Ancient Civilizations: Greek Democracy

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13084

Would you like to argue your point at an assembly of 6,000 people? You could be shouted down, laughed at, or dragged off, but at least you could have your say! Welcome to the world of Greek democracy!

categories

Foreign, World, World

subject
History
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

There are so many contributions that the ancient Greeks made to the world! Which do you consider the most important?

The ancient Greeks' invention of democracy was one of their greatest gifts to the world.

As you learned in a previous Related Lesson, found in the right-hand sidebar, each of the 1,000-plus Greek city-states had its own form of government. Early in their history, most of the city-states decided to get rid of their kings and try new forms of government.

In Athens, they began with a small group of citizens leading the government. This is called an oligarchy. But many people were not satisfied with this form of government because the leaders tended to favor the rich citizens over the poor.

When the people of Athens asked a wise man named Solon to write laws for them, it laid a foundation for a whole new form of government. Solon was an army general, a successful merchant, and a poet. He was well-known and well-respected by the Athenians, so they asked him to make laws to settle some disagreements between the rich and poor citizens.

Solon of Athens (1553)

Image by Guillaume Rouille, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Solon's laws made several big changes:

  • No one could be forced into slavery because they owed a debt.
  • Every young man had to be taught a trade, so he could earn a living (and not go into debt).
  • All citizens could participate in the government, not just the wealthy as before.
  • If someone felt a judge ruled against them unjustly, they could appeal to a court of their fellow citizens.

How do you think these changes would affect Athenian society?

  • It would put the less wealthy Athenians in a more equal position with the wealthy ones, wouldn't it?

That's just what it did, and that was a first step in forming a totally new kind of government, called demokratia -- democracy -- "government by the people." However, "the people" in this case did not mean all of the people...only certain citizens.

The democratic system used by the Athenians was laid out by a man named Celisthenes. Watch the following videos to find out why and how he did it, and how it affected the future of Greece.

  • Greece - Cleisthenes and Aristocrats from InstructorGeck:

 

  • Greece Cleisthenes from mrsghistory:

 

As you've probably realized, Athenian democracy looked a lot different from the democracy practiced in the world today!

Watch this next video from TED-Ed to learn more details about how democracy worked in ancient Athens. Pause while watching to write down definitions for the following terms:

  • representative democracy
  • direct democracy
  • ecclesia
  • boule
  • sortition

What did democracy really mean in Athens? - Melissa Schwartzberg:

 

Now that you've learned about Athenian democracy, head over to the Got It? section, where you'll compare a modern country's government to Athens' and describe your trip to an Athenian assembly!

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