Athenian democracy, in contrast with contemporary representative democracies, is the best-known example of a direct democracy. Direct democracy, on Aristotle's account, presumed that all citizens knew each other personally; Themistocles' popularity was attributed largely to the fact that he knew each citizen by name. However, in practice, only some citizens were able to participate in the meetings of the Ecclesia tou Demou, the Popular Assembly. That the Athenians jealously guarded this form of democracy is clear from Pericles' Law Concerning Illegitimate Children (451/0 BC), which was designed to limit the number of those who had the right to Athenian citizenship.

In contrast with the widespread modern consensus that democracy is the ideal form of government, in Athens it's relative merits were debated and frequently criticised by citizens and philosophers alike. Although power theoretically derived from the people and was subject to the control of the Popular Assembly, real power lay in the hands of the rhetors, the orators (as opposed to the idiotes, private citizens). These men (for example Pericles from 451/0 to 429 BC, and Demosthenes from 341 to 338 BC) were important political figures, whose skill in argument ensured their domination of the political scene.

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