among the first to foster democracy.





external image Red_apple.jpgFor an interesting lesson plan idea, compare the denial of political rights to women, children, slaves and foreigners in ancient Athens to modern-day conceptions of citizenship in our American democracy.

This video describes what a Polis is within Greek society




C. Civic Participation and Voting Rights


  • An early form of democracy developed in the 5th century BC.


  • Greece developed the theory of citizenship, which was unique in that it assumed the notion of legal equality—that is, people were equals regardless of wealth.
    • In reality, however, only land owning males over age 18 could vote.
      • Women, slaves, and foreigners were not allowed.
      • Even so, among this elite, the expectation that each person participate in making decisions about their city was revolutionary. It helped to equalize the privileges of the rich and the poor, which had previously been starkly different.


  • The assembly voted on most major decisions, including military decisions, managing food, and whether or not to ostracize someone who had become too dangerous or powerful.


  • The Athenian Government was a direct democracy, rather than the representative democracy we have today. In the United States today, we elect officials to represent us; in Ancient Athens, they drew straws to determine who officials would be. The Athenians believed that elections favored the rich.


  • Slaves and women could pick up the slack while eligible men were taking time to participate in government.
    1. Eligible men were paid a small amount of money to compensate for the time they took away from work to participate in government.



Hydria illustrating three women (ca. 430 BC.). Manner of the Kleophon Painter.

Kerameikos Archaeological Museum in Athens.


  For more information about women's roles in Athenian democracy


  • Link here for more information about the societal position of women in Athens




  • Click here for a kid-friendly interactive website explaining the role of women in Ancient Greece. 


  • This article talks about the way that men viewed women in society and how they were publicly talked about.  





Ostrakon, pieces of pottery used as part of a secret ballot voting to ostracize someone


Ostrakon, pieces of pottery used as part of a secret ballot voting to ostracize someone



D. Legislative Bodies


  • Two important components of the Greek democracy were the Assembly and the Council. 


    • Any eligible citizen could participate in the ASSEMBLY—this was the body that was made up of ordinary citizens. They could voice their opinion on any issue that was brought up at public meetings, which occurred four times a month.


      • Men were selected to serve on the COUNCIL by drawing lots. These men made the decisions and served for one month at a time, and the council was typically comprised of 400-500 men.


E. Constitution Writing

The Athenian Constitution by Aristole (350 BCE). For a comparison, see the United States Constitution.

Video goes through the Athenian constitution as well different aspects of Athenian democracy


Here are the remaining scrolls that were found of the Constitution of the Athenians with an article that explains the process. 








F. Rule of Law

  • In Athens, jurors were picked from a random from a pool of citizens eligible for jury duty. Names were selected from a stone machine called a kleroterion. Learn more about how the machine worked here .


  • In addition to the pool of 6,000 jurors, Athens also had a number of chief magistrates, also chosen through the kleroterion's random process.
    • The magistrates and jurors were limited to men 30 years of age and older.


  • This website gives a good, kid-friendly summary of law in Ancient Athens, including ostracism, business law, and more.



G. Demagoguery


  • A major problem in Athens was prevalence of demagogues, political leaders who seek support by appealing to people's emotions and prejudices rather than with rational arguments. 
    • In Athens' direct democracy, the Assembly's emotions ran high and crowds could quickly be riled up.


Key Examples of Demagoguery:


  • Cleon 
    • An Athenian politician known for his powerful oratory skills, harsh policies, warmongering, and grandiose promises to the people. Click here to learn more about him.


  • Battle of Arginusae and the Trial of the Generals 
    •  In an infamous incident that may have cost Athens the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian Assembly put its own generals on trial after a naval victory over Sparta. Urged on by demagogues and political rabble-rousers, the Assembly condemned the irreplaceable generals to death and severely undermined the city's own military capabilities.
      • Click here to read a translated primary source about the trial.


 Video: Demagogues in the United States? 



external image Thiessen_Polygons.pngThe basic Greek political unit was called the:
a) City Assembly
b) Olympia
c) Polis
d) Demographic

ANSWER: C (question from History Quiz Three, Ancient Greece, International World History Project). Polis refers to the city.

  • Link here for a lesson plan presenting democratic developments in Ancient Greece and comparisons to the American democracy, including activities, resources, and assessment.


  • Link here is another fantastic lesson plan link that involves a roleplaying activity to allow students to understand who did and did not have a voice in Athenian democracy.


  • This page provides text, video, Powerpoint, and plans about Athenian democracy.


  • The website has excellent ideas for lesson plans, activities, and handout for classrooms.  


  • This page also provides a lesson plan to help students understand the members of the Greek democracy and how it compares to the current US democracy.



Martin, Thomas R. (Date Unknown). The Archaic Age. Retrieved February 20, 2007, from Ancient Greece Web site: http://www.ancientgreece.com/html/mythology_frame.htm
Cartledge, Paul (2001/01/01). The Democratic Experiment. Retrieved February 19, 2007, from BBC Web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/greekdemocracy_03.shtml
Cartwright, Mark (2014/10/13). Athenian Democracy. Retrieved February 6, 2017, from Ancient History Encyclopedia: http://www.ancient.eu/timeline/democracy/ 
History World, (Date Unknown). History of Democracy. Retrieved February 19, 2007, from History World Web site: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ac42

New Images obtained from Wikimedia Commons



Digital Government in Estonia

Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia (2018)


The origins of democracy in ancient Athens invites exploration of how democracy will continue to function in today’s digital world. 


The northern European country of Estonia has the world’s first digital government

  • Estonia was the first country to declare the Internet a social right for every person.


  • 99% of all government services are online (including filling taxes and accessing medical records).


  • Estonian citizens can vote online anywhere in the world; in 2005, Estonia held the world’s first elections on the Internet in 2005. 


To learn more, view How Estonia Built a Digital First Government, PBS Newshour, April 29, 2018 and Welcome to e-Estonia, the World’s First Digital Nation








external image 800px-Ancient_Agora%2C_Athens%2C_Greece_%28panoramic%29_-_20070711.jpg



Add Discussion


Rulers Roles

MrAmster Apr 2, 2010


Although the standards do not specifically mention this, the development of rulers is vital to understanding how democracy started. Students needs to have the entire process not merely the final product. The means are just as important as the ends.

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