Ancient Athens Democracy Illustration

Democracy in Ancient Athens


What was Democracy like over 2400 years ago in ancient Athens?

A form of direct democracy in ancient Greece was practiced in ancient city-state of Athens for about 100 years. It was an experiment. The people really liked it. How it worked is that all adult citizens had to take an active part in government (rule by many) if called on to do so. At this time, citizens were free men. Women, children, and slaves were not citizens, and thus could not participate or vote.

Each year, there was a drawing. Five hundred (500) names were drawn from a pool of all the citizens of ancient Athens. Those 500 citizens had to serve for one year. During that year, they were responsible for making new laws and for changing old laws as they saw fit. But, nothing they did became law until all the citizens of Athens had a chance to vote yes or no. To vote, citizens had to attend the assembly on the day the vote was taken. The date was posted. It was not a secret, but you had to be present to vote. Majority ruled.

This form of government is called a direct democracy. The famous Athenian, Pericles, said: "It is true that we (Athenians) are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not the few, with equal justice to all alike in their private disputes."

This form of government came to an end in ancient Athens after Athens lost a war with Sparta. This was the Peloponnesian War. For a while, Athens was ruled by a small group of Spartans.

For about 100 years, Athens had a direct democracy, or a government in which all citizens vote on rules and laws. We owe them a lot! It is one of their finest gifts!

A representative democracy, like the government of the United States, is a government whose citizens vote for representatives. These representatives create and change the laws that govern the people.

Greek Democracy Then and Now (BBC)

Ancient Greece Q&A Interactive