Dbq: Athenian Democracy Historical Context

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Athenian Democracy

Historical Context

Democracy is an weird idea. There is always someone in charge; someone in power. Why on earth would they give up that power to let people rule themselves democratically? Democracy developed first in Athens and the Athenians knew it; they were proud of it. Athens was also unique in that they had philosophers (professional thinkers and problem solvers) who would question the purpose of government and the role of the individual in society. Athenians were also fortunate that they had leaders who believed in the power of democracy and created some of the first laws to protect individual rights.

Document One

This quotation is from the philosopher Socrates, who lived in Athens from about 470 to about 399 B.C.E. He also was the teacher of the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

1. What was Socrates suggesting about each person’s individual life in this quote?

Document Two

This quotation is from the philosopher Aristotle, who lived and taught in Athens from 384 B.C.E. to 322 B.C.E. He not only questioned the purpose of government, but also what types of people could participate in the government.

Since human reason is the most godlike part of human nature a life guided by human reason is superior to any other…For man this is the life of reason since the faculty of reason is the distinguishing characteristic of human beings.

2. What did Aristotle mean by the above quote?

Document Three

Now in all states there are three elements: one class is very rich, another very poor, and a third in a

mean. It is admitted that moderation and the mean are best, and therefore it will clearly be best to possess the gifts of fortune in moderation; for in that condition of life men are most ready to follow rational principle. But he who greatly excels in beauty, strength, birth, or wealth, or on the other hand who is very poor, or very weak, or very much disgraced, finds it difficult to follow rational principle. [...]

the middle class is least likely to shrink from rule, or to be over ambitious for it; both of which are injuries to the state. Again, those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends, and the like, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority. […] a city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars; and these are generally the middle classes. […]

And this is the class of citizens which is most secure in a state, for they do not, like the poor, covet their neighbors' goods; nor do others covet theirs, as the poor covet the goods of the rich; and as they neither plot against others, nor are themselves plotted against, they pass through life safely. Wisely then did Phocylides pray 'Many things are best in the mean; I desire to be of a middle condition in my city.


3. According to Aristotle, who is best suited to rule?

4. Why are those who “greatly excel in beauty, strength, birth, or wealth” unfit to rule?

5. Why are those who are “ very poor, or very weak, or very much disgraced ” unfit to rule ?

Document Four

The population in Athens, 430 B.C.E.
Adult male citizens with power to vote………………………………………………40,000

Citizens without political power (women, children, some men)……… .80,000

Foreign born residents of Athens………………………………………………….....80,000


Total population……………………………………………………………………………...450,000

from Bertram Linder, A world History, 1979

6. According to this document, which sector (part) of the population was the largest? Which sector was the smallest?

7. What do these two numbers tell us about who had the most power in Athenian society? (Was it a democracy for everyone? Why or why not?)

Document Five

There are very few documents that recorded the events of the ancient Greeks. Of those few, the majority of the documents that have survived were written by the Greek Historian Herodotus. He wrote on not only the Greeks, but also the civilizations that the Greeks interacted with, such as the Persians.

The rule of the majority has the most beautiful name of all: equality under the law (isonomiê)…the holders of magistracies are selected by lot and are held accountable for their actions. All deliberations are in public. I predict that we will give up monarchy and replace it with democracy. For in democracy all things are possible.

Herodotus, Greek Historian
author of Histories

8. Describe the style of government Herodotus prefers.

Document Six
Pericles was one of the most influential statesmen and generals of ancient Athens. He was a great supporter of democratic ideals and the promotion of education, art and literature

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. Our plan of government favors the many instead of the few: that is why it is called a democracy…As for social standing; advancement is open to everyone, according to ability. While every citizen has an equal opportunity to serve the public, we reward our most distinguished citizens by asking them to make our political decisions. Nor do we discriminate against the poor. A man may serve his country no matter how low his position on the social scale.

Excerpt from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, given to the Athenians in about 430 BC

9. According to the oration, what are the benefits of democracy?

10. What does Pericles say about equality?

Document Seven

In Euripides' Suppliant Women, Theseus, a legendary king of Athens and in the minds of the Athenians, one of the founders of democracy, comments on the importance of written laws for equal justice.

When laws are written down both the weak and the wealthy have equal justice. It is possible for the weaker citizens to use the same language to a prosperous man whenever he insults them. And having justice on his side the lesser man wins in court.

11. According to Euripides what ensures equal justice for the rich and the poor?

Document Eight

Not everyone in Athens favored democracy, Plato, another student of Socrates was critical of how leaders were chosen to represent the poor.

The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. . . .
This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. . . .
having a mob entirely at his disposal he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; . . .
he brings them into court and murders them . . .
at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands. . . .
After a while he is driven out but comes back in spite of his enemies a tyrant full grown.


The Republic

12. Based on the reading, how would a democratic leadership lead to a tyrant taking control?

Document Nine

“Unless philosophers become kings in our cities or unless those who now are kings and rulers become true philosophers so that political power and philosophic intelligence converge and unless those lesser natures who run after one without the other are excluded from governing I believe there can be no end to troubles my dear Glaucon in our cities or for all mankind.

Only then will our theory of the state spring to life and see the light of day at least to the degree possible.”

“And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality and not a dream only and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed and the State in which they are most eager the worst.”


The Republic

13. According to Plato, what type of leader should a government (State) choose in order to avoid tyrants?

Document Ten

Cleisthenes was born into a noble Athenian family. He is credited with reforming the laws of ancient Athens and setting it on a democratic footing in 508/7 BC.

Results of Cleisthenes' reforms

Positive aspects

* Cleisthenes' reforms were important in breaking down old allegiances and jealousies. Athenians came to see themselves as citizens of Athens first and foremost.

* The number of citizens now involved in government was considerable. Aside from engaging in the local affairs of demes and the so-called tribes, all adult males, possibly about 30 000 at this time, were members of the Athenian assembly, and 500 representatives from the 10 tribes constituted the council, where one - year terms meant an annual turnover of members. Citizens came to see themselves involved at both a local and state level.

* Regardless of birth or wealth, Cleisthenes' reforms guaranteed political rights in the election of public officials.

* Although there were still large landowners, the country was essentially one of free peasant farmers and, in the city, sturdily independent urban workers.

* The word demokratia had not yet been invented, but the foundations had been laid.

Lumb, Jerrrey.

Cleisthenes’ reforms and the development of Athenian democracy

14. How did Cleisthenes' reforms increase political participation and loyalty in ancient Athens?

Document Eleven

Outside of Athens, democracy was a foreign, strange idea. The largest rival city to Athens in ancient Greece, was Sparta. Sparta's political and social system was based around its military structure.

…but as soon as they were seven years old they were to be enrolled in certain companies and classes; where they all lived under the same order and discipline, doing their exercises and taking their play together. Of these, he who showed the most conduct and courage was made captain; they had their eyes always upon him, obeyed his orders, and underwent patiently whatsoever punishment he inflicted; so that the whole course of their education was one of continued exercise of a ready and perfect obedience…Reading and writing they gave them just enough to serve their turn; their chief care was to make them good subjects, and reach them to endure pain and conquer in battle.

Excerpt from “The Lycurgan Reforms” by Plutarch.

15. How was the Spartan system of choosing their leaders different than the ideas of Aristotle and Plato?

Document Twelve

Herodotus relates a debate on three kinds of government: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy from three different Persian authors.

Herodotus [Darius says:] All that Megabyzus said against democracy was well said, I think; but about oligarchy he did [Otanes says:] [Kings] are jealous of the most virtuous among their subjects, and wish their death; while they take delight in the meanest and basest, being ever ready to listen to the tales of slanderers. A king, besides, is beyond all other men inconsistent with himself. Pay him court in moderation, and he is angry because you do not show him more profound respect --- show him profound respect, and he is offended again, because (as he says) you fawn on him. But the worst of all is, that he sets aside the laws of the land, puts men to death without trial, and subjects women to violence. The rule of the many [...] is free from all those outrages which a king is wont to commit. There, places are given by lot, the magistrate is answerable for what he does, and measures rest with the commonalty. […]

The Persians Reject Democracy

not speak advisedly; for take these three forms of government --- democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy

--- and let them each be at their best, I maintain that monarchy far surpasses the other two. What government can possibly be better than that of the very best man in the whole state? [...]

[Megabyzus says:] Megabyzus spoke next, and advised the setting up of an oligarchy: […] For there
16. Why does Otanes think democracy is best?

17. In what way does Megabyzus criticize democracy?

18.Why does Darius think monarchy is best?

Summary Questions (At least one full paragraph per question)

What Athenian ideas about democracy, laws and the role of the individual are still important in our country?

How well do our national leaders fit Plato's idea about philosopher/kings ?

is nothing so void of understanding, nothing so full of wantonness, as the unwieldy rabble. It were folly not to be borne, for men, while seeking to escape the wantonness of a tyrant, to give themselves up to the wantonness of a rude unbridled mob. The tyrant, in all his doings, at least knows what is he about, but a mob is altogether devoid of knowledge; for how should there be any knowledge in a rabble, untaught, and with no natural sense of what is right and fit? [...]let us choose out from the citizens a certain number of the worthiest, and put the government into their hands. For thus both we ourselves shall be among the governors, and power being entrusted to the best men, it is likely that the best counsels will prevail in the state.

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