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The Athenians


It was the Athenians who first came up with the word democracy. It meant literary that it was the rule by the people or demos. It was a system of governance that ended following the rise of Alexander the Great but in the last century, came back as the preferential choice of government in most developed countries. However, the current concept of democracy has only a very slight resemblance, if any, to the concept that was revered in the fifth century. Currently, Liberal Democracy is the form of government which is the most popular in the western world. Although variations do occur in the institutions, voting mechanisms and systems of government, they all follow the same basic idea of representative government elected by the people. Whether electing trained professionals for representation is the best or, in the modern era, only way to conduct a modern democracy is an issue to be debated. What does hold true is the fact that Athenian democracy was conducted extremely differently from the democratic systems of today. This essay will examine the system of government in place in Athens at that time, the formation and composition of its executive body, the composition and powers of the public, ultimately with a view to assessing whether or not Athenian Democracy truly was democratic


By modern standards Athens was an extremely small city with population estimates ranging from two hundred thousand to two hundred and fifty thousand including slaves. It was a society largely dependent on the labor of slaves. Indeed Jones states that there were probably around one hundred and twenty thousand slaves living in Athens in the 4th Century BC. As a result of this several historians asked whether Athenian democracy was based on slavery. This was a doubtful issue, for example GC Field argues against this statement saying that majority of the citizen’s worked with their hands and many of them did not have any slave at all. On the other hand the assembly and the juries seemed to have consisted predominantly of middle class citizens rather than of the poor and there was evidence that the council also was mainly filled by the rich. This would imply that only those citizens wealthy enough to possess slaves could engage in politics.

A major difference that compares Athens` to modern democracy is that Athenian Democracy was a direct democracy. Citizens themselves conducted political affairs rather than electing representatives. Topics were decided upon by a body known as the Council of five hundred and it was left to the assembly to discuss these topics thoroughly before a decision was made. Any male citizen over eighteen years of age was automatically eligible to attend. Assemblies were held at least forty days a year, more in times of crisis or times of war. It is fair to say that Athenians did take an active interest in politics as normal peace-time attendance may have been well over five thousand this is extremely impressive (Rhodes 89).

The five hundred council which comprised of the main decision maker, was chosen annually by lot. As with magistrate councilors, any citizen over thirty years of age could be on the council. To ensure a more democratic system, monitoring was in place to ensure that no one served on it for more than two years in their life, however several exceptions were allowed. Officers were elected by the whole body of citizens. The council was very active, meeting every day except on festivals

The impressive thing was that the assembly was open to every citizen without distinction of affluence or profession, and one man’s vote counted just the same as another’s.  In order to facilitate the participation of citizens in politics, the six thousand jurors, the five hundred council and the three hundred odd magistrates were all paid for their services at various rates. Also every citizen had an equal right to express an opinion. This would be listened to by the citizens present and they would then vote on the issue. Freedom of speech was generally regarded as one of the fundamentals of democracy.  In Athens criticism of democracy was freely permitted. This was extremely radical for the time, especially compared to Sparta (Whitby 49).

As in Sparta one is not allowed to praise the laws of Athens or of the state or that, far from it, praise what agrees with their constitution. Indeed Athenian democracy can very rarely, if ever, have taken an important decision without hearing arguments from all points of view. Also any citizen, unless disqualified by criminal conduct, could take part in public offices. The idea seems to have been that each board should represent, as it were, a fair sample of the whole citizen body. Also the idea was that no individual would hold large amounts of power, rather it was to be the assembly, in which every citizen had the right to participate, that decided on policies.

The Athenian system of government does truly appear to be extremely democratic from what we have seen thus far. On closer examination this is not the case. The main criticism leveled at Athenian Democracy was that its citizen body was extremely narrow and that political participation appeared to have been an exclusively male event. The Athenian population estimate was at about two hundred and fifty thousand with thirty thousands fully paid citizens, that is to say, adult males of Athenian birth. Athens was therefore an extremely selective society in which women, slave’s foreigners and those barred by atima had no say in political matters. But despite foreigners and slaves being exceptionally well treated in Athens, this certainly questions the validity of whether Athenian Democracy truly was democratic. The fact that roughly twelve per cent of the population controlled the rest is inconceivable by the modern standards of democracy (Osborne 89).

Indeed even the most important offices were not supposed to have any special responsibility for the structure of policy. The assembly had at least four functions: it made executive pronouncements; it elected some officials; it legislated; and it tried political crimes. Administration on the other hand, was in the hands of officers with over a thousand appointed each year. Most of them were chosen by assortment, with a much smaller group elected. As opposed to assemblies, individuals had to nominate themselves for both selection methods. By and large the power exercised by these officials was routine administration and quite limited. A check was in place to ensure that most officeholders only held power for a year.

Similar to the Assembly, the Athenian legal system and Court structure had huge citizen participation. Massive juries between two hundred and six thousand citizens heard cases argued by litigants and thereafter decided upon a verdict. As time went on the courts increased their powers and took on some of the previous work of the assemblies, such as the trying of political prisoners.

Another criticism of the Athenian system is that although citizens were empowered to make decisions collectively, once made, the citizen was completely subject to the laws of the state. The Athenians were free; that is, gratis commonwealths; not that any particular men had the liberty to resist their own representative but that their representative had the liberty to resist or invade other people.


As we have seen, the Athenian system of government was remarkable and extremely radical for its time. It was the most obvious example of a direct democracy the world has ever seen. Citizens, unlike in modern democracies, were given a bona fide say in the political developments of the time. A skillfully devised system ensured that a huge percentage of the population enjoyed some form of political power at some stage, via the random selection of councilors to the five hundred council. Also, the fact that any citizen could discuss the topic brought to the assembly by the Council ensured group participation and detailed examinations of the whole topic. Thus among its citizen body, Athenian democracy was truly democratic even more so than the liberal democracies of today. However, one must take into account that the range of citizenry was extremely narrow, and due to the fact that women, slaves and foreigners were excluded, I must conclude that, in the modern sense at least, Athenian democracy was not truly democratic.

Works cited

Osborne, Robin, Greek history, London, Routledge, 2004.

Rhodes, Peter, The Greek city states: a source book, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Whitby, Michael, Sparta: Edinburgh readings on the ancient world, London: Routledge, 2002

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