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Focus question 3: What was it like to live in a democracy in ancient Athens?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Crossword ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Contrasting Athens and Sparta ESL Activity 2
Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  


Ancient Athens of the 5th century BC achieved so much that it is often called the ‘cradle of Western civilisation’. In contrast, its neighbour Sparta seems to have left the world nothing. Athens was a lively democracy, full of ideas and brilliant achievements, whereas Sparta disliked new ideas, prevented contact with the outside world and hated change.

As you complete the activities, think about where you would prefer to live. Your main activity in this section is to work in groups to create a newspaper set in ancient Athens. To get started, look at the following illustrations, read the text and complete the crossword activity. At the end of this section are instructions for making the newspaper.

A citizen’s life

As an adult male citizen in Athens or some other city-states of ancient Greece, you would have lived an active, busy life.

For a start, you would serve in the army if there was a war on, and there often was.

A citizen’s life

Athene, the goddess of AthensYou would work at a job. For example, you might be a stonemason, farmer or merchant.

You would join in religious festivals organised by the city, maybe even acting a part in a play, singing, playing a musical instrument or dancing. You would go to a temple to make a sacrifice to a god, especially to Athene, the goddess of Athens, whose magnificent ivory and gold statue dominated the inside of the Parthenon.

You would often go down to the Pnyx (a small hill) to hear the arguments going on about whether a new tax should be brought in and maybe even to speak yourself if you wanted to, and then vote. In some years you might serve on the Council of 500 or in some other important government job. You may have to serve on a jury in trials, where there is no judge but perhaps hundreds of jurors.

If you were a builder, sculptor, writer or philosopher, you would be working on projects that some people think are among the greatest that have ever been produced.


Athenians, who were fiercely proud of what they had achieved, thought they were the greatest civilisation that had ever existed. One thing that we probably wouldn’t like about many Greek men of that time is that they looked on all non-Greeks as inferior. They called them ‘barbarians’, because they thought other languages sounded like nonsense, as if they were just saying ‘bar-bar-bar’ all the time. Athenian Greeks regarded other people as slaves if they let themselves be ruled by others. Once, when the government of Sparta had asked Athens for help to win a war, the Spartans ended up asking the Athenians to leave because the Athenian soldiers kept telling the other troops to stop letting themselves be bossed around by the Spartans.

Life in ancient Athens

Without freedom to think and express their opinions - without their democracy - it is hard to believe that Athenians would have been able to achieve so much in so many different ways in such a short time, especially in story-telling, theatre, sport, art, history and politics.


Music, dancing, singing and story-telling were as important in Athens as they are in many other places and times, but they took place in public and were part of the shared life of the city. The most popular stories were those told by Homer, especially his stories about the Trojan war (The Iliad) and the adventures of Odysseus (The Odyssey). Many other stories were about gods, goddesses, heroes and monsters which were part of the religion of ancient Greece and are now usually called ‘myths’.

Greek gods were not perfect beings. They often behaved badly. The stories are full of ferocious violence as well as examples of heroic courage. If you read some of these stories you will see that not many people in them put up with being bossed around. These stories are still widely read today and often have movies, cartoons and TV series based on them.

Your class may wish to read, illustrate and perform some of these stories. You will notice that among the gods there is a form of monarchy, with Zeus as the king, a sort of aristocracy of the other gods, and humans as ordinary subjects. This is because the stories of the gods began at a time when monarchy was the usual type of government. You will also notice that the gods often do ‘bad’ things to their human ‘victims’, and there is nothing ordinary people can do about it.


In the 5th century BC Athens produced four of the most famous writers of all time: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides who wrote what are called tragedies and Aristophanes who wrote comedies. These plays are still performed and studied.

Their plays were presented in competition with other plays as part of a religious festival devoted to the god Dionysius. They were performed in open-air theatres so well designed that, even with over a thousand people in the audience, each actor could be clearly heard.

They show us how much freedom there was in Athens. All four writers express strong opinions about what is important in human life, warn their audience against having too high an opinion of themselves, and even criticise decisions made by powerful figures.

Text not available for web publication. See page 19 of Commonwealth of Australia 1998, Discovering Democracy Lower Secondary Units, Curriculum Corporation, Melbourne.


Aeschylus, in his play The Persians, says that the people of Athens are slaves to no-one. He means that the Persians are all slaves because they let a king tell them what to do.


Sport was an important part of life all over Greece, and Athens was no exception. Greeks believed in being fit and strong and living an active life. Some of the most famous people of ancient Athens lived very long lives. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Plato all lived into their nineties.

Most cities had their own sports stadiums. The main sports were athletics and wrestling. Every four years from about 700 BC people would travel to Olympia in south-western Greece to compete in the Olympic Games.


Family houses in ancient Greece were not as luxurious as those in some other parts of the ancient world - perhaps because many aspects of the men’s lives took place in public or perhaps because they thought of themselves as physically tough, admired others who were, and looked down on people who were lazy or too keen on luxury.

Public buildings, however - especially those devoted to religion, such as temples and theatres - were some of the most beautiful ever created.


In the centre of Athens was a hill called the Acropolis, which the people had retreated to in earlier times when under attack. By the end of the 5th century BC, the top of this hill had been turned into an important religious area, dominated by the temple dedicated to the goddess Athene.

This temple, one of the masterpieces of world architecture, is called the Parthenon, meaning ‘the maiden’s chamber’, the maiden being the goddess Athene. The temple was erected to commemorate the victory of the Greeks over the Persian invaders. Pericles was the leader who persuaded Athenians that it was worth the enormous cost and who organised its construction.


If you lived in the ancient world most stories about the past would have been a mixture of religious stories we call myths and legends.

The careful factual study of what really happened in the past by looking at the evidence and thinking carefully about it began with Herodotus who came from the city-state of Hallicarnassus in what is now Turkey. The man who wrote the most factual and careful history, however, was an Athenian called Thucydides who lived in Athens during the war with Sparta. His book is called The Peloponnesian War.


The most famous leader of Athens was Pericles, who used his gift for giving brilliant speeches to persuade the people of Athens to agree with many, though not all, of his policies. He was a passionate believer in the greatness of Athens and in democracy being the best form of government. He believed that democracy was a sign of superiority, and like many in Athens, he believed that under other types of government people were no better than slaves or ‘beasts’. In his most famous speech he said:

[In Athens] power is in the hands of the whole people, not just a small group ... Everyone is equal before the law ... Our city is open to the world ... When we go to war we depend on our own courage and love of our city, not on secrecy and life-long military training like the Spartans ... Yet we are just as ready to face the dangers of battle as they are ...

Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, not as something to boast about ...

Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well ... this is an unusual thing about us: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business being here in Athens at all ...

Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.

Adapted from Pericles’ ‘Funeral Oration’ in The Peloponnesian War.

But Pericles shares some blame for the arrogance of Athens towards other Greek cities which left her without enough friends in the dreadful war with Sparta (the Peloponnesian War) which Sparta eventually won.

Democracy in Athens

Athens was a direct democracy. All ordinary citizens were able to vote directly on all laws and other major decisions. (Remember, you had to be a free adult male born in Athens to be a citizen.) So the government was the people and the people were the government. It worked like this:

Figure 3 Direct democracy in Athens - How it worked

Position Time in job How they were chosen
Archons (leaders) 1 year chosen by lot
Generals (defence) 1 year elected by citizens
Council of 500 (organise decisions for vote by assembly) 1 year chosen by lot
Juries (decide court cases) for each case chosen by lot
Assembly of all citizens in an open public space in Athens called the Pnyx as needed vote by raising hands

What would you think if we decided to choose our politicians and top public servants by picking their names out of a hat? What if your mother or father was picked every couple of years for one of these important jobs running the country? In ancient Athens, some important positions were chosen by a method called ‘choosing by lot’. Every citizen’s name was included and any of them could be chosen at random. The inventions that were used for this purpose have been found and looked like the drawing here.

Athens had a small population by our standards. That, and everybody being within reasonable walking distance of each other, made direct democracy possible.

Illustration by Nigel Longden in Ancient Greece
From an illustration by Nigel Longden in Ancient Greece, See Through History series, Hamlyn Children's Books, London, 1992, p 22. Reproduced with permission of Reed Education Professional Education (Heinemann Education), Melbourne.

Athens also had a method of protecting itself from tyrants. A vote of citizens could be used to expel a person from the city. This was meant to be used to get rid of people who might otherwise become tyrants.

But who was a ‘citizen’ in ancient Athens? In Athens, poor people as well as the rich were ‘citizens’, with equal rights, but it is important to realise that many people were not allowed to be citizens:

  • adult women
  • slaves
  • people born outside Athens
  • people with parents born outside Athens (after 440 BC)
  • children.

The two largest groups of non-citizens were women and slaves.


The role of women in Athens was to have children and look after the home. They were expected to keep out of public affairs. Euripides wrote a play called Medea, about a foreign sorceress. It would have shocked and annoyed its first audience in 433 BC when they heard her say:

Surely, of all creatures that live, we women
Suffer more than anyone. We have to pay
Ridiculous amounts of money for a husband,
Then he becomes our master, and if he’s bad
There’s nothing we can do about it
But suffer in silence and misery.
If our husband is good, life is enviable.
If not, death is better. And they tell us
We women live safe at home
While men face the dangers of battle - Fools!
I’d rather stand three times in the front line
Than give birth to one child.

Freely adapted from Euripides: Medea and Other Plays, translated by Philip Vellacott, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1963, pp 24-5.

A woman would not choose her husband; he was chosen by her father who paid money (dowry) to the husband. She usually married a much older man when she was between 14 and 16 years old. A woman could not leave the house unless accompanied by a slave or member of the household. Under the laws of Athens a woman was the property of her father until she married, when she became the property of her husband.

Women could not own property and were not allowed to give evidence in court because they were considered untrustworthy. If they wanted a divorce, they needed the support of their father and brothers and had to petition the court. If a man wanted a divorce, all he had to do was return the dowry and that was it.


Athens and other city-states had many slaves. Slaves were mostly people who were captured in war. It seems that slaves who lived with a family were often well-treated, but the conditions of slaves who worked in the silver mines were very bad. It was possible for slaves to buy their freedom.

If you think the ancient Greeks were cruel for having slaves, or that it is hard to believe that they could believe so strongly in freedom when they kept slaves, think of the United States of America. The United States Constitution says ‘all men are created equal’, and yet the man who wrote those words was a slave owner. It took almost another hundred years for the United States to get rid of slavery. And ‘men’ in the United States Constitution did not mean women. It took more than a hundred years before women got the vote in the United States.

Life in ancient Sparta

To contrast aspects of life in ancient Athens with life in an ancient society without democracy, consider the case of Sparta during the same period. Athens and Sparta were so different from each other that you could almost say they were opposites.

Hellenic HelmetAthens was a place where citizens were free to have their say. They were excited by ideas and discussed them openly and constantly. Sparta was like an armed camp, fearful of new ideas. In Athens, even slaves had rights before the law. In Sparta, a Spartan citizen had the right to murder slaves. In Athens, citizens lived freely with their families and were expected to express their opinions and vote on decisions. In Sparta, newborn babies were inspected for signs of weakness and, if they had such signs, they were left naked on a mountainside to die. Boys at the age of seven were taken from their families to live in army barracks with older men. They were not allowed to live with their families again until the age of 60, according to some sources, even though most had wives and children of their own by the time they turned 30

Spartans lived only for war. Forbidden from holding what we might call ‘ordinary’ jobs, the citizens lived as a sort of permanent army, constantly training and deliberately living in tough, uncomfortable conditions with poor clothing and food which other Greeks said was inedible. They were highly disciplined and trained from birth to put Sparta before even their own lives.

It seems that Sparta was a mixture of three different types of government - monarchy, aristocracy and democracy - but free speech and new ideas were discouraged.

Sparta had two kings, but they had little real power. Each took it in turns to either lead the Spartans in war or to stay in Sparta. The city-state was actually ruled by a small group of men - an oligarchy. Each year five rulers, called ethors, were elected by the citizens, but final power was controlled by a council of men aged 65 and over.

The Spartans voted by shouting. Members of the council of elders listened in a room and judged whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ got the loudest shout, making it possible for the elders to twist the decision of the vote to their opinion if they didn’t like what they heard.

Activity 1: Crossword

Complete this crossword puzzle.

Crossword Across

1. A city-state where the citizens trained constantly for war

5. In Athens, people were chosen for some important jobs by this method

6. A person from Athens is called an ...

7. Spartans did this by shouting

11. The system of government in which the ordinary people rule, is called a ...

13. A philosopher who didn’t like democracy

14. The Greek name for a city-state


1. These people were not counted as citizens in Athens

2. You can cook food in this

3. The goddess of the city of Athens

4. Where only ‘the best’ rule

8. Athenian citizens were expected to become ... in time of war

9. These people could not vote or go out of the house on their own

10. The most famous democratic leader of Athens

12. Same as 5 across

Activity 2: Contrasting Athens and Sparta

Copy the following grid into your workbook and complete it by including as many contrasts as you can find between the two city-states.

Differences between Athens and Sparta

Athens Sparta

Assessment task

Group newspaper

In groups of up to four, produce a group newspaper or magazine set in ancient Athens some time between 450 BC and 390 BC.
Stories of Democracy

  • Decide on a name for your newspaper.
  • The sections of your newspaper should include news, letters, features, entertainment and sport.
  • Include one article which comments on differences between Athens and Sparta.
  • The content of your newspaper should be consistent with the time. For example, you would not have articles about cars, radio, or TV.
  • Use the information from this unit and from other sources such as the Stories of Democracy CD ROM and the school and local library.
  • Specify the date of your paper. You may use items from different dates, but make sure you always put the date on the article or picture.
  • Make sure that your headlines attract the attention of the reader. Use of pictures, layout and presentation should also attract the reader.
  • If you have other ideas apart from those mentioned here, discuss them with your teacher.

Here are some possible topics to get you going:

Here are some possible topics to get you going:

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

ESL activities

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