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Democracy: Lessons from the Ancient Greeks

Evening Program

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, September 3, 2020 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1J0054
This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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  • This program is part of our Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
  • Platform: Zoom
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The evolution of democracy was rooted in—and influenced—all aspects of ancient Greek culture. All male citizens were able to participate in elections, take part in important civic decisions, and debate the pressing issues of the day. This meant that the citizenry needed to be educated, connected by a strong social network, able to understand and articulate arguments, use logic and rhetoric, and have a basic understanding of arithmetic.

These requirements led to the growth and expansion of education for boys, as well as some girls, based on the triad of intellectual, physical, and spiritual and musical training. Democratic principles of inclusion and fairness sparked technical innovations. Timers set limits on the length of speeches. Lottery machines helped to fairly select representatives and jurors. For positions requiring specialized expertise, such as generals and treasurers, secret ballots were developed.

The legacy of ancient Greece includes the concepts of constitutional government, freedom of speech, elections, trial by jury, civic discourse and debate, civilian control over the military, and the separation of religion and government. In addition, curiosity and intellectual inquiry led the Greeks to set the foundations for modern scientific fields of medicine, biology, zoology, physics, atomic theory, and mathematics including geometry and trigonometry.

As our own nation experiences another election season, historian Diane Harris Cline examines how ancient Greece’s political system reflects a civilization that valued and encouraged literacy and education, a love of beauty, technological and intellectual progress, and civic engagement.

Cline is an associate professor in the department of history at George Washington University and author of National Geographic’s The Greeks: An Illustrated History.

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