Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages
Dr. Robert S.J. Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University. He earned his B.A. in Classics from Manchester University, his M.A. in Classics from McMaster University, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from University College London. A former Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the George Grote Ancient History Prize, Professor Garland has educated students and audiences at a variety of levels. In addition to teaching classics at Colgate University, he has taught English and Drama to secondary school students and lectured at universities throughout Britain as well as the British School of Archaeology in Athens. Professor Garland is the author of numerous articles in both academic and popular journals and books capturing details of all aspects of ancient Greek and Roman life, including The Greek Way of Life: From Conception to Old Age; Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion; and Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks. His expertise has been featured in The History Channel's Last Stand of the 300, and he has repeatedly served as a consultant for educational film companies.
01: Why Athenian Democracy Matters
Begin the course by considering the nature of Athenian democracy and how it functioned in practice. After surveying some of its key tenets, Professor Garland compares the Athenian governmental system to western democracy today, showing both the similarities and crucial differences.
02: The Origins of Greek Democracy
Among Greek city-states, Athens was not alone in having a form of democratic rule. As you’ll discover in this lecture, Greek governments ran on a sliding scale from oligarchy and democracy to kingship and tyranny. Delve into Homer’s epics to examine several early examples of democratic assembly.
03: Solon: The Father of Democracy?
To understand Athenian democracy, we first must understand Athens as a polis, or city-state, within the broader context of ancient Greece. Review the territory of Attica and get the lay of the land for Athenian government in the 6th and 7th centuries BC. Then, witness the great crisis that led to Solon’s reforms and set Athenian democracy on its course. See what made Solon such an interesting leader.
04: Cleisthenes the Innovator
Fifty years after Solon’s reforms, a tyrant named Peisistratus seized power. The overthrow of his tyranny, and the ensuing skirmish among different aristocratic groups, led to the rise of Cleisthenes, a truly innovative leader. Find out how he undermined the old aristocratic system and carried the democratic experiment forward.
05: The Nearly Bloodless Coup
According to Professor Garland, the conclusion of the Greco-Persian Wars in the early 5th century BC was Athens’ finest hour. Then, came the truly astonishing reforms of 462 BC, when Ephialtes and Pericles attacked the aristocratic Areopagus and instituted radical democracy—direct, participatory rule for all Athenian citizens, an unprecedented experiment.
06: Democracy at War
The ancient Greeks were a bellicose people, and they considered military service a privilege. Innovations such as hoplite warfare and the construction of their navy, manned by the poorest citizens, went hand in hand with the development of democracy in Athens, particularly since the Athenian military had no permanent commander in chief.
07: The Popular Assembly
Go inside one of the hallmark institutions of Athenian democracy. Open to freeborn citizens older than age 20, the popular assembly met 10 times a year and was for many citizens who lived some distance from Athens a three-day affair—one reason Athenian citizenship might seem like a full-time job. Listen to the some of the debates and arguments of a typical assembly meeting.
08: The Council and the Magistrates
Shift your attention to another important arm of the government. Explore the roles of the Council of 500 officials chosen by lot, required to serve for a whole year, as well as the respected (if not particularly powerful) magistrates known as archons. Then, review the relatively limited systems of taxation and welfare in ancient Athens.
09: The Citizens of Athens
Who were the citizens of Athens? As you’ll reflect on in this lecture, perhaps as low as one-fifth of Athenian residents were citizens. Women, slaves, and resident aliens were excluded. Learn about the responsibilities of citizens, and the lives of those who could not participate.
10: “The Empire You Hold Is a Tyranny”
The Delian Confederacy—originally an association of free city-states that Athens turned into an instrument of imperial ambitions —played a major role in 5th-century Greece. Follow the confederacy from the Persian Wars to the Peloponnesian War. Find out what each of the allies got out of the confederacy, and how Athens made sure it benefited the most.
11: The Age of Pericles
Pericles is one of the most fascinating political leaders of all time. Here, survey his life and witness some of the great moments in his rule. Professor Garland takes you beyond the dates and battles to show you what Pericles the man might have been in life, including scandals in his domestic life.
12: Public Speaking in Athens
A successful public life depends on public speaking, so it should come as no surprise that the Athenians prided themselves on rhetoric. After learning a little about the art of public speaking, you will witness several of the great political debates of the era, including one politician’s contention that his opponents were delivering, essentially, “fake news.”
13: Pericles’s Funeral Speech
The funeral procession was the most important ceremony performed in ancient Athens. Pericles’s funeral speech, delivered over the war dead, as captured by Thucydides, is one of the most striking pieces of prose to survive from that time. Witness the structure of the funeral ceremony and unpack Pericles’s great speech.
14: Democracy under Duress
Revisit the march through Athenian history with a look at one of the city’s less admirable periods. Beginning with the outbreak of a terrible plague around 431 BC and continuing through the civil war on Corcyra (modern Corfu), the doom and gloom of this period were caused less by the nature of democracy and rather more by plain old human nature, as the historian Thucydides observed.
15: The Culture of Athenian Democracy
Beyond democracy, the cultural achievements of ancient Athens are some of the most impressive in all of world history. Survey some of the city’s great buildings and sculptures—including the Propylaea and the frieze of the Parthenon—to find out what made Athenian culture so distinctive, and where it came up short.
16: Political Leadership in Athens
You’ve already seen how public speakers dominated the assemblies. Now take a look at the politicians whose voices rose above the fray. While every citizen theoretically had a voice in the democracy, a few politicians and demagogues tended to dominate. Learn about Cleon, Alcibiades, and others.
17: The Brutality of Athenian Democracy
Athenian democracy did not always respond well under pressure. In this lecture, Professor Garland walks you through three case studies—the massacre of a neutral people, the illegal trial and execution of Athenian generals en bloc, and the trial and execution of Socrates—that demonstrate the capacity of Athenian democracy for genuine brutality.
18: Athenian Defeat in Sicily
The expedition to Sicily is one of the biggest military blunders in ancient history. Much like the ill-advised American war in Vietnam, the Sicilian expedition was an avoidable disaster. See how the combination of poor decisions from political leaders and a bitterly divided military leadership led to a humiliating failure.
19: Suspension, Restoration, and Termination
Following the disastrous Sicilian campaign, Athenian democracy appeared to be on the ropes. But in 413 BC, the demos appointed a board of 10 elderly “probouloi,” or advisors, to deal with the immediate crisis. Find out how these leaders steadied the ship and and how, after an eight-month suspension under the brutal rule of the Thirty Tyrants, the democractic experiment carried on into the next century.
20: The Democratic Theater
Take a break from the historical narrative to explore the world of the theater, one of Athens’s greatest cultural achievements. As you will learn in your study of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and others, there is a strong connection between politics and the theater.
21: Law and Order under Democracy
Athenian democracy had both a political and a legal component. In this lecture, take a deep dive into the city-state’s legal system, from the central role of the courts to the procedures of a trial. The process of arraignment, jury selection, and sentencing will sound familiar. Reflect on the strengths and flaws of the legal system.
22: Ancient Critics of Athenian Democracy
What did the Athenians themselves think about their system of government? Professor Garland shows that not everyone in the city-state was thrilled by the democracy. Despite moments of friction, such as during the Peloponnesian War, Athenian democracy was largely a success.
23: Post-Athenian Democracies
Greece is often described as the “cradle of democracy,” but democracy was not a continuing entity from its beginnings in the 7th century BC through today. In this lecture, Professor Garland traces the story of democracy from the end of 4th-century Athens (when democracy took a nosedive) through modern times.
24: Democracy Today, Democracy Tomorrow
There are obvious correlations and differences between Athenian democracy and democracy today; and, now it’s time to draw conclusions based on the comparison. In this final lecture, consider what the Athenians might have made of our democracy today and what democracy really means in the modern world, and whether it is as secure as we sometimes assume.