The importance of Athenian democracy can hardly be overstated, not only because of its uniqueness and its expansion of freedom, but also because it allowed the golden age of Athenian civilization to dawn in the fifth century b.c.e.
The reforms implemented by Cleisthenes in 508–507 b.c.e. brought a period of one-man rule by tyrants to an end and granted Athenian men unprecedented powers over their political community.
In order to make such changes Cleisthenes first had to overcome numerous challenges and adversaries while continuing to deal with ongoing criticism. Still, some scholars argue that his reforms were largely self-serving by greatly benefiting him and his clan.
Regardless to what degree Cleisthenes might have personally profited from his actions, there is little doubt that Athens did as well, while the rest of the world gained in having an early model of democracy to inspire later democratic political regimes.
Cleisthenes was born in 570 b.c.e. into the wealthy and aristocratic Alcmaeonid family. He was named after his grandfather, Cleisthenes of Sicyon, who had ruled Sicyon and who had also established a name for himself for various other deeds, including an Olympic victory in chariot racing and a yearlong competition to determine the suitor who would marry his daughter.
Megacles, an important Athenian statesman, was the eventual winner of the bridal contest, and the couple’s child (the younger Cleisthenes) was to follow in the family’s footsteps by participating directly in Athenian politics.
Raised on the Homeric epics and inspired by the notion of immortality through important individual deeds, the young Cleisthenes had no shortage of ambition and determination; however, he found himself in rather precarious times in Athens.
After the stable and rather prosperous period of rule under Peisistratus, who was hardly an oppressive or cruel tyrant, the situation changed drastically. Upon his death in 527 b.c.e., his son Hippias took over, and although he initially ruled in a rather passive manner, he increasingly turned to more brutal and dictatorial methods.
The assassination of his brother and political confidante, Hipparchus, only made matters worse. In addition, a great deal of friction existed between the noble landowners and the farmers. The arrangement at the time forced tenant farmers to hand over a large percentage of what they produced to the landowners.
The result was that much of the citizenry that lived off the land was poor, which included the majority of Athenians. The fear of politicians was that rival clans or families would attempt to rally the support of the farmers and the slaves so as to instigate a rebellion by promising to eliminate their state of destitution.
Rather than attempting to address the issue, the tyrants of the past largely sought to strengthen the power of their proper family while weakening their adversaries and the people in general.
The momentum for change initially began when Cleisthenes obtained help from Sparta in overthrowing Hippias. Despite his success in forcing the tyrant to flee, Cleisthenes was unable to assume the reigns of leadership as Isagoras, a fellow nobleman and powerful politician, immediately challenged him.
By proposing a number of major reforms, Cleisthenes boldly garnered support well beyond the traditional bases of support in the aristocracy. He promised that all citizens would have an opportunity to participate in government and declared them to be his companions, or hetairoi.
Realizing how powerful Cleisthenes was becoming, Isagoras, ironically enough, pleaded with the Spartan king who had earlier helped topple Hippias. Cleomenes, king of the Spartans, obliged and sent a small force with the intention of establishing an Athenian council formed of his own supporters.
No match for the approaching troops in terms of military power, Cleisthenes had no other option than to flee. Isagoras established himself as head of a new regime composed of 300 other aristocrats that was upheld with Spartan military might and influence. Tyranny had crept its way back into Athenian politics.
Cleisthenes’ clan, the Alcmaeonids, and numerous of his supporters were exiled from the city, and other possible hindrances to Isagoras’s power were slowly dismantled. The much earlier reforms of Solon were undermined, including the removal of the Council of Four Hundred, which was representative of the population as a whole.
Eventually the Athenians became outraged at the actions of Isagoras, whereupon rioting broke out. To the surprise of both Isagoras and Cleisthenes the situation escalated into a large-scale rebellion.
For two days and two nights the people besieged Isagoras, his supporters, and the Spartans in the Acropolis. Realizing his mistake, Cleomenes arranged for a truce. The fleet-footed Isagoras managed to escape; however, his cohorts were arrested and executed.
The Athenians recalled Cleisthenes from exile and requested that he implement his previously mentioned reforms and aid them in establishing a government of the people with equality for all citizens under the law (known as isonomia).
In order to bring about greater opportunity and equality Cleisthenes eliminated the earlier kinship clan system that was not only exclusive but conducive to domination by a single family.
Whereas the city-state was previously divided into four clans along bloodlines, known as the Ionic tribes, Cleisthenes established a new system of 10 tribes that were based on one’s locale of residency, or what was known as one’s deme.
The entire city-state was divided into three major regions: the city region (asty), the coastal region (paralia), and the inland region (mesogeia). These regions were each subdivided into 10 sections known as trittyes, or thirds. The 30 trittyes of the city-state consisted of the numerous demes, which seem to have numbered roughly 139 or 140.
All male citizens at the age of 18 and older registered within their deme and this became an important association, more important than the previous phratria, or familial association, which further served to undermine strict blood ties.
Cleisthenes also reformed the previous Council of Four Hundred into the boule, a council consisting of 500 members, 50 men from each of the 10 tribes. This institution was at the heart of the new system and served as the executive carrying out policy made by the assembly.
Access to various levels of government was opened for members of society beyond the noble-blooded aristocratic class, albeit one had to have a certain amount of wealth or property. Cleisthenes also reformed the legislative body and introduced the policy of ostracism.
In sum, building on the earlier reforms of Solon, Cleisthenes placed the state into the corporate power of the citizens resulting in a new political dynamic in favor of greater freedom and control for the Athenian citizenry.