Modern democracy first took shape in ancient Greece thousands of years ago. Many aspects of Greek democracy may seem familiar to modern people, while other aspects might seem foreign. As a revolutionary concept, democracy as practiced in Greece would eventually change the shape of history.


In approximately 550 B.C., democracy took root in Athens, Greece. History shows that although other cities followed democratic principles in Greece around the same time, they were all modeled after Athens, and often not as stable. Democracy, a word first known to be used by Herodotus in 440 B.C. but that likely predates him, attributes power to people, and marks a significant shift from previous governmental systems.

Citizens Only

Not everyone who lived in Athens could participate in the democracy. Only male citizens older than 18 had that privilege, and a majority of the population were not citizens. Participating in the democratic process also entailed full-time responsibility. According to Xenophon, most participants had slaves to work for them. Some scholars point out that without slaves, democracy would not have been possible.

Assembly, Council and Courts

Three institutions made up the governing bodies of Greek democracy in Athens: the Assembly, the Council and the courts. The Assembly met on average every 10 days, and gave citizens opportunity to legislate and vote on important matters. Meetings were in a large theater called the Pnyx, which held about 6,000, and later at most 14,000. The second institution, the Council of 500, also known as the Senate, met every day, and proposed legislation to be ratified by the Assembly. The Council was composed of 50 men from 10 tribes, chosen by lot. The third institution, the courts, were composed of 500 citizens chosen daily by lot to try criminal and civil cases.

Beneficial Work in Progress

The birth of democracy in Greece was a revolutionary concept that began to strip the power and authority from aristocrats, and move decision-making and rule to citizens. Some ideas that it produced include those of equal rights, political accountability, and separation of powers. Its influence could be found later in the republic of Rome, and even in the founding of the United States.