Lecture 14 - Tyranny in Athens

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Solon (Law Giver), Peisistratus (Tyrant), Cleisthenes (Constitution), Pericles (Radical Democracy)

Athens came late to the problem of land hunger and tyranny, probably because Attica as a region possessed more arable land and was able to sustain a larger subsistence population than most neighboring regions of Greece. When it did obtain suitable conditions, the community experienced repeated threats of seizure by outside influences, neighboring tyrannical regimes, Sparta, and Persia. Much of the political development in Athens was affected by the perceptions induced by these threats. Unlike Sparta, Athens underwent the entire tyrannical experience to emerge by 500 BC as the leading urban, commercially oriented state of the Aegean world.

Some important aristocratic families of Athens:

    Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sikyon, c. 570
  Megacles of Athens married Agariste, daugter of Cleisthenes of Sikyon
Hippocrates (a relative) Cleisthenes (archon 525)  
  Agariste married Xanthippos
  Pericles married Aspasia of Miletus the hetaira
Alcibiades (ward of Pericles)    


  THE PHILAIDAE (from Brauron)  
Cypselus, tyrant of Corinth    
  Miltiades (grandson of Cypselus of Corinth) Hippokleides, a relative who lost the hand of Agariste to Cleisthenes of Athens
  Miltiades, archon 524, victor at Battle of Marathon  
  Cimon, Delian League general  
    A relative, Thucydides the historian

These stemma demonstrate not only the longevity of Athenian aristocratic families, but the influence of regional tyrannies and the attempts they made to extend influence on neighboring cities, such as Athens, while constructing networks of tyrannical marriages and "guest friendships" (hospitality).

Another, Theagenes, tyrant of Megara, married his daughter to an Athenian aristocrat named Cylon who led conspiracy to seize power in Athens, 632/1 BC. By that time threat of tyranny in Athens was very real.

Draco's Law code 621/0, very harsh (written in blood), but indicates attempts by aristocracy to head off tyranny. Land conditions noted in earlier lecture -- the hektomoroi, Athenian small farmer citizen soldiers falling into debt and slavery. Athenian small farmers looked to examples such as Sparta and demanded annulment of debts, redistribution of land.

Solon c. 573/2, was appointed (elected?) as "lawgiver" to resolve the debt crisis. Solon was a war hero and the younger son of an aristocratic family who went into trade, sailed extensively in the eastern Mediterranean, became one of the seven sages of Greece, and wrote lyric poetry recording his political actions. He boasted as his accomplishment, seisachtheia (the shaking off of debts).

The avowed Solonian program was to set debtors free; avoid land redistribution; reform constitution; and avoid tyranny.

He abolished all debts by removing the Horos stones (mortgage stones) from indentured land, but he refused to redistribute the land. He created census classes to enable wealthy non aristocrats (emerging traders like himself) to obtain archonship and to enter the Areopagus. This was his main source of support. Solon claimed to have avoided tyranny. He tried to stimulate the development of artisan trades, but he lacked the resources necessary to resolve land problem. He basically delayed tyranny.

After his term as "lawgiver," Solon departed Athens for 10 years. When he returned he found the city in chaos. The Athenian archon list indicates two consecutive years in which no archon was elected, i.e., "anarchia". His own relative, Peisistratus, a war hero, was seeking tyranny in Athens. Peisistratus attempted to impose tyranny in Athens 561/0, but he was quickly expelled by the Alcmeonidae. He traveled to Macedonia, invested in silver mines, bought mercenary army, made alliances with tyrants of Naxos and Argos, returned to Athens by force, and established his tyranny 546-527 BC. His sons Hippias and Hipparchus maintained tyranny until 510 BC, when Hippias was expelled from city.

Peisistratus used state revenues and his own personal income from mines in Macedonia to resolve the land question.

1. Land reform: Peisistratus redistributed land confiscated from his aristocratic opponents. He put poor farmers on the land, imposed 5% income tax on everyone, and used his revenues to lend farmers money to make the transition from subsistence to surplus agricultural production, especially production of Attic olive oil. This became the celebrated export of Athens.

2. He broke down aristocratic control at the local level by a.) instituting rural circuit court judges; b.) Moving religious cults to Athens and making them national in focus. Cult of Artemis of Brauron moved to the Acropolis, popular harvest festival of Dionysus was brought to the urban center. the Dionysus festival was an annual event comprising prayers, choruses, and fertility rites. Chorus writers devised way to bring singers forward from the chorus to engage in poetic dialogues. This marked the beginning of Athenian dramatic performances, and the birth of Greek Tragedy and Comedy. All of this was indebted to Peisistratus. He also founded festivals at Eleusis, and the Panathenaia in Athens.

3. He improved the Athenian commercial position in the Aegean, by creating "favored nation status" with his allies at Naxos, Samos, Argos, Thessaly, and Macedonia. He also enhanced trade through colonial settlements on the Hellespont - Sigeon and the Chersonessos, on the Hellespont, the gateway to the Black Sea grain trade.

4. He fostered the rise of the polis by the following means:

A. He conducted public building enterprises paid for by his own silver; he created wage labor opportunities for "thetes" (landless poor citizens). Displaced agricultural laborers quickly migrated from the land to the urban center of Athens. He constructed the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Temple of Athena (the Hekatompedon), Theater of Dionysus, Fountain house of the 9 Springs in the Agora, and the Telesterion at Eleusis.

B. Peisistratus elevated the Panathenaic festival to international status (every 4 then every 2 years).  As prizes victors received Panathenaic amphoras of Athenian wine and oil. Amphoras painted first in Black, then in Attic Red Figure style, demonstrating the skill and artistry of Athenian pottery production. Attic Black Figure vases began, c. 600-580 BC; the transition to Red Figure vases occurred c. 530 BC during the tyranny. Attic Red Figure vases become the most popular fineware of the entire Mediterranean world. Their presence in excavation stratigraphies clearly identifies Classical layers of occupation (c. 530-400 BC). Attic Red Figure vases were possibly the most significant artifacts of the Classical era.

C. Peisistratus invented the tetradrachmae (4 drachma) coin (roughly 12 grams of silver). Consistent weight and purity of the coin made it the standard for international trade throughout the Classical period. The Athenian drachma was still valued in the Hellenistic era.

D. Peisistratus offered grants of citizenship to wealthy metics (metoikoi, resident aliens). We know this because after the expulsion of the tyranny in 510 BC, Athenian aristocrats demanded a review of the census roles to remove illegal citizens, offering proof that this had been the program of the Peisistratids.

The Peisistratids did not tinker with the constitution, but made sure that their political allies obtained the archonships and entered the Areopagus (council of elders) for life. They did resolve the economic crisis however. One hears no more about land crises or debt bondage in Athens. Estimates for the Athenian hoplite phalanx, approximately 15,000 men, mean that many small farmers were securely installed on the land with small estates of approximately 10-20 acres and 1-2 slaves per household -- sufficient to sustain surplus production. This element became Athen's "broadened aristocracy", a very conservative element compared with the urban poor in the city. Peisistratus found Attica a dispersed uncooperative rural population centered around the large oikoi of the aristocratic families, but he left it as a rural hinterland oriented toward the emerging urban center of Athens, with a population of c. 100,000. Athens became an outward looking, commercially oriented, internationalized community with significant export, artisan, and craft production. The city promptly assumed first place as the trading power of the Aegean world.

Economic depression possibly consequent to the Persian conquest of Thrace and Macedonia in 514 BC (Darius I) made the Peisistratid successors, Hippias and Hipparchus, unpopular in Athens. The Persian conquest to the North possibly shut them off from the revenues of their silver mines and thus they could no longer support public works programs. An aristocratic assassination plot killed Hipparchus. After this, Hippias engaged in purges and ultimately was expelled by various aristocratic factions. He fled to the palace of the Persian satrap at Sardis (Lydia) where he was welcomed and maintained by the satrap as a potential tool for future use. The satrap hoped to reinstate the tyrant in Athens as a way to gain a foothold in mainland Greece. Athenian ambassadors sent to demand his extradition were advised by the satrap to take him back as their ruler. This affair marked the beginning of difficulties between Athens and Persia.

At same time the Athenian aristocracy was torn regarding the direction in which to pursue political reform. Conservatives wishing to turn back the clock began to call for reinstitution of the "ancestral constitution", a political slogan much repeated during the coming century. More moderate aristocrats, led by Cleisthenes the Alcmeonid, realized that by ancestral constitution the conservatives were determined to turn back the clock to the constitution that existed during the pre-Solonian era. Civil war erupted in which the conservatives were outnumbered, so they invited intervention by Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. An aggressive Spartan king, Cleomenes, saw his chance like previous regional tyrants to impose a subservient government in Athens. His effort failed however. He found himself engaged in urban street fighting in Athens, and soon was surrounded on the Athenian Acropolis. The other Peloponnesian League states eventually refused to participate in an intervention in what was essentially the internal affairs of an independent Greek city state and withdrew, leaving Cleomenes and the Spartans trapped in Athens. The Athenian faction of Cleisthenes eventually was persuaded by conservatives to allow Spartan forces and allied conservatives to leave peacefully. The democratic reaction was swift and forceful, nonetheless. Cleisthenes introduced dramatic political reforms to prevent the return of aristocratic dominance in Athenian politics. Peisistratus had reformed the economic order; Cleisthenes now reformed the constitution.


In essence Cleisthenic democracy meant hoplite democracy. All those bearing arms were allowed to participate in the assembly.

For one of the most significant political figures of Athenian history, Cleisthenes' career remains a mystery. We do not even know what office he held, for how long, or when. It is clear from Athenian sources, nonetheless, that most of the significant political reforms were attributed to him.

Cleisthenes was clearly influenced by Greek philosophical developments, particularly mathematical breakthroughs of Pythagoras. Pythagoras and his followers taught the notion of putting oneself in harmony with the universe by living one's life according to perceived natural laws, particularly those of "magic numbers". Cleisthenes attempted to organize the Athenian constitution according to the "magic number" 10. He reorganized political institutions in such a way as to eradicate permanently aristocratic influence on Athenian society. Cleisthenes used the slogan isonomia, or equality before the law. This was essentially "one man one vote".

Cleisthenes instituted a new political structure organized according to demes (voting wards). At the local level, some 174 demes were created. These were organized into 30 tritteis or thirds of tribes which were then organized into 10 new voting tribes, each named after a significant Athenian hero. Each tribe consisted of 3 tritteis ideally drawn from different areas of Attica. Tribal organization of the Ekklesia (the assembly), and hence of the national army, now consisted of citizens drawn from throughout Attica. In the phalanx battle line, one's life depended now on the cooperation of those to one's right or left who haled from distant areas of Attica. Artificially, this diminished an individual citizen's need to identify with his local region and compelled him to think in more national terms.

Reorganization of the government:

10 generals (one from each tribe originally) annually elected chief magistrates to direct the military; generals could hold office repeatedly and consecutively.

10 archons, after 487 BC selected by lot, one per tribe, to handle the courts. Could only hold office once.

Council of 500 -- 500 representatives, 50 per tribe, selected by lot from all citizens for one year's service. Council itself divided into 10 prytanies or governing committees that performed full time duties in Athens for one month of the year (the Athenian year had 10 months, therefore, 1/month per tribal prytany of 50 councilors). The calendrical order of prytanies was determined by lot. Within prytanies committees of 10 would work through the night each day to handle emergencies, with the order of each committee to be determined by lot. Presidency of the council also was determined by lot. The Council of 500 became a clearing house for all legislation to be put before the Ekklesia, bills were packaged by the council, committees met with foreign ambassadors, etc. Theoretically every Athenian citizen could expect to serve at least once on the council during his lifetime.

The Areopagus -- became a shadow council. It continued to be composed of ex-archons for life and continued to hold certain religiously based political authority, but its supremacy was clearly supplanted by the new Council of 500 of the democracy. Apart from a brief comeback during and after the Persian War, its status declined throughout the Classical period.

The Ekklesia -- organized according to 10 tribes, voted on all public issues. Presided over by president of the council, with generals present, the assembly openly debated questions and answers, and thus introduced the notion of public debate. Business was no longer conducted merely according to yes or no votes. The assembly could ask for amendments, send bills back to the council, etc. All public issues -- war and peace, etc., were decided by the entire body politic in the assembly. Cleisthenic Democracy was essentially participatory democracy by those who could afford to attend.

POPULAR COURTS -- possibly originated with Solon, the courts now became the organ of appeals for the democracy. They were organized according to 10 courts administered by the 10 archons to handle all public and private legal business. Jurors were selected by lot. For public issues that were too complex to be addressed by the Assembly, particularly questions of constitutional procedure and/or accusations of treasonous behavior (i.e., proposing legislation that was contrary to the "ancestral constitution"), an issue would be raised by accuser in the assembly. The suit would be removed from the assembly and thrown into the popular courts where an uneven number of jurors (101, 501, or 1001), chosen by lot, would decide final outcome. The Helaia or popular courts represented a court of appeal whose decision became binding on the state.

Heavy reliance on sortition (selection by lot) and other elements reveal the Cleisthenic leadership's intense fear of aristocratic influence. Sortition was originally a religious tool, essentially leaving the choice to the gods, apparently because selection by humans could not be trusted. Examples of sortition within sortition within sortition, as in the Council of 500, demonstrates the intense jealousy of the new democracy to institute truly random means of selection in order to eliminate any and all influence by existing aristocratic factions. The context of the recent Spartan invasion and the willingness of conservative aristocrats to "sell out" Athens in order to preserve their position in society needs to be borne in mind.























Along these lines one other political institution, OSTRACISM, appears to have been invented by Cleisthenes to insure the smooth working maintenance of the democracy. OSTRACISM, a national unpopularity contest, was first successfully used in 486 BC. Every Spring before the military season a vote would be taken in the assembly as to whether or not there was need for a vote of ostracism. If the vote was positive, a date would be set for the election, and campaigning among rival political factions would begin. Voting would occur at the Sacred Pit at the Agora, Citizens would cast their votes inscribed on broken pieces of pottery (ostraka), cast into the pit. Apparently a quorum of 6000 votes had to be cast for the vote to be official. If that number was achieved the politician receiving the most votes would have to leave Attica forthwith for 10 years' exile, without loss of citizenship or property. The object was to eliminate a contrary voice in the assembly and to prevent political grid-lock that was incumbent on participatory democracy.

Repeatedly in Athenian history debate in the assembly became polarized between two figurehead politicians and their followings, as with Themistocles and Aristides over the construction of the Athenian fleet in 483/2. Their debate was sufficient to bring all public business to a standstill. Gridlock could endanger the democracy during emergencies; therefore, ostracism was created to offer a "release valve", to eliminate one point of view so that the other could proceed to set policy for the state, right or wrong. During moments of political polarization, the intensity of competition was so great that ostracism campaigning became notorious. Sherds themselves were preserved by magistrates as religious attributes, buried at various sacred places in the Agora, the Kerameikos, and the Acropolis. Archaeologists have been able to reconstruct entire vases from sherd fragments and to determine that each sherd was inscribed by the same hand. Sherds for several of the most famous ostracisms have been recovered. Obvious practices of electioneering occurred outside the voting precinct as politicians handed out previously inscribed sherds to get their rivals ostracized. This suggests that the voters were frequently illiterate or incapable of writing the names themselves. Plutarch relates the story of Aristides standing outside the voting precinct during an ostracism, meeting a rustic Athenian farmer from the countryside, and asking him who he wanted to ostracize. Not knowing that he was talking to Aristides himself, the man said he wanted to expel Aristides. When Aristides asked him why, he insisted that he was tired of hearing the name Aristides "the Just" day in/day out and wanted him expelled. Living up to his name, Aristides wrote his own name on the sherd and gave it to the man. He was ultimately ostracized but recalled during the Battle of Salamis. Aristides remained a patriot.

CONCLUSION - political developments in Athens required nearly a century long process of adaptation that took the community through full blown tyranny into participatory democracy. Peisistratus converted Attica into an urban commercial power focused on its city center of Athens; Cleisthenes introduced political reforms to create isonomia throughout the society. In fact, the process was not complete because it was restricted only to those who could afford to participate -- hoplite democracy. The landless poor of the city, the thetes, could rarely attend. Important to observe the degree to which perceived threats, both internal and external, drove this process forward. To a significant degree the political and social development of Athens was the product of the shifting events and developments of the wider Aegean world.