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Summary.

Introduction.

→ A Reformer and a Tyrant.

Cleisthenes, Democracy, and Persia.

One Last Step to Democracy.

The Fifth Century: Democracy stumbles twice.

Secondary Works Cited.

Index of Citations

General Index

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The Development of Athenian Democracy 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003

page 3 of 7

· A Reformer and a Tyrant ·

In the earliest history of the Greek world, as far as anyone can tell, the political landscape consisted of small-time “kings” ruling over their own homes and immediate surroundings. In certain places, individual kings acquired power over larger territories, and influence over neighboring kings. This is what the world depicted in the Homeric epics looks like.

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Thucydides (Thuc.).
 
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Attica.
Attic.
Athens.

The Athenians thought that the mythological hero Theseus was their first king, and they attributed to him the birth of the Athenian state. Before Theseus, the peninsula of Attica was home to various, independent towns and villages, with Athens being the largest. Theseus, when he had gained power in Athens, abolished the local governments in the towns; the people kept their property, but all were governed from a single political center at Athens. The Greeks called this process of bringing many settlements together into a political unity synoikism ( συνοίκισις ) (See Thuc. 2.15.1-2). Whether or not Theseus had anything to do with this, the fact remains that, when the Greek world moved from prehistory into historical times, the Attic peninsula was a unified political state with Athens at its center.

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Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
 
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Athens.

During the 8th and 7th centuries BCE (the 700s and 600s), Athens moved from being ruled by a king to being ruled by a small number of wealthy, land-owning aristocrats. Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, a description of Athenian government, says that the status of “King” (basileus, βασιλεύς ) became a political office, one of three “Rulers” or “Archons” under the new system, and Athens came to be governed by the King Archon, the War-Lord, and the Archon (this last sometimes called the Eponymous Archon, because the year was identified by his name). “Appointment to the supreme offices of state went by birth and wealth; and they were held at first for life, and afterwards for a term of ten years.” Later, six other Archons were added to the role. These Nine Archons ruled the Athenians, along with the Council of the Areopagus, which consisted of all former Archons, serving on this board for life (See Aristot. Ath. Pol. 3).

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Pausanias (Paus.).
Herodotus (Hdt.).
 
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Athens.

In the latter part of the 7th century, perhaps in the 630s, an Athenian named Cylon won the double foot-race at the Olympic Games and became a celebrity. He used his earned fame to gather a group of supporters, seized the Acropolis, and attempted to make himself tyrant of Athens. The attempt was a complete failure and ended with Cylon and his party hiding by the statue of Athene, surrounded by an angry mob. Lured out by promises of their own safety, Cylon and his men were killed by members of the aristocratic family called the Alcmeonidae (see Paus. 1.40.1; Paus. 1.28.1; Paus. 7.25.3; Hdt. 5.71). This was a political crisis, both because of the attempted coup by an upstart and because of his murder by the arisocrats—he had claimed the goddess’s protection, which ought to have been respected. Whether this crisis brought about subsequent political changes we cannot tell, but it certainly left its mark on Athenian politics. The old families could not longer be confident in ruling at will forever, and the stain on the reputation of the Alcmeonidae lasted for hundreds of years—it would cause trouble for Pericles, an Alcmeonid, in the 5th century.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Plutarch (Plut. Sol.).

About ten years later, in 621 or 620 BCE, the Athenians enlisted a certain Draco to make new laws for them. According to Aristotle’s description of these laws, the new Consitution gave political rights to those Athenians “who bore arms,” in other words, those Athenians wealthy enough to afford the bronze armor and weapons of a hoplite (see Aristot. Ath. Pol. 4, although some of the details given there may have been invented during the 4th century BCE). Draco’s laws were most notable for their harshness: there was only one penalty prescribed, death, for every crime from murder down to loitering (see Plut. Sol. 17.1). For this reason, later Athenians would find irony in the lawgiver’s name (“Draco” means “serpent”), and his reforms have given us the English word “draconian”.

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Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
 
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Athens.

Draco’s laws did not avert the next crisis, which pitted the wealthy against the poor. Poor citizens, in years of poor harvests, had to mortgage portions of their land to wealthier citizens in exchange for food and seed to plant. Having lost the use of a portion of their land, they were even more vulnerable to subsequent hardships (see Aristot. Ath. Pol. 2.1-2). Eventually, many of these Athenians lost the use of their land altogether, and became tenant-farmers, virtually (or perhaps actually) slaves to the wealthy. The resulting crisis threatened both the stability and prosperity of Athens. In 594, however, the Athenians selected Solon to revise their laws.

Read about the evidence
Andocides (Andoc. 1).

Solon’s laws, even though they did not establish a democracy as radical as what would follow, nevertheless became the template for all future Athenian government. It was common for Athenians, for the next 200 years, to describe subsequent legal innovations in terms of their fidelity to the “Solonian Constitution” (whether or not those innovations remotely resembled the laws of Solon). So, after the brief rule of the “Thirty Tyrants” at the end of the 5th century BCE, when the Athenians were restoring their democracy, the first thing they did was to re-affirm the Laws of Solon, using that as a base to reconstruct their damaged constitution (Andoc. 1.83-84).

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

Solon took steps to alleviate the crisis of debt that the poor suffered, and to make the constitution of Athens somewhat more equitable. He abolished the practice of giving loans with a citizen’s freedom as collateral, the practice that had made slaves of many Athenians (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 9.1). He gave every Athenian the right to appeal to a jury, thus taking ultimate authority for interpreting the law out of the hands of the Nine Archons and putting it in the hands of a more democratic body, since any citizen could serve on a jury (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 9.1; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 7.3). Otherwise, he divided the population into four classes, based on wealth, and limited the office of Archon to members of the top three classes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 7.3).

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

Formerly, the Council of the Areopagus, which consisted of former Archons, chose the Nine Archons each year—a self-perpetuating system that ensured that the office of Archon was held only by aristocrats. Solon had all of the Athenians elect a short-list of candidates for the Archonship, from which the Nine Archons were chosen by lot (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.1); the office was still limited to citizens of a certain class, but it was no longer limited to members of a few families. How, precisely, laws came to be passed under the Constitution of Solon is not entirely clear, but there was an Assembly, in which every citizen could participate (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 7.3), a Council of 400 citizens chosen probably from the top three property classes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.4), with the Areopagus being charged with “guarding the laws” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.4). Regardless of the details, it does seem that the Archons were still a very important element of Athenian government, since (as Aristotle notes), in subsequent years, much political strife seemed to focus on them (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 13.2).

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Athens.

So Athens under Solon had many elements that would later be a part of the radical democracy—democratic juries, an Assembly and a Council, selection of officials by lot rather than by vote—while retaining many oligarchic elements in the form of property qualifications and a powerful Council of the Areopagus.

Read about the evidence
Herodotus (Hdt.).

According to the Constitution of the Athenians attributed traditionally to Aristotle, Solon himself was from an aristocratic family, while his personal wealth put him in the middle-class of Athenians, and his sympathy for the injustices against the poor made him a champion of the people generally. This combination was a recipe for tyranny—tyrannies were common in the Greek world during the 6th century, as certain individuals made themselves champions of the poor in order to seize power—but Solon was no tyrant. According to Herodotus, after formulating these new laws for a new Athenian Constitution, Solon made the people swear to obey them, unchanged, for ten years, then went abroad from Athens to avoid being badgered into changing anything (Hdt. 1.29.1).

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Herodotus (Hdt.).
Plutarch (Plut. Sol.).
 
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Athens.

Solon’s constitution did not solve all of Athens’ problems, and the city descended back into a state of strife, with various factions, each with its own interests, vying for power (Hdt. 1.59; Plut. Sol. 29). This state of affairs continued from about 595 BCE down to 546 BCE, when an Athenian named Pisistratus, after several failed attempts, finally established himself as Tyrant over the Athenians.

Read about the evidence
Herodotus (Hdt.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

[His failed attempts are interesting reading; see Hdt. 1.59-64, Aristot. Ath. Pol. 14-16.— CWB]

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Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Herodotus (Hdt.).
Thucydides (Thuc.).
 
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Sparta.
Athens.

The reign of the tyrant Pisistratus seems to have been relatively benign. The 5th-century historian Thucydides concluded his brief account of the tyrant’s reign by saying, “the city was left in full enjoyment of its existing laws, except that care was always taken to have the offices in the hands of some one of the family” (Thuc. 6.54.6). Like all tyrants, Pisistratus depended to a certain extent on the goodwill of the people for his position, and by ensuring that both rich and poor Athenians received fair treatment, he was able to rule for almost twenty years and die of natural causes (see Aristot. Ath. Pol. 17.1). After his death, his sons Hippias and Hipparchus continued the tyranny for another seventeen years. Hipparchus was assasinated in 514 BCE, and in 510 BCE the aristocratic Alcmeonidae family with an army from Sparta helping them, expelled Hippias and brought an end to tyranny in Athens (Hdt. 5.62; Thuc. 6.59.4).

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