The community in which Greeks lived in classical times was called a polis. The closest translation in English would be to call it a city-state. The city-state consisted of the central city plus the countryside. People living within the city-state were considered citizens. Athens was one of the more influential city-states.
The Greek city-state was a natural result of the geography of Greece, broken up as it was by mountains into well-defined areas. The people that lived together in a particular area came to feel a bond of social unity amongst each other. Each citizen felt responsible for the protection and welfare of the city-state. Each citizen also felt the city-state was in part responsible for their own welfare. It followed that everyone was ready to defend the city-state against invasion and equally eager to participate in the politics of government.
In classical times the government of the city-state was a Direct Democracy, the first of its kind, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. At any particular point in time, not just on election day, an estimated 75% of voters were participating in government in one form or another. The American democracy is government by the people through their elected representatives meeting at stated intervals – a Democratic Republic. In Athens, the people were the government - they exercised their powers not at intervals, but at all times and in all departments. Our word "politics" is derived from the Greek word polis, the city-state, where citizens played a highly active role in the politics of government.
The Greeks in their democratic city-states were able to set precedents in fields other than government, including art, literature, and mathematics, which are still studied today, and athletics, for which the Olympic games are named. The Greeks and their city-state have had a significant impact on the development of western civilization.
Note that after the Classical Period Greece slowly disintegrated and became part of the Roman Empire, which itself slowly disintegrated over 500 years and lead to the Middle Ages, also known as the Dark ages of Europe, which then lead to the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.
Here are some quotes from our founding fathers clarifying their reasoning for a Democratic Republic vs a Direct Democracy. Below they are describing the problems of a Direct Democracy and the need for a Democratic Republic.
The Federalist Papers, #14, by James Madison, 1787
The true distinction between these forms was also adverted to on a former occasion. It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.
The Federalist Papers, #10, by James Madison, 1787
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.
The Federalist Papers, #10, by James Madison, 1787
Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration of Independence, 1789
A simple democracy, or unbalanced republic, is one of the greatest of evils.
John Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration of Indepencence, 1815
Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state, it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage. They are also very apt to choose a favorite and vest him with such powers as overthrows their own liberty, - examples, Athens and Rome.
John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States, in The Jubilee of the Constitution, 1839
The experience of all former ages had shown that of all human governments, democracy was the most unstable, fluctuating and short-lived.
John Adams, second President of the United States, in The Works of John Adams, Volume 6, 1851
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
Balancing Democracy and Republic
It’s easy to see the need for a Democratic Republic given the size of the modern United States. Today there over 200 million citizens that need representation from their elected officials. Imagine a scenario in which each one of these individuals is called upon to participate in discussions on current social and legal issues, make major decisions about everyday legislative processes, create new policy and law, and then all citizens vote on such. If this sounds difficult, you’re right - it would be impossible given the number of tasks our government addresses on a day-to-day basis and the amount of time and organization it would take in the fast paced modern economy and society in which we live.
There are simply too many people and not enough time in our country to make a Direct Democracy feasible. Most of us have too many responsibilities to participate directly on a full time basis in politics and government. As such, citizens put their faith and trust in the hands of their elected officials. In a Democratic Republic with representatives proportionate to their constituents, it is easier, in theory, to ensure everyone’s voices are heard at the local, state and national levels. Note the term Democratic Republic is itself a centrist term.
To learn more about the process by which our ancestors developed the notion of a Democratic Republic, continue to Chapter 2. We’ll begin with the story of man’s origin in the heart of Africa.
Resources for more information on ancient Greek history:
History of Classical Greece
A SMALLER HISTORY OF GREECE from the earliest times to the Roman conquest.
A History of the Classical Greek World: 478 - 323 BC, by P. J. Rhodes, Wiley-Blackwell publishing