Exploring Ancient Athens for the GED Social Studies Test

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

You will need to know some basics about ancient Athens for the GED Social Studies test. Athens wasn’t blessed with the natural resources typically required to become a center for culture and art. Greece is rocky with poor soil. The staple crop at the time was wheat, but growing conditions in Greece were far from ideal. Over time, grapes and olive trees replaced much of the wheat, which meant importing wheat and other goods not produced locally.

The rugged landscape made road building difficult, so travel by sea was simpler and faster. The Greeks focused on the sea, as fishermen and as traders. Wine and olive oil became important Greek exports for the entire Mediterranean.

The Greek city states also created colonies in other parts of the Mediterranean where wheat could be grown successfully to ensure adequate supplies. They also had plenty of marble and clay to use for building materials along with copper and zinc and some gold and silver, which enabled them to fashion tools and weapons, construct buildings, and create beautiful sculptures. Trade and colonialism spread Athenian knowledge and ideals throughout the Mediterranean.

The Athenians developed democratic government. They had overthrown their kings early on, creating a government based on social class and property, where eventually even the smallest landowners had a say. The Athenian Assembly, open to all male citizens over 18 and land owners, met several times a month to discuss specific issues, from selecting political and military leaders to voting on laws and finances.

The assembly had an additional, rather unique feature: Any citizen deemed to be too powerful or too much of a problem could be ostracized, expelled from Athens by an anonymous vote of the assembly. Judges and magistrates were chosen by lot and random selection from the upper classes, but at the end of their one-year term they had to justify their decisions to the assembly — an early form of checks and balances.

One Athenian leader, Pericles, summed it up this way:

Athens constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.

Athenian democracy was far from perfect. Only about 20 percent of Athens’s population had citizenship. Slaves composed a large part of the population, and women had no right to vote. Debtors and their families could be sold into slavery and lost all rights until the debt was repaid. Participants in the assembly could be paid expenses, but no salaries, limiting attendance to the wealthier class. Despite these limitations, it was a beginning.

Who was eligible vote in the Athenian assembly?

  • (A) everyone over the age of 18

  • (B) all males over the age of 18

  • (C) all male citizens over the age of 18 who were landowners

  • (D) all citizens over the age of 18 who owned land

The correct answer is Choice (C), all male citizens over 18 who were landowners. Women had no rights outside the home, and as in modern times, 18 was the age when youth were admitted to adult duties and rights. The minimum qualification for male citizens over 18 to vote was a requirement to own property.

What led the Greeks to become traders?

  • (A) poor conditions for most agriculture

  • (B) the need to buy food they could not produce easily

  • (C) concentration on large scale production of a few specialized crops

  • (D) all of the above

The Greeks discovered that even with poor soils they could produce some crops very well, such as wine and olives. The only way to make that system pay off was to export these crops and use the revenue to pay for other goods they didn’t or couldn’t produce. Your best choice is Choice (D), all of the above.