For nearly 200 years from 508 through 322 B.C., the people of Greek city-state of Athens ruled themselves in direct democracy. Ordinary citizens made laws, issued decrees and decided court cases. However, this didn't mean all Athenians participated. Democracy in Athens was open only to male citizens over the age of 18 -- a minority of the people living and working there. Except in rare circumstances, citizenship was restricted to those born in Athens whose parents also were citizens.

The Private Lives of Women

Athenian-born women whose parents were both citizens had citizen status, but they were forbidden from voting or participating in the democratic government. Women spent most of their lives in their own homes attending to household duties. In ancient Greek society, men inhabited the public realm while women attended to the private sphere. In public, they were most active in the religious celebrations and rituals, and had particular roles to play in various festivals throughout the year. Despite their lack of political standing, women were still privileged over slaves and foreign-born residents. A woman could be heard in the courts provided the leading male of the household represented and spoke for her.

No Place for Children

Like modern Americans, ancient Athenians considered 18 the age of majority, and minors weren't allowed to participate in government activities. Children did participate in some religious festivals and rituals, where young boys learned the roles they would play as adult citizens. Most male citizens were members of a phratry, a traditional social association with religious undertones. Fathers presented their sons to their phratry soon after birth, and this presentation came to prove the child's citizenship. No law required it, but it made it less likely the boy's citizenship would be challenged when he came of age and registered for the Assembly. Girls could be presented to the phratry as well, but since this had no legal bearing it was seldom done.

Strangers in a Strange Land

A number of people born elsewhere lived and worked in Athens. These resident aliens were called "metics," and could not vote or be voted in to elected office. Though their property rights were protected by law, they weren't permitted to own land unless an extraordinary exception was made in a specific case -- usually for an individual who had done a great service to the Athenian people. Such a person might also be granted full citizenship, but these situations were rare. Metics did have access to Athenian courts, although a particular official was required to supervise their cases.

The Plight of Slaves

Slaves, most of whom were foreign-born, had no rights in ancient Athens. If involved in a court case, they were represented by the adult male of the household that owned them. Athenian law treated slaves generally as the property of the household's lead male, with no distinction between male and female slaves. They were protected in a limited way from abuse or injury at the hands of their master or others. However, male slaves could potentially become full Athenian citizens. A freed slave became a metic, and accordingly could be awarded citizenship for extraordinary service to Athens.