The Power of the Vote

In the last two lessons we have been exploring one of the most important and exciting ancient Greek inventions: democracy. We looked at the two ancient Greek words which give us the word democracy – “demos” meaning “people” and “kratos” meaning “power”.

We discussed how before the Greeks introduced democracy, cities were ruled by “archons”, and ordinary people had no say in what happened to them. We looked at Draco, who introduced the first Athenian constitution, but also created some very harsh laws, such as death penalty for stealing a cabbage! This is where we get the word “draconian” from.

We looked at Solon, who reformed some of Draco’s harsh laws, and started to make things more equal in society, by making it illegal to enslave someone over debt, and putting a limit on how much land any one person could own.

Democracy in Athens was very different from ours. Women and slaves were not citizens, and therefore not allowed to vote. Men who had been born outside Athens were also not allowed to vote. This meant in practice only a small number of people actually voted. However, it was still a big first step.

We re-enacted democracy by giving you all a number of motions which the Athenians actually voted on during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. You discussed the motions and made speeches on behalf of different interest groups: merchants, rowers, generals, soldiers and farmers. In the end, you all voted very differently from the Athenians!

Finally, we learned about the process of “ostracism”, where people would write the names of people they wanted exiled onto broken pieces of pottery (called “ostraka”). This is where we get out word “ostracism” from. We discussed how it was a way of preventing any one person getting too powerful, though of course it would have been open to corruption.

We performed our own “ostracism”, where you mostly ended up inscribing our prime minister’s name onto your pieces of pot!

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