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Ancient Athens Democracy Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The first democracy in the world was established in Athens over 2,500 years ago. Learn about how this government operated and how it continues to influence our country today in this lesson.

Vote for Me

You always know when there's an election in the US because the television is full of political ads! Our democracy is one of the oldest in the entire world, but it's not the oldest. In fact, it's not even within a thousand years of being the oldest. That's because the ancient Greeks came up with democracy over two thousand years ago. The city of Athens had the largest and most well-known democracy of Greece, though it was very different from our government today.

Parthenon of ancient Athens
Parthenon photo

Athens wasn't always a democracy. Like the United States, they used to be ruled by kings, and also like the United States, the Athenians decided they had had enough. In 508 BCE, the Athenians created a new constitution - just like our own Constitution written by the Founding Fathers - that promised a vote to every citizen, or native person. However, only free men could be citizens: women, slaves, and foreigners could not vote in ancient Athens.

Everyone Gets a Say

In US democracy, we vote for presidents and senators to make decisions for us in Washington DC. In ancient Athens, however, they voted on each decision that the government had to make themselves. That means that the democracy voted on big issues, like declaring war on an enemy, and on small issues as well, like who should be in charge of ferry boats. What's more, citizens had to vote a lot in ancient Athens, sometimes every day, because they believed that it was necessary to change up the government frequently to reduce corruption, or stealing and abuse. For each vote, a citizen would cast a pebble into one of two voting pots.

Voting scene on a vase
Voting scene

Just like our government today has three branches, so too did the Athenians rely on three organizations for their democracy. These organizations were the Assembly, the Council, and the People's Court.

Three Parts of Athenian Democracy

The Assembly involved every citizen in the city, rich or poor, who had the right to speak and vote. Famous orators, or public speakers, could influence the opinion of an Assembly by giving a moving, persuasive speech. Ancient Athens has many examples of orators who convinced the Assembly to follow their idea. Perhaps most famous is Alcibiades of Athens, who convinced the Assembly to declare war on Sicily with a series of speeches.

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