List and discuss the four key elements of the Athenian democracy.  

Four key elements of Athenian democracy included the right of monthly assembly, the right of direct vote and the freedom to speak to the assembly, the right to ostracize any individual amassing too much power, and the establishment of executive and judicial branches of government. Athenian democracy excluded women and slaves.

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Athenian democracy developed as a response to an oligarchy. In this prior system of governance, a small ruling group amassed too much power and used it to oppress the rest of the citizenry. Athenian democracy excluded women and slaves, a large portion of the population.

Athenian democracy was direct, which...

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Athenian democracy developed as a response to an oligarchy. In this prior system of governance, a small ruling group amassed too much power and used it to oppress the rest of the citizenry. Athenian democracy excluded women and slaves, a large portion of the population.

Athenian democracy was direct, which meant that male citizens assembled and voted directly through hand raising on legislation and matters of importance to them. This was possible because the qualified voting population was relatively small.

Athenian citizens met in ekklesia (assembly) one to three times a month to discuss and vote on issues. Any citizen could speak to the assembly. This freedom of speech was considered critically important to democratic functioning. This assembly was required to meet at least once a month.

Athenian democracy offered citizens the right to ostracize or exclude from power any citizen or group of citizens who became too powerful or appeared poised to abuse or corrupt the system. This voting was done by secret ballot.

A boule (executive committee) rotated through the ten tribes of Athens so that each tribe had executive power once a decade. The Athenians also safeguarded their democracy through law courts called dikasteria. The magistrates were chosen randomly. Here the legality of any laws passed could be challenged.

As we can see, though imperfect, the Athenian system laid the groundwork for the kind of tripartite democratic system we practice in modified form in the United States.

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Athenian democracy was created after the age of the tyrants as an attempt to create a system of government which was governed and shaped by the citizenry of Athens. With this in mind, one of its major tasks was to prevent an oligarchy or a single person from seizing power, and it contained several safeguards designed to counteract a perceived accretion of power.

One of these was the idea of ostracism. Athens had a procedure enshrined within its laws which allowed the citizenry to vote whether or not to banish a citizen from Athens for a span of ten years. This practice was intended to give Athenians a chance to counteract individuals who were becoming too prominent or influential or powerful, to the point where they might become a threat to the democracy itself.

In addition, the Athenians made use of a lottery system when it came to the selection of individuals for public service, to ensure there was randomness to the selection. This is in sharp contrast to modern democratic values (which tend to be more meritocratic and are ultimately based in ideas of election).

For a third key component, I would stress what it means in practice when we speak about Athenian democracy, because unlike modern democracies (which are ultimately representative), Athenian democracy was direct, in that it allowed its citizens to directly exert their influence on public policy and decision-making. Consider the following:

All citizens were free to come to the Assembly, discuss the issues, vote, and put decisions into action. Political power did not depend on winning elections every four years, but on coming to the Assembly, speaking, and persuading people on the day of the vote. (Morris & Barry B. Powell, The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society, Pearson Education, Inc: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: 2006, p. 215)

Finally, as one last factor to keep in mind, I would stress that there were very real limitations and inequalities present within Athenian democracy. Women, for example, had no role within the Athenian democracy, which was solely a masculine sphere. I would also note that Athens was a society which practiced slavery.

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Athenian democracy, which existed from c. 460 BCE to c. 320 BCE, was a direct form of government. Cleisthenes,  the ruler of Athens at the time, reformed the system of government to include a large portion of the citizenry.

  1. Direct democracy – Athenian democracy was a form of direct democracy as opposed to representative democracy. In a society based on direct democracy all men over 18 years of age were required to participate in government, had freedom of speech, and were considered to be equal participants in civil life. They were required to attend meetings, or assemblies, on a regular basis in order to insure the democratic ideals were upheld.
  2. The first of the governing bodies was called the ekklesia. This section of government dealt with foreign policy and defense. In addition, this group wrote the laws that the Athenians lived by.
  3. The second section of the government was called the boule. There were ten Athenian tribes, and the boule was comprised of members of each of the tribes. This insured each tribe had equal input into Athenian life.
  4. The final section of the Athenian democracy was the dikasteria. The dikasteria was the judicial system for Athens. Each year men were chosen, through a lottery system, to act as jurors. The citizenry presented their cases before the jurors who adjudicated them.

Although Athenian democracy was short-lived, it left a lasting impression on governmental development for centuries to come.

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