Greece is not just famed for its historic ruins and ancient civilization. Ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy, or rule by the people. Several hundred of the Greek city-states scattered around the Mediterranean were ruled by democratic means. The source for all ancient Greek democracy was its largest city, Athens, which ruled the area of Attica. The origins of Greek democracy go back to about 600 B.C. and the constitutional reforms made by statesman and poet Solon.
Origins of Ancient Greek Democracy
Before the development of ancient Greek democracy, rule was by way of oligarchy -- in the hands of a select number of aristocratic families. In times of crisis or war, Greek city-states would elect a "tyrant" ruler who had absolute power to deal with the emergency situation. Solon was a tyrant ruler of Athens, elected to deal with economic, social and political crises in 594 B.C. A political solution proposed by Solon was to extend political power to wealthy men as well as aristocrats. He also gave political powers to the poor by allowing them to join the general assembly of Athens. The general assembly was given real power, making final decisions on the election of public officials and creating a citizens' council of judges.
Development of Democracy in Athens
Solon's political reforms did not endure. Five years later, Greek aristocrats managed to seize power in Athens. In 510 B.C., the leader Cleisthenes managed to take over Athens and resurrected Solon's democratic ideology. Cleisthenes was initially exiled by an aristocrat, Isagoras, but the people of the city revolted against a return to aristocratic power. They executed the aristocratic leaders and recalled Cleisthenes from exile to lead a democratic government.
About Early Greek Democracy
Athens may have been the first democracy, but it was not quite the same as democracy today. Only free male citizens could vote on decision-making or serve on juries. Women were not allowed to participate in politics, nor were slaves or foreigners. Athenian democracy consisted of three tiers. The assembly was the principal ruling body and made decisions by majority vote. Eligible male citizens could attend meetings held 40 times a year. The boule was a council of 500 men, chosen by random lottery, who handled daily government matters. The dikasteria was the courts system. Every day, 500 jurors over the age of 30 were randomly chosen to decide legal matters in Athens' courts. Participating in the democracy was important to Athenians, who thought "of a man who takes no interest in public affairs not as apathetic, but as completely useless."
Fall of Athenian Democracy
At its peak, the democratic system of city-state rule spread to several hundreds of the 1,500 cities scattered around the Mediterranean. The system endured less than two centuries, however. Wars and the rise of an Athenian aristocracy caused disruptions to democracy from 431 B.C. onward. The Macedonian king, Philip II, built a great military force and by 338 B.C. had conquered a combined army from Athens and Thebes. The following year, King Philip II was declared autocratic ruler of Greece. His son, Alexander the Great, became ruler in 336 B.C. and was renowned for his leadership and skills in battle. Alexander's military genius led to the creation of the Greek Empire, one of the largest in the ancient world. By the year 322 B.C., Athenian democracy had collapsed and been replaced by an autocratic system of leadership by a select group.
- BBC History: The Democratic Experiment
- BBC Primary History: Ancient Greeks, Athens
- Education Portal: Athenian Democracy, Solon and Cleisthenes
- Stanford University: The Making and Unmaking of Democracy, Lessons from History and World Politics
- The British Museum: Athens
- History: Ancient Greek Democracy
- Public Broadcasting Service: The Final End of Athenian Democracy
- BBC History: Alexander the Great
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