Democracy in Ancient Athens

Athens had a direct democracy. That means the citizens of Athens voted directly on laws. Since Greeks invented democracy, they also invented the name for it. Democracy means government by the people.

Greek leader Cleisthenes established the world’s first democratic constitution in 507 BCE. A constitution is a written document that describes the powers and limitations of a government. Before Cleisthenes, Athens was ruled by a few wealthy landowners. This is called an oligarchy (rule by the few). Cleisthenes transferred the power of the government from the wealthy landowners to the citizens of Athens. The catch was, not everyone that lived in Athens was considered to be a citizen.

Only people classified as “citizens” could vote in Athens. To be a citizen, you had to be:
• 18 or over
• Born in Athens
• Male

Many would argue that Athens did not have a true democracy because not everyone could participate. During the time of democracy in Athens, the city was home to about 310,000 people. Of that population, only 10-20% (31,000 - 46,500) actually had a say in the government. The rest of the people of Athens - children, foreigners, slaves, women (80-90% of the population) - had no direct vote in the government.

Not quite fair is it? It is not fair, but under the old oligarchy system, only male Athenians that owned land had a say in the government. That was probably well under 10% of the population. Even though only a small portion of Athenians had a say under the democratic system, those that did each had one vote, regardless of wealth.

If you were lucky enough to be a citizen in ancient Athens during the time of democracy, voting was quite different than in modern democracies. Usually, you had to gather with all the other citizens to cast your vote. Sometimes voting was done by written ballot. Other times, the crowd just divided into groups. (Everybody voting "yes" go to the right, everybody voting "no" go to the left.) Every citizen was expected to show up for these gatherings unless they were away on military service. Failure to do so was discraceful.

As you can imagine, a city the size of Athens would require meeting everyday to keep it running. It would not make sense to have all the citizens drop what they were doing each day to meet and discuss daily business. To solve this problem, Athens had the Council of 500.

The Council of 500 was a group of citizens chosen by lottery to handle the day-to-day business of the city. Once a citizen served on the council, he could never serve again.

Most modern democracies have a representative democracy. Citizens vote for people to represent them their cities, counties, states/provinces, and national capitals. The citizens trust them to do what is right. If the representatives don't do what the majority of the citizens want, they get voted out of office.

About 200-million Americans are eligible to vote out of a total population of about 295-million. That is almost 68% compared to the 10-20% of Athenians that could vote.

Modern democracies have taken the ideas of the Athenians and combined them with other good ideas from other civilizations to form the governments we have today. Athenian democracy was certainly not perfect. No system of government is. The Athenians deserve credit, however, because they invented the idea.