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Ancient Greek Government

Grades 6-8 | Historical Analysis | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 760L-870L

Learning Standards



Prompt: Ancient Greece was separated into hundreds of small city-states, or areas made up of a large city and smaller surrounding towns. These city-states, the most powerful of which were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes, governed and defended themselves, often working together, but just as often warring amongst each other. Over time, these city-states had evolving forms of government, sometimes being ruled by a monarch, other times being ruled by a group, and eventually, being ruled by the people in the first form of democracy.


Read and analyze the following sources about the evolution of government in ancient Greek city-states. Then write an essay in which you make a claim about why these city-states might have cycled through these different forms of government, rather than choosing one and sticking with it. Consider moments in history and emerging leaders that might have affected these changes. Use evidence from multiple sources to support your claim.




Source 1

Ancient Greece Government (Secondary Source)


The Ancient Greeks may be most famous for their ideas and philosophies on government and politics. It was in Greece, and particularly Athens, that democracy was first conceived and used as a primary form of government.


The Greek City-State


Ancient Greece was made up of city-states. A city-state was a major city and the surrounding areas. Each city-state had its own rule and government. Sometimes the city-states fought each other. Athens and Sparta were the two largest city-states and they had many wars and battles.


Types of Government


There were three main types of government:

  • Democracy - A government ruled by the people, or assembly. Officials and leaders were elected and all citizens had a say.
  • Monarchy - A single ruler like a king. In Athens this ruler was called a Tyrant.
  • Oligarchy - When the government is ruled by a small group.

Over time some city-states, like Athens, would change governments. Sometimes they were ruled by Tyrants and, at other times, they were a democracy.


Athenian Democracy


Democracy in Ancient Greece was very direct. What this means is that all the citizens voted on all the laws. Rather than vote for representatives, like we do, each citizen was expected to vote for every law.

They did have officials to run the government, however. Most of these officials were chosen by a lottery. So every citizen had a chance, regardless of their popularity or wealth, to become an official. A few key positions were voted on, such as the treasurer and the 10 generals who ran the army (also called the strategoi).


Who could vote?


In order to vote, you had to be a citizen. However, not everyone who lived in Athens was a citizen. Only men who had completed their military training were counted as citizens.


Bodies of Government


There were three main bodies of the government: the Assembly, the Council of 500, and the Courts.


The Assembly included all citizens who showed up to vote. Everyone who was a citizen could participate as part of the assembly. The assembly would decide on new laws and important decisions, like whether or not to go to war.


The Council oversaw much of the day-to-day running of the government. The Council was determined by lottery. If your name was chosen, then you would be on the council for one year.


The Courts handled lawsuits and trials. The courts had large juries to help make decisions. For private lawsuits the jury was at least 201 people, for public lawsuits the jury was at least 501 people.




Source 2

Ancient Greek Government (Secondary Source)


There was no central government in ancient Greece. Greece, back then, was not even one country. People lived in city-states. Each city-state was an independent unit. Each city-state made their own laws, had their own coinage, and had their own way of doing things. But, they all spoke Greek, they all believed in the same gods, and they all shared a common history.


As time went on, there were probably over a thousand city-states established on the Greek peninsula, possibly even more. Some were very small. Others, like Athens, Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta, were large and powerful. Be it big or small, the ancient Greeks were very loyal to their city-state, and very proud of their city-state's accomplishments.


City-states went to war with each other. They teamed up to fight another Greek city-state or to fight a common enemy from outside the Greek peninsula. They traded with each other. They negotiated with each other. They knew each other. But if you asked a Greek if he was a Greek, he would probably give you a puzzled look and identify himself by his city-state. He might say: "I am a man of Corinth" (or Olympia or whatever city-state he called home.)


There were three main forms of government used in ancient Greece by various city-states.


  • Ruled by a king: Some city-states were ruled by a king. This type of government is called a monarchy. The city-state of Corinth is an example; Corinth was ruled by a king.
  • Ruled by a small group: Some city-states were ruled by a small group of people. This type of government is called an oligarchy. The city-state of Sparta was ruled by a small group of retired and highly respected warriors.
  • Ruled by many: Athens experimented with direct democracy, or rule by many. For about 100 years, every citizen in Athens could directly vote in the assembly on issues. This form of government continued until Athens was conquered by Sparta.




Source 3

Ancient Greece Timeline (Secondary Source)


The history of Ancient Greece can be divided up into different periods. The three main periods we will cover here are the Archaic Period, the Classical Period, and the Hellenistic Period.


During the Archaic Period the Greek government began to form with the rise of the city-states such as Athens and Sparta. This was also when the Greeks began to explore philosophy and theatre.


The Classical Period began with the introduction of democracy in Athens. Athens also rose to new heights in art and philosophy. It was during this period that Athens and Sparta fought in the Peloponnesian Wars. Near the end of the Classical Period Alexander the Great rose to power conquering much of Europe and Western Asia.


The death of Alexander the Great ushered in the Hellenistic Period. Greece declined in power until it was finally conquered by Rome.


Greek Archaic Period (800 BC - 480 BC)


  • 776 BC - The first Olympic Games takes place. The games would take place every 4 years in honor of the Greek god Zeus.
  • 757 BC - First Messenian War begins. This is a war between Sparta and Messenia that will last many years.
  • 750 BC - Homer begins to write the Iliad and Odyssey. These epic poems become two of the most famous literary works in Greek literature.
  • 650 BC - The Greek Tyrants come into power. Cypselus is the first Tyrant of Corinth.
  • 621 BC - A lawyer named Draco introduces strict new laws in Athens that are punishable by death. These are called Draconian laws.
  • 600 BC - The first Greek coins are introduced.
  • 570 BC - Pythagoras is born. He will make major advances in science, math, and philosophy. We still use the Pythagorean Theorem today to help with geometry.
  • 508 BC - Democracy is introduced in Athens by Cleisthenes. He establishes a constitution and is often called the "Father of Athenian Democracy". This is one of the great accomplishments of the Greek culture.

Greek Classical Period (480 BC - 323 BC)


  • 490 BC - The Greeks fight the Persians in the Greek/Persian Wars. Two famous battles are the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC and the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The Greeks win and the Persians retreat.
  • 468 BC - Sophocles begins to write plays for the theatre. Soon the theater becomes a very popular form of entertainment in Greece.
  • 440 BC - Famous playwright Euripides wins first prize for the best play in Athens.
  • 432 BC - The temple to Athena, the Parthenon, is completed in Athens on the Acropolis. Today this is the most famous surviving building of Ancient Greece.
  • 431 BC - The wars between Sparta and Athens begin. They are called the Peloponnesian Wars. The wars will last 27 years with Sparta eventually conquering Athens in 404 BC.
  • 399 BC - The famous Greek philosopher Socrates is put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings.
  • 386 BC - Greek philosopher and student of Socrates, Plato, founds the first institution of higher learning in the western world. It's called the Academy.
  • 342 BC - The great philosopher, scientist, and mathematician, Aristotle, begins to tutor Alexander (later to be called Alexander the Great).
  • 336 BC - Alexander the Great becomes king when his father, Philip of Macedon is assassinated.
  • 333 BC - Alexander begins his conquests and defeats the Persians.
  • 332 BC - Alexander conquers Egypt. He establishes the new capital of Egypt at Alexandria. Over the next several years Alexander would greatly expand his empire, conquering much of Persia on the way to India.

Greek Hellenistic Period (323 BC - 146 BC)

  • 323 BC - The Hellenistic period begins when Alexander the Great dies. The Ancient Greek civilization begins its decline and the Ancient Romans start to gain power.
  • 300 BC - Euclid, a Greek mathematician, writes Elements. This famous writing will have an impact on mathematics for years to come.
  • 146 BC - Rome conquers Greece making it part of the Roman Empire.








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