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Ostraca—ballots on which the name of a person to be ostracized was inscribed, 432 B.C. (Photo: Ancient Agora Museum, Athens)
Ancient Athens is famous as the world's first democracy, a culture responsible for some of history's most famous and enduring works of art, architecture, philosophy, and literature. As Americans, we tend to assume that democracy is good for its own sake, and enshrine the Athenians for inventing it. But this democracy existed within an often brutally oppressive empire that committed some of the worst atrocities in history.
At the same time, it was this empire that allowed the democracy to expand and led to the enfranchisement of all Athenian citizens. The Athenians themselves saw no contradiction between democracy and an empire that depended on the servitude of hundreds of thousands of other Greeks.
The story of ancient Athens is especially relevant in today's contentious political climate, since it highlights the need to think critically about where our model of government came from, what its strengths and flaws are, and how it differs from its antecedents in good ways and bad, so that we can be more thoughtful and nuanced in our understanding of our own democracy.
Kelcy Sagstetter, assistant professor of history at the United States Naval Academy, explores the fascinating origins of western democracy and their link to its current iterations.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)