Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages

Course No. 3836
Professor Robert Garland, Ph.D.
Colgate University
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Course No. 3836
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Meet some of the most fascinating figures of ancient Greece, including Solon, Pericles, and the great dramatists and historians who captured the story.
  • numbers Consider the parallels between Athenian democracy and our own-as well as key differences.
  • numbers Explore the push and pull of aristocrats, oligarchs, and the populace, as each interest group jockeyed for political control.

Course Overview

Roughly 2,500 years ago, the Athenian people established a radical democracy in which power derived from the votes of ordinary citizens. At a time when local governments ranged from oligarchy to tyranny, the elite classes of Athens gradually ceded power to the inexperienced masses, whose votes served as referendums for everything from taxation to war to welfare. The sequence of events that led to this development is astonishing, and the society that flourished under Athenian democracy is one of the greatest—even if greatly flawed—achievements in world history.

The heart of Athenian democracy is the “demos,” the body of citizens who participated in public assemblies, made speeches, and voted on matters of law. Professor Garland tours the Athenian citizenry, from the elite archons (or magistrates), the aristocratic Areopagus, and the myriad interest groups who jockeyed for power. Citizenship was heavily rooted in public life, so the most prominent politicians were excellent public speakers. You’ll meet many of these leaders, including Solon, Cleisthenes, Pericles, and more, as Professor Garland takes you into their world and shows you the Athenians’ view of their great political experiment—and how contemporary historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides judged it.

As you will learn, Athenian democracy was not an unmitigated success. Episodes like the disastrous invasion of Sicily reveal democracy then was just as messy and provisional as democracy today. Furthermore, because only citizens were allowed to vote, Professor Garland examines to what degree we should even consider Athenian democracy representative of the population of Attica. Citizens were freeborn males older than age 20, and comprised only about a fifth of the population. Women, immigrants, and slaves could not participate in the democracy, and you’ll get valuable glimpses into their experience as well. Unprecedented, flawed, relevant to our time, and captivating in its own right, the story you will experience in Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages explores what is arguably the boldest political initiative ever taken in history.

Witness “the Powerful Hand of the People”

Representative democracy is a common form of government today, but the Athenian system is astonishing even to modern eyes, as it entrusted matters of state directly to ordinary, unqualified, and inexperienced citizens. And, unlike some of the more famous modern democratic experiments you may know, you will discover how the development of Athenian democracy was not the result of revolution, but a gradual process over many years. Professor Garland’s first stop is in the works of Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey show a number of democratic-like assemblies circa 700 BC, demonstrating that the notion of citizen power was nothing new by the time radical democracy emerged in Athens around 460 BC.

After outlining democracy’s origins in ancient Greece, Professor Garland surveys the dramatic events that led Athens from an oligarchy to a true democracy. As you follow along, you will:

  • Learn about the archons, the Areopagus, the assembly, and the demos—all critical components for understanding Athenian democracy.
  • Explore the crisis of 594 BC and review Solon’s reforms, including critical changes to the legal code.
  • Witness the defeat of the Persians in the 5th century, which Professor Garland calls “Athens’s finest hour.”
  • Consider the “bloodless coup” in which the Athenians effectively created a radical democracy.
  • Reflect on the so-called “Age of Pericles” to find out whether it was a true democracy, or a disguised autocracy.
  • See how democracy fared during times of war and plague, and how the Athenians effectively created an empire to enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbors.

Along the way, Professor Garland unpacks the inner workings of the government. He takes you inside the Assemblies, which required citizens to trek to Athens from all over Attica and which were filled with speeches, arguments, debates, and decision-making. In addition to the Assemblies, Athenians served on the Council and as magistrates, so participatory citizenship in Athens could feel like a full-time affair—a striking contrast to most democracies today. Because democracy is both a political and a legal process, you will also learn about the procedures of a trial, including jury selection, the role of the courts, and sentencing.

Gain a Unique Insight into a Familiar History

This course is not your ordinary history of ancient Greece. You may be familiar with the broad strokes of Athenian history, but Professor Garland’s unique perspective offers a wealth of insights into everything from taxation and welfare to military structure and strategy. You’ll go beyond the traditional “kings and battles” approach to history and gain a sense of what life was like for the people living in the democracy, as you:

  • Learn about the art of public speaking to find out what it took to get your voice heard at the assembly.
  • Reflect on the connection between politics and the theater, and the role of dramatists, such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes, in public life.
  • Visit the docks and shipyards to witness democracy in action “on the job” as the Athenians developed a shipping network and a naval empire that dominated the Aegean.
  • Meet the personalities who debated the hot topics of the day—and how at least one politico dismissed his opponents by calling their arguments, essentially, “fake news.”

Finally, Professor Garland gives great consideration to the many people in Athens who were not citizens and would, thus, not have been eligible to participate in the democracy. For instance, the Athenians relied heavily on slave labor. What was daily life like for Athenian slaves? Who were they? Where did they come from? And was slave labor the source of Athenian success? Can we really call the Athenian system a democracy?

Reflect on Democracy Today

The story of Athenian democracy is fascinating, but it’s also remarkably timely for us today, in our age of media personalities, political polarization, and extremism. Over the course of these lectures, one thing becomes clear: Democracy has always been a messy process, and not always successful.

Some of the most striking lectures show Athenian democracy under duress—whether from competing interest groups, negotiations among rival states, or wartime expeditions. One of the most powerful examples is the Sicilian expedition, an ill-advised military adventure that ended in disaster. Could it have been prevented? What role did democratic decision-making play in its failure?

Without casting political judgments on today, Professor Garland draws out many analogies between ancient Athens and modern times, unpacking the similarities as well as key differences. With these engaging lectures from a passionate professor, you’ll reflect on what lessons the Athenians can teach us today, and what they might make of our own democracy. Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages is perhaps the perfect history course to understand the present.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Athenian Democracy Matters
    Begin the course by considering the nature of Athenian democracy and how it functioned in practice. After surveying some of its key tenets, Professor Garland compares the Athenian governmental system to western democracy today, showing both the similarities and crucial differences. x
  • 2
    The Origins of Greek Democracy
    Among Greek city-states, Athens was not alone in having a form of democratic rule. As you'll discover in this lecture, Greek governments ran on a sliding scale from oligarchy and democracy to kingship and tyranny. Delve into Homer's epics to examine several early examples of democratic assembly. x
  • 3
    Solon: The Father of Democracy?
    To understand Athenian democracy, we first must understand Athens as a polis, or city-state, within the broader context of ancient Greece. Review the territory of Attica and get the lay of the land for Athenian government in the 6th and 7th centuries BC. Then, witness the great crisis that led to Solon's reforms and set Athenian democracy on its course. See what made Solon such an interesting leader. x
  • 4
    Cleisthenes the Innovator
    Fifty years after Solon's reforms, a tyrant named Peisistratus seized power. The overthrow of his tyranny, and the ensuing skirmish among different aristocratic groups, led to the rise of Cleisthenes, a truly innovative leader. Find out how he undermined the old aristocratic system and carried the democratic experiment forward. x
  • 5
    The Nearly Bloodless Coup
    According to Professor Garland, the conclusion of the Greco-Persian Wars in the early 5th century BC was Athens’ finest hour. Then, came the truly astonishing reforms of 462 BC, when Ephialtes and Pericles attacked the aristocratic Areopagus and instituted radical democracy—direct, participatory rule for all Athenian citizens, an unprecedented experiment. x
  • 6
    Democracy at War
    The ancient Greeks were a bellicose people, and they considered military service a privilege. Innovations such as hoplite warfare and the construction of their navy, manned by the poorest citizens, went hand in hand with the development of democracy in Athens, particularly since the Athenian military had no permanent commander in chief. x
  • 7
    The Popular Assembly
    Go inside one of the hallmark institutions of Athenian democracy. Open to freeborn citizens older than age 20, the popular assembly met 10 times a year and was for many citizens who lived some distance from Athens a three-day affair—one reason Athenian citizenship might seem like a full-time job. Listen to the some of the debates and arguments of a typical assembly meeting. x
  • 8
    The Council and the Magistrates
    Shift your attention to another important arm of the government. Explore the roles of the Council of 500 officials chosen by lot, required to serve for a whole year, as well as the respected (if not particularly powerful) magistrates known as archons. Then, review the relatively limited systems of taxation and welfare in ancient Athens. x
  • 9
    The Citizens of Athens
    Who were the citizens of Athens? As you'll reflect on in this lecture, perhaps as low as one-fifth of Athenian residents were citizens. Women, slaves, and resident aliens were excluded. Learn about the responsibilities of citizens, and the lives of those who could not participate. x
  • 10
    "The Empire You Hold Is a Tyranny"
    The Delian Confederacy—originally an association of free city-states that Athens turned into an instrument of imperial ambitions—played a major role in 5th-century Greece. Follow the confederacy from the Persian Wars to the Peloponnesian War. Find out what each of the allies got out of the confederacy, and how Athens made sure it benefited the most. x
  • 11
    The Age of Pericles
    Pericles is one of the most fascinating political leaders of all time. Here, survey his life and witness some of the great moments in his rule. Professor Garland takes you beyond the dates and battles to show you what Pericles the man might have been in life, including scandals in his domestic life. x
  • 12
    Public Speaking in Athens
    A successful public life depends on public speaking, so it should come as no surprise that the Athenians prided themselves on rhetoric. After learning a little about the art of public speaking, you will witness several of the great political debates of the era, including one politician’s contention that his opponents were delivering, essentially, “fake news.” x
  • 13
    Pericles's Funeral Speech
    The funeral procession was the most important ceremony performed in ancient Athens. Pericles's funeral speech, delivered over the war dead, as captured by Thucydides, is one of the most striking pieces of prose to survive from that time. Witness the structure of the funeral ceremony and unpack Pericles's great speech. x
  • 14
    Democracy under Duress
    Revisit the march through Athenian history with a look at one of the city's less admirable periods. Beginning with the outbreak of a terrible plague around 431 BC and continuing through the civil war on Corcyra (modern Corfu), the doom and gloom of this period were caused less by the nature of democracy and rather more by plain old human nature, as the historian Thucydides observed. x
  • 15
    The Culture of Athenian Democracy
    Beyond democracy, the cultural achievements of ancient Athens are some of the most impressive in all of world history. Survey some of the city’s great buildings and sculptures—including the Propylaea and the frieze of the Parthenon—to find out what made Athenian culture so distinctive, and where it came up short. x
  • 16
    Political Leadership in Athens
    You've already seen how public speakers dominated the assemblies. Now take a look at the politicians whose voices rose above the fray. While every citizen theoretically had a voice in the democracy, a few politicians and demagogues tended to dominate. Learn about Cleon, Alcibiades, and others. x
  • 17
    The Brutality of Athenian Democracy
    Athenian democracy did not always respond well under pressure. In this lecture, Professor Garland walks you through three case studies—the massacre of a neutral people, the illegal trial and execution of Athenian generals en bloc, and the trial and execution of Socrates—that demonstrate the capacity of Athenian democracy for genuine brutality. x
  • 18
    Athenian Defeat in Sicily
    The expedition to Sicily is one of the biggest military blunders in ancient history. Much like the ill-advised American war in Vietnam, the Sicilian expedition was an avoidable disaster. See how the combination of poor decisions from political leaders and a bitterly divided military leadership led to a humiliating failure. x
  • 19
    Suspension, Restoration, and Termination
    Following the disastrous Sicilian campaign, Athenian democracy appeared to be on the ropes. But in 413 BC, the demos appointed a board of 10 elderly “probouloi,” or advisors, to deal with the immediate crisis. Find out how these leaders steadied the ship and and how, after an eight-month suspension under the brutal rule of the Thirty Tyrants, the democractic experiment carried on into the next century. x
  • 20
    The Democratic Theater
    Take a break from the historical narrative to explore the world of the theater, one of Athens's greatest cultural achievements. As you will learn in your study of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and others, there is a strong connection between politics and the theater. x
  • 21
    Law and Order under Democracy
    Athenian democracy had both a political and a legal component. In this lecture, take a deep dive into the city-state's legal system, from the central role of the courts to the procedures of a trial. The process of arraignment, jury selection, and sentencing will sound familiar. Reflect on the strengths and flaws of the legal system. x
  • 22
    Ancient Critics of Athenian Democracy
    What did the Athenians themselves think about their system of government? Professor Garland shows that not everyone in the city-state was thrilled by the democracy. Despite moments of friction, such as during the Peloponnesian War, Athenian democracy was largely a success. x
  • 23
    Post-Athenian Democracies
    Greece is often described as the “cradle of democracy,” but democracy was not a continuing entity from its beginnings in the 7th century BC through today. In this lecture, Professor Garland traces the story of democracy from the end of 4th-century Athens (when democracy took a nosedive) through modern times. x
  • 24
    Democracy Today, Democracy Tomorrow
    There are obvious correlations and differences between Athenian democracy and democracy today; and, now it's time to draw conclusions based on the comparison. In this final lecture, consider what the Athenians might have made of our democracy today and what democracy really means in the modern world, and whether it is as secure as we sometimes assume. x

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Your professor

Robert Garland

About Your Professor

Robert Garland, Ph.D.
Colgate University
Dr. Robert S.J. Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University. He earned his B.A. in Classics from Manchester University, his M.A. in Classics from McMaster University, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from University College London. A former Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the George Grote Ancient History Prize, Professor Garland has educated students and audiences at a...
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Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 23.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages Given the recent events in the American republic's democracy, it is fascinating and quite instructive to discover how democracy developed in Athens and Greece well over 2,000 years ago. Professor Garland balances ancient history with modern events, is a very enthusiastic lecturer, and cites many leading modern historians, thus building upon as well as moderating some of the older historical views.
Date published: 2020-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Probably the best course I have taken from the great courses. It is a very specific yet important subject. I knew the basics and had read some of the texts in the past, but I enjoyed how he brought it together. It was a great expansion of my knowledge and a good refresher at the same time.
Date published: 2020-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Robert Garland at his best Bgzredix,thank you..Prof.Garland,who offers a new course ist the secret,I think and athnenian democracy,I woud submit,the title of the course is experiment for the ages and a highly successful one and,while by the time of writing this under more pressure by a pathogen,the penultimately successful experiment,or so I think...btw still waiting for another course by Prof.Worthington,I mailed him,its sad,he seems to have an enormus amount of "fans" too...
Date published: 2020-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought-provoking! Garland's courses tend to be enjoyable, relatively quick listens. I would have liked some more traditional, factually dense sections to orient me. That said, this ended up being the most thought-provoking Great Course I've taken so far. Garland's approach is refreshing and much needed; he doesn't glamorize the classical world or speak approvingly of imperialism, which is my primary (and often intense) frustration with other courses I've taken. His willingness to explore both the positive and much more troubling aspects of Athenian democracy made this one of the most rewarding Great Courses I've taken, and one that I'll continue thinking about and likely return to in the future.
Date published: 2020-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Instructor I've learned so much more about Ancient Athens due to this course. I have other Great Courses whose subjects are on Greece but they don't go into as much detail as this course does by Mr. Garland.
Date published: 2020-04-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Ok presentation Others have commented positively on the content of the course as it pertains to Athens. I agree with all those comments on a professional level. My qualms pertain more to the extraneous material and asides. The set is too busy, and the presenter experimenting with different objects at the start and finish of each lecture is hokey. I have seen a few lectures with the new, non lectern format, and they are definitely more interesting. However, Prof. Garland seems to be using an imaginary lectern: he is too static, taking up a position and only changing it by turning his body 45 degrees. Boring. Also, keep the contemporary politics and personal opinions to a minimum. This quickly dates the presentation and is not necessary for presenting the subject matter. That time could be better spent by sticking to the course lesson plan. One example, Robert Mugabe is mentioned in one lecture; I happened by chance to be watching it the day Mugabe died. How relevant will his mention be in ten years?
Date published: 2019-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Clarion call across time Robert Garland’s thorough examination of the uniqueness of Athenian democracy is this course we need right now. Garland gives a comprehensive look and understanding of what Athenian democracy was and how it worked. He points out the inherent strength, weaknesses, contradictions and complexities of Athenian statecraft. Garland is the best and only professor to teach this course. He made it come alive for me and made me feel like I could be a member of the Athenian assembly. The best moment for me was the famous Funeral Oration by Pericles, the ancient Athenian equivalent of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. We can all learn from the past and Athenian democracy is that we all owe a debt too.
Date published: 2019-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Demos, the Mob and The Demagogue(s) For those considering these lectures, Professor Garland presents his highly organized material in a clear and pleasant manner (I listened to the audio version, following along in the very well done guidebook) . His lectures focus mostly on the origin history of democracy in the Greece of the 6th to 4th centuries BCE, dwelling mostly on the Athenian experience. The good professor stays mostly clear of the political comparative analyses, instead emphasizing individuals who brought this system into reality. Historic figures such as Solon, Dracon, Peisistratus, Themistocles and Cleisthenes who set the stage for later leaders such as Pericles, Socrates, Cimon, Cleon and even Alcibiades to (try to) control the Demos, or the voting public (sans women, slaves and non land-holders). Thucydides seems to be the go-to guy for the historical context. With little exception the democracy of Athens was controlled by strong willed visionaries (?) who were able to persuade the people to support their agenda. This could be for good...or for bad. The point, in my opinion, is that the Demos began, in the early years, as a fairly well informed group, but later deteriorated into an easily manipulated mob that often decided issues based on emotion rather than rational thought. The Sicilian 'Adventure" serves as the best example. Dr Garland tries to steer clear of comparing our modern (republican) democracies, but it's pretty clear that he sees some striking similarities. I think he's very careful in not mentioning the current political situation in the US. Very much recommended, especially to those who enjoy an annotated history of a very interesting time in history. I urge you to vote during a sale and a coupon offering.
Date published: 2019-08-19
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