What Was Democracy Called in Ancient Greece?

In ancient Greece, the form of government that we now refer to as democracy was known as demokratia. This term comes from the Greek words “demos” meaning “people” and “kratos” meaning “power” or “rule”. So, in essence, democracy meant “rule by the people”.

The Birth of Democracy in Ancient Greece

Around the 5th century BCE, city-states such as Athens and Corinth were experimenting with new ways of governing themselves. Previously, many city-states were ruled by kings or aristocrats who held absolute power. However, discontent among the general population led to a desire for more inclusive decision-making processes.


Athens, in particular, is often credited as being the birthplace of democracy. It was here that a system of government was established that allowed all male citizens to participate in decision-making. This system emerged as a response to the tyranny of rulers such as Peisistratos and his sons.

The Athenian Democracy

The Athenian democracy was characterized by its unique features:

  • Citizenship: Only adult male citizens who were born in Athens or had been granted citizenship could participate in political affairs.
  • Assembly: The main decision-making body was the Ecclesia, an assembly where all eligible citizens could gather to discuss and vote on important matters.
  • Ostracism: The Athenians had a practice called ostracism, which allowed them to banish any citizen they deemed a threat to democracy for ten years.
  • Juries: Trials were conducted by a large number of citizen jurors who listened to arguments and made decisions on guilt or innocence.

Limitations of Ancient Greek Democracy

While the concept of democracy in ancient Greece was groundbreaking, it is important to note that not everyone enjoyed the same level of political participation:

  • Non-Citizens: Women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded from political rights and citizenship.
  • Direct Democracy: The Athenian democracy was a direct democracy, meaning that citizens voted directly on legislation. However, this system was only feasible for city-states with relatively small populations.
  • Mob Rule: Critics argue that the Athenian democracy often led to mob rule, where decisions were influenced by emotions and populism rather than reason.

The Legacy of Ancient Greek Democracy

The principles of ancient Greek democracy have had a lasting impact on modern political systems. The idea that citizens should have a voice in decision-making and the concept of majority rule are central to many contemporary democracies around the world.

In conclusion, the term for democracy in ancient Greece was “demokratia”, which meant “rule by the people”. Athens played a crucial role in developing and implementing this system of government. While it had its limitations, ancient Greek democracy laid the foundation for democratic ideals that continue to shape societies today.