The government of ancient Athens concerned itself with many aspects of the lives of its citizens. In the pure democracy of Athens the government was not only of the people and for the people but also by the people to a far greater extent than is possible in the large representative democracies of the present. Because of the scope of governmental activity and the mass participation of the citizens, much machinery and paraphernalia of government were needed. It is through the material remains of this machinery found in the center of civic life, the Agora (1), that the pure democracy of ancient Athens can be most vividly illustrated.
Fortunately for us, the stone, metals, and pottery which the Athenians used are relatively imperishable, so that we have much of this primary evidence to supplement and illustrate the literature and history written by ancient authors. These material remains, as illustrated here, fall into several classes: records inscribed on marble or lead, currency, standard weights and measures, paraphernalia of the lawcourts, tokens, ostraka, and buildings. Most important of these, perhaps, are the laws and other records published on stone for the ancient Athenians themselves. From these we may learn, through the Athenians’ own words, “what seemed best to the People.”
Nothing can better sum up the Athenian ideal of citizenship than the words which Thucydides makes Perikles speak in the Funeral Oration at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War:
“We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. . . . In short, I say that as a city we are the School of Hellas.”