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Athenian Politics and Government

Direct Democracy

Democracy in ancient Athens was quite different from the way people practise it today. Democracies today are "representative democracies", by which the general population elects a small group of people every few years who then make all of the governmental decisions on behalf of the people. In Athens, however, every governmental decision had to be made by a big assembly of all eligible citizens who wanted to take part – in some cases, this had to be at least 6,000 citizens. This is called a "direct democracy".

Athens had a direct democracy for most of the time between 508 and 322 BC, though the processes were always subject to change. Some other Greek states were also democracies, but many were tyrannies (ruled by one man) or oligarchies (ruled by a small number of men, usually the richest).

The Assembly of Eligible Citizens

The Athenian assembly – which is the ancestor of a modern day parliament sitting – would meet in a large open-air area on the side of a hill in Athens called the Pnyx. Only male citizens over the age of 20 were allowed to take part. Women, children, slaves and foreigners were not permitted to participate in any part of Athenian democracy. Any member of the assembly could speak and make proposals (at least in theory), and everyone at the assembly voted on each issue by a show of hands.

The assembly met at least 40 times a year. Sometimes, the authorities had trouble rounding up enough people to attend the assembly, so they would send out slaves carrying ropes dipped in red dye. Anybody that they hit would be fined, so people would run from the slaves to the Pnyx where they were safe and join the assembly.

The Council of 500

The Athenians also had a council with 500 members (called the "boule"), which prepared the agenda for the assembly and carried out its decisions. This council also administered the state finances and a number of other state affairs. The members were chosen by lottery from the population of citizen men over the age of 30 and served for one year. A man was allowed to be a member only twice in his whole lifetime.

The council would meet on most days of the year in a council chamber in the agora. There were also a number of other magistrates, most of whom were chosen by lottery. Some, however, were elected by the assembly, most notably the generals.

Justice and Juries

Juries in ancient Athens were also chosen by lottery drawn from any male citizens over the age of 30 who volunteered at the start of each year. Juries were made up of different numbers depending on the type of case. Often in the fourth century there were 501 jurors deciding one case, though sometimes there were as many as 2,501. Speeches were timed and after each side had put forward his case, all of the jurors voted by secret ballot. The case was decided by a simple majority. Witnesses were allowed, but unlike today, there was no cross-examination. Imprisonment was not used as a punishment following a conviction in ancient Athens – usually a person found guilty either had to pay a fine or was put to death.

Ostracism

Aother important part of Athenian democracy in the fifth century was something called ostracism. Once every year, the assembly would be asked if they wanted to hold an ostracism. If they said yes, then, two months later, the assembly met in the agora. Everybody who wanted to could scratch the name of somebody they wanted to get rid of on to a sherd of pottery and deposit it. If there was a total of 6,000 pieces of pottery, then whoever had the most votes had to leave the country for ten years within ten days.

Definitions:

Sherd: a piece of broken pottery
Agora: the central meeting place in a Greek city
Ostracise: To ostracise somebody means to deliberately leave them out of the group and comes from the greek word ostraka meaning sherd

Philosophy: Ancient Greek Thinkers
The Olympic Games
Fashion and Food
Religion, Ritual and Worship
Athenian Politics and Government
Greek Architecture: then and now
Greek Art: Vase painting and sculpture
Education in Ancient Times
A Trip to the Theatre

 


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