8th Grade: The Golden Age of Athens


This week spent some time discussing the elements of ‘golden ages’ and the factors that went into the birth of what we know as Periclean Athens.

From 480-431 B.C., Athens experienced an explosion of creativity and culture perhaps unparalleled in human history.  Much of what we consider to be modern democracy, philosophy, literature, drama, science, and architecture have many of their roots in this period and place.

What is needed for a golden age?

As we compare them across time (Periclean Athens, Dutch early 1600’s, Elizabethan England, 12th century France, etc.) some common factors emerge:

  • Some kind of cross pollination of culture based on access to the sea, or at least, extensive travel
  • A burst of confidence based on a defeat of a large power — you were the underdog and emerged on top.  The unexpected victory serves as a validation of your uniqueness.
  • An educational base to build the cultural explosion on.  There has to be some kind of literate and curious population base to build on.
  • The willingness to tolerate the possibility of new ideas, which usually has something to with #1 listed above.

With all these factors possibly needed (and possibly more that I have not accounted for), golden ages do not come often in history, but they leave their marks long after they disappear.

The Pynx, Meeting place of the Assembly

We also looked at the flowering of Athenian democracy.  As we examined how it functioned, we arrived at a proposition to debate next week, which is

Athenian Democracy in the age of Pericles was more democratic than America is currently.

Part of how you evaluate this statement depends on a few factors:

1. What do we mean by “Democracy?”

We are so used to the word “democracy” we may not consider what we even mean by the term.  Clearly it must mean more than mere voting.  Some elections have only one candidate, or the different candidates do not give us different options in reality (that is, the candidates would do basically the same thing if elected).    It must also mean more than mere majority rule.  If 51% of the people vote to oppress the remaining 49%, we would not call that democracy.

Democracy attempts the trick of giving power and choice to the people, while at the same time preserving freedom in some measure for all citizens.  Thus, the ‘losers’ in a contest are still protected from the possible pitfalls of majority rule.  At the same time of course, the majority cannot be obstructed too much, otherwise the point of voting and majority rule would be lost.  Historically this balancing act has never been easy.

2. What is most important in a democracy?

In the Athenians favor we note the following:

  • They had much more direct participation from their citizens in government than modern Americans.
  • The average citizen would not only vote, but could also speak in the Assembly.  Most citizens would probably serve in some political capacity during their adult lives.

Against them we can say that:

  • Women and slaves were excluded from voting and participation
  • The very fluidity of their democracy opened up the real possibility that the checks and balances of law could easily be overridden, as happened on a few occasions.
  • Critics of Athenian democracy (ancient and modern) believed Athens was easy prey for the “cult of personality.”

For modern America we note that

  • All citizens of a certain age are eligible to vote.
  • We have minority protection built into the system.

Against us some might say

  • Representative government has tended toward an oligarchy of the rich, with powerful interests controlling both parties.
  • This, in turn, has led to a real distance between Government and the people which results in an “Us and Them” attitude.

Below is a very detailed chart of the ins and outs of Athenian democracy for the very interested.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin