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Nineteenth-century painting depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly

The Ins and Outs and 'Idiots' of Greek Democracy


Greece, or more specifically the city state of Athens, is considered to be the birthplace of democracy. Athenian democracy is well-documented and served as a model for the democracies of other Greek city states. Although democracy is the de jure system of government in much of the world today, it is much different from that which was practiced by the ancient Greeks. In fact, some features of Athenian democracy might even be considered to be undemocratic by modern observers.

The Birth of Democracy

The word ‘democracy’ is derived from the Greek ‘demokratia’, which is often translated to mean ‘rule of the people’. Prior to the birth of democracy, Athens was ruled by an aristocracy. Around the beginning of the 6 th century BC, the Athenian statesman Solon instituted a series of reforms that laid the foundations of Athenian democracy. Nevertheless, it was only around the end of the same century that democracy was established, thanks to the reforms of Cleisthenes. It was Cleisthenes who broke the monopoly of the aristocrats on the political decision-making process by reorganizing the Athenians into tribes according to where they lived, rather than according to their wealth.

Two other individuals who made important contributions to the development of Athenian democracy were Ephialtes and Pericles, both of whom lived during the 5 th century, when the Athenians successfully repelled the invasions launched by the Achaemenid Empire. It was due to these victories that the poorer segments of Athenian society began to demand a greater share of political power and this was granted by the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles during the 460s BC.

The Three Bodies of Government – and the Idiotai

Athenian democracy consisted of three main bodies of governance – the Ekklesia, the Boule, and the Dikasteria. The first of these, known also as the Assembly, was the sovereign governing body of Athens. This institution is similar to parliaments in modern democracy. Unlike today’s parliaments, however, members of the Athenian Ekklesia were not elected and any adult male citizen could and was expected to participate in its meetings. Those eligible to attend the Ekklesia but refused to do so were labeled as ‘idiotai’ (which meant ‘private citizen’), from which the word ‘idiot’ is derived. Considering the negative meaning of the word today, it has been assumed that the Athenians did not view such individuals favorably. By modern standards, the Ekklesia was an exclusive club as the participation of women, slaves, and foreign residents was prohibited.

The Ekklesia in Athens convened on a hill called the Pnyx.

The Ekklesia in Athens convened on a hill called the Pnyx. (costas1962 / Adobe)

The second institution, the Boule, is known also as the Council of Five Hundred. It consisted of 500 men (50 from each of the 10 Athenian tribes) who were selected by lot. The chosen men were required to serve on this council for a year. If the Ekklesia was the legislative branch of the government, the Boule was its executive. The Boule handled most of the practical work of governance and therefore met on a daily basis. The most important job of the Boule was to decide on the issues to be presented to the Ekklesia for debate.

The last institution was the Dikasteria, or the popular courts, which served as the judicial branch of the Athenian city state. Like the Boule, the Dikasteria had 500 members (known as jurors) who were selected by lot. Only male citizens above the age of 30 were eligible to be jurors. It was the demos themselves (male citizens who were above the age of 18) who brought cases before the court and argued for the prosecution and the defense. Verdicts and sentences were passed by majority rule.

Diagram representing the constitution of the Athenians in the 4th century BC.

Diagram representing the constitution of the Athenians in the 4th century BC. (Mathieugp / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Critics of the New Democracy

Finally, it may be said that Athenian democracy is often regarded to be a great development in the history of Western civilization and the founders of modern democracy claim to be their descendants. Nevertheless, the democracy practiced by Athens was not without its critics, even during its heyday. As an example, the flaws of democracy were pointed out by Plato and Aristotle, both of whom laid the foundations of Western philosophy. Aristotle, in his Politics, for instance, wrote that democracy is the perverse form of a regime called polity. The former is the rule by the many for the benefit of the few, whereas the latter is the rule by the many for the benefit of the many. Criticisms of democracy are found also in Plato’s The Republic. In this work, Plato wrote that as offices are distributed by lot in a democracy, many governmental positions would be held by those without the necessary ability or knowledge. Additionally, Plato criticized the democratic individual as being without shame or self-discipline, as his desire for freedom, to do what he wants, compels him to pursue all sorts of bodily desires excessively.

Manuscript containing fragments of Plato's Republic

Manuscript containing fragments of Plato's Republic. (Bender235 / Public Domain)

Top image: Nineteenth-century painting depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. Source: Cheposo / Public Domain.

By Ḏḥwty


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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