Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent course, horrible setting Professor Garland does a fine job as usual but is placed on a stage so full that it's distracting. His "playing" with an item at the beginning and end of each lecture looks strained and below the level of the lecture he gives.
Date published: 2020-09-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Robert Garland at his best Bgzredix,thank you..Prof.Garland,who offers a new course ist the secret,I think and athnenian democracy,I woud submit,the title of the course is experiment for the ages and a highly successful one and,while by the time of writing this under more pressure by a pathogen,the penultimately successful experiment,or so I think...btw still waiting for another course by Prof.Worthington,I mailed him,its sad,he seems to have an enormus amount of "fans" too...
Date published: 2020-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought-provoking! Garland's courses tend to be enjoyable, relatively quick listens. I would have liked some more traditional, factually dense sections to orient me. That said, this ended up being the most thought-provoking Great Course I've taken so far. Garland's approach is refreshing and much needed; he doesn't glamorize the classical world or speak approvingly of imperialism, which is my primary (and often intense) frustration with other courses I've taken. His willingness to explore both the positive and much more troubling aspects of Athenian democracy made this one of the most rewarding Great Courses I've taken, and one that I'll continue thinking about and likely return to in the future.
Date published: 2020-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Instructor I've learned so much more about Ancient Athens due to this course. I have other Great Courses whose subjects are on Greece but they don't go into as much detail as this course does by Mr. Garland.
Date published: 2020-04-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Ok presentation Others have commented positively on the content of the course as it pertains to Athens. I agree with all those comments on a professional level. My qualms pertain more to the extraneous material and asides. The set is too busy, and the presenter experimenting with different objects at the start and finish of each lecture is hokey. I have seen a few lectures with the new, non lectern format, and they are definitely more interesting. However, Prof. Garland seems to be using an imaginary lectern: he is too static, taking up a position and only changing it by turning his body 45 degrees. Boring. Also, keep the contemporary politics and personal opinions to a minimum. This quickly dates the presentation and is not necessary for presenting the subject matter. That time could be better spent by sticking to the course lesson plan. One example, Robert Mugabe is mentioned in one lecture; I happened by chance to be watching it the day Mugabe died. How relevant will his mention be in ten years?
Date published: 2019-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Clarion call across time Robert Garland’s thorough examination of the uniqueness of Athenian democracy is this course we need right now. Garland gives a comprehensive look and understanding of what Athenian democracy was and how it worked. He points out the inherent strength, weaknesses, contradictions and complexities of Athenian statecraft. Garland is the best and only professor to teach this course. He made it come alive for me and made me feel like I could be a member of the Athenian assembly. The best moment for me was the famous Funeral Oration by Pericles, the ancient Athenian equivalent of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. We can all learn from the past and Athenian democracy is that we all owe a debt too.
Date published: 2019-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Demos, the Mob and The Demagogue(s) For those considering these lectures, Professor Garland presents his highly organized material in a clear and pleasant manner (I listened to the audio version, following along in the very well done guidebook) . His lectures focus mostly on the origin history of democracy in the Greece of the 6th to 4th centuries BCE, dwelling mostly on the Athenian experience. The good professor stays mostly clear of the political comparative analyses, instead emphasizing individuals who brought this system into reality. Historic figures such as Solon, Dracon, Peisistratus, Themistocles and Cleisthenes who set the stage for later leaders such as Pericles, Socrates, Cimon, Cleon and even Alcibiades to (try to) control the Demos, or the voting public (sans women, slaves and non land-holders). Thucydides seems to be the go-to guy for the historical context. With little exception the democracy of Athens was controlled by strong willed visionaries (?) who were able to persuade the people to support their agenda. This could be for good...or for bad. The point, in my opinion, is that the Demos began, in the early years, as a fairly well informed group, but later deteriorated into an easily manipulated mob that often decided issues based on emotion rather than rational thought. The Sicilian 'Adventure" serves as the best example. Dr Garland tries to steer clear of comparing our modern (republican) democracies, but it's pretty clear that he sees some striking similarities. I think he's very careful in not mentioning the current political situation in the US. Very much recommended, especially to those who enjoy an annotated history of a very interesting time in history. I urge you to vote during a sale and a coupon offering.
Date published: 2019-08-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I just finished lecture 27 and am already feeling I wished this course was 48-lectures. I previously listened via audio Dr. Garland's course on the ancient world and the life of the common citizen, which was brilliant. Although I suspect Dr. Garland's personal political philosophy and mine are world's apart by just a few small opinions he let bleed into his course, that made no difference for me given both his brilliant mastery of the subject, and, maybe more importantly, his clear love of the subject he presented. Astonishing to think if every college class was lead by a man like Dr. Garland.
Date published: 2019-07-07
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Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages
Course Trailer
Why Athenian Democracy Matters
1: 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
2: 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?
3: 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
4: 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
5: 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
6: 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
7: 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
8: 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
9: 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
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.


University College London


Colgate University

About Robert Garland

Dr. Robert S.J. Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University. He earned his B.A. in Classics from Manchester University, his M.A. in Classics from McMaster University, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from University College London. A former Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the George Grote Ancient History Prize, Professor Garland has educated students and audiences at a variety of levels. In addition to teaching classics at Colgate University, he has taught English and Drama to secondary school students and lectured at universities throughout Britain as well as the British School of Archaeology in Athens. Professor Garland is the author of numerous articles in both academic and popular journals and books capturing details of all aspects of ancient Greek and Roman life, including The Greek Way of Life: From Conception to Old Age; Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion; and Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks. His expertise has been featured in The History Channel's Last Stand of the 300, and he has repeatedly served as a consultant for educational film companies.

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