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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 6 of 7

· The Fifth Century: Democracy stumbles twice ·

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Athens.
Sparta.

The 5th century BCE was marked by the extended conflict—sometimes “cold” and often overt—between Athens and Sparta, but involving most of the Greek world and the Persian Empire as well. That history is readily available elsewhere. For our purposes, there are three things especially worth mentioning from the period.

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

First was the generalship of Pericles. The office of “General”, or Strategos ( στρατηγός ), was one of the few in the Athenian democracy that was elected, rather than chosen randomly by lot; the reasons for this should be obvious (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.4). It was also the only office which an Athenian could hold for multiple successive terms. And, the Generals—there were ten in each year—enjoyed certain powers that made this office (at least potentially) a platform from which an Athenian could wield extraordinary influence over the affairs and policies of the city. A general could introduce business for discussion in a meeting of the Assembly on his own authority, without going through normal channels (the evidence for this comes from inscriptions: SEG 10 86.47; IG II2 27; the “normal channels” are discussed below).

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Sparta.
Athens.

Pericles was elected repeatedly to the office of Strategos during the period from 454 to 429 BCE (though not for every year during that period, which is interesting). From within this office, he was able to address the Athenians meeting in their Assembly on matters he deemed important, and to persuade them toward policies of his own devising. The two most noteworthy results were the so-called “Periclean Building Program”, which produced the monumental architecture we see today on the Athenian Acropolis, and the expansion of Athenian imperialism. The latter, eventually, brought about a war between Athens and Sparta that, in one form or another, lasted (at least) from 431 BCE until Athens’ defeat in 404 BCE.

Read about the evidence
Thucydides (Thuc.).
 
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Sparta.

The historian Thucydides, himself an Athenian General who helped pursue the war against Sparta, offers this characterization of Pericles’ leadership: “Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the Demos—in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction. Whenever he saw them unseasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them to alarm; on the other hand, if they fell victims to a panic, he could at once restore them to confidence. In short, what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen.” (Thuc. 2.65.8-9). What is most important to remember, though, is that Pericles was merely one of ten elected Generals. His “policies” came into effect merely because his office afforded him a platform from which to address the Demos, and his evident talents as a speaker allowed him to persuade the Demos to adopt his ideas as their own.

Read about the evidence
Thucydides (Thuc.).
 
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Sparta.
Athens.
Sicily.
Syracuse.

In 415, after an interlude of relative peace in the war between Athens and Sparta, the Demos of Athens undertook an invasion of Sicily. This adventure was an utter disaster, resulting in the destruction of an Athenian fleet and an army of Athenian citizens either killed outright or doomed to work to death in the quarries of Syracuse. In the aftermath, certain citizens took steps to move the government of the city away from the radical democracy that—they thought—was leading the city to ruin. Their first step was to work, through constitutional channels, to establish a small body of “Preliminary Councilors”, who would limit the topics that could be addressed by the more democratic Council and Assembly (Thuc. 8.1.3-4).

Read about the evidence
Thucydides (Thuc.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
 
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Athens.

Shortly thereafter, in 411 BCE, the Athenians brought an end to their democracy and instituted an oligarchy by, first, appointing ten “Commissioners” who were charged with re-writing the constitution of Athens (Thuc. 8.67.1). Aristotle says that there were twenty of these, and that they were in addition to the ten Preliminary Councilors already in office (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 29.2).

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

These Commissioners proposed a new Council, consisting of 400 men, with service limited to the wealthier citizens. Five men would be selected as “Presidents”, and these would choose 100 men for the new Council, and each of those 100 would choose three others, thus creating the Council of “400”, or 405 in reality (Thuc. 8.67.3; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 29.5). This new government claimed that a Council of 400 was “according to the ancestral constitution” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 31.1). This Council of 400 would have the power to choose 5000 Athenians who would be the only citizens eligible to participate in assemblies (Thuc. 8.67.3; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 29.5).

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

Thucydides describes how this new Council of 400 collected an armed gang, confronted the democratic Council, paid them their stipends, and sent them home (Thuc. 8.69.4; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 32.1).

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

This oligarchic government lasted only four months before it was replaced by another government in which the power was in the hands of 5000 Athenians — more democratic, but still a far cry from the radical democracy defined by Cleisthenes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 33.1). That government, in turn, lasted only a short time before “the People quickly seized control of the constitution from them” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 34.1).

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Alc.).
Plutarch (Plut. Lys.).
Pausanias (Paus.).
Xenophon (Xen. Hell.).
 
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Aegospotamoi.
Athens.

The democracy was restored, but only briefly. In 404 BCE, the Spartans caught the Athenian fleet on the beach at Aegospotamoi (“Goat Islands”) and destroyed it. After a period of seige, while the Spartans blockaded the harbors of Athens, the city surrendered, and its fortunes fell into the hands of the so-called Thirty Tyrants. These were Athenians selected by the Spartans to form a puppet government by the Spartans. (For the end of the Peloponnesian War, see Plut. Alc. 36.4-37.3; Plut. Lys. 9.4-11; for the establishment of the Tyrants, see Plut. Lys. 15.5; Paus. 1.2.2; Paus. 3.5.1; Paus. 9.11.6; Xen. Hell. 2.3.11)

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Lys.).
Andocides (Andoc. 1).
Xenophon (Xen. Hell.).
 
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Athens.

Like the Oligarchy of 411, the tyranny of the Thirty lasted only one year before pro-democracy forces regained control of the city’s affairs (Plut. Lys. 21; Xen. Hell. 2.4.2). After the tyrants were overthrown and the city returned to democratic rule, Athens once again compiled and codified its old laws with this decree, which summarizes the accumulated law and tradition of the first century of the Athenian democratic experiment: “On the motion of Teisamenus the People decreed that Athens be governed as of old, in accordance with the laws of Solon, his weights and his measures, and in accordance with the statutes of Draco, which we used in times past. Such further laws as may be necessary shall be inscribed upon tables by the Law-Givers elected by the Council and named hereafter, exposed before the Tribal Statutes for all to see, and handed over to the magistrates during the present month. The laws thus handed over, however, shall be submitted beforehand to the scrutiny of the Council and the five hundred Law-Givers elected by the Demes, when they have taken their oath. Further, any private citizen who so desires may come before the Council and suggest improvements in the laws. When the laws have been ratified, they shall be placed under the guardianship of the Council of the Areopagus, to the end that only such laws as have been ratified may be applied by magistrates. Those laws which are approved shall be inscribed upon the wall, where they were inscribed aforetime, for all to see” (Andoc. 1.83-84). The Athenians also passed a law of general amnesty, to prevent an endless cycle of retribution for wrongs committed on both sides of the recent civil strife (see Xen. Hell. 2.4.43).

An inscription (IG I3 105) survives that records a law limiting the Council’s authority. After two anti-democratic revolutions, this law says that in matters of war and peace, death sentences, large fines, disenfranchisement (that is, loss of citizenship), the administration of public finances, and foreign policy the Council cannot act without the approval of the Assembly of the People.

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Athens.

With this restoration, Athens reestablished a radically democratic government. The following description of the institutions of Athens will focus on the democracy as it was in the 4th century, in its fully developed form, attested by the best evidence.

(The story of the end of Athenian democracy is told, briefly, at the end of the“Overview of Athenian Democracy.”)

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