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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > December 2016 > Athens, Birthplace of Democracy

Athens, Birthplace of Democracy

From within the walls of Ancient Athens came a revolutionary new form of governance, but not everyone agreed that it was right one, explains Jeremy Pound

Pericles, the most outstanding statesman of his era, was about to address the Athenian people. It was 431 BC, the first year of the Peloponnesian War – a conflict that would rage for a further 27 years – and Athens was burying its war dead, an occasion that demanded inspiring eloquence.

CITY FOR THE PEOPLE Athens in the fifth century BC was considered the peak of civilised society, laid out to encourage public participation in all aspects of life

Within his speech – today familiarly known as the ‘Funeral Oration’ – Pericles set out just what it was that set Athens apart from others, particularly its Spartan enemies, and why its ideals were so worth fighting for. His words could quite easily have come straight from the mouth of any modern-day politician: “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.”

As well as inspiring his own people, Pericles’ words rather neatly sum up for us what Athenian democracy was all about. It was, in short, a system by which all citizens had an equal say. The story behind it is rather more complex, however – a narrative that has to be assembled by learning what we can through scant, and sometimes unreliable, sources, and then piecing together the rest.

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December 2016