Athenian Democracy


Direct participation was the key to Athenian democracy. In the Assembly, every male citizen was not only entitled to attend as often as he pleased but also had the right to debate, offer amendments, and vote on proposals. Every man had a say in whether to declare war or stay in peace. Basically any thing that required a government decision, all male citizens were allowed to participate in.1


Solon (Greek: Σόλων, c. 638 BC558 BC)

The first changes toward democracy in Greece were started by the archon Solon in 594 B.C. Solon passed laws that not only protected Athenians from being enslaved or arrested for debt, but also gave them more rights.

Solon divided the population of Athens into four political groups based on agricultural output. The most powerful group was the pentakosiomedimnoi which consisted of powerful land owning individuals. The next most powerful group was the hippeis, which consisted of archons and other high officials. The third group, the zeugitai held lower offices in the government. The least powerful of the four was the thetes, who owned no land and had little or no influence in government.

Solon created the Council of 400 that consisted of 100 members of each political class. The purpose of this group was to screen business going before the Assembly. This council allowed the public to play a more active role in government, but the absolute power still remained in the hands of the Areopagus, the council of aristocrats. The invention of a civilian assembly also allowed the lowest class to serve as jurors in a trial for the first time.

Solon was one of the founding fathers of democracy. Many of his reforms did not last for long, as Athens soon reverted to a tyrannical government, but other of his changes laid the foundations for modern democracy.3

(c.570-507 BC)

The change from a tyrannical government to a democracy in ancient Greece was started by Cleisthenes. After the tyrant Hippias was exiled, Cleisthenes gathered the common people and received their backing by promising them changes in the structure of government. One major change he proposed was the right for all citizens to vote in the assembly.

Cleisthenes redivided the citizens of Athens into ten tribes, each sending 50 representatives to the Council of 500. Each man had to be at least 30 years old and was chosen by lot. Each member of the Council of 500 served a one year term and could not serve more than twice. The council was allowed to veto any of the council's proposals and was the only branch of government that could declare war.2

Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.)

Pericles was the most important figure in the development of Greek democracy. Pericles expanded upon Cleisthenes' ideas of democracy, and was able to gain the support of the people. He expanded the power of the assembly, and led Greece into the Periclean Age. During this period, Athens became a great center of literature and art.

The Periclean age brought about an age of "radical democracy." This period was more of a true democracy than other previous government. Under this form of government, the civilian masses had the supreme power in the government.

During the Periclean Age, Greece became the most powerful and wealthy nation in the world. This was a period of great artistic and intellectual developments in Athens, and established Athens as one of the greatest cities in the ancient world.3