What Did Democracy Look Like in Ancient Greece?

In ancient Greece, democracy took on a form that was quite different from what we see today. The word “democracy” itself comes from the Greek words “demos,” meaning “people,” and “kratos,” meaning “rule.” So, in ancient Greece, democracy was essentially a system of government where the power rested with the people.

The Birth of Democracy

Around the 5th century BCE, Athens was one of the most powerful city-states in Greece. It was here that democracy first took root and flourished. This period is often referred to as the Classical Age of Athens.

Athenian Democracy

At its core, Athenian democracy was a system where all male citizens had equal political rights. However, it’s important to note that not everyone in Athens was considered a citizen. Women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded from participating in the democratic process.

  • Equal Participation: Athenian citizens had the right to participate directly in decision-making through various institutions.
  • The Assembly: The main governing body was called the Assembly (or Ecclesia). It consisted of all eligible male citizens who could attend meetings and vote on important matters.
  • Ostracism: Another unique feature of Athenian democracy was ostracism. Once a year, citizens would vote on whether to banish any individual deemed a threat to the state for ten years.

The Role of Citizens

In Athenian democracy, active citizenship was highly valued. Citizens were expected to be well-informed about political affairs and actively participate in decision-making processes.

Civic Duties

Military Service: Every citizen was required to serve in the military, as Athens faced constant threats from rival city-states.

Jury Duty: Citizens were also expected to serve on juries. The judicial system in Athens relied heavily on the participation of citizens who would act as jurors in trials.

The Limitations of Ancient Greek Democracy

Despite its progressive nature for its time, ancient Greek democracy had its limitations and exclusions. As mentioned earlier, women, slaves, and foreigners were not considered citizens and therefore had no political rights.


Slavery was deeply ingrained in ancient Greek society. Slaves were considered property and had no political or legal rights. This fundamental inequality contradicted the democratic ideals that Athens claimed to uphold.

Women’s Exclusion

Women were completely excluded from participating in Athenian democracy. They had no say in political matters and were primarily confined to domestic roles.

In conclusion, ancient Greek democracy was a significant milestone in the history of government systems. It laid the foundation for many concepts and principles that continue to shape modern democracies. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that Athenian democracy had limitations and did not extend its benefits to all members of society.