Democracy Is Born

In Athenian democracy, every citizen was required to participate or suffer punishment. In fact, men who did not appear at the assembly meeting were caught and marked with red paint as punishment. This practice stands in stark contrast to most modern democratic governments in which citizens can choose whether they wish to participate.

Not everyone in Athens was considered a citizen. Only free adult men enjoyed the rights and responsibility of citizenship. Only about 20 percent of the population of Athens held citizenship. Women were not citizens and therefore could not vote or have a voice in the political process. Women were rarely permitted out in public and were even restricted as to where they could be within their own homes. Slaves and foreigners also were not citizens.

Nevertheless, the idea of democratic government is one of the most significant contributions of the ancient Greeks. The city-state of Athens had one of the largest democracies in terms of population.

Early in Athens' history (around 594 B.C.E.), a man named Solon enacted reforms that reduced the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Poor citizens gained the right to sit in the assembly and to vote.

Later, Cleisthenes expanded the democracy by giving every citizen equal rights. He also created a legislative body whose members were picked randomly from the general population of citizens.

Typically, the citizens of Athens would gather in the agora when there was an assembly meeting. The agora, present in every major Greek city-state, was a large open space in the middle of the city-state that contained a marketplace as well as government buildings. Citizens would mingle at the agora and discuss the issues of the day before gathering for the assembly meeting, where citizens could express their opinions and cast their votes.

The courts, too, were usually in the agora. The juries in court cases often had hundreds and sometimes thousands of members. Athenians wanted their juries to reflect the general population. There were no lawyers, and each citizen was expected to argue his own case.

All citizens were expected both to vote and to serve in the government if necessary. In Athens, the people governed, and the majority ruled. All citizens had equal rights and powers.

In a city-state as small as Athens, a pure democracy was possible. As states grew larger, the notion of electing representatives to make decisions for the public became more practical. But the idea that every citizen’s a voice is important enough to be heard originated in ancient Athens.

Source: Democracy Is Born
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