02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

Student Series! Power to the People

Student Series! Power to the People

Ancient Greece brought us the idea of a historian, advancements in mathematics, philosophical thought, theater, a courtroom with juries, Greek salad, and the Olympic games, but, democracy also has its roots in Ancient Greece. In 500 BCE, the idea of citizenship started in Ancient Greece, specifically Athens. In this political system, “ordinary” people play a more significant role in their city-state/country.

The Start of Democracy

In a time where tyrannies and monarchies were common, the idea of democracy wasn’t thought of for a while. Who would want to lose total power over their subjects anyway? Philosophy brought up the ideas of democracy in the city-state of Athens. The famous philosophers of the time asked questions of who should rule, how, and why? They eventually came to the conclusion that man should have the ability to rule himself, not be ruled by another man.

The Greek word dēmos is what the word we know as democracy derives from. Just like the origin of the word, democracy also has its roots in Ancient Greece. Now, the common man had a much more influential role in his life and the life of those around him, through his government. This was the time of individualism.

Plaque of the Ergastines which is part of the AP Art History 250!

Democracy in Athens

In Athens, citizens could vote, but there were certain requirements to citizenship. To be a citizen, you had to be a:

  • Free,
  • Native-born,
  • Adult (eighteen or older)
  • Male
  • Or have had free, native-born parents.

On top of meeting these requirements, the men who became citizens also had to complete education and two years of military training! Women, slaves, freed slaves, citizens of other city states, and children could not vote or become citizens no matter what. As you can see we define the word “citizen” very differently than the Ancient Athenians. Thank goodness!


Ancient Greece Democracy vs Modern Democracy

Citizens of Ancient Greece would vote on all laws, not on representatives to vote for us like we do today. There were meetings, called assemblies, where citizens would come to discuss and vote on laws. 40,000 citizens would be eligible to attend meetings at the assemblies that occurred forty times a year. At least 6,000 citizens were necessary for the assembly to occur. At these assemblies, the citizens would discuss magistrates, maintaining food supplies, military matters, and any other significant political issues that arose. And, like our modern democracy, almost any citizen had the opportunity to become a political head; however, the wealthier usually would win the political positions and have the most control at the assemblies

In Athens, officials were chosen by lottery, a completely random process. These officials would be in one of the three bodies of Ancient Grecian government:

  1. The Council (made up of 500 elected citizens). They oversaw day-to-day operations of the government and served in their position for a year.
  2. The Assembly was made up of all the citizens who showed up to vote
  3. The Court handled lawsuits and trials and is similar to our court system today with a jury and judge. The Court would handle private and public cases; private would require a jury of at least 201 people and public would require a jury of at least 501 people.

This really reminds me of our three branches of government as well: legislative, judicial, & executive!

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