Democracy in Classical Athens

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The Pnyx, where the Athenian Assembly met

The Pnyx, where the Athenian Assembly met

With Hippias gone and the tyranny over, the leader of the Alcmaeonid family, Cleisthenes, started to put his own political system into power. Cleisthenes wanted power for himself, but he didn’t want another tyranny. Instead, he wanted the ordinary men (though not women) of Athens to feel that this was their government. They should change things they didn’t like by voting instead of by fighting wars. He decided to create a democracy in Athens – the first democracy anywhere. Cleisthenes (KLY-sthen-eez) even had to make up the word!

In the Athenian democracy, ordinary men could make all the most important decisions, like whether to go to war. They just went to meetings of the Assembly (Greek Ekklesia), on a hill in Athens called the Pnyx. (Slaves, women, children, and foreigners could not go, though.) You had to have 6000 men at a meeting of the Ekklesia (ek-LAYZ-ee-ah) before they could decide anything. The Assembly met about once a month, unless there was some sort of emergency.

The Athenians also chose five hundred men every year through a lottery to be in the Council of Five Hundred, or Boule.  The Boule met more often and decided things that weren’t as important. The Boule (boo-LAY) suggested new laws to the Assembly. They made sure the laws were being enforced. And they took care of things like street repair, fixing public stoas and temples, and building ships for the Athenian navy.

The Athenians also had some officials who took care of specific things. They used a lottery to choose nine men called archons (AR-kons).  In the time of Cleisthenes and later, archons mostly took care of religious things like organizing public sacrifices.

The Assembly also elected ten strategoi (generals). They often elected the same strategoi (STRAT-eh-goy) year after year. At first the strategoi just commanded the Athenian army and navy. But by the time of the Peloponnesian War the strategoi were basically running the government, like the United States President. Pericles is the most famous strategos. Others include Themistocles and Alcibiades. Our word “strategy” comes from the Athenian word for “general.”

The fourth part of Athenian democratic government was the justice system – the judges and courts. Men volunteered to be on juries (women couldn’t serve) . The courts needed six thousand volunteers every year. Then for each day, they picked about five hundred men to be on that day’s jury and hear cases. The jury decided cases by a simple majority – whichever side got more votes won. You could not appeal. If the jury convicted you, then they would hold another vote to decide on a sentence, as in the trial of Socrates. Athenian juries decided criminal and property cases. They also decided whether laws passed by the Assembly were legal or not, like our Supreme Court.

Learn by doing: hold a debate and vote on something
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By | 2017-07-06T22:26:34+00:00 July 6th, 2017|Government, Greeks, History|1 Comment
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Democracy in Classical Athens. Study Guides, July 6, 2017. Web. May 21, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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