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Polity of Ancient Athens (political institutions of Athens)

1. Before Solon
4. Further evolution
2. Solon's reforms
5. Crisis of the Peloponessian War
3. Cleisthenes's reforms
6. After the War

Here is  a short, tendentious and very simplified description of the evolution of the political system in ancient Athens. But first two important reservations:

  • Firstly: Historians are not always sure when exactly a particular element of political system was invented. A good example here is ostracism.
  • Secondly: We have very limited information about Athens before Solon. So, for example, I couldn’t say when exactly Athens became populistic. We can only be sure that Athens was populistic under the rule of the tyrant (tyran) Dracon, who in 621 BC introduced the very restrictive law codex (Draconic laws).

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Before Solon

At first populistic Athenian city-state was an oligarchic state ruled by aristocratic families. There were a few state offices:

  • archont - kind of president with a one year tenure
  • basileus - this name of office means “a king”, but he was only responsible for organizing religious ceremonies
  • polemarchos - the chief of Athenian army, great commander
  • 6 thesmothetai - officials responsible for creating new laws (have legislative power)

After some time all the officials mentioned above were called “archonts”. Former city-officials (archonts) formed some kind of council called Aeropagus.

The country was divided into 4 districts called phyle (pl. phylae).

This type of polity is typical for many oligarchic populistic states. Renaissance Venice could be a very good example of a similar political system.

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After Solon's reforms

Solon was an aristocrat politician (and poet) who was elected for the archont office for the year 594/593 BC and reformed the polity of Athens. His reforms were a compromise between aristocrats protecting their privileges and other Athenians fighting for a more righteous political system. The poorer citizens of Athens also argued for a reduction of debts.

So, Solon cancelled some of the debts, took the personal dependency from dependent peasants, introduced the new law codex, and gave the Athenian citizenship to many of the previously dependent peasants and immigrants living in Athens. 

But he also introduced a completely new political system:

  • He created the Council of 400 - a parliament of Athens with 400 members<
  • Introduced Heliaia - court (or courts) - which consisted of jurymen, an important protection from law abuses

He also defined four social classes organized according to the annual income of citizens:

  • pentakosiomedimnoi - the richest people with an annual income over 500 bushels, as the name states (probably mainly former aristocrats).
  • hippeis - “horsemen” with an annual income over 300 bushels (rich citizens).
  • zeugitai - “hoplites” (members of heavy infantry) with an annual income over 200 bushels, Athenian “middle-class”.
  • thetes - all other citizens with a lower income.

There were also two other political classes in Athens with no citizens privileges:

  • metoikoi - immigrants (sometimes quite rich).
  • slaves

From this time onwards political privileges depended on the income of a citizen (each of the four classes elected a 100 members of the Council of 400). And there was still the council of Aeropagus, and still usually only the richest citizens were elected for city offices.

A political system of this kind is common for many populistic states (for example in XIXth century France or Germany  we could observe very similar systems where political and voting privileges depended on a citizen’s income). That kind of populistic system is the result of a political alliance between rich citizens and middle-income citizens.

It is also useful to note similarities between these social classes and the classes in the early Roman republic, and similarities between the Athenian Council of 400 and the Roman comitia centuriata. In ancient times social classes were often organized according to the role of citizens in a city-state army, because war was in those days a very profitable kind of “state-investment”.

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"Democracy" since Cleisthenes's reforms 

In the last decades of VIth century BC Athens were ruled by the tyrant Pisistratus and his sons. The rule of Pisistratus wasn’t so oppressive, but his sons weren’t so wise. After a serious upheaval, a politician named Cleisthenes introduced (508/507 BC) a  completely new organization of political institutions, that was called democracy (the rule of common people).

The best resource about Athenian “democracy” is Aristotle’s work: The Athenian Constitution.
Plus here you will find some other resources.

Here are the most important of his reforms:

New territorial organization of the state. Now there were 10 phylae and three regions: the sea coast, the interior, and the city. Each region was divided into 10 segments. Three segments: one from the coast region, one from the interior region and one from the city region made one phyle. Second segment from the coast region, second from the interior region and second from the city region made another phyle and so on. Moreover, segments that made one particular phyle could not border with each other. Very strange, right?

No so strange indeed. Phylae were voting districts. Here Athenians elected the members of the Council and local officials. Such fragmented districts reduced the political power of aristocrats, because great families of land owners usually had many political clients in the vicinity of theirs lands. After the reform aristocrats could no longer easily win elections in rural phylae, so the reform enhanced the political chances of not so rich citizens.

Introduction of Bule. New Athenian Council (also called the Council of 500). Members of the Council were chosen randomly (using an “ballot-box” with black and white balls) from the candidates elected in each phyle. New Council of 500 was no longer a parliament like Council of 400, but rather a bureaucratic and court machine. For every 1/10 of the year members elected in one particular file worked as officials paid from the country budget, then members from the second phyle took over the presidency and so on.

The method of election again promoted the organized faction of “democrats” and was against the aristocrats, who now had a very limited chance to become a member of the Bule (because of the random mechanism of the election).

Meeting of all citizens (Ecclesia). Following the reforms, the meeting of all citizens of Athens was responsible for the most of the political decisions. But several thousands of people could not effectively carry out the function of parliament. There were too many people to legislate laws, control the state budget, and solve other more sophisticated problems. Actually the meeting was easy to control by a charismatic leader, a well-organized political faction or a skillful demagogue - as with every large crowd of people.

Here is an example of how unstable and easy it was to dominate the meeting. In the times of the Athens Sea Union one of the allied cities on the isle of Lesbos rebelled against Athens. Athenians sent soldiers, who pacified the rebellion. Then the Athenian meeting deliberated, how to punish the rebelled city. At first, stirred up by populist demagogues, the meeting decided to kill all adult men and sell all children and women as a slaves. But the next day, calmed by some more rational politicians, Ecclesia changed that cruel decision, and the city survived.

Isegoria, isonomia, isotimia, isocratia. Cleisthenes’s reforms introduced some basic rules of the political system. Every citizen had freedom of speech (isegoria), every citizen had equal rights in law (isonomia), every citizen had equal rights to be elected into city offices (isotimia), and every citizen formally had equal political power (isocratia). It was a significant progress compared to the times before Cleisthenes, when different groups of citizens had different political rights.

It is not obvious if these equalities were more populistic slogans (like liberté, égalité, fraternité slogans, we know from the Great French Revolution) used by the faction of “democrats”, or if they were the real guaranties of the political rights of citizens (isotimia probably was, at least for some time). But they started the idea of political equality, and thus created the ideological basement for modern European democracies.

Ostracism. Probably also introduced by Cleisthenes. Once a year citizens of Athens had the privilege of pointing out the politician who was a threat to democracy (tried to become a tyrant). They wrote down the names of politicians on broken pieces of pottery. The politician, who got the majority of such votes (and no less than 6000) was banished from Athens for 10 years (but his property wasn’t confiscated).

A true democratic country does not need such a “protection”. A stable balance between different GPIs (groups of political interests) plus institutions that are protecting individuals against state abuses (passive protections) are the best shield against tyranny. That kind of “active protecting” political tools are very dangerous, because they can easily be used against political opposition (while passive protections cannot).

It is informative to look at the names of politicians who were banished in this way: Themistocles, Thucydides, Kimon, son of Miltiades (political opponent of Pericles), Alcibiades the Elder, etc. Ostracism was a very nice tool to eliminate the most prominent politicians, sometimes men with great personal honesty. Let’s imagine that Winston Churchill or Franklin Delano Roosevelt were eliminated from politics that way.  

Board of 10 strategi. A kind of “government” of Athens. Each strategus (Greek: strategos), elected by Ecclesia, was at the same time a political leader responsible for politics of Athens, and an army commander. The tenure of strategus was one year, but a politician could be elected as strategus many times (as Pericles was).
Paragraph added - 3 December 2004

To recapitulate:
Cleisthenes’s reforms eliminated the true parliament and introduced the bureaucratic offices (financed from the state treasury) used to reward citizens who supported the leaders of “democrats”. All important projects were prepared by a small group of people and then voted upon by the meeting of all citizens, where no one could really control introduced projects. Very similar quasi-democratic political systems (where bureaucrats employed by the state offices are the political clients and supporters of party leaders) were created for example by the PRI party in Mexico or the Congress Party in India.

Well, I am exaggerating a little. Most of the time there wasn’t any organized structure of a “democratic” faction in ancient Athens. The political system was not so different from real democracy (except the ostracism, and the lack of parliament). Newly legislated laws were controlled by the Aeropagus, and there was still a law system that was respected, so politicians had no absolute power.
However Cleisthenes reforms did not introduce a real democracy but another form of a populistic system. With no oppressive institutions, because the overall economic conditions were good and there were no serious social conflicts. The political system was stable, because of the alliance between middle-income citizens (zeugitai) and low-income citizens (thetes, led by charismatic leaders) against the aristocracy that cemented the new political institutions.

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Evolution of Athenian  “democracy” before the Peloponnesian War  

Until the Peloponnesian War the quasi-democratic system in Athens worked quite well. The main reason was the economic prosperity:
  • Firstly Athens took over the trade across the Aegean Sea, when the rich Greek city states from Asia Minor fell under the dominance of the Persian Empire.
  • Then, just before the Persian Wars, very rich deposits of silver (483 BC) were discovered in the Laurion Mountains, giving Athenians an extra income from the export of precious metal and money minced from that silver.
  • Thirdly, after the Persian Wars (about 454 BC when the treasury of Sea Union was moved from Isle Delos to Athens) Athens gained the domination over other smaller states of the Athenian Sea Union, and forced them to pay large sums of money to the Athenian treasury (that money was called collections for common defense, but finally became nothing more than a tribute).
Before the Peloponnesian War two important modifications of the political system were introduced:

Since 487 BC, the Aeropagus members were elected (to be more precise were randomly chosen from the candidates elected in local administrative districts). 

Secondly, since the Efialtes reform in 462 BC Aeropagus prerogatives (area of authority) were further restricted. Since then Aeropagus was no longer privileged in controlling the legality of new laws.

Both reforms mentioned above eliminated the last institution that could control the laws legislated by a Meeting of all Citizens (Ecclesia), and thus there was no longer a way to control new laws promoted by charismatic politicians.

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Crisis of the Peloponnesian War

A long Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta that started in 431 BC ended the period of economic prosperity in Athens and launched some changes in the relative power of different GPIs (groups of political interests):

  • The rise in prices pauperized some of the middle-income citizens (zeugitai).
  • Many middle-income citizens died in land battles (the heavy infantry of Sparta was most of the time undefeatable).
  • The important role of the fleet increased the political power of low-income citizens (thetes), who were the sailors and oarsmen on Athenian warships. 

Generally, thetes were interested in war and zeugitai in peace. And every year of the war the middle-income citizens GPI became weaker and Athenian politics and politicians became more populistic.

See Thucydides The History of the Peloponesian War. And the Chapter XVII  with Melian Dialogues which disappeared from a version in MIT archives.

Finally this resulted in political trials (a kind of “ witch hunt”) of the “enemies of democracy”. A good example was the elimination of the political faction led by Alcibiades. Then, after the unfortunate expedition against city-state of Siracuse, the war went very badly, and the political struggle became much more brutal. There were a few coup d’etat, mass executions of political opponents, even a civil war. Finally, defeated by Sparta, the Athenian Empire collapsed.

A very good test to find out if a country is really democratic is to observe, how well its political system behaves, when the country is put thorough the mill. True democratic systems survive serious conditions (there are numerous examples from the history of Great Britain or ancient Rome), but populistic quasi-democratic countries usually turn into a true populistic state. 

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After the war

When Athens was freed from the domination of Sparta, the political system was reconstructed to the form more or less the same as before the disaster (maybe a little more conservative). But I am not going to describe these changes here, because I have not any good resources at hand, and don’t want to offer you information that I can’t verify.

Warsaw, March 2004
Text revised and corrected  by Christopher Jolley: (June 2005)


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