Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Athenian Democracy

The Athenian Democracy was a democratic government in the city-state Athens and its surrounding lands in Attica, Greece; usually considered to have lasted from the early-6th to the mid-4th century BC. During the 5th century, the population of Athens comprised some 300,000 persons. Athens provides the example of one of the earlier documented democracies, and of one of the most important in ancient times. Pejoratively, opponents of democracy called the system ohlocratia (from o ohlos - "the mob").

The assembly of all male citizens in Athens voted on decisions directly (compare direct democracy). Elected officials did not determine decisions - the ancients did not consider such a system a democracy but an oligarchy. Democracy had (and for some people still has) the meaning of equality in decisions and of elections in decisions, not the election of persons charged to decide (see representative democracy). Few checks on or limits to the power of the assembly existed, with the notable exception of the Graphe Paranomon (also voted by the assembly), which made it illegal to pass laws contrary to those already in existence.

Table of contents
1 Voting
2 Lottery
3 Citizenship in Athens
4 Notable Athenians
5 See also
6 External Links


As usual in ancient democracies, one had to physically attend a gathering in order to vote. Military service or simple distance prevented the exercise of citizenship. Voting took place in public, sometimes by physical division ("Everybody for Plan A go the right....") and sometimes by written ballot. Ostracism took place only by written ballot (voters scratched a name on a potsherd or ostracon).


Lot or random choice of a citizen from a pre-determined group filled a number of positions in the Athenian democracy (see sortition). For instance, the Chairman of the Prytany or Council of 50 was chosen by lot from the 50. Having served once that man could never serve again in his life. The significance of such positions generally originated primarily in religious functions, so the choosing fell to the gods instead of to the people. Following the reforms of Pericles, all Athenian positions except the chief of military officials, the strategos, gained selection by lottery and received payment so that any Athenian citizen could take part in office. The role of the strategos, the one and only elected representative in later Athenian democracy, remained a very difficult and dangerous position to achieve. Candidates required both wealth and popularity to fill the office. Also, in the case that he did not manage to fulfil his mission, the strategos often faced ostracism or (if he was lucky) sentencing on other charges.

Citizenship in Athens

Only adult male citizens had the right to vote in Athens. This excluded slaves, women, and resident foreigners (metics) but nevertheless meant that a very large portion of the population took part in the government of Athens and of other radical democracies like it. Participation greatly exceeded that of any contemporary states, and functioned more directly than in any subsequent democracies.

Citizens had to claim descent from citizens - after the reforms of Pericles from both parents, excluding children of Athenian men and foreign women (450 BC) - or had to gain approval through an elaborate procedure, in which any citizen had a veto, which was very rarely carried through. This reflected the general conception of the polis as a community, somewhat like an extended family, rather than as a territorial state.

Notable Athenians


See also

Persian Wars
Athenian empire
Peloponnesian War
Hellenic civilization

External Links