Athenian democracy refers to the system of autonomous government offered in Athens, greek from the 5th to 4th century BCE. Under this system, all male citizens - the dēmos - had equal politics rights, liberty of speech, and also the possibility to participate straight in the political arena.

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In Athenian democracy, not only did citizens participate in a straight democracy through which they us made the decisions by which they lived, yet they also actively served in the organizations that governed them, and so lock directly controlled all parts of the politics process.

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Ancient Sources

Other city-states had, at one time or another, equipment of democracy, significantly Argos, Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai. In addition, sometimes even oligarchic systems might involve a high degree of political equality, but the Athenian version, starting from c. 460 BCE and also ending c. 320 BCE and involving all masculine citizens, was definitely the many developed.

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

The contemporary sources which explain the workings of democracy generally relate come Athens and also include such texts as the Constitution the the Athenians indigenous the school of Aristotle; the works of the Greek chroniclers Herodotus, Thucydides, and also Xenophon; texts of over 150 speeches by such figures as Demosthenes; engravings in rock of decrees, laws, contracts, publicly honours and also more; and also Greek Comedy theatre such together those by Aristophanes. Unfortunately, sources on the other autonomous governments in old Greece are couple of and much between. This gift the case, the complying with remarks top top democracy space focussed ~ above the Athenians.

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The Assembly & Council

The native democracy (dēmokratia) derives indigenous dēmos, which refers to the entire citizen body, and kratos, meaning rule. Any kind of male citizens could, then, participate in the main democratic body of Athens, the assembly (ekklēsia). In the fourth and fifth centuries BCE the male citizen population of Athens ranged native 30,000 to 60,000 depending on the period. The assembly met at least once a month, much more likely two or three times, ~ above the Pnyx hill in a specialized space which might accommodate roughly 6000 citizens. Any kind of citizen can speak to the assembly and also vote on decisions by merely holding up your hands. The bulk won the day and the decision was final. Nine presidents (proedroi), elected by lot and holding the office one time only, hold the proceedings and assessed the voting.


Ostrakon because that Pericles
Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

Specific issues discussed in the assembly consisted of deciding military and also financial magistracies, organising and also maintaining food supplies, initiating legislation and political trials, deciding come send envoys, deciding whether or no to sign treaties, voting come raise or invest funds, and also debating armed forces matters. The assembly could likewise vote to ostracise indigenous Athens any type of citizen that had end up being too an effective and dangerous for the polis. In this case there to be a mystery ballot whereby voters created a name on a piece of broken pottery (ostrakon). Vital element in the arguments was flexibility of decided (parrhēsia) which became, perhaps, the citizen"s most valued privilege. After perfect discussion, temporary or details decrees (psēphismata) were embraced and legislations (nomoi) defined. The assembly likewise ensured decisions to be enforced and also officials were moving out your duties correctly.

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There was in Athens (and additionally Elis, Tegea, and also Thasos) a smaller sized body, the boulē, which determined or prioritised the topics which were disputed in the assembly. In addition, in time of crisis and also war, this body could also take decisions without the assembly meeting. The boulē or council was composed of 500 citizens that were favored by lot and who offered for one year v the limitation the they can serve no much more than two non-consecutive years. The boulē stood for the 139 districts the Attica and also acted as a kind of executive committee of the assembly. It to be this body which supervised any kind of administrative committees and also officials on instead of of the assembly.

It remained in the courts that laws made by the assembly might be tested & decisions to be made about ostracism.

Then there was additionally an executive, management committee that the boulē which had one tribe of the ten which participated in the boulē (i.e., 50 citizens, well-known as prytaneis) chosen on a rotation basis, for this reason each people composed the executive as soon as each year. This executive of the executive had a chairman (epistates) who was preferred by lot every day. The 50-man prytany met in the structure known as the Bouleuterion in the Athenian agora and safe-guarded the sacred treasuries.

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Athenian Agora - 3D View

In tandem with all these political establishments were the law courts (dikasteria) i m sorry were written of 6,000 jurors and also a body of chief magistrates (archai) chosen annually by lot. Indeed, there to be a especially designed machine of coloured tokens (kleroterion) to ensure those selected were chosen randomly, a process magistrates had actually to go with twice. It was right here in the courts that legislations made by the assembly could be challenged and decisions were made regarding ostracism, naturalization, and remission that debt.


Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

This complicated system was, no doubt, to ensure a an ideal degree the checks and also balances to any potential abuse the power, and to ensure each traditional region was equally represented and also given same powers. With civilization chosen at arbitrarily to hold important positions and also with regards to office strictly limited, the was difficult for any type of individual or tiny group to conquer or unduly influence the decision-making procedure either directly themselves or, due to the fact that one never ever knew specifically who would certainly be selected, indirectly by bribing those in power at any type of one time.

Participation in Government

As we have seen, only male citizens who were 18 year or over could speak (at the very least in theory) and vote in the assembly, whilst the location such as magistrates and jurors were minimal to those end 30 years of age. Therefore, women, slaves, and resident however, (metoikoi) to be excluded native the politics process.

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The mass involvement the all masculine citizens and the expectation the they have to participate proactively in the to run of the polis is clear in this quote indigenous Thucydides:

We alone consider a citizen that does no partake in politics not only one who minds his own business but useless.

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

Athens" constitution is called a democracy due to the fact that it respects the interests not of a minority yet of the entirety people. Once it is a concern of settling exclusive disputes, everyone is equal prior to the law; as soon as it is a inquiry of putting one person before an additional in positions of publicly responsibility, what counts is no membership that a certain class, however the actual capability which the male possesses. No one, so lengthy as he has actually it in the to it is in of service to the state, is kept in politics obscurity because of poverty. (Thuc. 2.37)

Although energetic participation was encouraged, attendance in the assembly to be paid for in specific periods, which to be a measure up to encourage citizens that lived far away and also could no afford the moment off to attend. This money was only to cover costs though, as any type of attempt to benefit from publicly positions was severely punished. Citizens probably accounted because that 10-20% the the polis population, and also of this it has actually been estimated that only 3,000 or therefore people actively participated in politics. That this group, possibly as few as 100 citizens - the wealthiest, most influential, and the best speakers - overcame the political arena both in former of the assembly and also behind the scene in personal conspiratorial political meetings (xynomosiai) and groups (hetaireiai). These teams had to meet secretly since although over there was liberty of speech, persistent criticism of individuals and institutions might lead to accusations of conspiring tyranny and also so result in ostracism.


Critics the democracy, such together Thucydides and also Aristophanes, mentioned that not just were proceedings conquered by an elite, however that the dēmos might be too regularly swayed by a great orator or famous leaders (the demagogues), get brought away through their emotions, or absence the important knowledge to make informed decisions. Possibly the most notoriously negative decisions take away by the Athenian dēmos to be the execution of six generals after ~ they had actually winner the fight of Arginousai in 406 BCE and the death sentence provided to the thinker Socrates in 399 BCE.


Democracy, which had actually prevailed during Athens" gold Age, was replaced by a mechanism of oligarchy in 411 BCE. The constitutional change, follow to Thucydides, seemed the only method to victory much-needed assistance from Persia versus the old adversary Sparta and, further, it was assumed that the change would not be a permanent one. Nevertheless, democracy in a slightly altered type did ultimately return come Athens and, in any kind of case, the Athenians had already done sufficient in producing their political mechanism to eventually influence subsequent civilizations two millennia later.

In the native of historian K. A. Raaflaub, democracy in old Athens was

a unique and also truly revolutionary system that establish its an easy principle to an unmatched and quite too much extent: no polis had ever dared to give all its citizens same political rights, nevertheless of your descent, wealth, society standing, education, an individual qualities, and any other components that usually established status in a community.

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