Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ History: Reforms of the early 5th c..
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 26, 2003
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For the first good evidence for the Areopagus as a political institution in Athens, we must wait until the
Aristotle describes the history of the early development of the Athenian democracy in terms of historical figures who held positions of leadership among the Athenian people. Wherever possible, he groups these into pairs, with one person representing the movement toward increasing democracy, and one representing the opposition to democracy: “For Solon was the first and original head of the People, and the second was Pisistratus, who was one of the men of nobility and note. After the tyranny had been put down, Cleisthenes, a member of the family of the Alcmaeonidae, was head of the People, and he had no opponent, since the party of Isagoras was banished; but after this Xanthippus held the headship of the People, and Miltiades of the notables; and then Themistocles and Aristides; and after them Ephialtes held the headship of the People, and Cimon son of Miltiades of the wealthy; and then Pericles of the People and Thucydides of the others, he being a relation of Cimon” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 28.2). Elsewhere in the “Constitution of the Athenians,” Aristotle returns to this schematic outline of Athenian history, this time identifying important reforms to the government of Athens and associating those reforms with prominent historical figures. The first three he mentions are more-or-less mythical—Ion’s settlement of Attica, Theseus’ kingship, Draco’s original code of laws. Then followed Solon’s legislation, the tyranny of Pisistratus, and Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms. “Sixth the reform after the Persian War, under the superintendence of the Council of the Areopagus. Seventh followed the reform outlined by Aristides but completed by Ephialtes when he put down the Council of the Areopagus.” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 41.2; the subsequent reforms were the oligarchy of the
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During the Persian Wars, and particularly the Persians’ invasion of Athens in
Ephialtes was the son of Sophonides (Diod. 11.77.6). Aelian includes him in a list of important public figures who were not rich (Ael. VH 2.43; Ael. VH 11.9), which we might contrast to the famous wealth of his political rival Cimon (Hdt. 6.136.3; Plut. Cim. 4.4; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 27.2-3; Plut. Cim. 10.1-2; Dem. 13.29). Aelian also calls Ephialtes a “philosopher”, but what that is supposed to mean is not clear (Ael. VH 3.17).
Ephialtes seems to have held the position of strategos (στρατηγός), or General, at Athens, since we hear of him commanding an Athenian fleet in the Aegean, shortly after Cimon’s victories over Persia in
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Apart from these few details, most of what we know about Ephialtes has to do with his greatest political triumph, the reform of the Areopagus. Diodorus Siculus, who is critical of the reform, summarizes the event and adds a “moral,” saying that Ephialtes “persuaded the Assembly to vote to curtail the power of the Council of the Areopagus and to destroy the renowned customs which their fathers had followed. Nevertheless, he did not escape the punishment for attempting such lawlessness, but he was done to death by night and none ever knew how he lost his life” (Diod. 11.77.6).
The ancient sources are not consistent regarding who was responsible for the reform of the Areopagus. Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, for example, mentions Ephialtes alone at one point (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 25.1), Ephialtes and Themistocles elsewhere (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 25.3-4), and Pericles elsewhere (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 27.1). Plutarch also gives credit to Pericles (Plut. Per. 9.3), but his description of events helps straighten out the confusion and point to Ephialtes as the man responsible for the reforms themselves: “For this reason all the more did Pericles, strong in the affections of the people, lead a successful party against the Council of the Areopagus. Not only was the Council robbed of most of its jurisdiction by Ephialtes, but Cimon also, on the charge of being a lover of Sparta and a hater of the people, was ostracized” (Plut. Per. 9.4) [emphasis added — CWB]. Elsewhere in his biography of Pericles, Plutarch refers to Ephialtes as the one “who broke down the power of the Council of the Areopagus” (Plut. Per. 7.6). According to Plutarch, then, Pericles may have been an important influence behind the events, but it was Ephialtes who actually brought about the reforms (see also Aristot. Pol. 1274a, which seems to agree with Plutarch’s version, and Diod. 11.77.6, which mentions Ephialtes only).
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