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Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages

Join a Fulbright Scholar and renowned history professor as he provides insight into the story of Greek democracy-and discover what lessons it offers us today.
Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 36.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Engaging course, but not balanced Thoughtful description of the history and evolution of Athenian Democracy. The anti-Trump rhetoric throughout was out of place and undercut the credibility of the lecturer.
Date published: 2024-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! I have watched several of Professor Garland's courses and have loved them all. He has such a passion for Greek History and this keeps me watching. I also enjoyed the different background of this course which looks like his study.
Date published: 2023-12-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A snapshot of intriguing history his Course gives a very comprehensive appreciation of the development of Democracy in Athens. Comprehensive because RG traces the incipient and latent issues leading up to its flowering in 5th/4th centuries BC, and discusses its successes and failures. While doing this he also compares other extant and later democratic models. His delivery is precise and well modulated, but some viewers may find it plodding and irritating. All in all, very worthwhile (like his other TGC offerings). Finally, another gripe about the persistent TGC practice of putting all DVDs on a single pole. This approach makes selecting individual discs quite annoying, and makes the discs prone to damage.
Date published: 2023-11-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Phenomenal This was really well done. Dr. Garland is really good at being able to relate the events of the Ancient Athenians to the modern day without being anachronistic. Would watch another lecture series of his and would recommend this to anyone who has an interest in history, and or political studies.
Date published: 2023-08-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Elgin was a thief Prof. Garland, instead of sipping coffee and eating cake during lectures, maybe you need to read some history, who was Elgin, how he cheated even the Turks, and how he ripped apart the metopes and destroyed and broke the monument which gives your British museum its glory, along with many other also stolen Egyptian treasures, acquired in the same way by another thief. If you were honest, you should say the marbles belong neither to the British, nor the Greeks, but to the Parthenon, and must be returned back where they belong.
Date published: 2023-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from He's got my vote! This was my first course by professor Garland, and I found him engaging, extremely informative and objective. He gives a "warts and all" view of democracy, with an optimistic overview, especially for a POME living in the US. My only caveat is that he takes out of context Trump's quote of the free press being "an enemy of the people" because it was the biased and fake press that was the enemy. I also wished that Mr. Garland would have discussed more on the outside influence of other countries on democracy, such as the current state, but that is a small point in an overall thrilling lesson
Date published: 2023-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course! Prof. Garland is one of TGC's most popular lecturers, and he once again brings to life the ancient world in this excellent course focusing on Athenian democracy. He has an impressive command of, and passion for, his subject matter, each lecture is relevant and ties directly to the course's theme, and his lecture style and flair for the dramatic make each lecture interesting and entertaining. While some of his attempts to connect events in Athens to the modern world are more distracting than illuminating, they are not frequent and do not detract from what is overall a marvelous course. I watched some of these lectures and listened to others, and I think audio is just fine for this one. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2022-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Still watching We've had this program about 2 weeks and are still watching. The temptation is to binge watch it but there is so much to absorb, we slowed down and checking the other resources for more in depth information. Absolutely fascinating. So much applies here and now as well.
Date published: 2022-06-18
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Over the course of 24 engaging lectures, Professor Robert Garland of Colgate University unpacks the development of Athenian democracy, going inside the assemblies and courts to reveal how citizen rule worked-and where it came up short. Unprecedented, flawed, relevant to our time, and captivating in its own right, the story of Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages explores what is arguably the boldest political initiative ever taken in history.


Robert Garland

Working for the Great Courses enables me to reach people who prize learning for learning's sake. It's they who inspire me to close the gap between past and present, by demonstrating what it meant then, and what it means now, to be human.


Colgate University

Robert Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics, Emeritus, in the Department of the Classics at Colgate University. He has a PhD in Ancient History from University College London. A former Fulbright Scholar, he was also a fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He has written 19 books, including Greek Mythology: Gods and Heroes Brought to Life and Roman Legends Brought to Life. He has also published extensively in academic and popular journals and served as a consultant for educational film companies.

By This Professor

Living History: Experiencing Great Events of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds
The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World
The Greek World: A Study of History and Culture
Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages
God against the Gods: The History of Monotheism and Polytheism
Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages


Why Athenian Democracy Matters

01: 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.

36 min
The Origins of Greek Democracy

02: 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.

30 min
Solon: The Father of Democracy?

03: 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.

33 min
Cleisthenes the Innovator

04: 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.

34 min
The Nearly Bloodless Coup

05: 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.

34 min
Democracy at War

06: 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.

33 min
The Popular Assembly

07: 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.

32 min
The Council and the Magistrates

08: 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.

33 min
The Citizens of Athens

09: 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.

35 min
“The Empire You Hold Is a Tyranny”

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.

33 min
The Age of Pericles

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.

30 min
Public Speaking in Athens

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.”

31 min
Pericles’s Funeral Speech

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.

30 min
Democracy under Duress

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.

30 min
The Culture of Athenian Democracy

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.

31 min
Political Leadership in Athens

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.

30 min
The Brutality of Athenian Democracy

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.

34 min
Athenian Defeat in Sicily

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.

33 min
Suspension, Restoration, and Termination

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.

34 min
The Democratic Theater

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.

33 min
Law and Order under Democracy

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.

31 min
Ancient Critics of Athenian Democracy

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.

30 min
Post-Athenian Democracies

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.

30 min
Democracy Today, Democracy Tomorrow

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.

35 min