Athens is known worldwide to be the birthplace of true democracy; the city that championed the right of the people to rule themselves. While this is a rather oversimplified view, it is certain that Athens was millennia ahead of the curve in democracy. In the space of less than 200 years, Athens saw the world’s first true democracy flourish and perish; a cultural epoch which has been admired ever since.
The path to democracy as we understand it today was beset on all sides by the recurrent troubles of oligarchy, monarchy and tyranny. In the 6th century BC, Athens began transferring control of the city from the aristocracy, the eupatridai, to the people, the demos. First in 594BC, the lawmaker Solon sought to reduce hereditary power and decrease class divisions. Solon reformed the class system to be entirely dependent on wealth, and not birth, taking the first step to increasing social mobility. He banned creditors from enslaving people who could not afford to pay their debt and in many cases removed the debt of enslaved men. He also created a wealth of new legislation which he published on tablets in the market place of Athens, in order that all citizens could know their laws and their rights. While this did not create a democracy in any meaningful way, his empowering of the people cannot be undervalued as part of the life cycle of democracy.
In 546BC, the tyrant Pisistratus seized power. The word tyrant originally had no negative connotations in Ancient Greece, merely referring to a sole ruler who had seized power unconstitutionally. Many could be benevolent dictators, as Pisistratus seemingly was, consolidating Solon’s reforms and bringing glory to Athens. Unlike modern dictatorships, tyrannies in Greece rarely lasted more than one generation, as they were based on an individual’s power, and were not well suited to hereditary dynasties.
This was well demonstrated when in 527BC, Pisistratus was succeeded by his son, Hippias, who was so unpopular that the Spartan army ended up laying siege to the Acropolis and removing him on behalf of the Athenians in 410BC. The Spartans were hoping that the political turmoil would result in the eupatridai seizing power again, as they saw an oligarchy as easier to deal with and more likely to be favourable to Spartan interests. This gamble did not pay off for the Spartans. In the ensuing power struggle, an aristocrat called Cleisthenes appealed to the demos, promising to hand them significant power with his reforms. The people, interpreting his promises as genuine, supported him. Cleisthenes then set out to give Athens the first truly democratic system.
Cleisthenes’ most important creation was the deme system. Cleisthenes split Athens and the surrounding area into 139 local councils or constituencies, called demes. The members of each deme had a local council and selected a leader each year, and a deme became the building block for Cleisthenes’ other huge change. The powerful families of Athens had been able to control politics through their control of the four tribes, so Cleisthenes discarded them. He then divided Attica into three different sub-regions, inland, coastal and urban. He then grouped together blocks of demes to create ten smaller zones within each sub-region. Finally, Cleisthenes took one zone from each sub-region and grouped them into ten tribes. The effect was twofold. The aristocratic families no longer had the influence over tribes, nor could they form regional factions to influence the government. Using the physical landscape of Athens, Cleisthenes turned the political landscape on its head.
The final two creations of Cleisthenes were what truly made Athens a democracy. The first was the Boule, a council which each tribe contributed 50 members to, who acted as an advisory and administrative arm of the assembly. They were not voted upon, but drawn upon by lot. This was incredibly important to the Athenians, as according to Aristotle: “Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely.” Contrary to our contemporary view of democracy, the Athenians saw elections as oligarchic and only truly democratic when everyone and anyone could participate. Despite this, Cleisthenes’ final reform was to let every tribe elect a general into the Athenian army. Although the Athenians wanted to avoid supposedly undemocratic elections, they also wanted their army to be successful, so elections were allowed to ensure the best generals stayed in power.
The Athenian army was in fact very successful. They triumphed over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC and then ten years later as leaders of the Delian League, an alliance of Greek City states, they saw off the Persian invasion of Xerxes. The Athenians used the smaller cities’ financial and military reliance on them to subjugate them and build an empire, all the while keeping their democratic system. Leaders such as Ephialtes and Pericles came along, giving more power to the Athenian citizens, while making Athenian citizenship more exclusive and restricting the freedoms of the vassals of Athens. After the death of Pericles, the longest serving democratic leader in Athens, the faith in politicians, their rhetoric and democracy itself began to erode.
In the pivotal Mytilenian Debate of 427BC, where the assembly debated whether it could change its mind from the previous day, the demagogue Cleon expressed the idea that Athenian democracy and an Athenian empire were incompatible. His words proved true. Twice Athens succumbed to an oligarchical takeover before 336BC, when Alexander the Great conquered Greece, quashing the democratic system. For all the power that Alexander did have, he could not remove the global and lasting impact that Athens’ democratic experiment would have. Although it died in Athens, democracy lives on today, a testament to its brilliance.
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 6.53, 5th Century BC
- Herodotus, The Histories 5.65, 5th Century BC
- Luca Gaeta, Athenian democracy and the political foundation of space, Planning Theory and Practice Vol 5. Num 4., Dec. 2004
- The Reforms of Cleisthenes, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 23rd July 2020
- Plato, Politics 1301a28-35, 4th Century BC
- Fergal McDonagh, Thucydides’ Mytilenean Debate: Fifth Century Rhetoric and its Representation, Berkeley Undergraduate Journal of Classics 2(1), 2013
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 6.25-6.50, 5th Century BC