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Athenian Democracy

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The Athenian Democracy was a democracy in Athens, Greece; usually considered to have lasted from the early-6th to mid-4th century BC. During the 5th century, the population was ~300,000. Athens was one of the first democracies, and of the most important in ancient times. Pejoratively, democracy was called by its enemies, ohlocratia (o ohlos = the mob).

Decision in Athens were voted on directly by the assembly of all male citizens. Decisions were not decided by elected officials, a system which the ancients did not consider as democracy but as oligarchy. Democracy had (and for some people still has) the meaning of equality in decisions and of elections in decisions, not elections in persons that are about to decide. Checks on or limits to the power of the assembly were mostly absent, with the notable exception of the Graphe Paranomon (also a voted by the assembly decision), which made it illegal to pass laws contrary to those already in existence.


As was typical in ancient democracies, one had to be physically present in order to vote. Military service or simple distance prevented the exercise of citizenship. Voting took place in public, sometimes by physical division ("Everybody for Plan A go the right....") and sometimes by written ballot. Ostracism was only by written ballot (a name scratched on a potsherd or ostracon).


A number of positions of the Athenian Democracy were filled by lot or random choice of a citizen from a pre-determined group. For instance, the Chairman of the Prytany or Council of 50 was chosen by lot from the 50. Having served once that man could never serve again in his life. These generally represented positions whose significance was at one point primarily religious, so that the choice had to be left up to the gods instead of to the people. Following the reforms of Pericles, all Athenian positions except the chief of miliary officials, the strategos, were selected by lottery and were paid so that any Athenian citizen could take part in office. The role of the strategos, the one and only elected representative in Athenian Democracy, remained a very difficult and dangerous to achieve position. Both wealth and popularity were required to fill the office. Also in the case that he did not manage to fulfil his mission, he was often ostracized or (if he was lucky) sentenced on other charges.

Citizenship in Athens

The right of voting at Athens was restricted to adult male citizens. This excluded slaves and resident foreigners (metics) but nevertheless meant that Athens, and other radical democracies like it, were governed by a very large portion of the population, much more so than any contemporaries and more directly than any successors.

Citizens had to be descended from citizens - after the reforms of Pericles from both parents, excluding children of Athenian men and foreign women (450 BC) - or had to be approved by an elaborate procedure, in which any citizen had a veto, which was very rarely carried through. This reflected the general conception of the polis as a community, somewhat like an extended family, rather than as a territorial state.

See also:

Peloponnesian War

See Hellenic civilization

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