Primer | A Brief History of Democracy

Ancient Greece

In the year 507 B.C., the Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced a system of political reforms that he called demokratia, or “rule by the people.” Under this direct democracy, all male citizens had equal political rights, freedom of speech, and the opportunity to participate directly in the political arena.

This system was comprised of three separate institutions: the ekklesia, a sovereign governing body that wrote laws and dictated foreign policy; the boule, a council of representatives from the ten Athenian tribes; and the dikasteria, the popular courts in which citizens argued cases before a group of lottery-selected jurors.

Although this Athenian democracy would survive for only two centuries, Cleisthenes’ invention was one of ancient Greece’s most enduring contributions to the modern world.

Around 460 B.C., under the rule of the general Pericles (generals were among the only public officials who were elected, not appointed) Athenian democracy began to evolve into something that we would call an aristocracy: the rule of what Herodotus called “the one man, the best.” Though democratic ideals and processes did not survive in ancient Greece, they have been influencing politicians and governments ever since.


Ancient Rome

Democracy appeared in the Italian city-state of Rome at about the same time as it did in Athens. The Romans, who spoke Latin, called their system respublica (“republic”), meaning “the thing that belongs to the people.” Roman democracy lasted until roughly the end of the 1st century B.C., when it was replaced by a monarchy headed by an emperor. Thus, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

Like the government of Athens, the government of Rome was originally designed for a city. Remarkably, the basic structure of this government remained the same throughout the Republican era, despite the fact that the territory controlled by Rome expanded dramatically to include the entire Mediterranean world and much of western Europe. In the late 1st century B.C., even as they ruled over the largest empire on Earth, the Romans continued to govern themselves in assemblies, which they held in the Forum, a large open area between two of the city's seven hills.

The Roman system of government was an extremely complex form of direct democracy. It made use of four assemblies—one representing the ancient tribes of the city, one representing the military, one representing the plebeians, or common people, and one representing all citizens. There was also an extremely powerful Senate, whose members were chosen indirectly by the military assembly mainly from the ancient patrician, or aristocratic, class.

As in Athens, participation in the Roman assemblies was restricted to adult male citizens. As the Roman Republic expanded, it granted citizenship to many people within its enlarged boundaries. However, because Roman assemblies continued to meet in the Forum, most citizens who did not live in or near the city of Rome itself were unable to participate in them. In the later centuries of the Republic, when the territory controlled by Rome was very large, the vast majority of citizens were excluded from Roman democracy.


Magna Carta

Democracy, meaning power of the people, is one of many seeds of Western civilization sown in ancient Athens, Greece.

The Magna Carta of 1215 is one of the most significant historical documents in the English-speaking world. The Magna Carta and its companion document, the Charter of the Forest, set the groundwork for many concepts that continue to define democratic life today. As Great Britain developed an Empire that spanned across the globe, British common law shaped the development of modern commonwealth nations including Canada. Magna Carta’s guarantee of individual liberties contributed to the development of the American Constitution. As symbols of justice, they also act as powerful reminders that those who govern do so only by the consent of the people.

Key Principles:

  • Nobody is above the law of the land: The basis of equal justice at all levels of society.

  • Habeas Corpus: Freedom from unlawful detention without cause or evidence.

  • Trial by jury: Rules to settle disputes between barons and the Crown established trial by a jury of one’s peers.

  • Women's rights: A widow could not be forced to marry and give up her property – a major first step in women's rights.



The Protestant Reformation was the 16th-century religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe, setting in place the structures and beliefs that would define the continent in the modern era. In northern and central Europe, reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII challenged papal authority and questioned the Catholic Church’s ability to define Christian practice. They argued for a religious and political redistribution of power into the hands of Bible- and pamphlet-reading pastors and princes. The disruption triggered wars, persecutions and the so-called Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church’s delayed but forceful response to the Protestants.



The Enlightenment has been defined in many different ways, but at its broadest was a philosophical, intellectual and cultural movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It stressed reason, logic, criticism and freedom of thought over dogma, blind faith and superstition. Logic wasn’t a new invention, having been used by the ancient Greeks, but it was now included in a worldview which argued that empirical observation and the examination of human life could reveal the truth behind human society and self, as well as the universe. All were deemed to be rational and understandable.

The Enlightenment held that there could be a science of man, and that the history of mankind was one of progress, which could be continued with the right thinking. It began some time in the second half of the seventeeth century and ended with the French Revolution.

Consequently, the Enlightenment also argued that human life and character could be improved through the use of education and reason. The mechanistic universe – that is to say, the universe when considered to be a functioning machine – could also be altered. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted to do more than understand, they wanted to change for, as they believed, the better: they thought reason and science would improve lives.