Looking to Ancient Greek Democracy in the 2020 Election Season

By Anastasia Kaliabakos

As November 3rd descends upon the United States, Americans are growing ever more aware of the importance of voting and democracy in our society today. In the spirit of learning about why our elective system functions the way it does, it is worthwhile to understand the intricacies of one of the most famous democratic systems of the ancient world: that of Athens, Greece. 

One of the most prominent city states in the Mediterranean, Athens was the motherland and birthplace of a multitude of significant ideologies and ideas. The people of ancient Athens are famous for having encouraged a well-ordered study of subjects such as science, philosophy, history, art, architecture, and literature. They also built countless buildings, temples, monuments, and statues that embodied their concept of beauty.

NINETEENTH-CENTURY PAINTING by Phillip Foltz depicting the Athenian politician, Pericles, delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly.

Athenians were also famous for their institution of a democratic form of government in which some of the people in the city-state were able to share power and control with one another. The word “democracy” stems from the combination of two Greek words meaning “people” and “power.” Literally, the combination of these words means “people power,” which is indicative of what the purpose of a democratic society is. Academics agree that the idea of democratic government is one of the most significant contributions made by the ancient Greeks.

When assembly meetings were held, Athenians would gather in what was known as the “agora,” which was a large open space, in the middle of the city that had a marketplace in addition to government buildings and was included in the design of every major Greek city-state. While gathered in the agora, citizens would discuss current events and issues before the assembly meeting commenced. During the meetings, the citizens were free to express their personal opinions and cast their votes on a variety of decisions. Additionally, the courts were usually located in the agora. The number of jurors in court cases was often very large, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Essentially, Athenians wanted their juries to reflect the general population, and every citizen was expected to make his own case. Athenian democracy depended heavily on every citizen fulfilling his role: all were expected to vote, had equal rights and powers under the law, and the majority ruled. In a city-state as small as Athens, a pure democracy was actually feasible. As states began to grow in population, electing representatives to make the decisions for the public became more practical; however, the notion that every citizen has a voice important enough to be heard originated in ancient Athens.

It is evident that there are many parallels between our modern democracy in America and that of ancient Athens. We owe the ideology of equal representation under the law to them. However, although our society today is not perfect, it is paramount to recognize the strides we have made as a country regarding democracy. In Athens, every citizen was strictly required to participate in voting or they would suffer punishment, in contrast to our own country where citizens can choose whether or not they wish to vote. Additionally, it is important to note that not everyone in Athens was considered a “citizen.” Only free adult men were fortunate enough to enjoy citizenship—about 20 percent of the total population. Women could not vote or have any say at all in the “democratic” political process. Additionally, slaves and foreigners were not citizens and could not participate in democracy. 

It is valuable to learn about the history of the system of democracy and why it has survived for millennia; however, it is also important to understand its drawbacks and how we have advanced as human beings and Americans. We live in a world that is more inclusive and equal than ancient Athenians ever could have imagined. 

This November, it is extremely important to exercise the rights this country has achieved for all its citizens. Keeping in mind the countless sacrifices that so many people from ancient Greece to modern-day America have made in order for us to possess the privileges we have, make sure to fulfill your civic duty and vote this November.

Anastasia Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Presidential Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross majoring in classics. She is a features editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, an associate editor and member of the editorial board of Parnassus: Classical Journal, author of Milkshake: A Very Special Pony, and recipient of the 2019 NYC Scholastic Writing Award. Anastasia has contributed to WestView News since 2018.

Leave a Reply