KLEISTHENES + THE BIRTH OF DEMOCRACY
(ABOVE: A modern relief of Kleisthenes, now at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio)
The world’s first and, arguably, most stable form of democratic rule was first developed in Athens at the end of the 6th century BC. Democracy called on all adult citizens (then excluding slaves, foreigners and women) to take part in politics and voting. Solon’s reforms during the early 6th century BC may have watered down aristocratic power in the city in favour of the ekklesia (the citizen assembly of roughly 6,000 men), but it was under Kleisthenes (or Cleisthenes, c.570 - 507 BC) in which the constitution of Athens started to take its final and most recognisable shape. He divided the city into 10 separate tribes, each divided into a total of 139 dēmes (voting districts). These 10 districts each supplied 50 men every year to form a council of 500, and in turn this group of 500 supplied the 50 Prytaneis (council leaders) who aided in the governments daily ongoings. The makeup of the Prytaneis was ever changing, so as to avoid one individual holding and gaining too much power for too long. The ekklesia would meet up on the Pnyx (a hill nearby to the Acropolis) and voted roughly 40 times every year, on matters that included the election of Strategoi (generals).
HIPPIAS + THE END OF ATHENIAN TYRANNY
(ABOVE: Hipparchus, Hippias's brother, being assassinated by Harmodius and Aristogeiton)
Following the former tyrant Hipparchus’s murder, Hippias’s brother, in 514 BC, Hippias’s rule became even more cruel on the people; the Alcmaeonidae previously tried to get back into Athens following their expulsion by the Pisistratidae and liberate Athens from Hippias. While they were successful in fortifying Leipsydrium (above Paeonia), they were ultimately defeated there, and thus unsuccessful in their liberation attempt.
MURDERS UNDER HIPPIAS - At some point during the reign of Hippias, Kimon, an Olympic victor and the father of Miltiades, was murdered, Miltiades himself (the future commander at the battle of Marathon, 490 BC), who was serving as archon under Hippias in 524/3 BC, went to the Chersonese, and Kleisthenes himself and the Alkmaeonidai were exiled, and in 514 BC, 2 members of the Gephyraioi aristocrat lineage, Aristogeiton and Harmodius, were murdered after an attempt by them to overthrow Hippias and the Peisistratidai. It would only be in 510 BC that, with some Spartan aid, that they were finally overthrown.
SPARTA'S INTERVENTIONS - Spartan intervention is directly what caused the end of tyranny in Athens. Starting in 511 BC, Sparta launched 4 separate campaigns against the Athenians in just as many years. The first of these attacks was a raid from the seas, which the tyrant Hippias was able to beat back, aided by Thessalian mercenary cavalry, allegedly by maximising their effectiveness in combat as horsemen by cutting down several trees and thus opening up the battleground of Phaleron for them. Kleomenes led the second attack. He was successful in beating back the Thessalian mercenaries this time, and even besieged the tyrant, capturing the Peisistratidae children along the way. In order to free the children, the tyrants agreed to leave the city for good, heading to Siegion instead. Outlined in the later Classical age of Greece, Spartan intervention may have either been because of the murder of Hipparchus by Aristogeiton and Harmodius, or because of a Delphic Oracle supposedly telling the Spartans to intervene.
THE POLITICAL REVOLUTION
The political vacuum left after the expulsion of Hippias led immediately to a power struggle among the Athenian elite. The most noteworthy of these infightings is the struggle between Isagoras, son of Teisandros, and Kleisthenes, son of Megakles. Kleisthenes was a member of the Alcmaeonidae, and his political rival Isagoras was from another distinguished house. Responding to a defeat by Isagoras, Kleisthenes began to attract support from among the people, creating a collection of constitutional reforms and attracting a loyal following. This following was so loyal that it defeated another invasion led by Kleomenes of Sparta, in which he was attempting to strengthen the power of Isagoras in Athens, even after Kleisthenes’ time.
RIOTS IN ATHENS - In 508/7 BC, what can only be described as a riot bigger than that previously seen in the Greek world before took place in Athens. Those involved with it were concerned with an issue instead of political loyalties this time. The origin of the reason for the riots can be attributed to 3 separate things: hostilities towards Sparta, citizen rearmament and the constitution. Athenian hostility towards Sparta is clear, but clearer still was the dissatisfaction of Sparta towards what followed: Kleomenes led out his allies one more time to try and restore Isagoras into power, but this ultimately failed as the allies, as well as the other Spartan king Damaratos, were reluctant to help. Later still, the Spartans tried yet again to restore Hippias to power. Athens now saw Sparta as such a powerful and constant threat that they called upon help from 2 sources: Kleisthenes and the Persian empire itself. The embassy sent to the Persian occupied city of Sardis even saw submission to the empire as a possibility, a price not too high to pay for their aid, however the people of Athens saw things differently: with fighting between fellow Greek cities and both sides tempted to call on foreign submission as aid will have likely made the Athenian people think of both alternatives as a sign that things were getting too out of hand, and it’s clear to both Athens and Sparta that their relations had reached an all new low.
(ABOVE: Coin with the face of Kleomenes I)
Athens’s newfound levels of hostilities towards Sparta does support the idea that, at this time, the Athenians were enthused towards creating a ‘new model army’. Other traditions, however, state that Peisistratos had fought his way into power, alongside his mercenary army and Hippias, at the battle of Pallene in 545 BC. That same year, he disarmed the Athenian citizen population, an action that Hippias further enforced later in 514 BC. Disarming citizens in any regard, particularly when unelected tyrants are doing it, is always bad, and there was plausible reasoning for the Athenians to deny that they had ever been in a good enough position to rise up agains their tyrants, but this doesn’t mean the stories aren’t true; It’s certainly true that in 507/6 BC, the Athenians did deploy into battle against the Boeotians and the Khalkidians who allegedly were going to support Kleomenes in a 3rd attempt at invading Athens. Following a victory over them, the Athenians deployed thousands of settlers in Khalkis, showcasing their wealth, manpower and their newfound control. Athenians further settling on the isle of Salamis can be roughly dated to 507/6 BC as well, a signal to her neighbours that Athens’s power and military confidence was growing rapidly.
What first seemed to follow from this overthrow was aristocratic freedom. However in 508 BC, Isagoras was elected as archon, which opposed the will of Kleisthenes. Kleisthenes gathered a party together in response, proposed reforms, and went as far as to ostracise Isagoras, holding off Spartan attempts to undo this. Through this, he won great popular support, despite his reforms radically changing the socio-political structure of Athens and taking a long time to come fully into effect.
The 4 original Ionian tribes (“Phylai”) that previously made up the socio-political organisation of Athens, and divided the population based on their wealth, was gone, and in their place were now 10 new tribes, with cults and names assigned to them and authorised by Delphi. The tribes were split between three “villages” or “dēmoi”:
• Asty - the city dēmoi (this comprised an area from the Piraeus to the plains between Mounts Aigaleos and Hymettos)
• Paralia - the coastal dēmoi
• Mesogala - the inland dēmoi
Together were called “trittyes” (“units of 3”). The trittys were more of an artificial unit, than one based on natural or pre-existing borders. They were made up of a group of dēmoi, which were mostly close each other although could be found geographically separated from one another, as in the case of the coastal trittys’ tribes 3 and 4 being separated into 2 blocks, and the inland trittys’ tribes 7 and 10 being separated into 2 blocks each as well.
(ABOVE: Kleisthenes' new tribal divide of Attica)
Assuming that this system and layout didn’t change even into the Classical period, we can work out that there likely would have been 139 dēmoi - that is, 139 villages recognised by the constitution - supplying different fixed quotas of council members for the new Council of 500, which implies that each was of a varying size from another; the smallest number of council members one village provided was 6 and the largest was 21. It’s evident that this new tribal structure was based on already pre-existing villages within the countryside, yet the divisions within the city likely would have been more artificial. The new tribes also formed the base structure for the new army and were central in politics, meaning they were almost certainly of equal size. Each tribe supplied 1,000 soldiers to form a standing army of around 10,000 men. These 1,000 men were led by 10 equal in rank generals - the “strategoi” - who initially acted just as advisors to the aristocratic polemarchs, but by the year 480 BC they were elected standing military commanders, brought into office as many times as they liked.
The Athenians now fought in these 10 tribal units, becoming the new basis for the army. So if one part of a line took heavy blows during battle, it would mostly be from one particular tribe. All casualties in Athenian combat were listed on monuments in public view, and these monuments recorded the names of the fallen in battle, without reference to their parentage and family but with reference to their tribes. The Athenian military reforms overseen by Kleisthenes were done to great affect, however this doesn’t mean that Kleisthenes was supported by the people just for his military reforms.
Kleisthenes’ reforms can’t just be explained as a response to the Spartans pressuring on Athens or as a remodelling for the Athenian forces, for it had much more political implications than just military; each tribe now contributed 50 men to the new council of 500, the same council created by Solon which originally only had 400 men in it. Instead of the 50 members being randomly chosen, they were picked from the Attic villages that made up each tribe, in accordance with fixated quotas that related to the villages populations, so it was Kleisthenes that made sure that every Deme of every tribe, every village community in Attica, was represented in the Council. This all meant that the communities now held some form of togetherness, but Kleisthenes took this a stage further by requiring each Deme to appoint its own leader, known as a Demarch, every year, giving them annual control of their own council members, citizen membership, finances, cult activities and judicial arrangements. Alongside the council, the Demarch could pass bylaws and raise his own revenue when needed. There’s even evidence showing that some families under their Demarch changed their family name to match his; every citizens identity became even more interwoven with their given dēme. Demes didn’t just come into physical existence thanks to Kleisthenes of course; small village communities had always existed in Attica, but demes had no physical boundaries, being determined instead by how people identified with each community, mostly out of their families’ past identities with specific communities.
POLITICAL LIFE IN KLEISTHENES' ATHENS
“Isegoria" - the equality of speech - is what turned Athens from a state ruled by tyrants to one that could go on to rule over its neighbours. It’s unknown exactly how long it took the Athenians to describe their new constitution as “demokratia”, and while the words first use has been pinpointed to just after the Persian Wars, it may have been used at an earlier time. Since we are not entirely sure how exactly Solon’s old council of 400 were chosen, or what their powers were exactly, our understanding on the overall effects of Kleisthenes’ new council of 500, as well as his new demes and tribes, are hindered. Yet we do know that the powers of the new Council of 500 were closely defined: Introduced in 501 BC, the Council Oath made it obvious that the Council was deliberative, not executive, and had limited judiciary competence. Further limitary statutes, known only from fragments from written law codes, might have reinforced the idea of the Council’s incapacity in judicial matters. The fact that the Council’s powers were restricted make it clear that by 501 BC the Assembly was in charge, determined to assert that a body as representative as the Council was merely an advisor to the people.
PRE-EXISTING GREEK ASSEMBLIES
The Assembly then had prominence and power above that of the Council, and there was definitely an assembly of sorts in Athens and many other Greek states long before Kleisthenes, even all the way back to the days of Homer’s epics; Sparta’s “Great Rhetra” shows political meetings as far back as c.700 BC, laws from the state of Khios shows that the people there were powerful enough to have met in assemblies (who were elected and met monthly) as far back as the early 6th century BC, and evidence of council meetings can be found at Olympia in the mid-6th century BC. Magistracy powerlessness and the growing ethos of participation made sure that the Athenian Assembly was the key and most vital political body.
ATHENS AND SPARTA - Magistrates’ lack of power in Athens is even clearer when you compare the constitutional makeup of Athens with Sparta: Athens had no equal to Sparta’s dyarchy, or its annual magistrates known as the Ephors. Spartan kings were the ones who led foreign military campaigns, and ephors carried powers which no one Athenian magistrate had; individual ephors were permitted to receive embassies, while in Athens this was done by the entire Council of 500.
STRATEGOI - Only one magistrate position was permitted to remain as a long-term office held by one person for an extended period of time: the general, or “strategos” (pl. strategoi), a position which was first instituted in 501 BC and militarily prominent only after 490 BC. Differing from the other magistracies, generals were not elected via lot, yet they seem to have had no political powers, only military. In these military matters, an individual’s incompetence could not have been sympathised for by having a large board to perform well in office. And unlike other magistrate positions, generals could be held repetitively, with no limit as to how many times someone could become a general. Off the field, generals had no special privileges allotted to them.
CITIZEN PARTICIPATION IN POLITICS - The Athenians’ participation ethos was dependent on two things: the displacing of the old traditional elite of Athens, and the citizens’ gaining higher levels of confidence in their own ability to decide their own futures. This confidence would have grown in part thanks to the immediate successes of the new army, which was first put to the test against the nearby island nation of Aigina. The elite’s role in Athens was wained by Kelisthenes’ new local institutions, where Athenian families had no special claim to any status based solely on past traditions.
OSTRACISM - It isn’t known if Ostracism - the expulsion of poor performing magistrates from the city - was implemented by Kleisthenes too; tradition tells us that the first magistrate to be ostracised was in 488/7 BC. It could be viewed from the idea that ostracism could have emerged from the growing citizen confidence, which would have grown further following the Athenians victory over the Persian Empire at Marathon in 490 BC; they could now get by without certain individuals who they may not have trusted to work in the newly reformed state. This view gains some plausibility from the fact that, following the first ostracism of 488/7 BC, Athens begun to elect their archons by lot instead of via direct elections the next year, in 487/6 BC.
WOMEN IN POLITICS - Women’s role in politics began to decline following the years after the Kleisthenic reforms. While women had no political roles in any Greek state we know of, their role in informal politics was very important. Yet Athens begun to be the state perhaps the least generous towards their women, allowing them, at best, restricted property rights and making sure that in law courts they were represented by a man. Women’s roles in Athenian life became restricted to religious ones, yet even within the sphere of religion, the new democratic rule improved men’s opportunities for religious involvement without hindering the roles of women.
RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS, AND THE GREAT DIONYSIA
Religious festivals’ roles in Athens’ politics should not be understated. Some of their festivals had their origins in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, yet Kleisthenes implemented several more, especially those with more competitive aspects to them like the Hephaisteia, the Herakleia, the festival of Pan (created shortly after the victory at Marathon) and the Prometheia. On top of this, older, preexisting festivals were reorganised, like the Oskhophoria, the Panathenaia and the Thargelia, by making the new tribes the competitive unit in the festivals’ events. These competitions enforced tribal solidarity while giving glory to the victors without giving them power.
THE DIONYSIA - An addition made to the festive calendar was the Festival of Dionysia, which would go on to have profound consequences in the wider world to come. Success in this festival was also limited to just men, and women could not act on stage and it’s possible that they may not have even been allowed to watch the plays. Drama and theatre had been a part of the Greek world for centuries before; an acting mask has been found from the sanctuary of Orthia in Sparta, and the initiation process of girls becoming women at Brauron in Attica also had a dressing-up element to it, and vase imagery from pottery in Athens, dated to c.550 BC, shows choruses of men in costume singing alongside music played by pipes, and plays performed with written scripts evidently developed in Athens during the latter 6th century BC. The choruses of men were later associated more with comedies than tragedies.
Even if only the choice of one community’s leader or “demarch,” the festive competitions, local responsibilities and warfare made sure that Kleisthenes’ new reforms were present within people’s daily livelihoods, rather than just being made formalised on paper. As the new constitution affected all activities performed in Athens’ communities, it also replaced factional struggles fought between the elites, instead gearing them towards aiding the nation as a whole.
DEMOCRACY AND MATERIAL CULTURE
Archaeology itself has given us some answers as to how Athenian citizens now acted and thought thanks to the effects of democracy. At the city level, the democratic city-state undertook several building projects, constructing vast religious monuments in order to project their new image of power, although they didn’t take over the projects undertook by past tyrants, which included the never-completed temple of Olympian Zeus. It’s even possible that one of the construction projects that they undertook was the rebuilding of the temple to Athene Polias, finishing it with marble. The buildings final construction has been dated to the last decade of the 6th century BC, and not the 520’s BC. At some point very shortly following the battle of Marathon, it’s certain that a much larger temple - the predecessor to the Parthenon that stands today - was under construction, alongside a treasury being built at Delphi, complete with marble sculptures. Following the battle of Marathon, a stoa was added to Delphi which showed off the spoilt of the fight. This new Athenian collection of treasury at Delphi now rivalled Delphi’s Siphnian treasury and the temple of Apollo on the terrace above.
INCREASING BURIAL RITUALS - Burial rituals also seem to have occurred more often following Kleisthenes’ reforms. Adult burial quantities that archaeologists have recovered from the 7th and 6th centuries BC amount to around 1 per year, whereas the number of burials found from the late 6th century BC onwards amount to around 9 per year, double if we count child burials. While Aristotle mentions “new citizens” in Athens at this time, it doesn’t seem very plausible to say that this would have meant that Athens started taking in more citizens, but instead could mean that the citizens of Athens now thought of themselves as more elevated citizens thanks to the reforms of Kleisthenes, as burials were being offered to more and more citizens.
Overall, the success in creating a popular Athenian government had a big impact on Greece’s history, as the new-found government type of democracy would go on to bring more differences and infighting between city-states. Tyranny at this time wasn’t a particularly rare form of rule in Greece. Following the Persian Wars, democracy and Oligarchy (with its influence prominently from Sparta) became the Greeks’ 2 more favoured forms of government overall.
While it’s easy to understand why Kleisthenes was popular among the people, it isn’t as clear as to why the people were popular to Kleisthenes. A fear of Sparta, the need for a newly reformed army and the promoting of smaller communities towards a larger and unified one came from the people, but were these all advantageous to him personally or was he more of an idealist? Aristotle’s “Constitution of the Athenians” and “Politics” paints him as more of an idealist, wishing to mix the Attic populations up and remove old distinctions to better unify the populace. To contrast, Herodotus claims that the creation of the new 10 Athenian tribes in place of the original 4 Ionic tribes was done because Kleisthenes hated the Ionians, and didn’t want his people to have the same tribal structure as them. The Ionian tribal names had no local reference to the Athenians, whereas the new 10 tribes’ names came from eponymous heroic figures; legendary kings of Athens whose names were assigned to the new tribes included Aigeus, Akamas, Erekhtheus, Kekrops and Pandion. The other names were Leos (son of Orpheus) who sacrificed his daughters to save Athens from a plague, Hippothoon (son of Poseidon), and Aias (Ajax, a Greek hero present at Troy). Oineus was possibly the son of Pandion, and allegedly the son of Dionysos, and Antiochos was supposedly the son of Herakles.
- Tribe of Erechtheis - Named after Erechtheus, early Athenian king
- Tribe of Aigeis - Named after Aigeus, early Athenian king
- Tribe Pandionis - Named after Pandion, early Athenian king
- Tribe Leontis - Named after Leos, son of Orpheus
- Tribe Adamants - Named after Akames, son of Theseus
- Tribe Oineis - Named after Oineus, son of Dionysos (or Pandion?)
- Tribe Kekropis - Named after Keprops, early Athenian king
- Tribe Hippothontis - Named after Hippothoon, hero from Eleusis
- Tribe Aiantis - Named after Ajax, hero from Salamis who fought at Troy
- Tribe Antiochis - Named after Antiochos, son of Herakles
Implementing these new names to the tribes would have made all actions taken by the citizens (whether festival, military or political) somewhat reminiscent of their past. Foundations had thus been laid for the Athenians to claim they had always come from Attica, and it’s understandable to think that this growing sense of civic pride would have weakened the Athenians’ sense of being a part of the larger group of Ionian Greeks. While Sparta’s pressuring will have caused great division between Ionic and Doric Greeks to become more prevalent, the new reforms would have made Athenian opposition more narrowed.
Kleisthenes reforms definitely have a bright coherence about them. Its very formation by himself shows that he was always consciously pushing Athens towards democracy, and personally it seems unlikely that he ever had selfish desires. Kleisthenes wasn’t heard of shortly after his reforms were fully in place. It’s possible that he died not long after, or he could have been left in disgrace after an embassy that travelled to the Persian Empire during the Spartan invasion after the reforms, being disowned as his embassy gave earth and water over to the king of kings. As of the year 490 BC, his family was greatly unfavored; it even became the favourable view in Athens to claim that it wasn’t Kleisthenes and the Alkmaeonidai who were responsible for the overthrow of Hippias and the Pisistratidai, but that they should in fact thank Aristogeiton and Harmodius. A drinking song known from before c.500 BC mentions this:
“Their fame shall live forever on earth,
dearest Harmodios and Aristogeiton,
because they killed the tyrant
and gave the Athenians equal order.”
On the other hand, the time following 508 until near the end of the Persian Wars in 480 BC reveal further democratic changes that reflected the spirit of Kleisthenes’; a councillor’s oath was brought in in 501/0 BC, reflecting the importance of the new council he introduced. It took into concern the performances of the councils functions, took council according to the laws, acted as council in the interest of the Athenians and even safeguarded against power abuses like arbitrary imprisonments.
• Aristotle’s “Constitution of the Athenians”
• Plutarch, Aristeides
• Xenophon’s “Constitution of the Athenians”
• Herodotus’s “Histories”
• Oswyn Murray’s “Early Greece”
• Philip Parker’s “World History”
• Robin Osborne’s “Greece in the Making, 1200 - 479 BC”
• University of Reading’s “CL1GH Lectures”
YOUTUBE LINK (I DO NOT own this videos)
CRUCIBLE OF CIVILIZATION EPISODE 1: REVOLUTION (Narrated by Liam Neeson)