Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Cleisthenes, Democracy, and Persia.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
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After the end of the tyranny, two factions competed for power to reshape the government of Athens. One was led by Isagoras, whom Aristotle calls a “friend of the tyrants” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 20.1). The other was led by Cleisthenes, who was an Alcmeonid aristocrat (Hdt. 5.66.1). Isagoras won a minor victory by getting himself chosen as Archon in
So Cleisthenes was free to impose his reforms, which he did during the
Cleisthenes’s reforms aimed at breaking the power of the aristocratic families, replacing regional loyalties (and factionalism) with pan-Athenian solidarity, and preventing the rise of another tyrant.
Cleisthenes made the “deme” or village into the fundamental unit of political organization and managed to convince the Athenians to adopt their deme-name into their own. So, where formerly an Athenian man would have identified himself as “Demochares, son of Demosthenes”, after Cleisthenes’ reforms he would have been more likely to identify himself as “Demochares from Marathon.” Using “demotic” names in place of “patronymic” names de-emphasized any connection (or lack thereof) to the old arisoctratic families and emphasized his place in the new political community of Athens (for demes, see Aristot. Ath. Pol. 21.4).
Each deme had a “demarch”, like a mayor, who was in charge of the deme’s most important functions (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 21.5): keeping track of new citizens, as young men came of age (Dem. 57.60), keeping track of all citizens from the deme eligible to participate in the Assembly (Dem. 44.35), and selecting citizens from the deme each year to serve on the Council (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 21.5).
The peninsula of Attica consisted of three more-or-less distinct geographical areas: the coast, the countryside, and the urban area around the city of Athens itself. Traditionally residents of these areas had their own concerns, and often conducted politics according to regional interests. To counteract this tendency, and to encourage Athenian politics to focus on interests common to all Athenians, Cleisthenes further organized the population. Each of the 139 demes he assigned to one of thirty trittyes (
These Thirds were then assigned to ten Tribes (phylai,
So, while local politics, registration of citizens and selections of candidates for certain offices, happened in the demes, the tribes were the units of organization that figured most prominently in the overall governing of Athens. Citizens from all parts of Attica worked together, within their tribes, to govern the city (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 21.3).
To prevent regionalism from creeping back into the system as people changed their address, Cleisthenes decreed that a citizen, once assigned to a deme, must retain that deme-affiliation even if he moved to another part of Attica (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1). Evidence from the
So, there was a tendency for deme-level politics to be dominated by people who had not moved into the city, but for national politics—service on juries, in the Council, and the magistracies—to be dominated by Athenians who, although members of demes located all over the peninsula, were full-time residents of the city and its immediate environs.
To help legitimize this new division, to give it the aura of antiquity, Cleisthenes named each tribe after a legendary hero of Athens; the selection of heroes was handled by the Oracle at Delphi, that is, by the god Apollo himself. The ten “eponymous heroes” and their associated tribes were: Ajax (Aiantis), Aegeus (Aigeis), Acamas (Akamantis), Antiochus (Antiochis), Erechtheus (Erechtheis), Hippothoon (Hippothontis), Cecrops (Kekropis), Leos (Leontis), Oeneus (Oineis), Pandion (Pandionis). Their statues stood in downtown Athens, watching over the place where important public documents were published on billboards.
All of these reforms constituted a remarkable re-shaping of Athenian society along new lines. Old associations, by region or according to families, were broken. Citizenship and the ability to enjoy the rights of citizens were in the hands of immediate neighbors, but the governing of Athens was in the hands of the Athenian Demos as a whole, organized across boundaries of territory and clan. The new order was sealed as citizens adopted their deme-names into their own names, and as the god Apollo, speaking from Delphi, endorsed the new tribes.
But, with the Demos newly unified and the authority of the older, more arisocratic system undermined, the danger of tyranny remained. Some relatives of Pisistratus survived, wealthy and still influential, in Athens, and (a new threat) the Great King of Persia was increasingly interested in bringing the Greek world into his empire. What was to stop a prominent citizen from gaining support with promises of power, and then either assuming tyrannical rule or inviting Persia to set him up as a client king?
Cleisthenes sought to avert this danger by means of his most famous innovation: ostracism. Every year the Assembly of Athenian citizens voted, by show of hands, on whether or not to hold an ostracism. If the Demos voted to hold one, the ostracism took place a few months later, at another meeting of the Assembly. Then, each citizen present scratched a name on a broken piece of pottery; these, the scrap paper of the ancient world, were called ostraka (
The earliest subjects of ostracism were associates of Pisistratus and his sons (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 22.6), but in later years the Athenian used the process to remove the leaders of various factions, both men who were regarded as champions of the democracy, such as Themistocles—ostracized sometime around
To be the subject of an ostracism was actually something of an honor, if an inconvenient one. It meant that a man was deemed too influential, too capable of persuading his fellow citizens, to be allowed to participate in the democratic processes of governing Athens. The list of ostracized Athenians constitutes a “Who’s Who” of the early history of the democracy. In fact, the institution fell into disuse after
Cleisthenes reformed Athens at the very end of the
The victory for the newly democratized state was doubly significant, since the Persian expedition had brought Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, intending to install him as tyrant over the Athenians (Hdt. 6.107). This victory, and the even more unlikely victory against a larger Persian expedition ten years later, established democratic Athens as a leading power in the Greek world.
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