Here is a short, tendentious
and very simplified description of the evolution of the political
system in ancient Athens. But first two important reservations:
At first populistic
Athenian city-state was an oligarchic
state ruled by aristocratic families. There were a few state offices:
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.
But he also introduced a completely new political system:
He also defined four social classes organized according to the annual income of citizens:
There were also two other political classes in Athens with no
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
(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
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"Democracy" since Cleisthenes's reformsIn 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).
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.
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).
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
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 WarUntil the Peloponnesian War the quasi-democratic system in Athens worked quite well. The main reason was the economic prosperity:
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):
Generally, thetes were interested in war and zeugitai in
And every year of the war the middle-income citizens GPI became weaker
and Athenian politics and politicians became more populistic.
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.
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After the warWhen 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)