The University of Southampton

HIST1172 Ancient Athens: Democracy and Empire

Module Overview

Athens is one of the places in the ancient Greek world about which we are most well-informed. The city’s claims to fame are manifold and matched by a wide array of written and material sources, ranging from historical writings, philosophical treatises, and theatre plays to archaeological material and documents inscribed on stone. This vibrant city is famous for its democratic political system, which emerged and developed from the sixth into the fifth century BC, and was briefly overthrown but then reinstated from the late fifth into the fourth century BC. These developments should be seen in the wider context of the position of the Athenians on the international stage, from proud victors in the Persian Wars (490-479 BC) and increasingly explicit leaders of an Aegean empire, to becoming the defeated side in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), after which they nevertheless bounced back. In this module, we study Athenian democracy from its emergence in the sixth century BC (the reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes), follow its development during the fifth century BC (including the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles), and then assess the wealth of evidence for democracy in practice in the fourth century BC. Sources include Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Aristotle’s Politics, treatises on the Constitution of the Athenians (ascribed to Aristotle and the ‘Old Oligarch’ respectively), and Demosthenes’ Orations, as well as material evidence and documents from Athens’ rich epigraphic record. You will learn to use and understand these sources in the wider context of the history of Athens during the Classical period, and think about the connections and potential tensions between Athenian democracy and empire. In the final part of the module, we consider critical views of democracy as well as assessing the afterlife of Athenian democracy until the modern day.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

Aims of this module are to - examine the historical context of Classical Athens with a focus on political history. - examine the key primary sources for Athenian democracy and Athenian empire. - examine the emergence, development, and workings of Athenian democracy. - evaluate the different ways in which scholars have approached Athenian political history. - evaluate the connections and potential tensions between Athenian democracy and empire. - critically assess the challenges facing the historian when working with source material from antiquity, such as political bias and fragmentary documentation. - critically interpret the reception of Athenian democracy from antiquity to the modern day.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The emergence and development of Athenian democracy from the sixth to fourth century BC.
  • The institutions of Athenian democracy and their workings in practice
  • Scholarly debates about the opportunities and limitations offered by democracy to different groups within Athenian society.
  • The challenges facing historians when engaging with a wide variety of source materials which are unevenly spread from one period to another.
  • Key primary sources and literature that provide evidence of the interplay between Athenian democracy and Athenian empire.
  • The differing interpretations of Athenian democracy from antiquity to contemporary society
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Discuss the historical background of Athenian democracy.
  • Show yourself familiar with a range of primary sources, textual as well as material.
  • Apply frameworks discussed by scholars for interpreting Athenian democracy in the wider context of Athenian history from the sixth to the fourth century BC.
  • Critically analyse source material.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Organise and structure material to write and present confidently
  • Conduct primary research through print and digital resources including editions of ancient texts and studies of material objects.
  • Critically analyse ancient sources and secondary literature.
  • Participate actively in group discussions and debate.


An indicative list of the topics covered in the module includes: o Introduction to Classical Athens o The Emergence of Democracy o Democracy under Development o The Workings of Democracy o Democracy and the Athenian Empire o Athens in the Fourth Century BC o Debating and Disputing Democracy o The Afterlife of Athenian Democracy

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

- A weekly two-hour class incorporating lecture and seminar elements - Lecturer-led examination and discussion of sources - Preparatory reading before each seminar - Participation in group and class discussion - Independent reading of the sources provided and of related secondary works - Short oral presentations on primary sources - Independent research of additional information and source materials Lecture elements will provide you with general knowledge and understanding about chronology, sources and key concepts. This will be consolidated through readings and seminar discussions of sources and secondary literature. Discussion in seminars will help you to develop your own ideas about a topic, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument.

Preparation for scheduled sessions33
Follow-up work11
Completion of assessment task52
Wider reading or practice33
Total study time152

Resources & Reading list

McGregor, M.F., (1987). The Athenians and their Empire. 

Asmonti, L (2015). Athenian Democracy: A Sourcebook. 

Rhodes, P.J., ed. (2004). Athenian Democracy. 

Rhodes, P.J (2010). A History of the Classical Greek World, 478-323 BC. 

Kinzl, K.H., ed (2006). A Companion to the Classical Greek World. 

Beck, H., ed. (2013). A Companion to Ancient Greek Government. 

Hornblower, S (2011). The Greek World, 479-323 BC. 

Osborne, R., ed. (2000). The Athenian Empire. 

Ma, J., N. Papazarkadas, and R. Parker, eds. (2009). Interpreting the Athenian Empire. 

Low, P (2008). The Athenian Empire. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Commentary exercise  (1000 words) 50%
Essay  (2000 words) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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