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Although Athens is remembered for creating the first democracy, it took many years and multiple leaders to develop the system we think of today. Learn about who took control, what reforms they made and how the people revolted against the old system.
For most of history, humans have been ruled by either a monarchy - leadership by a single person - or an oligarchy - leadership by a select few. This was as much the case in Ancient Greece as anywhere else. Yet the Greek city-states were different.
Around the time of the Bronze Age collapse, city-states across Greece overthrew their kings and established constitutional governments. While some city-states retained the position of the king, the king's power was greatly reduced, often purely religious or even symbolic. More importantly, the king's power derived not from a divine right to rule but from the constitution.
Though constitutions might be mythologized, and some, like the Spartans, might consider their constitution sacred, for the most part, constitutions were still considered to be works of men, and therefore could be changed and adapted to meet the needs of the city-state.
The coups that overthrew Greek monarchies mostly stemmed from the nobility, who, like Achilles in 'The Iliad,' refused to accept a subservient role to anyone. As such, it is no surprise that most Greek states took the form of oligarchy, rule by a few powerful aristocratic families.
However, the vying of these aristocratic families could paralyze the system of government and even lead to civil war. To counter this effect, most Greek constitutions made room for a temporary, absolute ruler. They called this position a tyrant. In times of crisis or civil war, Greek city-states would elect a tyrant to steer the state until his term ended or the crisis had passed. Understandably, several tyrants refused to relinquish their positions of absolute power at the appointed time, and some ambitious noblemen did not wait to get elected to seize power. Thus, the city-states of Greece were forever in flux between the monarchic rule of tyrants and the oligarchic rule of the aristocracy.
Around 590 BCE, the Athenians were in the middle of an economic, social, political and moral crisis. On the economic side, Athens had grown to such a scale that it was barely able to feed itself. Small farmers found themselves buried in debt, represented by a stone pillar erected on the debtor's field called a horos.
On the social side, the only way for a poor person to obtain a loan was for him to put himself and his family down as collateral. As a result, more and more people were finding themselves in debt slavery.
On the political side, the vying of aristocratic families was tearing the city-state apart. The city of Athens was run by nine archons. These archons were elected for one-year terms by a council of former archons called the Areopagus. Archonships were available only to members of the aristocracy. These aristocrats used their position and power to benefit only their own family. The only political body capable of calling these people to task was the Areopagus. Since the only check on aristocratic power was other aristocrats, the needs of the rest of the population went unnoticed.
To overcome these problems, the city of Athens elected a man named Solon to serve as tyrant. Solon acted decisively. To solve Athens' economic woes, he encouraged the planting and export of olive oil, and forbade the sale of other foodstuffs abroad.
To solve the social problems, Solon abolished debt slavery and declared it illegal for one Athenian to own another. He also went a step further and wiped the slate clean, canceling all former debts and doing away with the hated horos. Yet it was Solon's political solutions that really made an impact.
To undermine the power of aristocratic families, Solon changed the qualifications for political power from lineage to wealth. You no longer had to be of a noble family to run for office, so long as you were rich. This did not disenfranchise the aristocratic families, as they were usually wealthy, but it did extend political power to a much larger group.
To ensure that the poor had a voice in politics as well, Solon expanded membership to the Athenian general assembly. He allowed all citizens of the realm to vote, whereas before the vote had been limited to the citizens of the city of Athens itself. He also gave the general assembly real power. He gave them the final decision of electing public officials and created a council of citizens to act as judges. Finally, the citizens of Athens had a way to call their politicians to account.
Having completed his reforms, Solon relinquished his power and left the city, making the Athenians promise to hold to his system for 10 years before making any changes. Yet in less than five years, the Athenian aristocrats had managed to undermine this system once again, and Solon's cousin Peisistratos seized control. Though Peisistratos ruled fairly, shared wealth and power and generally tried to protect the poor from the rich, his son, Hippias, was not so benign and began a reign of terror.
In 510 BCE, Cleisthenes, the son of a prominent aristocrat and political leader, with the help of the Spartans, drove Hippias from Athens. Like Solon, Cleisthenes was more interested in reforming the system than in holding power. His program of reform and justice for the common people upset the aristocratic families. Under the leadership of Isagoras, the aristocrats drove Cleisthenes and his allies from the city, again with the aid of Spartans.
Isagoras ignored the reforms of Solon. He did away with the general assembly and imposed a new and decidedly un-Athenian system of government, in which a few aristocratic families held absolute power.
Robbed of their assembly, the Athenian people were furious. But Cleisthenes was unable to raise an army to drive the Spartans and aristocrats from the city. With no nobility to save them, the people of Athens took matters into their own hands. They revolted, besieged their leaders and executed them. To form a new government, they called Cleisthenes from his exile, and gave him free reign to complete his interrupted reforms. With the people of Athens behind him, Cleisthenes created the first government of the people, by the people and for the people. The result was the world's first democracy.
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To finally break the power of Athenian aristocratic families, and to unify the disparate regions of Attica, Cleisthenes divided the Athenian population into new tribes. These tribes spanned different regions and broke up traditional ties to powerful families. Loyalty no longer belonged to one's local lord, but to one's tribe, and that tribe represented a cross-section of Athens, both in locale and in wealth.
To ensure that no ambitious aristocrat could decide to upset the running of the state again, Cleisthenes invented the policy of ostracism. Once a year, the Athenian people could exile a single citizen, be he too powerful, too dangerous or just too unpopular. The exiled citizen's property was maintained, and he was allowed to return after a year. Thus, if the people thought someone might set himself up as a tyrant, they politely asked him to leave for a year, and he was legally bound to obey.
With his new democratic state thus sheltered from the aristocracy, Cleisthenes placed the running of the state in the hands of the Athenian general assembly, in which every citizen, regardless of locale or wealth, had just one vote. The old positions of archon, as well as the old council of the Areopagus, were retained. Yet their power was greatly reduced. Proposal of measures, deliberation, even election of Archons was transferred to the general assembly. The old oligarchic Areopagus was left with little to do except offer advice and oversee trials for murder, treason and religion, though even then the final verdict lay with the assembly.
This direct democracy was unprecedented in history. Certainly other city-states had incorporated some democratic elements, but these held little political power, acting as councils which the leaders could easily ignore. Even the general assembly of the Spartans was restricted to only a small percentage of the population, and they only voted on the measures presented them by their oligarchic council of elders.
Athens was something new and exciting. It appealed to the fiercely independent nature of Greek culture. Still, the other city-states assumed that this experiment would soon lead Athens to ruin. How could an uninformed mob possibly hope to rule itself? The Spartans held their system together with brutal social programming and ruthless militarism. Yet even this intensely stratified system was under constant threat of slave revolt and could be undermined by outside ideas. If the Spartans could barely hold their system together, what chance did the Athenians' radical system of democracy have?
Yet Athens failed to tear itself apart. By giving every citizen a stake in the state, the Athenians achieved a unity and strength of purpose that the Spartans had failed to create with training and terror. While Spartan civilization stagnated, Athens flourished, accumulating wealth and power, until it emerged as the region's second superpower: a free, democratic counterbalance to the rigid, oligarchic culture of the Spartans.
The stage was set for a conflict that would bring Athens and Sparta to the brink of annihilation.
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