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What did democracy really mean in Athens? - Melissa Schwartzberg


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While we might consider elections to be the cornerstone of democracy, the Athenians who coined the term actually employed a lottery system to choose most of their politicians. Melissa Schwartzberg describes the ins and outs of the Athenian democracy, and addresses some ways in which a lottery system might benefit us today.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

Do the origins of democracy interest you? What exactly is a democracy? Where did the idea for democracy come from? The Nature of Government has some answers. Visit the BBC site: The Democratic Experiment and find out how Greek and modern democracy’s compare. What are the ecclesia, the boule, and the dikasteria or courts of Athens? Sound ominous? The site answers this question and discusses these three institutions of the Athenian democracy. What was the role of each of these three parts of Athenian democracy? See any parallels between them and the governing bodies we have today?

How important is service to your government? In ancient Greece, it was extremely important. In fact, those who did not participate could be fined, and painted red! Although, it may have not been a democracy for all who lived there, all male citizens had the right to equality, freedom of speech and right to participate in governmental decisions. In fact, it was almost an expectation. Read more about the process and its importance to the citizens here. What if too much power was gained? Votes to banish or exile individuals with too much power were taken on secret ballots written on broken pottery called ostrakon. If the vote passed, the person was “ostracized” (notice how similar these two words are?).

What is democracy good for? What is it not good for? Listen to political scientist Josiah Ober discuss this topic. What do you think? Have an opinion?

Learn more about educator Melissa Schwartzberg at her personal website and her NYU website.

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Meet The Creators

  • Director Jeremiah Dickey
  • Educator Melissa Schwartzberg
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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