Athenian democracy  

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The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres.

 This page Athenian democracy is part of the Ancient Greece series.   Photo: western face of the Parthenon
This page Athenian democracy is part of the Ancient Greece series.
Photo: western face of the Parthenon

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Athenian democracy developed around the fifth century BC in the Greek city-state (known as a polis) of Athens, comprising the city of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, and is the first known democracy in the world. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most following the Athenian model, but none are as well documented as Athens'.

It was a system of direct democracy, in which participating citizens voted directly on legislation and executive bills. Participation was not open to all residents: to vote one had to be an adult, male citizen i.e. neither a foreign resident nor a slave, and the number of these "varied between 30,000 and 50,000 out of a total population of around 250,000 to 300,000" or "no more than 30 percent of the total adult population."

The longest-lasting democratic leader was Pericles. After his death, Athenian democracy was twice briefly interrupted by oligarchic revolutions towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts of the system are of this fourth-century modification rather than the Periclean system. Democracy was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 BC. The Athenian institutions were later revived, but how close they were to a real democracy is debatable. Solon (594 BC), Cleisthenes (508/7 BC), and Ephialtes (462 BC) contributed to the development of Athenian democracy. Cleisthenes broke up the power of the nobility by organizing citizens into ten groups based on where they lived rather than on their wealth.


The word "democracy" (Greek: δημοκρατία) combines the elements dêmos (δῆμος, which means "people", "neighbourhood", "district") and krátos (κράτος, which means "force" or "power"), and thus means literally "people power". In the words "monarchy" and "oligarchy", the second element comes from archē (ἀρχή), meaning "beginning (that which comes first)", and hence also "first place or power", "sovereignty". One might expect the term "demarchy" to have been adopted, by analogy, for the new form of government introduced by Athenian democrats. However, the word "demarchy" (δημαρχία) had already been taken and meant "mayoralty", the office or rank of a high municipal magistrate. (In present-day use, the term "demarchy" has acquired a new meaning.)

We are not certain that the word "democracy" was in existence when systems that came to be called democratic were first instituted. The word is attested in Herodotus (Histories 6.43), who wrote some of the earliest surviving Greek prose, but this might not have been before 440 or 430 BC. Around 460 BC an individual is known with the name of 'Democrates', a name possibly coined as a gesture of democratic loyalty; the name can also be found in Aeolian Temnus.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Athenian democracy" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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