Was Ancient Athens Really a Democracy?

The history of Athenian democracy is tightly linked to wealth and the privileges of certain free Athenian men who had a say in decision-making.

Aug 8, 2023By Anna Gustafsson, M.Sc. Communication & Arts, MA Archaeology

was ancient athens democracy


  • Ancient Athens is hailed as the birthplace of democracy, derived from Greek words signifying “power of the people.”
  • Amid growing economic and social challenges in Athens, Solon was granted authority to enact reforms in the 6th century BCE. He abolished debt slavery, redefined citizen classes based on wealth, and sought to make society more equal. However, these changes didn’t address deeper issues.
  • Post the victory against the Persians, Athens experienced prosperity, emphasizing military leadership and expanding the role of the lower class in governance.


The word “democracy” comes from the Greek words kratos, which means power, and demos, meaning people. Thus, democracy literally means the power of the people. We celebrate ancient Athens as the birthplace of democracy, but how democratic was it really? Participation in democracy was limited to only free Athenian men, and they were a minority. Women and foreigners still had no public role, and democracy actually increased the number of slaves.


The Road to Ancient Athenian Democracy: A Society with Aristocratic Values

A black-figured Hydria, made in Attica, depicting warriors in combat, circa 510-500 BCE, British Museum


Many economic, political, and social problems plagued Athens during the 6th century BCE. Wealth and pedigree dictated a person’s place in society. Aristocratic families were wealthy, but constant conflicts ate their resources. There were also growing tensions between elite families. The population of Athens was growing, and farming land was getting scarce. Most people who had small farms formed the class of the hetemeroi, meaning they had to surrender one-sixth of everything they produced to the wealthy landowners. Many farms were too small to actually support their owners. This resulted in many  impoverished people getting deep into debt. Using one’s freedom as a guarantee for a loan was legal, so many were forced to sell family members to slavery or, as a last resort, become slaves themselves. Violence and unrest were escalating.


A marble head of goddess Athena, Originally from the island of Aegina in Greece, Made circa 470-460 BCE, via the Louvre


From the 8th century BCE until the 4th, Athens was ruled by governors called archons. The nine archons were chosen with a draw from a pool of men from well-known and wealthy elite families. The archons served each a term of one year. The archons were supported by a council, which consisted likewise of aristocratic males. Many council members had previously been serving as archons, and they could be members for life.


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It was in this atmosphere that the Athenians did something radical. In 594 BCE, they chose one archon, Solon, and gave him the right to reform the whole government of the polis in one year. Solon was a man who was greatly respected, and he was not expected to be biased toward anyone. Solon had gained vision and experience by traveling. Athenians gave Solon the power to create new rules for the society to prosper. Solon created numerous reforms, which he made easier to remember by composing poetry about the ideology behind the reforms.


One Man Drafted the Reforms

A painting depicting Solon, from a series of paintings of ancient philosophers, by Merry-Joseph Blondel in 1827, via Louvre


As a first act in his long list of reforms, Solon got rid of the hektemeroi system and canceled the possibility of selling people into slavery to pay back debts. Debts were largely canceled, and people were given ownership of their farming land. Solon also tracked down Athenians who had been sold outside Attica as slaves, brought them back, and granted them citizenship again. Solon insisted that all men should earn their own living and that fathers were obliged to teach their sons a profession.


Solon also categorized the Athenian citizens into four social classes, each having different rights and obligations concerning political power and social participation. The classes were purely based on wealth. The highest new class was that of the pantakosiomedimnoi, meaning 500-measure men. These were members of the wealthiest families whose country estates produced over 500 medimnoi or bushels of olive oil, wine, or grain. The second highest class was that of the hippeis, men who either served in the army as cavalrymen or had the means to keep horses for the cavalry. The zeugitai were men who were wealthy enough to own several oxen. The thetes, were farmers or workers, formed the lowest class.


The basic principle which drove Solon was a desire to make things more equal. Solon created many reforms that made Athens more inclusive, but he did not attempt to end slavery. Women continued to have little societal role and no legal adult status. Foreigners could not become Athenians, and although they could be quite successful as merchants, they were never given full citizenship rights. From today’s perspective, many of Solon’s laws consolidated the power of wealthy males from influential families.


A Tyrant Stages a Coup

Columns of the temple of Zeus in Athens (the construction of the temple was started by Peisistratus), watercolor by Dominique Papety, made in 1846, via Louvre


Although Solon’s value as a reformer can be appreciated from a historical perspective, his reforms aimed to fix the symptoms, not the root causes of problems. Wealth was still very much linked to agricultural production, and there was no equal right to farming. Social class was related to agriculture, and political rights depended totally on social class.


Ultimately, Solon angered many in his efforts to give something to everyone. After finishing his reforms, he left Athens. Outside the city center, people started to gather based on the location of their homes, either on the valley, by the shore, or up on the hills. People on the hills were backing their fierce leader Peisistratus. It took him a few attempts, but sometime before 557 BCE, Peisistratus executed a coup and took over Athens as a tyrant.


The term tyrant does not necessarily mean a leader who ruled with violence, but rather one that was not one from the aristocratic families that traditionally ruled the city. Peisistratus was actually quite popular, and during his leadership, many important public buildings were constructed in Athens. Countryside got its own juristical system, so people didn’t have to travel for days to participate in court proceedings. Although Peisistratus tried to get his sons to succeed him as a leader, a member of an important aristocratic family, Cleisthenes, rose to power, and under the rule of Cleisthenes, the democratic system in Athens became more egalitarian and stable.


Democracy Takes a Leap Forward

In this vase painting the goddess Athena is holding a curved stern of an Athenian trireme naval ship, attributed to the Brygos painter, circa 480-470 BCE, via Met Museum


The victory over the archenemies of Athenians, the Persians, was the final push towards democracy. The success in the battle of the Marathon in 490 BCE launched a period of 150 years of prosperity. Although the Spartan soldiers were crucial in pushing back the Persians, it was the navy that made Athens powerful, impressive, and rich, thanks to looting. Victory over the Persians increased the emphasis on the importance of military leadership for the safety and prosperity of the city.


Thousands of men were needed to row the vessels, so the thetes, the men from the working and farming social classes, became very important. The wealthy aristocrats were needed as sponsors, and the common man was needed as muscles. The navy was expensive to keep up with, so the state needed a functioning taxation system.


Athenians created a system to prevent another tyrant from suddenly taking over. Every spring, Athenians could vote in ostracism and send one of their fellow citizens to exile for ten years. Apparently, no exact accusation was needed, and no shame in being voted into exile. After ten years, the person could return to Athens and reclaim his property. The voting was not easy, though, as a minimum of 6000 votes were needed. Nevertheless, several prominent men were ostracised in the 480s.


And We Have a Democracy!

A sketchbook drawing of Acropolis, seen from the direction of the Pnyx, by Sir William Gell from about 1801-1813, via British Museum


Those who have had the chance to visit Athens have likely also seen the Pnyx, the area where ancient Athenian men met to discuss and decide on state matters. The rocky area is located a short distance from the foot of Acropolis Hill. Thousands of men gathered to participate in decision-making almost weekly. It is estimated that about one in eight adult Athenian men took part in any assembly. A group of 50 men drafted suggestions for the assembly, and the consistency of this group was changed regularly to avoid bribing.


Participation in the assembly was limited to only free men over the age of 18 who had Athenian citizenship. Citizenship was limited to only men who had Athenian fathers, and after 451 BCE, to those with two Athenian parents.


Public officials were chosen among the participants of the assembly. There were about 700 public offices in city-state administration, most of which were held by boards of men, all serving a one-year term. This meant that most male citizens had the experience of holding an office and possibly several during their lives. The judicial system also engaged hundreds of men each time there was a need for the court to meet, as jury decisions were also in the hands of the assembly.


Although men from thetes, the lowest class, could join the assembly, the highest offices, such as state treasurer, archonship, or judge, were not open for them. The roles of officials grew more and more ceremonial in the 5th and 4th centuries.


But Was Ancient Athens Truly Democratic?

A silver coin of Athens, with Athena (obverse) and owl (reverse), minted in Athens, excavated in the ancient city of Naukratis, Egypt, and used in 450-406 BCE, via British Museum


Finally, how democratic was the democracy in Athens? Looking from a modern perspective, the comparison is tricky. For one, the role of government in people’s lives was very different. The government of ancient Athens did administer justice, collected taxes, and organized defense. The government was also responsible for issuing money, conducting festivals, and constructing public buildings. But on the other hand, many aspects of people’s daily lives did not depend on the state. There was no formal education that was organized by the state, no pension paid, and no health care provided.


Women could not vote or hold offices and had no public societal role. Married women were mostly constrained to domestic circles. For foreigners, there was no way for them to take part in democracy as they could never become citizens.


For Athenian men, all this participation in the decision-making, which required thousands of men gathering almost weekly to discuss and vote, took much of their time. Because so many free men were needed to run the democracy, the need for slaves actually increased. Even the state had slaves. Those who lived far from Pnyx Hill, had to take the time to travel to the actual place where democracy was practiced. Not all men could travel on foot for long distances, and not everyone had horses or donkeys to make the journey easier. Democracy in its infancy required physical participation in the governing from those with the legal rights to do so. But by giving political rights to some, the system ended up being not inclusive but exclusionary.

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By Anna GustafssonM.Sc. Communication & Arts, MA ArchaeologyAnna is a writer and an archaeologist based in Athens, Greece. She graduated from the University of Athens (NKUA) with an MA in Greek and Eastern Mediterranean archaeology and has an M.Sc. degree in journalism, literature, and art studies. Anna loves to share her passion for history and arts through writing. Her special interests are the Bronze Era in the Eastern Mediterranean area, the visual arts of ancient Greece, and the archaeology of Cyprus. In her spare time, Anna enjoys studying languages, visiting archaeological museums and medieval churches, reading biographies of European royalty, and taking photographs.