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The average Athenian was poorly paid, uneducated, and probably would rather watch athletic contests than go to the theater. Yet, amazingly, fifth-century Athens became a fountainhead of Western civilization in the study of history, architecture, sculpture, philosophy, and drama. No one can really explain why all this happened in that city at that timeunless it was because the Athenians’ enormous spirit and energy led them to explore their world with a keen eye and an open mind. Like the early American settlers, the Athenians were a proud, independent, and fierce people who resisted any attempts to enslave them. Having fought off invasions by the Persian Empire from the east, and by others from the south, they were fired with a sense of patriotism and self-confidence. They knew their city was the dominant city in Greece. Athens was an autonomous city-state, or polis, like most of the cities in ancient Greece. It had adopted a form of government that helped it survive the chaotic times of foreign invasionsa kind of democracy that encouraged open assembly of all nonslave male citizens, and gave equal rights to them, much as today’s New England town meetings do. Local officials were elected to office and served until they were defeated in another election by another opponent. Sophocles himself was twice elected to a government position and served with distinction in the armed forces. This democracy, however, wasn’t quite as enlightened as it sounds. Women and slaves weren’t allowed any voice in government. Sophocles was a member of the ruling class, but he could see that the system wasn’t perfect. The small population and the town-meeting form of government encouraged Athenian citizens to participate actively in public affairs, and to try to decide their own political and social destinies. Words
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