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Was Athens really a Democracy?

Updated on February 23, 2013
This is the Pnyx, a structure just west of the Acropolis where Athenian citizens normally assembled to decide law.
This is the Pnyx, a structure just west of the Acropolis where Athenian citizens normally assembled to decide law.

What is a Democracy?

Athens is seen as the source of democracies the world over, in fact it comes from the Greek "demokratia" meaning, "rule of the people". Although there is no consensus on the defining social characteristics of democracies, equality before the law for those whom are governed is a central theme.

For the record, only a citizen could vote or participate, at least directly, in any political process. And only native adult Athenian males were citizens. Given that this amounted to only a third of the total population for most of Athenian history, some modern critics have questioned Athen's claim to the title of the first major democracy.


The Athenians granted citizenship to approximately 50,000 adult males at most, out of the total population of approximately 250,000. The Athenians routinely excluded women, children, metics (resident foreigners -- from the word metoikoi, meaning, "those who live with us"), and slaves from the franchise.

In fairness, however, every society excludes children, and only rarely enfranchises resident foreigners. After 451 B.C.E., when the Ecclesia (the Athenian Assembly) passed Pericles' law making Athenian descent on both sides of the family a requirement for citizenship. At the time this was motivated by a large influx of metics, though the result was that it made it virtually impossible for metics to become citizens. Such restrictions were however typical among the ancient Greeks, who considered the polis an extended family. More remarkable is the unprecedented laxity of the Athenian naturalization laws before this change by Pericles. While metics could not own land, speak in court, or marry a citizen, this did not limit their financial success. By the time of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.E., the population of Athens included 30,000 metics -- most of whom were engaged in trade at the port of Piraeus.

Athenian Slavery

Every ancient society owned slaves, and Athens possessed approximately 120,00 of them. Most slaves were prisoners of war, whether acquired directly in military campaigns or through slave traders. Small farmers who owned slaves work their fields beside them. Although all forms of slavery are brutal, this wasn't the form of the southern plantation slavery of the American south. Nearly all masters lived in the same home as their slaves. Wealthy Athenians tended to use their slaves as domestic servants or hired them out to others; occasionally even hiring them out to the polis as a whole. In fact, the polis itself owned some slaves, who were employed in public works, such as road-building, coin-minting, heralds, even executioners or policemen. Scythian slaves in particular were employed as policemen so that no other Athenian would have to lay violent hands on another. When the assembly met, the policemen would go out into the agora and herd citizens to the meeting by walking behind them with outstretched ropes dipped in red paint.

Some slaves learned or practiced previously known trades. Many slaves purchased their freedom from the profits of these trades (they were allowed to keep one-sixth of their earnings). Some slaves, in turn, owned businesses, in fact, some slaves of merchants acted as stewards of their masters' overseas properties or offices. Oftentimes it was, in fact, nearly impossible to distinguish slave from master. Athenian orator Demosthenes once noted : "One may see many a servant in Athens speaking his mind with greater liberty than is granted to citizens in some other states." Contrary to popular belief, however, the advancement the Athenians made in the sciences, philosophy, literature, art, and architecture were not due the leisure time granted by the usage slaves, but by their rather frugal lifestyle. However, it wasn't all good or fair treatment of slaves. The slaves that worked the mines lived often short and harsh lives, and many slaves were sent to the mines as a form of punishment.

There was never a true abolitionist movement in Athens, or the ancient world. However it was a source of criticism. Euripides referred to slavery as, "that thing of evil, by its nature evil, forcing submission from a man to what no man should yield to." Plato in fact wrote, "A slave is an embarrassing possession." Stoics even denounced slavery as a violation of natural law -- though given that the ancient economy depended on slavery, no movements were ever made to end it as an institution.

Women in Athens

The status of women in Athenian society was unenviable, as it was in most other Greek city-states. Few women were educated, and their sole function was to bare children, preferably sons. Custom forced women to stay in their own quarters in the back of the house when their husbands entertained guests. Women were allowed to attend plays and a few other public functions (mostly religious) but were relegated to the sitting in the back rows.

Quite a few lower class Athenian women worked as spinners, weavers, and vendors, simply to earn enough to support themselves. Though upper class women weren't allowed to work outside the home. They had few legal rights, and a life in business was barred to most. Wealthier men generally kept an educated, foreign-born mistress called a hetaira (companion). The hetairai, ironically, enjoyed better lives than their native-born counterparts, they could own businesses and move freely about the city. The situation of women wasn't without criticism, however. In Sophocles' Tereus, Procne, while preparing to kill her son in revenge for her husband's seduction of her sister, declares: "We women are nothing! When we reach puberty and understanding, we are thrust out...Some go to stranger's homes, others to foreigners', some to joyless houses, some to hostile. And all this, once the first night has yoked us to our husbands, we are forced to praise and to say that all is well."

It would be wrong to assume that all Athenian women were docile. Socrates' wife, Xanthippe, was notoriously harsh toward her husband -- and justifiably so, since his philosophical dialogues didn't exactly put food on the table. Xanthippe once even assaulted Socrates in the agora, tearing the cloak off his back. When Socrates friends advised him to strike her back, he refused, saying, "Yes, by Zeus, in order that, while we are sparring, each of you may join in with, 'Well done Socrates!', 'Good punch, Xanthippe!'" When one of their three sons complained to his father about his mother's nagging, Socrates urged him to be patient with her reminding the young man of the aggravations and troubles endured by Xanthippe on his behalf when he was younger. When asked by some of his students why in the world he had married Xanthippe, he replied that he always tried to get along well with people, and he figured that if he could get along with her then he could with anyone. Despite these jests however, there's was hardly a loveless marriage. Xanthippe wept profusely at his execution

Pericles, ancient Athenian democratic reformer
Pericles, ancient Athenian democratic reformer

Oligarchy or Democracy?

Of course, most city-states in the ancient Greek world were not democracies, but oligarchies. An oligarchy (from oligarkhia meaning "rule by the few") is the antithesis of a democracy, as its citizens do not have a say in the ruler-ship or laws of the land. Oftentimes this power of the few is through wealth, but also covers monarchies, or military dictatorships. Power was often passed from one generation to the next.

Given that there was such a large disenfranchised population in Athens, it would be fair to say that their system did have some major oligarchical features, and that the main difference between Athens and most other oligarchies was that they had a slightly broader power structure -- with the inclusion of poor citizens. In a sense, this would make Athens a "weak oligarchy".

Of course, this is only the case if "democracy" means the political participation of all adults. If this definition of democracy is adopted, then democracy is a twentieth-century innovation. On the other hand, if it means the political participation of all its citizens, however narrowly the citizenry is defined, then democracy is an ancient phenomenon.

Whichever view is adopted, the nature of the Athenian democracy (or weak oligarchy) and the participatory nature of its bureaucracies drastically increased efficiency and created excellent soldiers, legislators, administrators, thinkers, and philosophers. They did give citizens, at least, great freedom to express their talents, and that produced an array of geniuses which still influence western civilization today.


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    • Wade Ankesheiln profile image

      Wade Ankesheiln 

      3 years ago from Lexington, Illinois

      I wanted to compliment you for explaining Athenian democracy and how it differed from our current understanding of the term. I think you did an excellent job of presenting both the ancient and modern views of the subject. I find it ironic that modern authors attack Athenian democracy for excluding people when all of the ancient critics of democracy denounced it for including too many people. It just goes to show you how different our world is today.

    • TMDHemsley17 profile image

      Thomas M D Hemsley 

      7 years ago from Leeds

      A fascinating read and well written article on a personal favourite topic of mine. My friend and I were discussing democracy and he made an interesting point regarding how democratic Athens was. As this form of democracy was the first introduced, one could argue that Greek democracy is 'pure democracy', and regardless of how it fairs to modern democratic principles it is entirely democratic. Of course you can argue against that, as you rightly do. Thanks for a very well done article!

    • Weswiki profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from USA

      Glad you liked it! and thanks for the votes up. I agree, that if anything, Athens certainly was responsible for the framework of our modern democracies.

    • Asp52 profile image

      Andrew Stewart 

      7 years ago from England

      I really enjoyed your latest hub, you make some very accurate points regarding their level of democracy. I think Athens made progressive movement towards what we today acknowledge as democracy. Maybe it is more apt to say Athens laid the foundation for a Western world view of democracy. Voted up, useful and interesting, Thanks for such a well executed article!



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