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Video transcript

we're overlooking the Agora the most important public space in Athens in the 5th century BCE 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 and democracy 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 the 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 they were view positions that were noted on and those were positions where particular skills were required for instance Pericles was reelected to be the general some 15 times he was essentially the leader or the president of Athens during about a thirty-year period but it's important to remember what we mean by the ideas of democracy that were started and formulated here 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 and right inside the museum we can see examples of democracy in action there there are primitive machines for choosing who would sit on the juries 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 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 but importantly it was during the fifth 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 War 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 if we look to our laws they afford equal justice to all and their private differences if two 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 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 and the idea of equality before the law these are fundamental principles to Western ideas of democracy and it's no wonder that we look back to Athens in the 5th century BCE and hero eyes it may be a bit too much sometimes well especially considering how fragile it was and how limited it was and how short-lived it was so this is a space that started out as a place for market as a place of buying and selling and gradually during their cake and then the Classical period became a place of government with administrative buildings and also some sacred spots as well though the primary sacred spot was of course on the Acropolis we also have increasingly substantial structures built in the 5th century in the Agora and one of the most important is called the stoah people would have conducted business here the political discussions might have taken place here all kinds of specific life once a year a great procession would make its way through the Agora and up to the sacred mount this is the main religious festival and Athens dedicated to Athena the goddess who's the protectress of the city so we can imagine as we look over the Agora a procession of Athenians making their way up to the Parthenon I love to look over the Agora and imagine the great philosopher Socrates walking through here causing trouble asking questions as uncomfortable questions that would ultimately make him an enemy of the Athenian state and lead to his execution
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