he governments of several Greek city-states* were democracies. The word democracy comes from Greek words meaning “rule by the people.” The most famous example of a Greek democracy was the one in Athens, which lasted from 508/507 B.C. to 322/321 B.C. It was a direct democracy, in which Athenian citizens met in a large assembly and voted directly on political issues. Only adult male citizens were allowed to take part in the government, and women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded from political participation.
History of Athenian Democracy. The Athenian statesman Cleisthenes played an important role in the birth of Greek democracy. The tyrants* who ruled Athens were expelled in 510 B.C., enabling Cleisthenes to take control of the city. In 508/507 B.C., he introduced reforms that reorganized the government of Athens. He divided Attica, the region that included Athens, into 139 villages, or demes. These demes were then distributed among ten tribes, each of which selected, by lottery, 50 citizens to serve in the Council of 500. The council prepared legislation for the approval of the assembly. Cleisthenes also introduced ostracism, by which the assembly could exile from Athens anyone who abused his citizenship or disrupted civic life.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* tyrant absolute ruler
Later reforms strengthened the democratic system. In 501 B.C., military command was transferred to a board of ten generals elected by the people. Because of laws passed in 462 B.C., the Areopagus—a council made up of ex-archons*, who were members for life—lost most of its power to the more democratic Council of 500, the assembly, and the law courts. Shortly afterward, the great Athenian statesman Pericles introduced payment for the Council of 500 and for juries. These reforms allowed poor citizens to take part in government. In 451 B.C., Pericles introduced a law that limited Athenian citizenship to those whose fathers and mothers were both citizens themselves. Because Pericles dominated Athenian democracy until his death in 429 B.C., this period of history is often referred to as the Age of Pericles.
After the defeat that Athens suffered in the Peloponnesian War, the opposition to democracy increased during the late 400s B.C. Antidemocratic factions seized control of the city twice and established oligarchies*. In 403/402 B.C., democracy was restored, and the laws of Athens were revised and codified*. Athenian democracy underwent further changes when many legislative and judicial powers exercised by the assembly were transferred to a panel of 6,000 jurors.
The great orator* Demosthenes dominated Athenian politics in the mid-300s B.C. He tried to organize Greek city-states against the growing power of King Philip II of Macedonia. But the Greeks were no match for the Macedonians. In 338 B.C., at the Battle of Chaeronea, Philip triumphed and became the undisputed master of Greece. Athenian democracy survived for a few more years, ending in about 322 B.C., when the Macedonians established an oligarchy to run the Athenian government.
Athenian Democracy in Practice, when a young Athenian man reached the age of 18, he became a member of his father’s deme. Most young men then served two years in the military before becoming eligible to take part in the assembly. Out of a total population of 300,000 people in Athens, about 30,000 were male citizens over the age of 20. All of these people had the right to speak and vote in the assembly. The assembly met outdoors about 40 times a year. Each meeting was attended by an average of 6,000 citizens and lasted for several hours. The more politically active citizens debated for and against the legislation and other matters that came before the assembly. Citizens voted by raising their hands.
* archon in ancient Greece, the highest office of state
* oligarchy rule by a few people
* codify to arrange according to a system; to set down in writing
* orator public speaker of great skill
The great statesman Pericles best expressed the pride that most Athenians felt in their democracy. In a funeral oration for Athenians slain in the Peloponnesian War, Pericles praised the Athenian political system, which "favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy" Pericles spoke about laws that provided "equal justice to all" and how a citizen's merit was more important than his social standing. Poverty was not an obstacle, he said, since "if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition."
Athenian citizens voted on a wide range of domestic and foreign matters. They initiated legislation by appointing a panel of citizen legislators, selected judges for political trials, and elected military and financial magistrates. Citizens over the age of 30 became part of a panel of 6,000 jurors who served as legislators and judges for the year. Since the courts met about 200 times each year, duty for judges was time consuming. On the morning of each court day, members of the panel presented themselves at court. Judges were then appointed from the jurors present.
For Athenian citizens, democracy meant equality and freedom. Citizens had the right to participate equally in the political life of the city and the right to live their lives free from the domination and interference of others. No matter how rich or poor a citizen was, he was able to attend the assembly and vote. Since the Athenians believed all citizens were equally capable of participating in the government, many political positions, most notably the Council of 500, were selected by a lottery of all eligible people.
However, Plato and other philosophers disapproved of democracy because they thought it gave too much power to the people. They believed political decisions should be made by the most talented and informed members of society, and not by the masses. (See also Citizenship; Government, Greek; Greece, History of; Polis.)