Government in Athens

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Government in Athens
Main Ideas:

Aristocrats and tyrants ruled early Athens. Athens created the world’s first democracy. Ancient democracy was different than modern democracy. The people of Athens tried many different forms of government before creating a democracy.

Key Vocabulary







Suppose you were there...

For many years, your city has been ruled by a small group of rich men. They have generally been good leaders. They have built new buildings and protected the city from enemies. But now a new leader wants to let all free men help run the government. It won’t matter whether they are rich or poor. Some people, however, worry about giving power to ordinary people.
1. What do you think of this new government?
The decision to change a city’s government was not unusual in Greece. Many cities tried several forms of government before people were satisfied. To see how these changes came about, we can look at one city whose government changed many times—Athens.
Aristocrats and Tyrants Rule

Greece is the birthplace of democracy, a type of government in which people rule themselves. The word democracy comes from Rule by a Few People Greek words meaning “rule of the people.” But Greek city-states didn’t start as democracies, and not all became democratic.

Rule by a Few People

Even Athens, the city where democracy was born, began with a different kind of government. In early Athens, kings ruled the city-state. Later, a group of rich landowners, or aristocrats (uh-R I S-tuhkrats), took power. A government in which only a few people have power is called an oligarchy (AH-luh-gar-kee).

The aristocrats dominated Athenian society. As the richest men in town, they ran the city’s economy. They also served as its generals and judges. Common people had little say in the government. In the 600s BC a group of rebels tried to overthrow the aristocrats. They failed. Possibly as a result of their attempt, however, a man named Draco (DRAY-koh) created a new set of laws for Athens. These laws were very harsh. For example, Draco’s laws made minor crimes such as loitering punishable by death.

The people of Athens thought Draco’s laws were too strict. In the 590s BC a man named Solon (SOH-luhn) created a set of laws that were much less harsh and gave more rights to nonaristocrats. Under Solon’s laws, all free men living in Athens became citizens, people who had the right to participate in government. But his efforts were not enough for the Athenians. They were ready to end the rule of the aristocracy.

The Rise of the Tyrants

Because the Athenians weren’t pleased with the rule of the aristocrats, they wanted a new government. In 546 BC a noble named Peisistratus (py-SIS-truht-uhs) overthrew the oligarchy. He became the ruler of Athens. Peisistratus was called a tyrant, which meant a leader who held power through the use of force.

Today the word tyrant means a ruler who is harsh, but the word had a different meaning in ancient Greece. Athenian tyrants were usually good leaders. Tyrants were able to stay in power because they had strong armies and because the people supported them. Peisistratus brought peace and prosperity to the city. He began new policies meant to unify the city. He created new festivals and built temples and monuments. During his rule, many improvements were made in Athens.

After Peisistratus died, his son took over as tyrant. Many aristocrats, however, were unhappy because their power was gone. Some of these aristocrats convinced a rival city-state to attack Athens. As a result of this invasion, the tyrants lost power and, for a short time, aristocrats returned to power in Athens.

2. What was a tyrant in ancient Greece?

3. What were Greek tyrants like?

4. Why was Athens considered at one point an oligarchy?

5. Why did many Athenians support the rule of tyrants?


Athens Creates Democracy

Around 500 BC a new leader named Cleisthenes (KLYS-thuh-neez) gained power in Athens. Although he was a member of one of the most powerful families in Athens,

Cleisthenes didn’t want aristocrats to run the government. He thought they already had too much influence. By calling on the support of the people, Cleisthenes was able to overthrow the aristocracy once and for all. In its place, he established a completely new form of government. Under Cleisthenes’ leadership, Athens developed the world’s first democracy. For this reason, he is sometimes called the father of democracy.
Democracy under Cleisthenes

Under Cleisthenes, all citizens in Athens had the right to participate in the assembly, or gathering of citizens, that created the city’s laws. The assembly met outdoors on a hillside so that everyone could attend the meetings. During meetings, people stood before the crowd and gave speeches on political issues. Every citizen had the right to speak his opinion. In fact, the Athenians encouraged people to speak. They loved to hear speeches and debates. After the speeches were over, the assembly voted. Voting was usually done by a show of hands, but sometimes the Athenians used secret ballots.

The number of people who voted in the assembly changed from day to day. For major decisions, however, the assembly needed about 6,000 people to vote. But it wasn’t always easy to gather that many people together in one place. According to one Greek writer, the government sent slaves to the market to round up more citizens if necessary. In one of the writer’s plays, slaves walked through the market holding a long rope between them.

The rope was covered in red dye and would mark the clothing of anyone it touched. Any citizen with red dye on his clothing had to go to the assembly meeting or pay a large fine.

Because the assembly was so large, it was sometimes difficult to make decisions. The Athenians therefore selected citizens to be city officials and to serve on a smaller council. These officials decided which laws the assembly should discuss. This helped the government run more smoothly.

FYI In order to break the power of the aristocrats, Cleisthenes re-organized all Athenians into 10 new tribes. The tribes were an important part of local politics, and many had local assemblies similar to the Athenian assembly.
Changes in Athenian Democracy

As time passed, citizens gained more powers. For example, they served on juries to decide court cases. Juries had anywhere from 200 to 6,000 people, although juries of about 500 people were much more common. Most juries had an odd number of members to prevent ties.

Men spoke before the assembly to support or argue against different issues. Persuasive speakers often convinced others to pass laws they supported. Men in the crowd often argued with speakers.

Like the ancient Greeks, we use juries to decide court cases. But our modern juries have only 12 people.

Athens remained a democracy for about 170 years. It reached its height under a brilliant elected leader named Pericles (PER-uhkleez). He led the government from about 460 BC until his death in 429 BC.

Pericles encouraged the Athenians to take pride in their city. He believed that participating in government was just as important as defending Athens in war. To encourage people to participate in government, Pericles began to pay people who served in public offices or on juries. Pericles also encouraged the people of Athens to introduce democracy into other parts of Greece.
The assembly would vote once a year to ostracize, or exile, citizens of Athens. If enough citizens voted in favor of ostracism, citizens would gather to cast a vote for the person they wanted to see exiled from Athens. The citizen receiving the most votes would be forced to leave the city for up to 10 years.
6. How did people vote in ancient Athens?

7. How did voting take place in the assembly?

8. Why did the assembly meet outdoors?

9. Who was the father of democracy in Athens?

10. Why were slaves sent to round up citizens?

11. Why was a smaller council of officials necessary?
End of Democracy in Athens

Eventually, the great age of Athenian democracy came to an end. In the mid-330s BC Athens was conquered by the Macedonians from north of Greece. After the conquest, Athens fell under strong Macedonian influence.

Even after being conquered by Macedonia, Athens kept its democratic government. But it was a democracy with very limited powers. The Macedonian king ruled his country like a dictator, a ruler who held all the power. No one could make any decisions without his approval.

In Athens, the assembly still met to make laws, but it had to be careful not to upset the king. The Athenians didn’t dare make any drastic changes to their laws without the king’s consent. They weren’t happy with this situation, but they feared the king’s powerful army. Before long, though, the Athenians lost even this limited democracy. In the 320s BC a new king took over Greece and ended Athenian democracy forever.

12. How were citizens involved in the government of Athens?

13. How do you think Pericles felt Athenian government compared to other cities’ governments?

14. What does Pericles mean when he says that Athens serves as an example to its neighbors?

Ancient Democracy Differs from Modern Democracy

Like ancient Athens, the United States has a democratic government in which the people hold power. But our modern democracy is very different from the ancient Athenians’ democracy.

Direct Democracy

All citizens in Athens could participate directly in the government. We call this form of government a direct democracy. It is called direct democracy because each person’s decision directly affects the outcome of a vote. In Athens, citizens gathered together to discuss issues and vote on them.

Each person’s vote counted, and the majority ruled.

The United States is too large for direct democracy to work for the whole country. For example, it would be impossible for all citizens to gather in one place for a debate. Instead, the founders of the United States set up another kind of democracy.

Representative Democracy

The democracy created by the founders of the United States is a representative democracy, or republic. In this system, the citizens elect officials to represent them in the government. These elected officials then meet to make the country’s laws and to enforce them. For example, Americans elect senators and representatives to Congress, the body that makes the country’s laws. Americans don’t vote on each law that Congress passes but trust their chosen representatives to vote for them.

15. How are direct democracy and representative democracy different?

16. What is a direct democracy?

17. How does a representative democracy work?

18. Why didn’t the United States establish a direct democracy?

19. a. What are aristocrats?

b. How were oligarchy and tyranny different?

20. a. Describe the democracy created by Cleisthenes.

b. How did Pericles change Athenian democracy?

21. a. What type of democracy did Athens have?

b. In what situations would a representative democracy work better than a direct democracy?

22. Draw a chart like the one below. In each column, identify who had power in each type of government. Then write a sentence explaining what role common people had in each government.



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