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Democracy means 'people-power' or 'ruled by the people'. The term was coined during a period in Greek history when the city of Athens experimented with a form of government in which all citizens, rather than one king or a small group of wealthy men, made the laws of their state. At that time Athens was one of many city-states, meaning self-ruling cities and their surrounding territory, which existed throughout Greece.

Before this experiment took place, Athens had been governed by a council of wealthy men. Around 600 BC some of these men tried to change the laws so that more people, including poor people, had a say in the running of the city and the rich men had less power. Early attempts to do this were only partly successful until around 460 BC when a man named Pericles was elected as general in charge of the Athenian army.


Pericles was a skilled speaker and politician who was able to persuade large groups of people to do things his way. He was not officially the state's leader but as the general he fulfilled this role. The Athenians had such confidence in him that they re-elected him to this post continuously for about 30 years. These decades are known as the Age of Pericles or the Golden Age of Athens. Pericles was passionate about the idea of democracy and encouraged all citizens to be involved in the state's decision-making process by introducing a salary for those who attended the assembly.

The democratic system in Athens

The assembly was what the Athenians called their government. It was a gathering of citizens who would make laws and elect officials. Any Athenian citizen could attend the assembly and take part in the process. Even if they didn't attend physically, each was considered a member of the assembly for their whole adult life.

Some people would be chosen by lottery to sit on a council which would draft laws. These laws would be put to the assembly who would vote for or against them with a show of hands. Each person could only be on the council twice in their lifetime and only for one year. Speeches were often made for and against a proposed law before the votes were taken.

People could also be chosen by lottery to be part of the court system as jurors once they were over 30 years old. Like councillors, jurors only held their post temporarily. Justice was carried out swiftly; cases were often heard and decided in one day.

Lottery, or allotment, was considered a more democratic way of deciding who would hold these positions than election. In an election, people who were wealthier, well-known or well-educated often had an advantage over poorer people. The lottery system meant that people were chosen by chance without fear or favour, so they were on a more equal footing.

Similarly, people would be chosen by lottery to be head of state for one day in their lifetime. For that day they would be in control of the keys to the treasury and would meet important visitors from foreign governments.

Under this system, all Athenian citizens had a say in how their state was run no matter how wealthy or how poor they were. This was how the system was given the name democracy. Demos meant people and kratos meant power. The system that Athens used is now called direct democracy because all citizens could attend the assembly and be involved directly, unlike most modern democracies where people elect others to make decisions on their behalf (representative democracy).


Not all people could be part of this process, only Athenian citizens. The word citizen meant all free adult men who were born in Athens. This meant that women, children, slaves and foreigners could not vote. Women can vote in modern democracies but foreigners (unless they have been granted citizenship) and children are still barred from voting in many places. While modern democracies do not have slaves, in some places people who have lost their freedom by going to gaol are not allowed to vote.


Athens' great rival, the city-state of Sparta, also had an assembly of Spartan citizens but some of its decisions were made by kings and a council of noblemen. By comparison, Sparta was a less free society than Athens. Unlike Athens, Spartans were far more interested in military might than arts and literature. As their main value was as soldiers for the state, Spartan citizens were practically owned by the state from birth until death.

Athenian citizens were proud of the fact that individuals could contribute to the shaping of the state through their democratic system. They also believed people's involvement in politics helped to make them more competent as individuals.

By contrast, the Spartans lived lives that were tightly controlled by the state. There was little individual freedom and it was very difficult to make real changes through their system without resorting to violence. They were not interested in personal development except where it made them better soldiers to serve the state.

The Athenians strove to make their system as different as possible from an oligarchy or a dictatorship. These are systems in which one person (a dictator) or a small group of people (oligarchy) govern. They often have total power over the state. In the era of Athenian democracy, other states ruled by kings or groups of noblemen operated as oligarchies. Under these systems fewer people contributed to law-making and those who did were certainly not poorer people. The Athenian system, however, became popular throughout ancient Greece. Many other city-states developed their own versions of democracy in this era.

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Question 1/5

1. Democracy extended power to a new group of people who were:

poor men


non-Athenian people



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