To Home Page
To Course Notes Menu

The Rise of Athens and the Athenian Democracy:
From Solon to Cleisthenes (with a brief glance at Sparta)
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.



Suggested Background Reading


Early Athens

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) 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 1] 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


Solon

Read: The World of Athens, H.I. 8.

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 (compare Semonides on the expensive "mare woman"), 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. We have already seen how economic changes in this period disrupted Theognis' world, as the impoverished former aristocrat saw his social inferiors rise to prominence in his stead. Solon, too, is very concerned with the disruptive influences of new riches in the wrong hands. 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 (see The World of Athens 3.15). The hybristic man was not simply proud or arrogant (as we have seen, the Greeks did not regard justifiable pride as a character flaw) but treated others with a violence 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. (It is atê to which Phoenix refers in the parable he tells Achilles at Iliad 9.502-12 [FN 2] [where it is translated as "ruin"], as does Agamemnon in his "apology" at Iliad 19.86ff.) 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.

Solon and divine justice. In addition to his importance to Athenian political and social history, Solon is of value for his reflections on the nature of the gods and divine justice. Solon's view of the gods is quite different from that of Homer, and the contexts in which he views the operation of divine justice find little or no analog in Homer's poems. This is to be expected: we have already seen how changes in society and in moral attitudes led Xenophanes to protest against Homer's gods. Xenophanes, however, remains something of a curiosity: his reflections on the nature of deity find little support until the late 5th and (especially) the 4th century. Solon's poems, by contrast, express an outlook that is fundamental to Greek thought throughout the 6th and 5th centuries.

Solon often refers to the justice or *dikê of the gods, and of Zeus in particular. Dikê is very much a retributive form of justice: transgressions against divine law lead inevitably to punishment. (You might think of a set of scales — a particular transgression tips the balance and must be answered by a corresponding atonement: cf. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 250 and see below on Inherited Guilt.) This very notion of crime and punishment is distinct from what we found in Homer, where the emphasis was not on the gods as divine avengers but as representatives of the obscure destinies that loom over mortal lives. The Zeus of Solon, in particular, is a much more obscure and potentially frightening figure: in frg. 13 he is presented as the awesome and inscrutable punisher of mortal transgressions who strikes when least expected, like a sudden summer storm (cf. frg. 17).

While the Zeus of Solon is much murkier than that of Homer, his justice does operate according to certain well-defined principles. The first is that of koros-hybris-atê, lifted out of its original socio-economic context and elevated to the status of a cosmic principle. In this context, atê is viewed as a delusion sent by the gods to ensure the ruin of one who has yielded to hybris and violated the gods' ordinances. The threat of divine punishment is held up as a check against the competitive, aggressive instincts fostered by the Greek shame culture: such instincts, natural to Homer's warrior aristocracy, become problematic in the context of the emergent polis, where they led (among other things) to the rise of tyrannoi. When Agamemnon speaks of atê descending upon Zeus himself in Iliad 19.86ff., it is clear that there is no notion of divine punishment involved; in the same way, Agamemnon views the atê that led him to offend Achilles, not as divine punishment for an error on his part, but merely as a means of explaining how he could have committed so foolish an act. [FN 3] In Solon, a definite moral element has been added: the gods punish mortal transgressions (hybris), and atê is their means of ensuring that mortals bring about their own well-deserved doom (in accordance with the principle of overdetermination). [FN 4] A prominent feature of this new moral outlook is the emphasis on knowing one's place: like the demos in a properly ordered polis, humankind is to take care not to attempt to rise above its due place in the order of things. (This notion is not altogether new — cf., e.g., Diomedes' words to Glaucus at Iliad 6.128-43 [cf., e.g., the tale of Bellerophon and his unhappy end at Iliad 6.155ff.]; what is new is the emphasis on the danger of enjoying too much prosperity.)

For anyone who espouses a view of the gods as punishers of mortal wrongs, an immediate difficulty occurs: all too often the evil of this world seem to flourish, while the innocent suffer. In many religious systems this difficulty is met on an eschatological level: more lasting punishments and rewards are said to await us in the afterlife. The Greeks opted for a notion that, again, reflects the terms in which they viewed the world. Rather than turning to the afterlife (which, as we have seen, was not a focus of the popular religion of the day) they focused on the family, viewed over time. The Greeks placed a great deal of stress on the extended family, both one's dead ancestors and one's children, who would carry the family name into the future, maintain the family property and family gods, etc. The apparent vagaries in the fortunes of various individuals could be explained in terms of a divine justice that did not necessarily punish the individual transgressor but might instead reserve punishment for one of his (the masculine form is intentional) descendants (i.e., inherited guilt). Thus one could be assured that punishment would come, although not perhaps immediately; on the other hand, suffering that appeared to be undeserved could be explained as atonement for a transgression on the part of some ancestor in the past. There is a certain logic to this system, but it is potentially very disturbing: unlike Homer's heroes, people in Solon's time must worry lest the dikê of Zeus suddenly strike them down in repayment for the misdeeds of one of their ancestors. See, in particular, Solon frg. 13, lines 25ff. (As we shall see, however, when we read Herodotus, the principle of overdetermination assured that Zeus' justice was not presented as altogether arbitrary in its operation.)

This notion of inherited guilt can be explained in terms of the balance of dikê (discussed above). Another way in which it was viewed invoked the principle of *miasma or religious pollution. Violations of divine law were felt to pollute or stain the doer. A person in such a state was dangerous, since his/her pollution called for divine retribution and (like the modern microbe) was easily transferable. Thus, for example, people accused of murder (which stained one with the blood of the murdered individual) were forbidden to enter temples, the assembly, the marketplace, or any other public forum for fear that their pollution might be transferred to the community as a whole, to its ruin. Even as late as the late 5th century a defendant in a court of law could defend himself against the charge of murder by citing the fact that he had engaged in various activities in public (such as sailing on a ship) without bringing ruin on his companions. [Compare the story of Jonah in Jonah 1.4-16: the sailors cast lots to determine who among them has incurred God's wrath and throw the loser overboard.] Inherited guilt can be viewed, then, as a miasma that is passed down through the generations.

In reading the fragments of Solon's poetry, focus on ways in which Solon reflects: (1) the political, economic, and social difficulties of his age, and (2) the new religious and ethical outlook associated with the emergent polis.

Select Fragments of Solon

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on Economic Crisis and Subsistence Agriculture (Perseus).

To top of this page


Pisistratus

Read: The World of Athens, H.I. 9-10; 1.28
Herodotus, The Histories 1.59-64

Despite Solon's reforms, Athens did see the rise of a tyrant: the cunning Pisistratus. Our main source for Pisistratus' career is the passage of Herodotus' Histories cited above. 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 that we have seen 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 (The World of Athens 2.49) 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. (See the unit on Greek Tragedy.) 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"). As you have read in The World of Athens, the latter was killed in 514. Hippias was driven out in 510 by members of the aristocratic factions exiled by Pisistratus: these managed successfully 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


Cleisthenes

Read: The World of Athens, H.I. 11; 1.29-30.

[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


Athenian Democracy

Read: The World of Athens, 5.1-77.
[Optional: C. G. Starr A History of the Ancient World, pp. 298-318]

Terms to know: *boulê, *demagogues, *democratia, *ecclesia, *liturgies, *ostracism, *Pnyx, *rhetores, *strategoi, *sycophant.
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 WA.

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.


GENERAL OVERVIEW OF THE "RADICAL DEMOCRACY"

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.


GENERAL EVALUATION OF THE "RADICAL DEMOCRACY"

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 (see WA 5.24) 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 (whom we will meet later) 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 (which we will see in action when we read Plato's Apology: see WA 5.44-67). 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


Sparta

Read: The World of Athens, H.I. 6, P. 7-9.

Before turning to the important events of the 5th century it is necessary to take a brief glance at Sparta. Together with Athens, Sparta dominates the political and military history of 5th/4th century Greece. Prior to the 7th century Sparta was a fairly typical Greek polis, distinguished mainly by its curious constitution: a joint hereditary kingship — perhaps representing the merger of two monarchies in the distant past — working in conjunction with an aristocratic senate of 30 "elders" (the gerousia) and a popular assembly (the apella, or "assembly of warriors," whose authority was limited mainly to questions of war and peace). At some point — probably the 8th century — was introduced the annual election of 5 officers known as *ephors. (Perhaps we can see here an attempt to address the sorts of demands that, in Athens, led to the election of Solon as archon.) In historical times, the ephors, working with the gerousia, controlled Spartan policy. The kings retained a good deal of authority, especially in military affairs, but most remained firmly subordinate to the ephors; those who challenged the authority of the ephors usually did so to their own cost.

Sparta in the 7th century was a prosperous and cultured polis, fostering artists of various sorts and with a particularly strong poetic tradition.

[Especially noteworthy are the choral lyric poems of Alcman, composed in the local Doric dialect. The influence of the Spartan poetic tradition may be reflected in the fact that the choral odes of Athenian tragedy also employ the Doric dialect, although elsewhere tragedy routinely uses the Attic dialect of Athens.]
With the final conquest of *Messenia in the late 7th century, however, and the subjugation of the *Helots, Spartan society underwent a radical transformation (probably a gradual process, but later attributed to the legislation of the law-giver *Lycurgus, the Spartan equivalent of Solon). The need to control a large subject population, in combination with certain militaristic tendencies in Doric culture generally, resulted in a closed, militaristic society that operated more like an armed camp than like the typical Greek polis. (For example, Sparta was alone in having a secret police force, designed to detect and crush any sign of rebellion among the helots.) All emphasis was placed on military training and preparedness rather than on political participation or the cultural and artistic elaboration of the polis. Thus Sparta was a polis that lacked the usual marks of such a community: the 5th-century historian Thucydides made a particular point of remarking that later ages, if they judged by the archaeological remains, would never guess the power and the prominence which Sparta enjoyed, since Sparta lacked the grand temples and other public buildings that marked, e.g., its rival, Athens. The absolute focus on military training and discipline led the Spartan hoplites to be the most feared land force in Greece. Many envied Sparta its unity and its military successes, but Sparta was generally viewed with fear and distrust, as an altogether closed and claustrophobic society. In a curious anticipation of the modern "Cold War," Sparta came to be cast as the antithesis of Athens: the closed, militaristic, xenophobic, philistine community which placed duty to the state above individual rights, as opposed to the open, cultured democracy where respect for the individual led to the flourishing of state and individual alike. (This is in fact the main theme of Pericles' famous funeral oration, which we will read when we come to the historian Thucydides.)
See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on Sparta (Perseus).

Notes

[FN 1] 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 2] There are several curious features to Phoenix's speech that suggest that it is a later addition to the poem. This would account for the similarities between the view of divine justice presented in his parable and that found in Solon's poems (discussed in the following sections). [Return to text]

[FN 3] Note that Achilles himself concurs with Agamemnon in seeing the latter's actions as the result of atê: see Iliad 1.412 and 9.376. We would scarcely expect this if Agamemnon's reference to atê was merely a specious excuse designed to get him off the hook. [Return to text]

[FN 4] Note, e.g., the difference between Solon's notion of hybris and that in the Iliad. The word hybris appears only five times in the Iliad, never in regard to Achilles' behavior. At 1.203, 1.214, and 9.368 Achilles and Athena use it of Agamemnon's treatment of Achilles; at 11.695 Nestor uses it of the haughty violence of his enemies, the Epeians; at 13.633 Menelaus uses it of the Trojans. In each case it is violent arrogance of the agent that is the focus: there is no suggestion of it being caused by koros or being punished by atê. Hybris in the Iliad arouses outraged indignation in those against whom it is aimed, but there is little notion of it directly triggering divine wrath. Cf. the term nemesis ("righteous indignation"), which in the fifth century is used to signify the gods' anger at transgressions on the part of mortals: nowhere in Homer is the term used in this sense. (The closest Homer comes is Iliad 24.53; contrast, e.g., Herodotus 1.34, which we will read later in the course.) [Return to text]

[FN 5] The date of Pisistratus' initial rise to power leads some scholars redate 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 413, 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, 11-Nov-2009 23:24:45 CST
Please send queries and comments to john.porter@usask.ca.