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Ancient Greek Government: Foundations of Democracy

Updated on July 2, 2012

The roots of modern democracy have a long and ancient history. Many of the concepts we hold dear today are not too different from the ancient form of democracy that was first reported in the Greek isles 3000 years ago.

Ancient Greek Democracy was founded in Athens, Greece. The Athenian government ideology was to establish a ruling body of state. This state would allow for laws that the government would follow. Instead of being dominated by a ruler in force, these laws could be debated, argued, altered or changed based on the free citizens needs.

Many philosophers and institution members of modern education have some common views on what stands for Athens democracy. Some content that democracy is a means of self governing through the assembly of people that have been appointed. That each part of the elected assembly contains six proportional areas that cannot be ruled over by one single person. The main institutions are the Assembly, Courts, Archons, The council of Aeropagus and the Generals.

How the government of Athens worked was fairly straight forward. The democracy used the Six institutions to allow the debate and passing of laws. These laws were passed on the will of the people at the time. Each law had to pass each of the six assemblies prior to being written onto law. The laws that were passed were enforced by the military, and the crime was presented to the people to judge and condemn based on available evidence. As, we explore each of these six institutions we will get a great understanding on which the Greeks were able to successfully built democratic rule into their society and the effects it had.

The basic concepts of Greek Democracy began with the assembly. This was an assembly that allowed people to come and voice, discuss, and vote on laws that would affect the lives of every Athens citizen. The Assembly had some limitations. The Assembly was only made up of males. While the woman of Athens had the right of citizenship, they could not debate the outcome of laws in the assembly. This was also true of slaves and outcast of Athens society. The Assembly members would meet frequently to propose and vote on new legislation or other matters of “state.” Each member was permitted an opinion on the topics at large and each was able to voice their opinion on the matter before a final vote was tallied.

The council of 500 is the next legislative body in the Greek democracy. Consisting of 500 members each of them was voted in to a one year term. Each member of the council was taken from those that served in the assembly. The council of 500 was responsible for matters of property. They would often discuss and direct port installations, military installations and other state property. One of the most important duties of this group was that they would prepare the agenda for the Assembly to discuss. This is why each component of Greek democracy was important for the smooth operation for the government. Each place relied on the other for information and sharing.

The council members were each paid a year’s wage to continue to serve so that their own business would not suffer, as a result. They were also limited to two terms served on the council in a lifetime due to the political nature of having a career as a politician.

The People courts of Greek democracy were as equally important as the others. They provided an outlet for justice to be heard when a crime or disagreement was done. In this court, the jurors would be selected and appointed to hear the case. The jurors consisted of other citizens and elected officials. During which a trial would be conducted, evidence heard, and a verdict reached. The jury court would also hear matters when it came to interpretation of the laws being passed down from the assembly. This assembly is then found the best interpretation of some of the complex laws that the citizens follow.

Next in Greek government order was the house of Archons. This was made up of a small group of highly educated and sophisticated men. These men wine through years of training to become an Archon. They are looked to in guidance on a number of city-state matters. They can make decisions on public, military or religious affairs, that concern the citizens of Athens.

The next vital piece of ancient democracy vital to the functioning government of Greece was the Aeropagus. Also, known as the “Council of Areopagus”. This was a council made up of several judges that were usually appointed after serving a term in the Archons. When appointed to this council, the term was for life. These judges were there to extract the punishment and judgment on serious crime maters of the city. This included rape, murder, and other violent crimes.

Then finally there were the generals. The generals were part of the military force. They were appointed from each of the elected city-states in Greece “The Polemarch” was the supreme commander to all of the generals in the army whom reported directly to the archons and assembly.

As, the 6 pieces of government turned in unison with each other the first truly democratic government was instituted for mankind. Although, not too dissimilar from our own government it is still one of the most effective and easily demonstrated forms of free speech and representation for the work. The Assembly, the Council of 500, the People's Court, the Archons, the Council of the Areopagus, and the Generals were the people, themselves. The people performed the act of government in the benefit of every Athens citizen.


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  • Jon E. Royeca profile image

    Jon E. Royeca 4 years ago from Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines

    But then, nothing lasts. The Greeks have lost that glory.

  • CyberShelley profile image

    Shelley Watson 5 years ago

    Amazing how close our democracy chose to stay! Thank for the highly informative hub!