Athenian Democracy

Introduction to Athenian Democracy of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE John A. Rothchild ∗

Abstract: This essay serves to introduce students to the institutions of the democratic constitution of ancient Athens, during its flowering in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Its principal purpose is to enable students to compare the Athenian democracy with the system established by the U.S. Constitution. It will serve equally well to meet the needs of anyone who is interested in the Athenian democracy for its own sake. The essay assumes no prior background knowledge about the Athenian system. The Athenian democracy is worthy of study if for no other reason than that it was the inspiration for modern democratic systems. The ancient system takes on added interest from the standpoint of comparative constitutional law. Many of the institutions of the Athenian democracy seem quite peculiar to us moderns, and some of them strike us as downright bizarre. Yet the goals of those who designed that system were very similar to the goals of the designers of modern constitutional democracies: establishment of a system in which political power resided with the people, in which government officials had enough power to be able to discharge their functions, and in which official power was effectively constrained so that it did not devolve into tyranny. The essay has several features that enhance its pedagogical mission. The expository portion is followed by a set of review questions that help the student test her comprehension, and a set of discussion questions meant to facilitate classroom discussion. A glossary of Greek terms used in the essay is also included.

Introduction to the Athenian Democracy of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE John A. Rothchild
Associate Professor of Law Wayne State University Detroit, Michigan
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