To Home Page
To Course Notes Menu

Athens: From Solon to the End of the Peloponnesian War
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


With the fall of the Mycenaean palaces at the end of the Bronze Age (11th century BC), Greece entered into the period of decline known as the Dark Ages. Greek myth recalls the turbulent nature of these times in its stories of the woes of the Greek heroes on their return from Troy, but the principal cause of the differences between Bronze Age Greece and the Greece of Homer's day, according to tradition, was the so-called *Dorian Invasion. The Dorians were said to be the descendants of *Heracles (known today by his Latin name, Hercules — a hero celebrated by all Greeks but associated in particular with the *Peloponnese). The children of Heracles had been driven from Greece by the evil king Eurystheus (king of Mycenae and Tiryns, who compelled Heracles to undertake his famous labors) but eventually returned to reclaim their patrimony by force. [FN 1] The Dorians were said to have conquered virtually all of Greece, with the exception of Athens and the islands of the Aegean. The pre-Dorian populations from other parts of Greece were said to have fled eastward, many of them relying on the help of Athens.

If you examine a linguistic map of Greece in the classical period, you can see evidence for just the sort of population shifts recalled by the myth of the Dorians. In the area known as Arcadia (an extremely rugged area in the north-central Peloponnese) and on the island of Cyprus there survived an archaic dialect of Greek very like that on the Linear B tablets. Presumably these isolated backwaters were left undisturbed and so preserved a form of Greek similar to the dialect spoken in the Greece of the Bronze Age. In Northwest Greece (roughly, Phocis, Locris, Aetolia, and Acarnania) and the remainder of the Peloponnese, two very closely related dialects were spoken, known respectively as Northwest Greek and Doric. Here we seem to see evidence of the Dorian invaders, who successfully reduced or drove out the pre-Dorian populations and so left their linguistic imprint on the region. (For a Greek of the 5th century, *the term "Doric" or "Dorian" was a virtual synonym for "Peloponnesian" and/or "Spartan.") In Boeotia and Thessaly (both of which enjoyed lands quite fertile and easy to work by Greek standards) were found mixed dialects, the result of a Doric admixture being introduced into an older dialect of Greek known as Aeolic. Here, it seems, the invaders met with successful resistance, resulting in a union of the original inhabitants with the Dorian invaders. In Attica and Euboea, however, we find a form of Greek known as *Attic, yet another descendant of the Greek of the Bronze Age, which shows no Doric influence. Here the story of Athens' successful resistance of the Dorian invaders seems to be borne out. If you examine the dialects of the Aegean islands and Asia Minor, further confirmation of the myth appears: in northern Asia Minor and the island of Lesbos we find the Aeolic dialect (presumably brought by inhabitants of Thessaly and Boeotia who were fleeing the Dorians); in south-central Asia Minor and the southern islands of the Aegean we find the Ionic dialect, a direct cousin of Attic, presumably brought by people fleeing from Euboea or elsewhere with the help of Athens. (Hence south-central Asia Minor is known as *Ionia.) On Crete, the southernmost islands of the Aegean, and the most southerly part of Asia Minor, however, the Doric dialect predominated.

An alternative explanation would have the Greeks of the 11th to 10th centuries migrating eastward drawn by the abundant resources of Asia Minor and the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Hittite empire and other centers (such as Troy).

[This explanation accounts more readily for the Doric settlements in the south Aegean, which seem to have occurred in tandem with the Aeolic and Ionic migrations further north. On this view the Dorians were less invaders than migratory peoples drawn by the vacuum created by the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization: see, in general, Carl Blegen, The Mycenaean Age: The Trojan War, the Dorian Invasion and other Problems.]

It was the Greek outposts in Asia Minor and the islands that witnessed the beginnings of what was to become classical Greek civilization. These areas were relatively peaceful and settled; more important, they had direct contact with the wealthy, more sophisticated cultures of the east. Inspired by these cross-cultural contacts, the Greek settlements of Asia Minor and the islands saw the birth of Greek art, architecture, religious and mythological traditions, law, philosophy, and poetry, all of which received direct inspiration from the Near East and Egypt. (You will find, for example, that the earliest known Greek poets and philosophers are associated with Asia Minor and the islands. Most prominent of all is Homer, whose poetry is composed in a highly artificial mixed dialect but is predominately Ionic.) In the classical period, the Greeks themselves acknowledged the split between the highly refined and cultured "Ionic" Greeks of Asia Minor and the less refined, but more disciplined "Dorians" of the Peloponnese. Athens, situated between the two, lay claim to the best of both traditions, boasting that it combined Ionic grace and sophistication with Doric virility.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on The Early Greek Dark Age and Revival in the Near East (Perseus).

To top of this page


It is not until c. the 9th century that mainland Greece begins to recover from the disruptions of the so-called Dark Ages. It is this period (roughly the 9th to 8th centuries) that sees the rise of that quintessentially Greek institution, the city-state or *polis (plural: poleis). The term city-state is intended to capture the unique features of the Greek polis, which combined elements of both the modern city and the modern independent country. The typical polis consisted of a relatively modest urban center (the polis proper, often built around some form of natural citadel), which controlled the neighboring countryside, with its various towns and villages. (Thus, e.g., Athens controlled an area of some 2,500 sq. km., known as *Attica. To the north, the polis of Thebes dominated Boeotia. Sparta controlled the southwest Peloponnese, and so on.) As opposed to the Mycenaean palaces, which were largely administrative centers and political seats, the polis proper was a true urban center, but it was nothing like the modern city. In this early period, most of the inhabitants made their livelihood by farming or raising livestock in the neighboring countryside. There was little in the way of manufacturing or of today's "service industries" to allow one to make a living "in town." Population density was low [FN 2] and buildings modest. Initially, at least, political and economic power rested firmly with a few powerful landed families.

The two features that most distinguish the Greek polis are its isolation and its fierce independence. Unlike the Romans, the Greeks never mastered the art of political accommodation and union. Although temporary alliances were common, no polis ever succeeded in expanding its power beyond its own relatively meager boundaries for more than a brief period. (Eventually, this leads to the end of Greek independence, since the smaller poleis could not hope to defend themselves against the powerful forces of Macedon and, later, Rome.) Scholars usually attribute this failure to the historical and geographical conditions under which the polis arose. For the most part, Greece is a very rugged country of mountains, dotted here and there with arable plains. It is in these modest plains, isolated from one another by mountain ranges, that the early poleis first arose, usually in areas with access to fresh water (often scarce in Greece, particularly in the summer months) and the sea. Although the Mycenaeans had established a network of roads, few existed in the early historical period, for reasons we will get to in a moment. Most travel and trade was conducted by sea. [Even under the Roman empire, with its sophisticated network of excellent roads, it was less expensive to ship a load of goods from one end of the Mediterranean to the other than to cart it 75 miles inland.] Thus these early communities initially developed in relative isolation from one another. This geographical isolation came to be reinforced by the competitive nature of Greek society. The early poleis, in effect, operated according to the same set of competitive values that drive Homer's heroes. [See my Homeric Society course notes page.] Their constant quest for superiority placed them in continual opposition to one another. In fact, Greek history can be viewed as a series of temporary, continually shifting alliances between the various poleis in a constant effort to prevent any one polis from rising to prominence: Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes unite to topple Athens; Athens and Thebes then unite to topple Sparta; then Sparta and Athens unite against Thebes, and so forth. In such a volatile political climate, the last thing that anyone wants is an easy system of land communication, since the same road that gives you easy access to your neighbor will give your neighbor's armies easy access to you.

As the eastern Mediterranean began to recover from the collapse of the Bronze Age, trade began to grow, contacts were reestablished between the various cultures of the region, and the various poleis flourished. As their populations grew and their economies became more diverse, however, the established political, social, and legal mechanisms of the poleis became inadequate: traditions that had sufficed for the simple, relatively small agrarian communities of the Dark Ages simply could not cope with the increasing complexities of the emergent polis. The first problem was increased population (although this theory has been challenged of late). The modest farms of the typical polis could not support a significant "urban" population; moreover, the increased population left many younger sons with no property to inherit (and therefore no means of earning a traditional livelihood), since the family farm was usually passed down to the eldest son and good land was scarce in any case. The second factor to consider is changes in the economy and resultant changes in society. Originally, the economy of the polis was primarily agrarian, as we have seen, and it was to remain so, to a large extent, throughout the Classical period. This meant that, early on, economic and political power was confined to a relatively small number of wealthy landowners who would have served as powerful advisors to the king (in poleis governed by a monarchy) or, elsewhere, as members of the ruling aristocratic oligarchy. In the course of the 8th century, however, various factors began to undermine the authority of these traditional aristocracies. The rise of trade provided an alternate route to wealth and influence. Concomitant with this was the introduction of coinage (c. the mid-7th century) and the transition from the older barter economies to a money economy. Trade also led to the rise (on a very modest scale, by modern standards) of manufacture. Thus individuals could accrue wealth and influence that was not based on land or birth. Moreover, the rise of urban centers undermined the influence of the traditional nobility by severing the local bonds that had tied smaller farmers to the local lord or baron: the polis provided a context in which non-aristocrats could gather to speak with a unified voice. This voice was given added authority by changes in military tactics: in the 7th century armies came to rely more and more on a formation known as the *phalanx — a dense formation of heavily-armored soldiers (known as *hoplites) who would advance in close-packed ranks, each soldier holding a round shield on his left arm (designed to protect both him and the soldier to his immediate left) and a long thrusting spear in his right hand. Unlike the older tactics, which had involved individuals battling on foot or on horseback, this style of fighting relied upon large numbers of well-drilled citizen-soldiers. The defense of the polis came to rest more on the willing participation of its propertied citizens (known, collectively, as the *demos or "common people") and less on the whim of its traditional aristocracy.

All of these changes led to a loosening of the control wielded by the traditional aristocracies and the rise of various challenges to their authority, both from the demos and from those individuals who had newly risen to prominence through untraditional means. As we will see when we turn to Athens, the radical economic and social changes outlined above meant difficult times for all, but particularly for the poorer classes, and discontent was rampant. A power struggle ensued, with various prominent individuals striving to win political advancement and personal honor. In many poleis, the losers in these struggles incited revolutions, posing as the friends of the demos in the latter's struggles against the traditional political and economic order. When successful, these individuals overthrew the traditional governments and established personal dictatorships. Such a ruler is known as a *tyrannos (plural: tyrannoi). The word gives us the English "tyrant," but the connection is largely misleading. A tyrannos is a ruler who rises to power by posing as a champion of the demos and maintains his position by a combination of popular measures (designed to placate the demos) and various degrees of force (e.g., the banishment of political rivals, the use of hostages kept under house arrest, the maintenance of a personal body guard — all designed, mainly, to keep his aristocratic rivals in line). These tyrannoi were not themselves commoners but quite wealthy men, usually of noble birth, who had resorted to "popular" measures as a means of overcoming their political foes. In 5th and 4th century Athens, with its strongly democratic traditions, it became common to portray the tyrannoi as vicious autocrats ("tyrants" in the modern English sense), but in fact many of them were relatively benign rulers who promoted needed political and economic reforms.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essays on Remaking Greek Civilization and The Archaic Age (Perseus).
For a selection of (fragmentary) primary texts that reveal something of the disruption occasioned by the developments outlined above, see my discussion of the poetry of Alcaeus and Theognis.

To top of this page


In order to head off revolution and the rise of a tyrannos, various poleis began to adopt measures designed to ease the social and economic hardships exploited by the tyrannoi in their bid for power. One measure that became increasingly popular, beginning c. 750-725, was the use of colonization. A polis (or a group of poleis) would send out colonists to found a new polis. The colony thus founded would have strong religious and emotional ties to its mother-city, but was an independent political entity. This practice served a variety of purposes. First, it eased the pressure of overpopulation. Second, it provided a means of removing the politically or financially disaffected, who could hope for a better lot in their new home. It also provided useful trading outposts, securing important sources of raw materials and various economic opportunities. Finally, colonization opened up the world to the Greeks, introducing them to other peoples and cultures and giving them a new sense of those traditions that bound them to one another, for all of their apparent differences.

The principal areas of colonization were: (1) southern Italy and Sicily; (2) the Black Sea region. Many of the poleis involved in these early efforts at colonization were cities that, in the classical period, were relatively obscure — an indication of just how drastically the economic and political changes entailed in the transition from Dark Age to Archaic Greece affected the fortunes of the various poleis.

(1) Southern Italy and Sicily. [FN 3] The fertile resources of this region attracted intensive colonization, beginning c. the third quarter of the 8th century with the foundation of Cyme (near Naples), a colony of Chalcis, Eretria, and Cyme — neighboring poleis on the island of Euboea. [Originally the colonists settled on the island of Pithecusae, just off the coast of Cyme. They later established the settlements that were to become Puteoli and Naples (originally: "Neapolis" — the "New City").] Colonization in the following years led to the area of southern Italy and eastern Sicily becoming, in effect, an extension of Greece itself, which it was to remain until the rise of Rome in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. Thus this region came to be known (in Latin) as *Magna Graecia or "Great Greece," rather as we today speak of the "greater metropolitan" area of a major city. Settlement was limited by the other two great powers in the region: Carthage (which controlled western Sicily, Sardinia, and the coastal regions of Spain and Africa) and the Etruscans (who dominated northern Italy: today we still refer to the body of water off the west coast of Italy as the Tyrrhenian Sea, "Tyrrhenian" being the Greek for "Etruscan"). The other important Greek settlements in the region were: a) Syracuse (founded by Corinth and for many years one of the most powerful cities in the region), b) Corcyra (another colony of Corinth, off the northwest coast of Greece — a strategic settlement given the nature of Greek shipping [which tended to hug the coast rather than risk the open sea] since Corcyra provided the perfect jumping off point for sailors heading to Italy), c) Sybaris (on the west coast of Italy at the narrowest point of the Italian peninsula, where it controlled the most direct east-west land route through Italy; Sybaris was noted for its wild ways [rather like some towns of the Old West in the United States], to the degree that the adjective "sybaritic" today still denotes a wildly luxuriant and profligate lifestyle), and d) Massilia (modern Marseilles, a colony of Phocis).

The colonies in Magna Graecia played a crucial role in the development of western culture. Through the close contacts between these colonies, on the one hand, and the local Italian populations, the Etruscans and, later, the Romans, on the other, Greek culture (its myths, religious views, alphabet, literary and philosophical traditions, art) came to pervade Italy, leaving a profound imprint on Roman culture and, through the Romans, on the West. (Thus, to pick just one example, Roman mythology is largely Greek mythology in another guise.) In fact, our word "Greek" itself derives from the Romans. The Greeks of the classical period (like Greeks today) referred to themselves as Hellenes (after their name for their homeland, *Hellas). However, a contingent of the colonists at Cyme came from an obscure place known as Graia (an area near Tanagra, just opposite Chalcis and Eretria on the Greek mainland). Somehow the local Italian populations came to refer to the settlers at Cyme as Graii, later transformed into the Latin form Graeci, whence modern English "Greek."

(2) The Black Sea Region. Numerous colonies were established as well along the shores of the Sea of Marmara (where colonization was particularly dense) and the southern and western shores of the Black Sea. The main colonizers were Megara, Miletus, and Chalcis. The most important colony (and one of the earliest) was that of Byzantium (modern Istanbul, founded in 660). Greek myth preserves a number of tales concerning this region (perhaps the distant echoes of stories told by the earliest Greeks to explore the area) in the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, who sail to Colchis (on the far eastern shores of the Black Sea) in search of the Golden Fleece. The adventures of Jason came to be celebrated in epic quite early: several of Odysseus' adventures in the Odyssey seem to be based on tales originally told of Jason.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on Early Colonization (Perseus).

To top of this page


We possess relatively little information regarding the history of Athens prior to the 5th century: much of what the ancient sources relate is of dubious validity, with the result that most modern accounts rely heavily on inference and speculation. From what we can tell, however, Athens in the 7th and 6th centuries experienced difficulties similar to those of other poleis in this period. The coup attempted by Cylon c. 640 was similar to those attempted by other would-be tyrannoi elsewhere, while the law-code of *Draco (c. 621/0, famous for its harshness — hence the modern English "draconian") can be viewed as an attempt to placate the demos and so forestall similar plots in the future: the publication of such a code limited the powers of the aristocratic magistrates, who formerly operated according to tradition and personal judgment but now found the scope of their authority carefully defined by established rules governing jurisdiction and sentencing. Two issues remained particularly pressing: economic inequities (which saw many small farmers living in virtual serfdom, tilling the fields of wealthy landowners at an excessive rate of rent) and political unrest, as the demos began to chafe at the excessive authority of the traditional aristocracy. Members of this aristocracy alone were eligible to hold the office of *archon or magistrate. There were nine archons, of which three were most important: the *archon basileus (or king archon) — mainly judicial in function, with particular jurisdiction over important religious matters (including homicide, which was regarded as a religious offense); the *polemarch — originally, as the name suggests, the chief military officer ("polemarch" = "leader in war"), his functions were mainly judicial as well; the *eponymous archon — the chief executive officer of state, who gave his name to his year in office. [An Athenian would not refer to a particular year as the Romans did (or as we do) by reference to some event in the past, but by naming the eponymous archon for the year in question.] [FN 4] In addition to their monopoly over the chief magistracies, the aristocracy controlled the *Council of the Areopagus. Originally perhaps the heads of the leading families who gathered to advise the king, this body seems to have functioned as an aristocratic senate, composed of ex-archons. On the local level the aristocrats' authority was assured by their wealth and, it would seem, their control over the various clans (gene).

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on Tyranny in the City-States (Perseus).

To top of this page


Throughout this section links are provided to the relevant sections of the Solon: Select Fragments in the collection of Translations of Classical Authors.

In the early years of the 6th century the situation in Attica had reached a crisis point. In a bid to head off the rise of a tyrannos, the Athenians elected *Solon as eponymous archon and entrusted to him the job of redrafting the Athenian constitution and dealing with the issues outlined above. The date of Solon's archonship is disputed: the traditional date is 594/3; some scholars argue that his reforms must be dated to c. 580-70, for reasons to be mentioned later. Solon is not only one of the most prominent Athenian statesmen (a George Washington and Abraham Lincoln wrapped up in one) but the first Athenian literary figure, who promoted and defended many of his policies in verse. We are fortunate to have a number of relatively extensive fragments of his poetry, most of them preserved in the Life of Solon by the biographer Plutarch (c. A.D. 50-120).

Solon clearly found himself in a difficult position, forced to address the demands of both the traditional aristocrats and the demos (see esp. frgs. 5, 36, and 7). Himself an aristocrat, it is evident that, like Theognis, he mistrusted the demos and its leaders (whom he regarded as potential tyrannoi): frgs. 6, 9, and 4 are scarcely the work of an avid "democrat." On the other hand, Solon clearly saw the need for economic and political reform.

The crisis in Athens' economy Solon addressed by instituting his so-called seisachtheia — either a canceling of debts and repeal of laws permitting debtors and their families to be sold into slavery (cf. frg. 36), or (as some think) laws limiting the rent that landlords could impose on tenant farmers working their fields.

On the political front, Solon instituted a policy eunomia or harmonious government. In effect, what he did was redefine the nature of citizenship. Where formerly an individual's status had been largely a matter of birth, now it would seem that all citizens were defined according to their economic class. [A warning is in order here: much of what follows comes from Plutarch and could be the product of later speculation regarding Solon's measures.] Solon established four classes of citizens: the pentacosiomedimnoi ("500 bushel men"), hippeis ("knights"), zeugitae (or sdeugitai — "yoke men"), and thetes ("serfs" — i.e., the poorest members of society, who may have owned a small amount of property but not enough to qualify for full citizen status). Presumably the first were the extremely wealthy aristocrats (whose farms yielded at least 500 bushels per year?), the second less wealthy but still able to afford a horse, the third able to own a farm and a team of oxen, while the fourth contained the peasant class. The archonship and other important offices were open only to the first class (or perhaps the first two classes); minor offices appear to have been open to the first three classes. Officials were elected by a popular assembly (as seems to have been the practice even before Solon), to which the thetes may have been admitted for the first time. Thus birth was no longer a principal qualification for election to the archonship (although it continued to be an important factor), while all members of the demos could feel that they had a voice in governing. In addition, Solon seems to have instituted a popular court of appeal (the Eliaia — in effect, the popular assembly sitting in a judicial capacity): the decisions of the judicial magistrates were now subject to review by the demos. Solon may also be responsible for establishing a second advisory council (the boulê), which would have diluted the authority of the Areopagus: cf. below on Cleisthenes and the Boulê.

Solon's reforms attempted to address the grievances of the demos by having wealth, not birth, determine the individual's status in the community. Like Theognis, however, Solon is very concerned with the disruptive influences of new riches in the wrong hands — that is, in the hands of those who are not members of the traditional aristocratic class. His verses have a great deal to say about the dangers of *ploutos (wealth in the narrow sense) as opposed to a more general prosperity (*olbos, which includes such things as health and well-being in addition to wealth). Like Theognis, he portrays members of the demos becoming, as it were, drunk on an excess of ploutos and success. Such a state is referred to as *koros or "satiety" — an over-repletion of wealth and success. Koros, Solon tells us, leads directly to *hybris. The latter is a tricky word. Today it is used to refer to "overweening pride," often in very Christian terms. In antiquity, however, hybris was a form of violent arrogance or aggression that displayed itself, not in one's attitudes, but in one's actions. The hybristic man was not simply proud or arrogant (the Greeks did not regard justifiable pride as a character flaw) but treated others with a violence and contempt that suggested that they were, in effect, mere slaves. (Thus in Athenian legal parlance, hybris is the technical term for assault and battery.) Hybris, in turn, leads to ruin or *atê. Atê is another complex term. It is perhaps best described as a ruinous delusion — a state of mind in which one commits a foolish error that leads to disaster. On a psychological level the cycle of koros-hybris-atê makes a certain sense: an excess of success leads one to behave with a violent recklessness which in turn leads to a ruinous error. In frg. 6 and the opening of frg. 4 Solon expresses his concern that the demos and its leaders will fall into the cycle of koros-hybris-atê and bring ruin upon the state. In frg. 4 he goes on to express the hope that his policy of eunomia will restore balance, order, and harmony to the state and so prevent revolution, the rise of a tyrannos, and ruin for all.

To top of this page


Despite Solon's reforms, Athens did see the rise of a tyrant: the cunning *Pisistratus. Our main source for Pisistratus' career is the account provided by Herodotus in his Histories. After a brief initial rise to power (c. 561/60-556/5) and an even briefer second reign of one year (c. 550/49), Pisistratus finally established himself permanently as tyrannos of Athens in c. 546/5 until his death in 528/7. [FN 5] His earlier stints in power had been achieved through political ends — Herodotus' story of three factions (plains, coast, and hills) is suspect in its details (see below on the Cleisthenic Constitutional Reforms) but reflects the same sort of aristocratic infighting as that found, e.g., in Alcaeus' Mytilene — and were successfully undermined by his political rivals; his third stint, however, was achieved by means of a private army and was preserved by the methods common to many tyrannoi: the exile of political rivals and confiscation of their property, the taking of hostages, the use of a private body guard. Pisistratus did not suspend Solon's constitution but, like the Roman emperors, maintained close control over its operation. (Thus, e.g., archons continued to be elected, but the candidates were subject to Pisistratus' approval and served under his watchful eye.) Like many tyrannoi, Pisistratus was a friend of the demos, on whose support he relied: his reign was a prosperous time, with programs to aid the poor (through land grants made possible in large part by the confiscations mentioned above), a public building program (which created work and led to the construction of the earliest significant temples on and around the Acropolis), the active development of the Athenian pottery industry and of the silver mines of Laurium (at the far southern tip of Attica), the securing of Athenian control of the trade routes into the Black Sea, and various cultural measures (the elaboration of existing public festivals and institution of new ones, active patronage of poets such as Anacreon and Simonides). In many ways, it is the reign of Pisistratus that puts Athens on the political, economic, and cultural map of Greece, raising it from relative unimportance to one of the most prominent and influential poleis of Greece.

Of particular importance are the innovations in public festivals. In 566 (before Pisistratus' initial rise to power but, many think, at his instigation) the festival known as the Panathenaea was expanded and remodeled to recall other great panhellenic festivals at Olympia (forerunner of the modern Olympics), Delphi, and elsewhere. Originally a local new year's festival in honor of Athena's birthday, the Panathenaea now were held on a particularly lavish scale every fourth year, with athletic and cultural contests of various sorts. (We have many of the large vases — known as Panathenaic amphorae — that were filled with olive oil and given as prizes to the victors.) One of the contests involved the performance of the Homeric poems, with strict rules requiring the contestants to stick to the received text: many scholars believe that this practice produced the first official texts of the Iliad and Odyssey. More important still: it was in the reign of Pisistratus that the City Dionysia was instituted — the festival in honor of Dionysus at which tragedy was first produced. The traditional date for the invention of tragedy (by the shadowy poet Thespis — whence the English "thespian") was given as c. 534, which ties in perfectly with the earliest archaeological remains of the Theater of Dionysus (on the southeast slope of the Acropolis) in which the plays were performed. It would seem that Pisistratus fostered this new poetic genre to complement his building program and his other cultural and religious innovations. The City Dionysia became, as it were, the premiere occasion for advertising the new prominence of Athens as a cultural, economic, and political center.

Pisistratus was succeeded in 528/7 by his sons *Hippias and *Hipparchus (often referred to as the *Pisistratids, or "sons of Pisistratus"). Hipparchus was assassinated in 514, while Hippias was driven out in 510 by members of the aristocratic factions exiled under Pisistratus: these managed to win the support of Sparta, whose general *Cleomenes drove Hippias into exile.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on Tyranny at Athens (Perseus).

To top of this page


[For a more up-to-date and detailed discussion, see G. Anderson, The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 BC (Ann Arbor, 2003).]

With the exile of Hippias, the various members of the Athenian nobility immediately returned to their former struggles for dominance. In 508/7 the pro-Spartan, conservative Isagoras was elected archon only to be overthrown by *Cleisthenes, yet another noble posing as the champion of the demos to further his own political ambitions. Isagoras called in Cleomenes again, but the Spartans foolishly sent too small a force and found themselves trapped on the Acropolis and, eventually, forced into a humiliating surrender. In Cleisthenes Athens seemed to be facing the rise of yet another tyrannos. Cleisthenes, however, broke the pattern: he seems to have realized that Athens could never prosper so long as its nobility were wrangling with one another for power. Cleisthenes is the second great figure in Athenian constitutional history. Where Solon had addressed problems created by changes in the Athenian economy, Cleisthenes was faced with the difficulty of breaking up the power of the great aristocratic families. Although technically enjoying a form of limited democracy, the inhabitants of Attica were still subject to the control of the great families, who dominated different regions much as, e.g., political "bosses" used to dominate different areas of large North American cities. (Recall Herodotus' picture of Athenian politics in Pisistratus' day: three dominant factions in rivalry with one another, each led by the head of one great family and each dominating a different region of Attica.)

Cleisthenes' solution was quite simple. The regional influence of the great families was made possible, to a large extent, by the way in which the Athenians voted. By tradition, all Athenians belonged to one of four tribes. This division was an ancient one and was based upon the very regional affiliations that allowed the great families to maintain their dominance. Since voting took place by tribe, it was possible for prominent aristocrats to exert undue influence over the outcome of any one particular vote. Cleisthenes shattered this regional authority by totally revamping the political map of Attica. (The fact that he was able to do this attests to a desire on the part of everyone to see the aristocratic infighting brought under control.) Cleisthenes established a new system of 10 tribes. He began by dividing Attica up into 30 geographical sections or *trittyes (literally: "threes"). These 30 trittyes were allocated by region, with 10 in the city, 10 covering the coastal regions, and 10 covering the inland regions. (This would seem to be the source of Herodotus' reference to the three factions of Pisistratus' day being divided between plains, coast, and hills: cf. above on The Rise of Pisistratus.) Each of the 10 tribes was comprised of one trittys from each of these three disparate regions. This new division effectively snapped the local political authority of the great families, since the members of any one tribe now came from three quite separate regions of Attica. Although this division of Attica into 30 small regions seems quite artificial and potentially unworkable, it gained stability by respecting the integrity of the small local demes ("parishes") that dotted the Attic countryside.

Cleisthenes also instituted a council or *boulê (perhaps merely a revision of the council instituted by Solon, if the latter is historical: cf. above on Solon and the Boulê). This boulê consisted of 500 men (50 from each tribe), probably chosen each year by lot from candidates selected in advance by the various demes. This council acted as the executive arm of the popular assembly or *ecclesia, setting the agenda for meetings of the assembly, overseeing the actions of the various state officials, and serving as a court of impeachment against public officials charged with malfeasance in office. This powerful council greatly curtailed the authority of the archons and the Areopagus, thus further diminishing the influence of the traditional aristocracy. The size of the boulê, along with the use of a lottery to make the final selection of members, ensured that no individual, however wealthy or powerful, could improperly influence its decisions.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on The Struggle Between Isagoras and Cleisthenes (Perseus).

To top of this page


Over the years between 508/7 and 451/50 a number of innovations were introduced to Cleisthenes' constitution, each of them further extending the authority of the demos. The two most important figures in this process were the shadowy Ephialtes (killed in 461/60) and *Pericles (c. 495-429). These two men, in conjunction with others, are responsible for the development of what is known as the radical Athenian democracy of the second half of the fifth century — the system discussed in Chapter 5 of The World of Athens.

Our understanding of Athenian democracy in the fifth century is limited by two factors. The principal obstacle is our lack of evidence. While a good deal about the operation of the radical Athenian democracy can be inferred from such sources as inscriptions, the comedies of Aristophanes, and Thucydides' history, we have no detailed contemporary account of the system and its operation. Our main source, Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians, dates to the latter part of the fourth century. It offers a general history of the Athenian constitution from the period of the kings down to 402 B.C., followed by an account of the constitution in the author's own time. While this is an invaluable document, its reliability is not always above question, nor, in the second portion of the work, is it always clear whether, and to what degree, the description of the make-up and functioning of various offices and official bodies is valid for the fifth century. In the end, there are some questions we simply cannot answer, or at least not as accurately as we might wish.

The second obstacle is the complexity of the constitution itself, and its evolution over time. The general system that we refer to as "the radical democracy" seems to have been in place by 451, but it is often difficult to give a precise date for the institution of specific features of that system, while modifications of various sorts — some temporary, some permanent — were introduced throughout the fifth and fourth centuries. [FN 6]

The system put in place by Cleisthenes c. 507 had as its ideal the concept of isonomia, or equitable governance. The contrast to the Solonian ideal of eunomia (harmonious governance) is significant in that it implies not simply the acknowledgment of the legitimate claims of the lower orders, but a notion of equality before the law. Yet the Cleisthenic constitution did not in fact seem to have democracy (democratia, or "the rule of the demos") as its goal. Instead, Cleisthenes appears to have had the much more modest aims of limiting the powers of the aristocratic oligarchy and, as we have seen, blunting the factional infighting among the more powerful members of that oligarchy. Following Cleisthenes' reforms Athens was still very much under the control of the nine elected archons and the Council of Areopagus (which, as we have seen, was a form of aristocratic senate, composed of ex-archons). The deliberative powers and authority of the popular assembly (the ecclesia) were probably relatively limited. The institution of the Cleisthenic boulê did, however, dilute the authority of the Areopagus by introducing a second authoritative council. The composition of this boulê was particularly significant, since it was made up of people who, while not perhaps members of the lowest socio-economic class, were chosen by lot from among the general citizenry.

In the sixty years following Cleisthenes' initial reforms the authority of both the archons and the Areopagus was gradually drained through: (1) the creation of another magistracy (the strategia) that diluted the significance of the archonship; (2) the extension of the use of lot in the appointment of individuals to positions of authority; (3) the increased reliance on boards of ten for the administration of state affairs.

By tradition the nine elected archons had been prominent individuals entrusted with the chief executive, judicial, and military authority in the state. In 501, however, the office of *strategos (general) was instituted. Ten strategoi were elected each year (one from each tribe) and given control of military affairs (under the ultimate direction, of course, of the ecclesia). Given that Athens was in an almost perpetual state of war in this period, the office entailed a good deal of prestige and, in practical terms, political influence. Moreover, in contrast to the archons, the strategoi could continue to be re-elected for consecutive terms and thus had the opportunity to build a political dynasty over the years. (For example, *Pericles seems to have served continuously as strategos from 443 until his death in 429.) Whether or not the institution of the strategia was consciously designed to undermine the authority of the archonship, the latter office soon declined in importance: in 487 the archons began to be appointed by lot; in 458/7 eligibility for the office was extended to the zeugitae (the second lowest of Solon's economic classes) and perhaps, de facto, even to the thetes (the lowest of Solon's economic classes). Both of these moves suggest that the office was becoming more of an administrative and honorific post and was losing its importance as an executive office. The archons oversaw the running of specific courts but, unlike a modern judge, did not make rulings or instruct the juries: their duties were solely administrative. The three chief archons also oversaw the administration of the important religious festivals and might even play an important role in them, but, again, they functioned mainly in a supervisory capacity.

With the decline of the archonship the Council of the Areopagus soon saw its traditional authority draining away. In 462/1 it was stripped of all of its duties except that of trying serious religious offenses (the most prominent of which was intentional homicide): thus, after 462 the Areopagus was reduced to a jury court.

The result of these various modifications was the increased prestige and authority of the ten strategoi and, still more, of the ecclesia itself.


The functions of the nine *archons, the ten *strategoi, and the *Council of the Areopagus have already been discussed.

The *ecclesia became the ultimate arbiter of all matters of state, great and small. While administrative duties were delegated to various boards and officials, it was the ecclesia that determined not only questions of war and peace or military policy, but (in theory, at least) even such relatively trivial matters as the pensions bestowed upon particular individuals. Meetings were held on the *Pnyx, a hill approx. 500 meters west of the Acropolis. By the time of Aristotle, there were 40 regular meetings of the ecclesia each year (four during each prytany [see below]), which all (male) citizens who were at least 18 years of age were eligible to attend (although in practice it seems unlikely that those living at the far reaches of Attica would have found it practical to do so, especially those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale). It is generally estimated that an average meeting would have drawn around 5,000 people (out of a total of approximately 20,000 to 50,000 citizens). In practice, the ecclesia must have delegated a good deal of the day-to-day business of state to the appropriate boards or individuals, since it would have been impractical for a body of that size, meeting only three or four times a month, to look after such matters properly. On the other hand, all state officials were acutely aware that, at the end of their year in office, an account of their actions had to be submitted to the people for scrutiny.

As mentioned above, the chief executive duties devolved upon the *boulê, which was responsible for setting the agenda for meetings of the ecclesia, overseeing the actions of the various state officials, and serving as a court of impeachment against public officials charged with malfeasance in office. The boulê consisted of 500 individuals selected annually by lot (50 from each tribe). The only requirements for holding office were that the individual be over thirty years old, a citizen (i.e., a male whose father and mother were both of Athenian birth [FN 7]), and not have forfeited his citizen rights or in any way called into question his ability to defend the state's interests properly (through, e.g., failure to perform required military service, maltreatment of parents, excessive debt, employment as a prostitute). [FN 8] Consecutive terms on the boulê were forbidden and the maximum number of terms an individual could be appointed was two: thus the majority of members of the boulê in any one year would have been quite inexperienced.

The contingents from each tribe took turns overseeing meetings of the boulê: the fifty representatives from each tribe (known as prytaneis or "presidents") served as a steering committee of the boulê for one tenth of their year in office. (During this period, they were said to be "in prytany." The order in which the contingent from each tribe served was determined by lot, with a new group being selected at the end of each prytany.) Each day, one member of this steering committee was selected (again, by lot) to act as epistates or chairperson of the boulê for that one day. The position was mainly administrative, as you can imagine, and entailed very little in the way of real political authority (particularly since no person could serve as epistates more than once during his tribe's time in prytany).

The practical administration of state business was delegated to boards consisting of ten individuals selected by lot. Again, since these individuals served for only one year and were forbidden to serve consecutive terms, it is unlikely that they possessed any particular expertise that would have qualified them for their positions. These boards included the astynomoi (charged with maintaining streets and highways), the agoranomoi (in charge of policing the markets, collecting fees from retailers, and guaranteeing the quality of goods sold), the metronomoi (who made certain that all weights and measures used were accurate), and the grammateis (who provided all official state secretaries).

More important were the ten Hellenotamiai (in charge of imperial finances), the ten Treasurers of Athena (in charge of the state treasury), and *the Eleven (who looked after the prison and were charged with overseeing the carrying out of public executions).

The Eleven were the closest thing Athens had to a police force: in most instances, the defense of one's person, property, and legal rights was a matter of "self-help" — that is, it was up to the individual to defend himself, his family, and his property, and to initiate any proceedings that might be necessary in attaining legal redress. There was nothing like the modern police force that one could summon in the case of a robbery or a mugging, nor was there a district attorney's office to lay charges in the case of suspected murder, theft, etc. (The producers of Law and Order would have been out of luck in ancient Athens.) The absence of a police force can be explained, in part, by the curious attitudes of the Athenians regarding the inviolability of the citizen's person. For one citizen wantonly to man-handle or constrain another was a matter of hybris (in the legal sense of "assault and battery"): such treatment was generally reserved for slaves and implied the assertion of a social and political superiority that was abhorrent to the ideology of Athenian democracy. Under such circumstances, paramilitary forces such as the modern police department are quite problematic, since they empower certain citizens to behave in a fashion that is overtly "undemocratic." Yet the Athenians were well aware that such forces are necessary on occasion. As a result, the Eleven had under their control 300 *Scythian Archers, state-owned slaves who, under the direction of the Eleven, could apprehend individuals and perform "crowd control" functions. Because the Scythians were slaves owned by the state, they were able to restrain Athenian citizens without fear of legal redress against their master. Thus, through a curious logic, the Athenians' concern for the dignity of the citizen led them to assign to slaves the functions that we associate with the police.


The most striking features of this constitution are the reliance on lot and on collegiality. This is clearly a system more concerned with guarding against the possibility of corruption or undue political authority than with ensuring competence in its various officials. Under the radical democracy, all state officials (with the exception of the strategoi and one or two other offices not of concern to us) were appointed by lot from the general populace. (There was a property qualification for the higher offices, but it does not appear to have been strictly enforced.) Thus no one could count on holding a particular office in a particular year, nor could he/she necessarily hope to have "friends in high places." Moreover, most business of state was conducted, not by individuals, but by boards of 10 (with one member from each tribe). Since all officials (again, with the exception of the strategoi) were limited to a single term of one year, and since there was little in the way of a civil service to provide continuity, the result was very much government by amateurs. It is unlikely that officials appointed in this fashion would have more than basic competence; on the other hand, such a system makes bribery difficult (it was in the interest of all members of a particular board to watch the behavior of their colleagues carefully, since eventually they had to present an account of their year in office for examination by the boulê), nor was any one official in a position to accrue personal political power as do, e.g., certain well-established members of Parliament today. There was little chance of another Pisistratus arising in such a political climate, where power was diluted and where the demos had ample opportunity to participate in government. To further guard against the rise of such an individual, the practice of *ostracism was instituted. Once each year a special meeting of the ecclesia was held where a vote was taken on the issue of whether any individual was felt to be a threat to the democracy. If that vote was positive, a second assembly was held where people would vote by scratching names on potsherds (Greek: ostraca — the ancient equivalent of scratch paper). The "winner" of this vote was then exiled for ten years. This popularity vote in reverse offered a crude but effective means of further ensuring that the authority of the demos remained unimpaired.

The second thing to note is the lack of a head of state. With the extension of the use of lot in the early fifth century, the archonship was drained of much of its authority: although the eponymous archon and the archon basileus, in particular, enjoyed a good deal of prestige, they were no longer important executive officers of state. In the early fifth century the office of strategos came to fulfill that function, but by the later years of the century the strategoi, while influential, enjoyed no particular authority over the ecclesia. If you look for the equivalent of a prime minister or president in the radical Athenian democracy, you cannot find one. On any particular day the epistates of the current prytaneis was the token head of state, but his position was comparable to that of the modern committee chairperson rather than that of a chief executive officer. The ecclesia, under the guidance of the equally democratic boulê, had absolute authority in all matters of state. In theory, anyone could address the ecclesia and, if persuasive, formulate state policy; in practice, certain individuals gained particular authority through the popularity of their policies or the force of their personalities. These individuals, who did not necessarily hold any official office, were known as *rhetores ("orators"). (Ironically, many rhetores were in fact dyed-in-the-wool aristocrats: for example, Pericles, who controlled Athenian policy from the early 450s until his death in 429, was a member of the powerful family of the Alcmaeonidae.) Thus the Athenian political system was a true *democratia (in the sense of "the rule of the demos"). It was open to abuse, however, since a rabble-rouser could easily gain power by stirring up the ecclesia for his own purposes. (Cf. the many complaints today about the alleged abuse of television by popular figures such as Rush Limbaugh.) This began to happen in the 420s, after the death of Pericles, as various leaders such as the notorious *Cleon came to prominence through a policy of pandering to the lower classes and inciting the ecclesia against the wealthy. Thus "democracy" at times degenerated into mob rule and class warfare. These politicians — who often came from more "mercantile" roots than blue-blooded aristocrats such as Pericles — were called *demagogues ("leaders of the demos" in the bad sense) by their opponents.

The uncertainties and anxieties occasioned by Athens' lengthy war against Sparta in the last three decades of the fifth century allowed these popular leaders (if authors such as Aristophanes are to be believed) to assume almost absolute power by posing as the loyal defenders of the demos against the alleged treachery and depredations of the upper classes. As a result — through an irony of history — a system that had been designed to guard against the rise of tyrannoi of one sort, in the end led to the rise of quite a different type of "tyrant."

The second pillar of the Athenian radical democracy (in addition to the ecclesia) is to be found in the popular courts. These courts relied on immense juries (the typical size was 501) selected by lot, who functioned as an extension of the ecclesia. Often the cases brought before these courts were overtly political in nature: any prominent Athenian had to be aware that, eventually, he could find himself brought before a popular jury and condemned, less for his actions than for his politics or his general reputation. Just as the authority of the ecclesia encouraged the rise of demagogues, so the composition of these popular juries encouraged malicious prosecution by individuals known as *sycophants, who attempted to extort money from the wealthy by threatening them with prosecution on trumped up charges.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on Athenian Radical Democracy (Perseus).

To top of this page


For the Greek world, and particularly for Athens, the defining moment of the fifth century consisted of the so-called Persian Wars. These comprise three major episodes:

1) The Ionian revolt (499-494): At the beginning of the 5th century, the Persians, whose homeland lay in modern-day Iran, controlled a vast empire stretching from the Ganges in India at its eastern border, west through Mesopotamia and into Egypt, and north through modern-day Turkey and up along the west coast of the Black Sea. In 499, the Greek city-states of Asia Minor, under the leadership of Histiaeus of Miletus, rebel against their Persian masters. Athens and Eretria (on the island of Euboea) both send contingents of ships to aid the rebels. In 498 the city of Sardis, seat of the Persian satrap, is sacked and burnt, the high-point of the revolt. The Persians, under King *Darius, eventually respond in earnest to this affront and quickly retake control. In 494 Miletus is captured and the revolt collapses.
2) Darius decides to punish Athens and Eretria for their meddling in Persian affairs. In 492 he sends a fleet, under the command of his general *Mardonius, around the northern coast of the Aegean, with Athens and Eretria as its ultimate goal. This expedition is intended either as a sharp warning to the Greeks to mind their own business or as an exploratory force sent in preparation for a larger expedition later. In any case, the expedition makes it only so far as Macedonia before the fleet is destroyed in a storm as it rounds *Mt. Athos, a notoriously treacherous place for sailing. In 490 Darius sends a second force, under the command of Datis and Artaphernes, accompanied and advised by Hippias, former tyrant of Athens. This expedition sails due west across the Aegean, pillaging as it goes. It sacks Eretria and lands at *Marathon, on the east coast of Attica, only to be defeated by the Athenians under *Miltiades, aided by a contingent from Plataea. Sparta was asked to help but was unable to send troops immediately due to a religious festival. Today's marathons are based on the story of the runner Pheidippides (or Philippides), supposedly sent from Marathon to Athens (approx. 26 miles) to announce the victory and/or warn of the approach of the Persian fleet; according to Herodotus, however, Pheidippides was sent to Sparta, before the battle, to seek the Spartans' help, a distance of approx. 150 miles (which Pheidippides is said to have covered in two days). You can perhaps understand why today's participants in the marathon have opted for the former version of the story. From the Persian point of view the battle of Marathon was a minor event, a small set-back in one of their many foreign ventures; from the Athenian point of view, however, this victory was astonishing: the Athenian hoplites, never so renowned as those of Sparta, had managed, virtually unaided, to defeat the forces of the mighty Persian empire. Marathon will remain a symbol of the discipline and valor of the Athenian democracy in its early days and, more specifically, of the wise leadership of the conservative Miltiades.
3) Darius dies in 486, to be succeeded by his son *Xerxes. No longer content with half measures, Xerxes prepares a huge land and naval expedition. As his forces are gathering, he prepares their route by casting an elaborate bridge across the *Hellespont near Abydos and by digging a canal behind Mt. Athos (thus forestalling a repetition of Mardonius' earlier misfortune there). The expedition sets out in the summer of 480, marching effortlessly through Thrace, Macedon, and Thessaly. In August it meets its first serious resistance from a relatively small band of Greeks (mainly Spartans) stationed at a narrow mountain pass known as *Thermopylae. The Greeks, under the Spartan king *Leonidas, manage to hold the pass for several days before falling due to treachery. (At about the same time, the Greek naval forces (mainly Athenian) meet a similar defeat off the coast of *Artemisium, to the east of Thermopylae.) Xerxes' forces continue on to Athens, which the Athenians, under the advice of their crafty leader *Themistocles, have deserted, looking to their fleet as their one hope of defeating Xerxes' massive expedition. In September the Greeks defeat Xerxes' fleet in the narrow straits off the island of *Salamis, where the larger Persian ships are easy prey for the smaller, more maneuverable Greek ships and their highly trained crews. This effectively marks the end of Xerxes' expedition, since he can no longer count on lines of supply for his land troops. Xerxes returns to Persia, leaving behind a land force under Mardonius. The latter is decisively defeated in August of 479 at *Plataea. Note that while the naval victory at Salamis belongs largely to Athens, due to her fleet and the cunning strategy of its leader Themistocles, the victory at Plataea belongs to the Spartan hoplites. (The same parallelism can be seen in the Greek historian Herodotus' account of the two defeats earlier at Thermopylae and Artemisium.)

Aftermath of the Persian Wars. In 477, in order to prevent the Persians from attempting to re-establish their influence in the Aegean, a coalition of Greek city-states was formed, known as the *Delian League. Comprised mainly of city-states on the coast of Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean (i.e., those who most had reason to fear a resurgence of Persian power), this league had its official headquarters, and its treasury, on the island of Delos, but the leadership of the coalition naturally fell to Athens. Originally, most members contributed men and ships as well as financial resources in support of this venture, but before too long many of the League's members found that they were being asked to provide only money, to be used, in large part, to build up the Athenian fleet. What began as a series of brilliant victories of a united Greek front against the forces of Persia (479: Mycale, Sestos; 478: Cyprus, Byzantium; 476/5: Eion) and against criminal elements (475/4: Scyrus, a notorious base for pirates), took a particularly dire turn in 472/1 when the League used military force against Carystus (in southern Euboea) to compel it to join the League against its will. This venture was an indication of things to come: in 470-69 the island of Naxos attempted to leave the League and was reduced to submission; in 465-63 Thasos met a similar fate. By ca. 454 the treasury of the League was transferred to the Acropolis in Athens and the facade of a voluntary and democratic alliance was dropped altogether: the League had been transformed from a voluntary union for mutual self-defense into what was in effect an Athenian naval empire, with its members as subject states (although the Athenians continued to refer to them, euphemistically, as "the allies").

Scholars debate the degree to which the proceeds from this empire funded the political and cultural achievements of fifth-century Athens, but there is no doubt but that this period of Athenian ascendancy was one of great activity and innovation: it witnesses not only the political innovations noted above, but Athenian military ventures abroad (in both Egypt and Cyprus, each of which ends disastrously [in 454 and 450, respectively]); the temporary expansion of Athenian military influence into Boeotia and Euboea, in the course of what is often known as the First Peloponnesian War (460-446); the construction of the Long Walls (fortification walls joining Athens to its port Piraeus, built in the 450s); and the construction of various elements of the Periclean building program, including the Parthenon (447-432), the Odeion (ca. 446-442), the Propylaea (begun in 437), and the temple of Athena Nike (begun in the 430s). To judge by the jibes of the comic playwright Aristophanes, many Athenians were fully convinced that the prosperity and influence enjoyed by the Athenian commons were the direct result of Athens' naval empire and the sort of aggressive policies fostered by the Athenian leader Pericles (ca. 495-429).

See, further, Thomas Martin's account of the Persian Wars (Perseus).

To top of this page


The growth of Athenian naval power inevitably led to tensions with the other major Greek power: Sparta and its allies (especially Corinth and Thebes). These tensions were aggravated by Pericles' aggressive policies, which openly aimed to extend Athenian naval power and limit, to the degree possible, Sparta's influence on the mainland. (It was precisely these policies that had led to the largely inconsequential First Peloponnesian War, mentioned above.)

As so often happens, actual hostilities between the two major powers were ignited by disputes involving their allies. When a democratic faction on the island of Corcyra (Corfu) — a colony of Corinth — became entangled in a dispute with their mother-city, Athens seized the opportunity to intervene and to establish an important base in northwest Greece. At the same time, in northeast Greece, the city-state of Potidaea (another colony of Corinth but a member of the Delian League) fell into a dispute with Athens and attempted to opt out of membership in the League. When the Athenians ordered them to tear down their defensive walls and send hostages to Athens, the Potidaeans revolted, with direct encouragement from Corinth. At about the same time, a dispute between Athens and the small border state of Megara (formerly an ally of Athens but now aligned with Sparta) led Pericles to pass a decree barring the Megarians from all of the ports of the Athenian empire, effectively cutting them off from trade. In the face of these various provocations, and of Athens' relentlessly aggressive stance, the Spartans responded by officially declaring war.

The details of the war need not concern us. It falls into roughly three phases:

The Archidamian War (431-421). The first ten years of the conflict consist largely of an ineffective war of attrition. The Spartans march into Attica each spring and devastate the Athenian countryside, forcing the population of Attica to withdraw behind the shelter of the Long Walls that join Athens to its port Piraeus. (Thus it is the Spartan king Archidamus who lends his name to this period of the war.) The Athenians, for their part, sail about the Peloponnese, harassing Sparta's allies. In the end, this is a war in which neither side could hope for a decisive victory. The Athenians, in particular, suffered the hardship of watching their farms being destroyed and the squalor of life in the shanty-towns that sprang up behind the Long Walls, but they enjoyed a secure source of supplies and funds courtesy of their allies and their fleet. A devastating plague broke out in 430, made all the worse by the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which so many Athenians were living: this is described in vivid detail by the Athenian historian Thucydides. (The most famous victim of this epidemic was the Athenian leader Pericles.) Sparta, on the other hand, found its hands tied when a military blunder in 425 led to ca. 120 of their troops being captured at Sphacteria (near Pylos) and held hostage. This phase of the war eventually comes to a close when the Athenian *Cleon and the Spartan *Brasidas, both of whom were ardent in their support of the war, die in an engagement at Amphipolis in 422. This leads to the so-called Peace of Nicias in 421. The treaty was nominally for 50 years, but few on either side saw it as more than an occasion to regroup.
Interlude (421-411). Despite the treaty with Sparta, the Athenian leader *Alcibiades encourages Argos to forge an alliance of democratic states within the Peloponnese and occasion revolt among Sparta's allies in the region. This leads to the Battle of Mantinea (418) and a brilliant Spartan victory. In 415 Athens is led, again under the influence of Alcibiades, to send a massive fleet against Syracuse, in the hope of bringing the entire island of Sicily under its sway. This ends in utter failure in 413, leading to a crisis at Athens, as various "allies" take advantage of Athens' weakness to assert their independence. To make matters worse, Sparta, which had had a direct role in assuring Athens' failure in Sicily, resumes its annual invasions of Attica and, on the advice of Alcibiades (who had by now switched loyalties), begins to maintain a permanent garrison in northern Attica. A state of emergency is declared and in 411 the Athenian constitution is suspended for a short while in favor of an oligarchy (the so-called Four Hundred).
Final Stages (411-404). In the final stages of the war the main theater of operations shifts to the eastern Aegean, where a Spartan fleet (financed significantly by the Persians, who are keen to play the Greeks off one another) is pitted against the much more skilled Athenians. From 410-406 the Athenians win a series of victories that allows Athens to get back on its feet and discourages further dissension among its "allies" (the ultimate goal of Sparta's strategy). The Athenians manage to squander these successes, however, and in 405 suffer a devastating defeat at Aegospotami at the hands of the Spartan commander Lysander. Following a lengthy siege, Athens surrenders to Lysander in 404. Its walls are torn down and its fleet (what is left of it) handed over to the Spartans, who install a pro-Spartan oligarchy (the Thirty Tyrants, or simply the Thirty). In 403, the Thirty are driven out of Athens by pro-democratic forces and the democracy is restored.
See, further, Thomas Martin's account of the Peloponnesian War (Perseus).


[FN 1] These Dorian descendants of Heracles are often referred to by the Greek term Heraclidae, or "Heraclids." Some scholars regard the myth of the Dorians as a distant memory of historical invaders who overthrew the Mycenaean civilization. [Return to text]

[FN 2] In 431 B.C., at the height of the Athenian empire, it is estimated that the population of Attica (the territory controlled by Athens, which was the most populous of the city-states) numbered c. 300,000-350,000 people. [Return to text]

[FN 3] For an interesting general article on Greek settlements in southern Italy and Sicily, see National Geographic vol. 186, no. 5 for November of 1994. [Return to text]

[FN 4] Originally, it is thought, Athens was ruled by a single monarch who wielded supreme authority in matters of war and religion as well as in politics. As this monarch came to share authority with a chief military official, the office of polemarch was born. Eventually the monarchy was abolished: the king's original authority in matters of religion was recalled by the office of the archon basileus, but his important executive functions passed to the new office of the eponymous archon. The relatively late date of the office of eponymous archon is reflected in religious matters: the archon basileus had authority over all of the older religious festivals; festivals of relatively recent date, however, were under the jurisdiction of the eponymous archon. The other six archons were known as Nomothetai and had mainly judicial functions. [Return to text]

[FN 5] The date of Pisistratus' initial rise to power leads some scholars re-date Solon's archonship to c. 580-70. [Return to text]

[FN 6] The following example illustrates both of the difficulties discussed above. We know that, as one would expect, members of the boulê received a salary in the fifth century because Aristotle records a proposal, put forward as part of the anti-democratic coup of 411, that members of the boulê serve without pay. Such a proposal only makes sense if paid service had been established as the norm beforehand. The institution of pay for service is associated with Pericles, but just when this practice was instituted we cannot say. [Return to text]

[FN 7] This requirement was introduced by Pericles in 451. [Return to text]

[FN 8] This list of qualifications holds for all offices in the radical Athenian democracy except for those of archon and treasurer of Athena: these last offices also had a nominal property qualification. [Return to text]

Top of Page : Course Notes Page : Home Page

These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Wednesday, 26-Nov-2014 02:06:54 CST
Please send queries and comments to