Athenian democracy

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The world's first democracy, Athenian democracy consisted of an assembly open to all non-enslaved land-owning males in Athens over the age of 18. All members could speak out at the assembly (the agora) and it decided policy issues for Athens, and passed legislation. Cleisthenes, who died in 508 B.C., established this democracy.

Democracy as a word derives from the Greek Demokratia, meaning ‘rule by the people’. It is formed by Demos (The People) and Kratos (Rule, or power).

Background to Athenian Democratic City State

Athens was founded atop the Acropolis in the Third millennium BC, most likely as a hill fort by Neolithic men. By 1400 BC Athens was an important center of the Mycenaean civilization. Unlike other powerful centers of that civilization it was not sacked and abandoned during the Doric invasion (circa 1200 BC) Athens declined with the decline of the Mycenaean’s.

By the 8th century BC Athens had re-emerged as a result of its central location in the Hellenistic world, its strong natural defensive position and its access to the sea, giving it several foundational advantages over rivals such as Thebes or Sparta.

From early in the first Millennium Athens was ruled by kings, who were at the head of a land owning aristocracy called the Eupatridae (the well born) whose instrument of government was a Council which met on the Hill of Ares called the Areopagus. This body appointed the chief city officials – the archons and the polemarch (Commander in Chief). Four tribes based on family affiliations dominated the area and had their own specific burial, marriage and adoption rights.

During this pre-Democratic period Athens succeeded in bringing several Attican towns into its domain. This process of synoikismos (Greek for ‘bringing together in one home’) made Athens the largest and wealthiest state on the Greek mainland. It has also created wide social unrest by the seventh century BC because it created a larger class of people excluded from political life by the nobility. As a result, the Areopagus appointed Draco to create a strict new law code (hence "draconian"). When this failed they appointed Solon to draft a new constitution.


On average during the fifth century, Athens and its home territory of Attica had a rough population of 250,000. Of those, around 30,000 were full free citizens. Around 5,000 of those would regularly attend one or more meetings of the popular assembly. 6,000 citizens were selected fill the juryman courts (A typical jury size being 501).


Even though it was a democracy, the government was known to come down hard on its critics. Perhaps the most famous critic is the enigmatic philosopher Socrates; just about the only thing we know for sure about his life (since there are no historical records that mention him, just the writings of other philosophers) was that in his time he was a very vocal critic of Athenian democracy and was executed because of it.