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Historical Democracy

Historical: Athenian Democracy

The word democracy is derived from the Greek word demokratia which means people-power.


Around two and a half thousand years ago, Greece consisted of many small communities self-governing communities, of which Athens was one.


In Athens government decisions were made by the citizens. Citizens attended the Assembly where decisions about what the government should do were made. It varied over the years, but by the time of Aristotle (a famous philosopher) the Assembly might meet forty times a year and typically 5,000 citizens would turn up to vote. This is an example of “direct democracy” every citizen has a vote on every issue. Can you see the difference between this and a “representative democracy” like the USA?


The Athenians thought that electing officials was undemocratic since rich people could use their money to get elected. Therefore government officials were selected by drawing lots.


However, some people argue that Athens was not a democracy at all, because only citizens were allowed to vote in the Assembly, and only men could be citizens! Women weren't allowed to vote, nor were foreigners or slaves (yes, even in a “democracy” they had slaves back then!). There were only about 30,000 citizens in a population of 250,000.


Another unusual feature of Athenian democracy was the practice of “Ostracism”. It was like a reverse election. If 6,000 citizens voted to ostracize you then you were sent away from Athens (exiled) for ten years!