How Ancient Greek Culture Led to the Development of American Democracy
There is no denying the great influence the Ancient Greeks had on the western world. History remembers Ancient Greece for its monumental contributions to art, military strategy and essentially for creating the democratic societies that paved the way for our founding fathers. The ways in which these ancient civilizations functioned fascinates historians and philosophers alike. This particular part of history has accumulated an audience of all ages across the globe but Americans have the most to learn since our government still lives and breathes the thoughts of the Ancient Greeks in many ways.
Today, much of the world has converted to a democratic government. Among all of the Ancient World, only one civilization can truly be noted as an example of a democratic society and that was the polis known as Athens. The birthplace of democracy, Athens is where the citizens of the city-state were the ones that held the power. Athens, being one of the first places to develop the idea of a democracy, tried the idea of a direct democracy. This is where instead of electing a representative who voted on behalf of the citizen’s, each and every individual citizen was able to vote. Majority of the other poleis were ruled by the aristocrats who were the rich and powerful citizens. This way of thinking advanced the government and ended up improving its effectiveness and structure. As mentioned earlier, it essentially laid the foundations for the development of our own American democracy. Although it was not formed until a mere two thousand years after the Athenians invented it, our founding fathers drew many points from Greece.
Before the collapse of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, the government was incredibly efficient for the time and possessed great structure. Democracy in Athens can be traced back to Solon and his reformation of Athenian practices. He is credited with establishing four distinct groups that were determined by how many goods they produced annually which separated the types of positions they could hold in the government. From then on there were more contributions that all made Athens into a democratic society. The chain of command for the government of Athens was pretty straightforward. At the very top was the strategoi, the military commanders. The strategoi could be reelected to their positions an unlimited number of times. One prominent example of this was Pericles, who was extremely popular and was reelected over twenty times before his death. The duty of the strategoi was to carry out orders given by the Council and Assembly. They also regularly carried out foreign policy initiatives. Next was the ruling group, also known as the prytany and so on and so forth. The breakdown of positions was important because it spread the power and allowed more to be involved. Rhetoric was a major factor in the development of the Athenian government. It was used by many to gain power and ascend in politics and government. Many of those who rose to power around the Peloponnesian war were aided greatly by their rhetoric and showing of their ability to effectively guide the Athenian democracy.
Our American was founded on the basis that it would be designed by the people in favor of the people. They had just gained freedom from an incredibly restrictive society and did not want to replicate that when building their ideals and new nation. People had freedoms and rights provided to them by our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. We are all guaranteed freedoms that are not based on our class level. It was also essential that anybody could be elected to hold public office. Of course there are social restrictions that keep the line up of candidates to a certain type of person. However, in theory anyone could be president or hold a position in our government. Athens of course could not afford to make decisions like this because they had no evidence of how this would function so they based it off of position in society.
It is important to have a clear understanding of what it was like to live in Athens at this time. Our mainstream teachings only focus on those who held power in order to communicate a larger picture of what “Ancient Greece” was like. Yet, if we truly step back and focus on the other parts we realize that much more was going on. Not everyone was a citizen. To be a citizen one must be born in Athens as a landowning male. After meeting all the requirements they were able to vote on all bills and legislation.It has only recently been brought to my attention that the majority of Athenians were slaves. Although they held the title of being part of Athens they did not have much influence on politics or the government. PBS wrote a piece about the importance of the slaves in Athens. It highlighted the fact that they were not treated as harshly as we may think and in some cases they could actually buy their freedom. There were of course different ranking slaves and only the ones who suffered the most were the true working slaves who held jobs in mines and similar positions. Working up classes, we see that although citizens were above slave status they still had their limitations. Early American still had its limitations in regards to slaves and citizenship. It is known that slavery was not abolished until Lincoln’s presidency however our early society did not have such a large percentage of slaves as Athens did. Slavery in America was much different and consited of majority African Americans as opposed to the way Greeks viewed slavery. They enslaved any foreigners who happened to cross into their territory, prisoners of war as well as wanderers who did not belong to any polis. It is clear that the democracy created by the people for the people did not include everyone.
One major ideal that was crucial to both Athenians and Americans was the importance of uniting everyone. The common goal of working and fighting for one nation or polis is what makes us all citizens of our respective places. The same techniques of uniting people are still used to this very day. Presidential candidates preach about their plans to bridge the divide between parties and if their run is successful they will stand outside of the Capitol Building and swear to the American people their promise to engage all therefore allowing us to be one nation.
These ideals are not new and can be seen at work most clearly in the rise of Pericles. He is said to have “lifted Athens into a golden age through his support of the arts, architecture, philosophy, and democracy building.” Pericles’ role is blatantly obvious in his speech, “The Funeral Oration”, which is found in The Landmark Thucydides. He is chosen to stand in front of the Athenians at a time of crisis and raise each and every spirit through a speech. The speech given greatly honored the fallen soldiers of The Peloponnesian War. Times of tragedy and crisis can cause uproar among society and Pericles faces the consequences of potentially being blamed. In the first part of the speech, he speaks of past Athenians who had also stood before the people to give speeches much like the one he is giving.
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