Compare and contrast Athenian democracy and modern democracy.  

Athenian democracy is similar to modern democracies in that it grants a broad portion of the public a say in governance. Athenian democracy differs in that only free men could vote, the voting occurred in a single forum, and there were no mediating delegates.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a complex question, but we'll take it step by step. First let's look at a definition of democracy. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, democracy is:

government by the people, especially rule by the majority; a government in which the supreme power is invested in the people and...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

This is a complex question, but we'll take it step by step. First let's look at a definition of democracy. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, democracy is:

government by the people, especially rule by the majority; a government in which the supreme power is invested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.

By this definition, in a true or pure democracy, everyone living in a country, or at least every citizen, would have a voice in the country's governance. In practice, this is hardly ever true.

Next let's look at the Athenian form of democracy. The word "democracy" comes from the Greek words demos, which means "people," and kratos, which means "rule." In other words, rule by the people. Athens is credited as having one of the world's first democracies.

However, its rule certainly did not include all the people, and not even a majority. Of the 100,000 citizens (that is, those with a hereditary claim to citizenship) that lived in Athens in the fourth century, only about 40,000 people were allowed to vote or participate in any other way in the governance of the city-state. The 40,000 consisted of male citizens over 18 years old. Women and children were excluded. Also excluded were about 40,000 people termed "resident foreigners" because they did not qualify for hereditary citizenship and about 150,000 slaves.

Any of the 40,000 male citizens that were qualified to participate in government could attend the assemblies, which were held about 40 times a year. Here's a big difference between modern democratic nations and Athens. Can you imagine the chaos of every eligible United States citizen attending an assembly together? Athens was able to accomplish this because of its relatively small size. Athens also had a boule, or council of 500, that met every day and handled immediate governing concerns, and another group of up to 500 men called the dikasteria that functioned as a sort of court to judge crimes.

When we turn to "modern democracies," the question becomes confusing. According to statistics compiled at the Pew Research Center, as of the end of 2017, 96 countries had some type of democratic form of government, but these governments vary widely in their practical application of democracy.

For instance, in a direct democracy, citizens vote for policies directly without representation. Switzerland is an example of this. In representative or indirect democracies, the people elect representatives to make policies. In presidential democracies, heads of state have significant leeway in enacting or preventing legislation. In parliamentary democracies, heads of state are subservient to legislatures.

It is difficult, therefore, to compare Athenian democracy with "modern democracy" because in the modern world there are so many different types of governments that profess to be democracies. However, simple guidelines to follow when comparing the democracy of Athens with any single modern democracy would include assessments of what portion of citizens are allowed to actively participate and how much the government is representative as opposed to directly handled by the people.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Athenian system of democracy was different from the modern system because the Athenian government only granted the rights of citizenship to men who owned property and who had completed their military training. The system excluded women, slaves, and children from being full citizens. In addition, people who were not citizens but who lived in Athens could not vote. In today's democratic system in the United States, everyone born in the nation is considered a citizen and can vote. 

In addition, citizens in Athens participated in a direct democracy in which they voted on issues. During meetings of the Ekklesia, or legislature, the 40,000 Athenian men who were citizens could show up and vote. This system is different from modern systems of democracy, such as in the United States. In the U.S., people elected to the U.S. Congress vote on issues.

In Athens, elections were determined by a system of lottery, not by choosing particular people to run for office. People's names were put into a pool for election to the Council of 500 (called the Boule), and the Dikasteria (or courts). Unlike in the U.S., in which a President serves as the head of the executive branch, no one person was nominated to be the head of the Boule, and all 500 people in the Boule ruled together.

People who served in the Dikasteria did not have special legal training, unlike in the modern U.S., where people who work as judges and lawyers have to have attended law school. In Athens, people were not arrested by the police but by other citizens, and they were tried and defended by other citizens rather than lawyers. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are similarities and differences between Athenian democracy and modern democracy. One similarity deals with the government. In a democracy, the citizens make decisions. The purpose of government is to serve the people. The people make decisions that affect them. The government must respond to the actions that the citizens want it to take. Another similarity is that in both democracies, not all people were allowed to participate at times. Women had no role in both democracies. In Athens, they had no role at all in the democracy while in our democracy the role of women was nonexistent for a long period of time.

A difference between the democracy of Athens and our democracy today is that in Athens the people directly made the laws themselves. In our democracy, we have what is called a democratic republic. This means we elect leaders who make decisions for us. Our leaders are supposed to do what the majority of the people they represent want them to do. Our leaders make the laws that affect us. We don’t make our laws ourselves.

While Athenian democracy and modern democracy have similarities, there are some significant differences.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The basic similarity between these two comes in the fact that they are both democracies.  In both cases, the people are given the ultimate authority in the political system.  Beyond that, however, there are many differences between the two.  We will look at two important differences here.

First, Athenian democracy was a direct democracy.  The people actually voted directly on major issues.  Today, we generally have indirect democracies in which we only vote for representatives who will make laws for us.

Second, Athenian democracy was much more restrictive in terms of who could participate.  Women were not allowed to participate and there was a large group of slaves who could not participate either.  It is believed that only about 10% of the population was allowed to participate in the democracy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team