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Should the People Rule?

Teacher notes

Democracy began in ancient Greece where monarchy, aristocracy and tyranny also ruled. The Greeks began the argument over the best system of government and whether the people should rule. Our system of government is based on the sovereignty of the people, but our democracy is very different from that in Athens.

About the unit | Indicators of student achievement | Background notes | Discovering Democracy resources | Links to other units

About the unit

Contexts: Ancient Athens and Sparta, contemporary Australia

Indicators of student achievement

The student can:

Background notes

Democracy is a community marked by political equality among the people and majority rule. Government actions are seen as justified when democratically decided. Today most countries claim to be democracies. Such worldwide commitment to democracy is a very recent happening. In this unit students explore aspects of democracy in the direct democracy of ancient Athens and the representative democracy in Australia.


At different times, kings, aristocrats and tyrants governed the city-state of Athens. The move to democracy began in 594 BC with Solon, who made wealth rather than birthright the qualification for political office and established an assembly of citizens for Athenian men. Cleisthenes' reforms in 508 BC made all citizens equal before the law. He restricted the power of the aristocrats by introducing the Council of 500 as the ruling body. Democracy reached its peak during the time of Pericles, the period discussed in this unit.

Citizens are members of a state who possess equal status with regard to rights and duties. Citizenship is a legal status. The citizens of Athens were men over the age of 18, born of two Athenian parents. If any citizen challenged another's right to citizenship, the vote of the citizens in a jury court would decide the matter.

A citizen's duties and rights were to vote in the public assembly, serve in military service, serve as a juror (after the age of 30), stand for elections, own land, be protected by the law and to obey the laws of the city-state. For example, the law forbade the enslaving of an Athenian citizen.

Athenian women and children were members of the Athenian community but belonged to the city-state only through their relationship to a father, husband or other male relatives who acted as their guardians. Women and children received the benefit of protection as a citizen under the law, but they did not have the right to vote, own land or inherit property.

Citizenship was regarded as something 'worthy' and 'sacred'. Only rarely did the citizens of the city-states of ancient Greece grant citizenship to foreigners. There were many laws defining and regulating citizenship. The Athenians periodically revised their registration of citizens, limiting the number of 'full' citizens. Criteria for citizenship was an issue which was frequently debated.

Pericles, a democratically elected leader of Athens, initiated many reforms to the system of government. For example, he removed the wealth qualification for public office, provided payment to public officials and established a Constitution which set down the rules of government. It was a direct democracy where all citizens voted on issues important for the well-being of the state and citizens had equal rights to lead and have a say in the running of the city-state.


By contrast, Sparta, another ancient Greek city-state, was governed by a combination of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. It was a very stable form of government. The two royal families in Sparta each provided a king. A council of chosen elders advised the kings. Annually elected officials and full citizens' participation approved or rejected proposals. Sparta was admired for its Constitution. However the Spartans treated the original inhabitants of the area, the Helots, as slaves whom they controlled through secret police.

Only men who had two Spartan parents and had undergone a Spartan education from an early age could become full citizens. The training was designed to foster loyalty and obedience. At 20, young men were given certain citizenship rights that allowed them to begin military service. On turning 30, they could become full citizens and could sit in the assembly. The power of the assembly was limited, however, as Sparta was controlled by an oligarchy of old men called the gerousia. Spartan women could not vote or hold public office but were allowed to own land.

Theories of good government in ancient Greece

Ancient Greece was famous for its philosophers, the most famous of whom were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Socrates, who lived in Athens from 469 to 399 BC, lectured on government, morals, justice and logic. His ideas were written down by his student, Plato. Socrates' joking about the ability of Greek gods to influence people's lives was considered to be 'corrupting the young'. He was sentenced to death or exile, choosing death by drinking hemlock. His criticism of democracy, and the fact that some of his students had betrayed Athens in its war with Sparta, may also have contributed to his sentence.

Plato, a student of Socrates, was also very critical of democracy; democratic Athens had tried and executed his beloved teacher. Plato's ideal society was led by a philosopher-king and a special class of people who were trained for the job.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, described the best form of government as a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He thought that because each form of government had its evils, a mixture would help to control the problems inherent in each form of government.

Representative government in Australia

Australian citizenship differs in a number of ways from citizenship in ancient Greece. When the British landed in Australia in 1788 they brought their own law with them. Operating under British law was regarded as the birthright of British people wherever they lived. European Australia was first ruled according to the adaptation of British law to colonial conditions. In ancient Greece, citizenship meant being born 'on the soil' and being tied by blood to a people; in Australia, European male migrants initially made up the bulk of those who could be citizens. Aboriginal people were among those denied citizenship.

Australia's system of government in the nineteenth century developed into a mixed system somewhat reminiscent of the one outlined by Aristotle with:

  • governors representing the monarchy
  • an 'aristocracy' (in the 1850s, the upper Houses of Parliament represented wealthy landowners in colonial parliaments)
  • representative democracy (by the end of the 1890s most white men were able to vote for the lower Houses of Parliament).

By the 1890s Australia's colonies were governed by parliamentary or representative democracy. Citizens voted for representatives to sit in parliaments which in turn made laws. At present every Australian citizen over the age of eighteen generally has the right and duty to vote.

The powers of the Commonwealth Parliament are written in the Constitution. Just as the Constitution sets out the rules that control and regulate the government's actions, the people with their vote also direct the actions of parliament and the government.

Discovering Democracy resources

Stories of Democracy CD ROM - interactive and sources

Parliament at Work CD ROM - interactive and sources

Parliament@Work website

Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia

Discovering Democracy website

Further teacher reference material can be found in Discovering Democracy Lower Secondary Units, pages 136-138.

Links to other units

The material in this unit is extended or complemented by material in other units, in particular:

  • 'Democratic Struggles' (lower secondary) - the extension of citizenship and suffrage to women and Aboriginal people in Australia; key elements of democracy such as secret ballot, equal electorates, universal suffrage, no property qualifications for candidates for parliament and payment for parliamentarians
  • 'Law' (lower secondary) - statute law, parliament and the Constitution
  • 'Parties Control Parliament' (middle secondary) - the role of parties in Australia's system of representative democracy.

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