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The Athenian Agora and the experiment in democracy

The Agora was the heart of ancient Athens' democracy, where citizens participated directly in government. Key principles like meritocracy and equality before the law were established during the 5th century BCE. The Agora was also a marketplace and a hub for civic life, including political discussions and religious festivals. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano) Voiceover: We're overlooking the Agora, the most important public space in Athens in the 5th century BCE. Voiceover: If up the sacred way, at the top of the Acropolis were the sacred sites of Athens, here at the base was the place of public discourse, the heart of the Athenian experiment in democracy. Voiceover: In the 5th century we see this opening up of the ability of the citizenry to participate in the government. But Athens was not the kind of democracy that we think of in the West. The citizens of Athens didn't vote for their representatives in the government, but participated directly. With an election, anyone who's a great speaker, or someone who's particularly wealthy could become politically powerful, and so offices were held by rotation, instead of by election. Voiceover: There were few positions that were voted on. Those were positions where particular skills were required. For instance, Pericles was reelected to be the general some 15 times. Voiceover: He was essentially the leader or the president of Athens during about a 30-year period. But it's important to remember what we mean by the ideas of democracy that were started and formulated here. Voiceover: Well, they were extremely limited. In order to be able to take part in public life, to take part in governmental decision making, you had to be a citizen, and in order to be a citizen, you had to be male, and you had to be Athenian. In fact, Pericles, the great Athenian general, would tighten up the rules, so both of your parents had to be Athenian in order for you to be able to participate. Voiceover: Right inside the museum, we can see examples of democracy in action. There are primitive machines for choosing who would sit on the juries. Voiceover: We also see inscriptions in small pieces of pottery that were used to vote to ostracize public leaders that were seen to have become corrupt. Voiceover: And so if one citizen was seen to be usurping power, the citizens could vote to ostracize him, and he would have to actually leave Athens. So this is a good reminder that there were a lot of checks in place against any one person assuming too much political power. Voiceover: But importantly, it was during the 5th century, that the philosophy behind democratic rule was set forth, and probably the most famous expression of that was written by the historian Thucydides, who chronicled the Peloponnesian Withar, that is the war between the Athenians and the Spartans, and Thucydides recounts in his history a funeral oration Pericles gave during the early stages of the war with Sparta. Voiceover: "If we look to our laws, they afford "equal justice to all in their private differences. "If to social standing advancement in public life "falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations "not being allowed to interfere with merit. "Nor again does poverty bar the way. "If a man is able to serve the state, "he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition." Voiceover: So what Pericles by way of Thucydides is laying out here, is this notion of a meritocracy, and that no able person's ability is lost due to having been born without wealth. Voiceover: And the idea of equality before the law. These are fundamental principles to western ideas of democracy. It's no wonder that we look back to Athens in the 5th century BCE and heroize it maybe a bit too much sometimes. Voiceover: Well, especially considering how fragile it was, and how limited it was, and how short-lived it was. Voiceover: So this is a space that started out as a place for market, as a place of buying and selling, and gradually during the archaic and then the classical period, became a place of government with administrative buildings, and also some sacred spots as well, although the primary sacred spot was of course on the Acropolis. Voiceover: We also have increasingly substantial structures built in the 5th century in the Agora, and one of the most important is called the Stoa. People would have conducted business here. Political discussions might have taken place here. All kinds of civic life. Once a year, a great procession would make it's way through the Agora and up to the sacred mount. Voiceover: This is the main religious festival in Athens, dedicated to Athena, the goddess who is the protectoress of the city. So we can imagine as we look over the Agora, a procession of Athenians making their way up to the Parthenon. Voiceover: I love to look over the Agora, and to imagine the great philosopher Socrates walking through here, causing trouble, asking questions. Voiceover: Asking uncomfortable questions that would ultimately make him an enemy of the Athenian state. Voiceover: And lead to his execution. (jazz music)