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The Big Question: What is democracy?

Updated Wednesday 1st December 2004

It is the most widespread political system in the world. It is over 2000 years old, and it can have presidents, prime ministers and even kings and queens. It is called democracy . But what does it mean? And can it survive in the modern world? The Big Question: What is Democracy?

The Roman Forum Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

This week's journey starts in front of the Perikles bust, in The British Museum in London. Pericles was one of the founding fathers of Athenian democracy. The idea of democracy was implemented for the first time in primitive form in Athens around the fifth century BC. It was based on the principles of equality, of opportunity and of participation.

Paul Cartledge , a professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, takes us through some core elements of this early version of democracy, the Athenian Democracy. The Athenian word for democracy, demokratia, is a compound of two Greek words. 'Demos' means the people and 'Kratia' comes from same route as the modern word, kratos, which originally meant grip. Democracy can be translated as people power.

After the fall of Athenian democracy in the year 322BC, the Romans adopted a different concept res publica. Res and publica are Latin words, perhaps best translated as "public affairs". Res and publica are the twin sources of today's term "republic".

Paulo Crochillio Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Paolo Crocchiolo is a professor of Ethics and Global Policy at The American University of Rome. The Big Question spoke to him in the Roman Forum. During the republic the Forum became the political and economic centre of Rome.

The Roman republic began around the year 500 BC. It had an assembly that, every year, chose two consuls. They were in charge of implementing the policies decided at the assembly. There was also a senate which had legislative power. Even though the Roman republic was gone by 44BC, the model inspired generations around the world.

Alan J. Lichtman, an American history professor, takes The Big Question on a tour of Washington DC to explain the origins of American democracy. He says the foundation of American democracy is based on one fundamental idea that the people are not subject to rulers, and the people themselves rule.

The US Senate Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Capitol Hill is the heart of American democracy, home to the US Congress . The congress is divided into the House of Representatives - the representatives of the people - and the Senate, which represents the fifty states. Not far from Capitol Hill is the White House, home of the US president.

In the final part of this programme What is democracy?, we examine the origins of British democracy. Emma talks to Tony Benn, former MP and former cabinet minister in the British Parliament.

Tony Benn shows Emma around the Houses of Parliament Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Tony Benn takes us on a journey through the history of the establishment of the republic in Great Britain. Right from the beheading of Charles I in 1649, through the English Revolution, the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and the return of the British monarchy in 1660.

During the reign of Charles II, the British Parliament was divided into two chambers: The House of Lords, and The House of Commons.

Many countries round the world have adopted the British form of parliamentary democracy - the so-called Westminster model. No doubt this has had something to do with the British Empire. For Tony Benn, who is critical of the British system, the Westminster model has, nonetheless, produced some great benefits - such as the welfare state.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 7th August 2004

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