Ancient Greece Lessons
Athens and Democracy
By about 700BC, Athens was ruled by the aristocrats. Aristoi- comes from a Greek word meaning "best people." The first Athenian aristocrats were warriors who controlled the poli by force. The leader of the aristocrats was called the tyrant. Today we use the term tyrant to describe a cruel ruler, but many of the Athenian tyrants were kind and effective rulers. One tyrant named Draco, however, is remembered for his harsh rule. Draco created a legal code the meted out harsh punishments for even minor offenses. Today we use the word draconian to describe laws that are unnecessarily harsh or unfair.
Democracy in Athens developed slowly over hundreds of years. Unlike Sparta, it was difficult to have total control over the Athenian people. Athens developed as a merchant poli whose ships traded with many faraway places. The traders were exposed to many new ideas.
The Athenian army fought in a phalanx, a military formation of soldiers with overlapping shields that moved together as a unit. The mighty phalanx was more powerful than any individual aristocratic warrior. Warriors no longer needed to be rich enough to afford a horse, and the aristocratic leaders of Athens had to be concerned with losing the support of the army if the leaders did not consider the needs of each of the warriors.
In 594BC, Solon became the leader of Athens. Solon repealed Draco's harshest laws and set up a group of ordinary citizens called the assembly to vote on how Athens was to be governed. The word for people in ancient Greek was demos. Kratos meant rule. The government created by Solon was a democracy, where the people ruled the polis.
Only adult males born in Athens were allowed to participate in the assembly. Athens encouraged outsiders to move to their polis, but only free-born males were allowed to vote. Women could own land, but were not allowed to vote. About one in four people living in Athens were slaves. The slaves did most of the physical work in the polis, making it possible for the members of the assembly to spend more time on public affairs. The members of the assembly accounted for only about one-fourth of the total population of Athens.
The assembly met forty times a year. The daily affairs of the polis were run by a council known as the boule. Members of the boule were not elected; they were chosen randomly so that every qualified person had an equal opportunity to serve on the council. At the end of the year, the members of the boule were called before the assembly to account for their work.
Athens was a direct democracy because the polis relied on the citizens to participate in decision making. Direct democracy is possible in small towns, but gathering all citizens together to make decisions is not practical in large countries such as the United States. The United States and other large democratic nations rely on a representative democracy where we choose leaders to make laws on our behalf.
Athenian democracy was limited, but it gave some people the opportunity to make decisions about how they were governed. Participation in government by common people was a new idea that later became a model for other governments. The writers of the American Constitution were inspired by the democratic government in Athens.
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Dowling, Mike. "Athens and Democracy." www.mrdowling.com. Updated March 28, 2013 . Web. Date of Access. <http://www.mrdowling.com/701-athens.html>