Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
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This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies. Its purpose is to introduce, very briefly, the origins and development of Athenian democracy, from the
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This brief survey of the development and early history of Athenian democracy is a supplement to “Overview of Athenian Democracy,” which appears elsewhere in this series. The first paragraphs of that article describe how the Greek word Demos (δῆμος, pronounced “day-moss”) has several meanings, all of them important for Athenian democracy. Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district. Young men, who were 18 years old presented themselves to officials of their deme and, having proven that they were not slaves, that their parents were Athenian, and that they were 18 years old, were enrolled in the “Assembly List” (the πίναξ ἐκκλησιαστικός) (see Dem. 44.35; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1).
Another meaning of Demos, to the Athenians, was “People,” as in the People of Athens, the body of citizens collectively. So a young man was enrolled in his “demos” (deme), and thus became a member of the “Demos” (the People). As a member of the Demos, this young man could participate in the Assembly of Citizens that was the central institution of the democracy. The Greek word for “Assembly” is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), but the Athenians generally referred to it as the “Demos.” Decrees of the Assembly began with the phrase “It seemed best to the Demos,…”, very much like the phrase “We the People…” that introduces the Constitution of the United States. In this context, “Demos” was used to make a distinction between the Assembly of all citizens and the Council of 500 citizens, another institution of the democracy (see below). So some decrees might begin “It seemed best to the Demos…”, others might begin “It seemed best to the Council…”, and still others might begin, “It seemed best to the Demos and the Council….”
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So the Athenian Demos was the local village, the population generally, and the assembly of citizens that governed the state. The idea of the Demos was a potent one in Athens of the
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It had not always been the case. The Iliad—the work of literature that was the shared text for all Greeks—describes a world whose values pre-date those of the Athenian democracy. One passage from it, especially, suggests that the idea of the “demos” changed dramatically in the years leading up to the
“Whenever he encountered some king, or man of influence
he would stand beside him and with soft words try to restrain him:
‘Excellency! It does not become you to be frightened like any
coward. Rather hold fast and check the rest of the people….’
When he saw some man of the People [demos in the Greek — CWB] who was shouting,
he would strike at him with his staff, and reprove him also:
‘Excellency! Sit still and listen to what others tell you,
to those who are better men than you, you skulker and coward
and thing of no account whatever in battle or council.
Surely not all of us Achaians can be as kings here.
Lordship for many is no good thing. Let there be one ruler,
one king, to whom the son of devious-devising Kronos
gives the sceptre and right of judgement, to watch over his people.’”
(Iliad 2.118-206; R. Lattimore, trans.)
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The Homeric hero Odysseus did not favor putting rule into the hands of the Demos. What happened, then, to change the status of the Demos from that of a lowly mob, to be beaten down with a stick, to that of the ruling People of classical Athens?
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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.
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.
In the latter part of the
About ten years later, in
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
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
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).
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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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.
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
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
The reign of the tyrant Pisistratus seems to have been relatively benign. The
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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 (τριττύες), or “Thirds”. Ten of the Thirds were coastal, ten were in the inland, and ten were in and around the city.
These Thirds were then assigned to ten Tribes (phylai, φυλαί), in such a way that each Tribe contained three Thirds, one from the coast, one from the inland, and one from the city. Each of these ten Tribes sent 50 citizens each year to serve on the new Council of 500.
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 (ὄστρακα) in Greek, which gives us the word for the institution. If at least 6000 citizens voted with their ostraka, the names on the pot shards were tallied, and the “winner” was obliged to leave Athens for a period of ten years. He did not lose his property or his rights as an Athenian citizens, but he had to go (see Aristot. Ath. Pol. 22.6; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.6).
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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One final major reform to the Athenian constitution remained before the government of Athens took the shape it would hold, more or less, for the next 150 years. In
The Court of the Areopagus, named after the Hill of Ares in Athens, was an ancient institution. It features in the mythological history of Athens, as portrayed in Aeschylus’ tragedy Eumenides, in which the goddess Athene puts the Eumenides, or Furies, on trial on this Hill of Ares at Athens (Aesch. Eum.). Aristotle says that in the time of Draco, the legendary first lawgiver of Athens, “The Council of the Areopagus was guardian of the laws, and kept a watch on the magistrates to make them govern in accordance with the laws. A person unjustly treated might lay a complaint before the Council of the Areopagites [the members of the Areopagus], stating the law in contravention of which he was treated unjustly” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 4.4). The Areopagus was an aristocratic institution, composed of men who were of noble birth (Isoc. 7.37). It was composed of men who had held the office of archon (Plut. Sol. 19.1; Plut. Per. 9.3). Members of the Court of the Areopagus, the Areopagites (Areopagitai) held office for life (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 3.6). According to Aristotle, before the time of the lawgiver Solon—the
Solon changed the method by which Athenians became archons—forty candidates were elected, and from these forty, nine archons were picked by lot (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.1). Under the laws of Solon, the Court of the Areopagus retained its role as overseer of the constitution; it could punish citizens, fine them, and spend money itself without answering to any other governing body; and it oversaw cases of impeachment (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.4). Aristotle describes the government of Athens under Solon as a blend of elements—the courts were democratic, the elected archons were aristocratic, and the Court of the Areopagus was oligarchic (Aristot. Pol. 1273b).
The Court of the Areopagus seems to have enjoyed a return to its former glory immediately after the Persian Wars. Aristotle tells the story of how, during the chaos of the Persian invasion in
According to Aristotle, Ephialtes brought about a reform of the Court of the Areopagus by denouncing the Court before the Council and the Assembly (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 25.4). So the reform was not, finally, the work of Ephialtes alone, but an act of legislation by two of the more democratic institutions in Athens. Aristotle connects this event to a newfound feeling of power among the common people of Athens following the Persian Wars, when the less wealthy citizens by serving in the navy had saved the city. He makes the connection between naval victories and the reform of the Court of the Areopagus explicitly in his Politics (Aristot. Pol. 1274a), and the Constitution of the Athenians that survives under Aristotle’s name strongly suggests the connection as well (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 27.1).
By means of Ephialtes’ reforms, according to Aristotle, the Council of the Areopagus was “deprived of the superintendence of affairs” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 26.1). When Aristotle describes the Council of the Areopagus as it was in the
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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).
Pericles was elected repeatedly to the office of Strategos during the period from
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.
Shortly thereafter, in
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).
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).
The democracy was restored, but only briefly. In
Like the Oligarchy of
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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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
(The story of the end of Athenian democracy is told, briefly, at the end of the“Overview of Athenian Democracy.”)
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