Texts in Context:
Warriors and Wits

By Gabriel Blanchard

The birth of democracy at Athens provides a kind of snapshot of the Ionic and Dorian cultural extremes of classical Greek society.

This post is part of a series on the historical context of our Author Bank; it includes introductory posts on historiographyperiodization, and pseudohistory.

From Cylon to Cleisthenes

A few weeks back, we touched on Athens’ history with tyrants: tyrannies had grown common over the seventh and sixth centuries BC, and Solon’s second cousin Peisistratus had (after a few hiccups) established a mostly-benevolent tyranny over Athens. His sons Hippias and Hipparchus at first followed his example, but a few years into their rule, Hipparchus was assassinated, after which Hippias became tyrannical in the modern sense.

At this point, the Alcmæonid family decisively turned against the Peisistratids. They had a hereditary loathing of tyranny, according to Herodotus; one of their ancestors, Megacles, had been the Eponymous Archon1 of Athens when Cylon made his abortive attempt at setting up a tyranny. However, because Megacles had promised safe-conduct to Cylon for his trial and then allowed him to be killed (after a purported omen from Athena), the whole Alcmæonid house was reputedly cursed, and they were expelled from the city. They were allowed to return forty years later by Solon, and again became prominent in Athenian politics. They already had a history of clashing with the Peisistratids; according to the family’s own tradition, they had even been exiled again, during which time they had renovated Delphi, the shrine of Apollo’s most famous oracle. Now, following the infamously cruel execution of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the head of the family, Cleisthenes, appealed to the Spartans for help.

This Was Sparta

Sparta—also known in ancient sources as Laconia or Lacedæmon, names for the region of which Sparta was essentially the capital, and thus equivalent to Attica for Athens—was a strange place. In terms of the Greek sub-ethnicities, Athens was an Ionian city, whereas Sparta was emphatically Dorian: collectivist, reserved,2 severe, and dedicated to military pursuits above all else. We have little time to discuss its traditions, purportedly inherited from the reformer Lycurgus, though we may pause to note that, unusually among Greek city-states, they kept the custom of being ruled by kings—in fact, they had two simultaneous kings (from the Agiad and Eurypontid dynasties, which both claimed descent from Heracles). We can hardly do justice to the Spartans’ rigid class structure (less than a tenth of the Spartan population were Spartiates, or full citizens3), or their ruthless educational system (which applied to girls as well as boys, something apparently unique among the Hellenes, albeit only the boys were put through the full rigor of military training). However, there is a line in Plutarch’s Moralia which gives measure of the place. Spartan men who were killed in battle were carried back on their shields. According to Plutarch, one Spartan mother, handing her son’s shield to him, told him, “Come back with this, or on it”—in other words, as a victor or as a corpse4; anything else, and you can consider yourself disowned. If we picture the Spartans as being a little like the French army under Napoléon in the early 1800s at their most unstoppable, blended with the Soviet Union in 1945 at the apex of its global prestige and power, we will not be too far off from how Sparta impressed its ancient contemporaries.

In addition to being a proud and warlike people (and unlike Napoléon or the Soviets), the Spartans were extremely pious. They consulted the Delphic oracle before any major decision. Some of their devotions may seem incongruous to us, like the popularity of the healing gods Asclepius and Apollo; among the popular hero cults, we find not only Heracles, Castor and Pollux,5 and Achilles, but the Trojan priestess Cassandra! And, in what now feels like a piece of dramatic irony, Athena was the deity they revered as their city’s patroness, like the Athenians.

So, when the famously cryptic oracle at Delphi suddenly started telling all Spartan visitors the same, unusually non-cryptic thing—”Liberate Athens”—they decided to accept Cleisthenes’ proposal. The fact that Cleisthenes had given Delphi a large sum of money just before this dramatic change in the oracle’s habits is probably only a coincidence (which is doubtless why Cleisthenes didn’t mention it to Sparta). Under the leadership of Cleomenes I, the Agiad king, Sparta chased Hippias and his family out of Athens in 510 BC.

Two years of intense conflict between rival families followed; Cleisthenes himself was banished for a time. In 508, Cleisthenes was recalled, took the reins of the city, and instituted sweeping constitutional reforms. At the time, these were known as isonomia (ἰσονομία), meaning “equal rights” or “equality before the law,” but it has become typical to refer to them as the birth of democracy.

Thank You for Choosing Isonomia

Hitherto, Athenian society had been divided among four tribes.6 As these tribes and their clashes were what had been ruining everyone’s lives lately, Cleisthenes abolished them and reorganized the populace. He divided the land of Attica into three regions—the city proper, the coast, and the interior—and subdivided these into over a hundred δῆμοι (dēmoi), meaning something like “townships” (and often simply rendered “demes” in English texts). Then, he sorted these into ten groups of roughly equal population, ensuring that each group contained demes from all three regions, and made these ten groups the ten new tribes of Athens. Even Attic naming practices were altered: before this, children were normally given a patronymic, a name indicating the father’s name, so that e.g. Aristotle would be called Aristotle Nicomachides, “Aristotle son of Nicomachus”; after the reforms, children instead received demonymics, indicating their deme—so if Aristotle Nicomachides were born in the deme of Cephale, he would instead be called Aristotle Cephalides.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

Cleisthenes also expanded the city council from four hundred to five hundred men—fifty from each tribe. He may, though this is disputed, have opened citizenship to resident aliens in Athens, known as metics (from μέτοικος [metoikos], literally “the changed of house”). It is also possible that he introduced the custom of ostracism in Athens. Periodically, by taking a vote, the populace could banish a person from the city for ten years, the standard target being anyone who seemed to be amassing too much influence and perhaps aiming at becoming a new tyrant. (These votes were written on broken shards of pottery, or ostraca [ὄστρακα], singular ostracon [ὄστρακον], hence the term.) All these measures had the effect of making it harder for any one ambitious person to build up a power base in Athens, keeping the new isonomic system secure.

Conditions Apply; Isonomia Is Not Available to All Users

However, two points bear mention, one political and one historical. The political point is that, while Cleisthenes expanded the franchise pretty substantially, this was still not a democracy in the modern sense. Now, most societies in history have a replacement-or-higher fertility rate—they’d dwindle to non-existence if they didn’t—meaning a minimum of about 1.05 children for every adult.7 Hence, even the most inclusive democracies in history have probably only opened the franchise to slightly less than half their population. Yet classical Athenian democracy had a much more restricted franchise than that. Metics had an insecure status; any citizenship-acquiring rights Cleisthenes may have given them or their children were certainly stripped away a few decades later. Women were also denied political rights: they were ineligible to hold public office, vote, or represent themselves in court,8 and while they could own some kinds of property, they could only conduct small economic transactions in their own name. (Exceptions probably existed for prostitutes, especially of the hetæra class. Prostitution was a legal profession in ancient Athens, as in many societies; there was, however, a difference between the pornē, i.e. an ordinary prostitute, and the hetæra or “companion.” The latter were often refined and prosperous. All in all, they were a little like a cross between the popular misconception of geisha and actual geisha.) And thirdly, there were slaves. Population statistics are difficult to estimate, but the total percentage of slaves in classical Athens seems to have made up more than half the city. By cutting down the eligible populace in these ways—counting only adult, native-born, free-born men—the fraction of Athenians who actually had the franchise in its “democracy” was something like a tenth.

The historical point relates back to the Persian Empire. In 507 BC, Athens sent a pair of envoys over the Ægean Sea to treat with the satrap9 of Lydia; they hoped to gain Persia’s help securing their new form of government against Sparta, which was not a fan (and had just proven handily that it could beat Athens in a fight). The satrap agreed to help, but conditionally, requiring “earth and water” from the envoys first—these being the traditional emblems of submission to Persian rule. When the envoys got home, the Athenians roundly repudiated this; but it sounds as if the envoys themselves saw nothing wrong with the idea, and possibly did give the satrap earth and water. If so, then it would seem that the Persians had cause to believe Athens was not merely a disorderly backwater, but a disorderly, treacherous backwater that had broken its vows to the king. So when word came a few years later that the Ionian rebels had also received aid from Athens, the Persian monarch may then have determined that it was time to visit upon this faithless city the revenge that the violated covenant called for.

1In ancient Greece, years were named for those who governed during them. Archon (ἄρχων), meaning “ruler,” was the term for the head of state in many cities. Athens had three: the polemarch, or military commander-in-chief; the archon basileus, a kind of high priest (not unlike Rome’s pontifex maximus); and the eponymous archon, the highest official of Athens, who gave the year its name.
2In fact, this is where we get the meaning of the word “laconic.”
3Not only agriculture but commerce were reserved by law to non-Spartiate subjects. State affairs, both civic and military, were the sole concern of Spartiates proper.
4The first thing you would drop when fleeing from battle would be your immensely heavy shield.
5This pair were children of Leda, who was married to Sparta’s king Tyndareus, but was also … approached by Zeus in the shape of a swan. They were called the Dioscuri (Διόσκουροι, “Zeus’s boys”) or “the Divine Twins” (in Latin, divi gemini). Accounts of their parentage, and resulting divinity or lack thereof, vary wildly; the most-accepted version is that Castor was the son of Tyndareus and thus mortal, while Pollux was fathered by Zeus and thus a demigod. Many accounts add that Pollux obtained the favor of sharing his deity with his brother so they would not be separated in death.
6Based on this fact and the apparently plural form of the name “Athens” (Ἀθῆναι [Athēnai] in Greek, –ai being a close equivalent to the English –s), these may have been relicts of four distinct villages which came together to form Athens in remote pre-history.
7Statisticians believe that the additional 0.05 is introduced due to particularly large children.
8Female metics were an exception to this. However, this may reflect low regard for metics rather than respect: if the rationale for keeping Athenian women out of law courts was to “protect” them from its ugly business, metic women were apparently not viewed as worth protecting.
9A satrap (-trăp) was a provincial viceroy, ruling over a satrapy (-trà-pē), a province of the Persian Empire (see our pronunciation guide for details). The satrap of Lydia was actually a younger brother of Darius the Great, the Darius mentioned in a few books of the Bible.

Gabriel Blanchard has a bachelor’s degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park. He has worked for CLT as its editor at large since 2019, and lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like something completely different: in our earlier series on the Great Conversation, we covered the subjects of the texts we are now putting in context, from astronomy to chance to law to physics to the will. You might also enjoy our official podcast, Anchored. Thanks for reading and for supporting the CLT!

Published on 3rd June, 2024. Page image of The Acropolis at Athens by Leo von Klenze, 1846.

Share this post:
Scroll to Top