The Rise of Athens: Early Archaic Oligarchy to Classical Democracy

Aerial view of Ancient Athens / Wikimedia Commons

Lecture by Dr. Donald Kagan / 10.09.2007
Sterling Professor of Classics & History
Yale University


Wikimedia Commons

I remind you again that even though this is very extreme and other Greeks say that they’re not going to live that way, they admire it tremendously, because it suits the ideology of all polis that subordinates individual family concerns to those of the community at large. As I mentioned earlier, the utopian philosophers of the fourth century, Plato being the most striking, Aristotle to a lesser degree, they admire this, although they have their wrinkles about how it’s going to be. Nothing could be greater as a contrast to this way of thinking than the way that the Athenians will develop when they go through their growth as a polis. So let’s take a look now at Athens to see how they came along.

Athens is located in the southeastern portion of the Greek peninsula. It sticks out there into the Aegean Sea. Its geography – it’s about 1,000 square miles – is Attica. I think we talked about it already. The city is Athens; the region in which they live is Attica; the people are Athenians and that’s an important point I think I made too, which is everybody who is a citizen who lives in Attica is an Athenian, no matter if he lives sixty five or seventy miles away from the city. He’s still an Athenian. One of the things they achieved early was the unification of that whole region and they made it one polis, although that certainly doesn’t mean that there are no independent villages and towns in the polis of Athens, because they certainly are.

Attica / Wikimedia Commons

Now, Attica was not one of the most desirable, certainly agriculturally rich areas in Greece. It was relatively speaking rather barren. Now, there are of course great exceptions; the central valley so to speak, of Attica has the richest soil and in the ancient world it was able to grow the very best grain, including wheat. But very much of the Athenian soil is mountainous and pretty close to barren, so that you don’t have a lot of rich soil. This is not one of the most admirable places to come. On the other hand, it has certain advantages that the Athenians used well to achieve wealth and power and greatness. First of all, it has one splendid harbor; up in the northwestern part of Attica is Piraeus. It is the port of Athens. Once Athens becomes a naval state and it is both spacious, it has three nice little harbors, and it is very easily defended, because these harbors can be closed off and attacks can be prevented. So, that is one strength.

Another, and this is very rare, among Greek states, Attica contained silver mines in the south of the peninsula, and that gave the state, because these mines were ultimately owned by the state, it gave the state a source of income that was very, very unusual among the Greek city states, and the availability of that silver would turn out to be crucial at various moments in Athenian history. One reason why the soil wasn’t so great for agriculture was that a lot of it is red clay, but that turns out to be wonderful for making pottery and of course Athenian pottery, and I’m thinking especially about painted pottery, fine ware, stuff that is meant for the upper classes, stuff that artists will work on that will be exported, all of that is made of that great red clay, the basis for the pottery that the Athenians did.

Another natural resource of great value and great blessing to those of us who can still see the remains of the Athenian experience is the marble that comes from Mount Penteli. The Greeks call it now Pendel, and Pentelikon is what the ancient Greeks called it. In the northeastern portion of the Attica Peninsula and it produce — you can still go see it wonderful, beautiful fine grain, white marble and that’s the stuff that the Parthenon and all the other buildings, temples, on the Acropolis and around Attica was made of and that enabled the Athenians to build those temples as few cities could, because there it was sitting in their territory, not a source of the kind of tremendous expense it would be for other states that would have to buy it and bring it in.

Now, on the other hand, Athens was able as I told you — let’s start in the early days to grow wheat and other grains, but more to the point, it was very good for olive trees and for grapevines, so as we will see when the Athenians begin to exploit all of their land, not just the bottom land that works for grain, but also the less desirable land and produced wine and olive oil, that was a source of agricultural wealth that would play an important part in their history.

Dorian, Ionian, and Aeolian migration routes / World2C

Now, their own story about their past was something like this. They, unlike the other inhabitants of southern Greece, according to their story, never experienced a Dorian invasion. Now, the Dorians did come down and sort of bang at the door of Attica, but they were driven by the Athenians and never made their way into it. So, the Athenians claimed that they were, in a certain sense, the purest of the pure Greeks and they went to great lengths. One of their stories claims they were, as the Greek word goes autochthonous, that is, they were sprang from their own soil. In fact, they said they were in Attica before the creation of the moon. Guess you don’t have to believe that, but on the other hand, it’s their picture; we were always here, the original indigenous people. Their tradition, and this one is surely right, is that at an early time in their history, Attica became a refuge for people escaping what they would have regarded as the Dorian invasion. There’s no doubt that people from the Peloponnesus after the fall of the Bronze Age civilizations did a lot of running away and some of them ran to Attica and were greeted and settled down there permanently. Some of the most important and most aristocratic Athenians traced their ancestry not to the Athenians who were there before the moon was created, but to people who had come in this flight sometime after the end of the Bronze Age.

It is a tradition not of producing conflict but of producing harmony. These exiles, we are told, were brought into the Athenian people and lived among them as Athenians, no split, no division. Similarly, there is nothing like the helot class in Athens. There are no serfs, there is no suppressed population waiting to get at their rulers, so that there’s a kind of a historical good fortune, which says Athens is going to be without internal strife. I don’t mean totally but to a great degree compared to the other Greek states. Now, one important example of what happens in Athens that doesn’t happen in other states is this. There’s a tradition in Athens of an event called synoikismos; it’s on the site so you can look it up, which means unification. It really, if you take the word apart, it means the bringing of households together. There is no set of local rebellions against the major city, no need to go to war. Now, there were obviously wars back there in the early days of the polis when the city of Athens became the dominant city, but we know so little of them, it’s as though the memory has been entirely forgotten and the picture that is painted is one of everybody sort of happily living together, no conflict.

Compare that to Sparta where it’s obvious Sparta gained control of the Peloponnesus through war and that many of the people there were very unhappy with them, not to mention the Helots. But in neighboring Boeotia, the chief city of Thebes, traditionally was at war trying to subdue the other major cities of Boeotia, in order to make themselves the boss and they never were fully successful in this. So, Boeotia is torn, to some degree, by this internal conflict, which makes it harder for Thebes to achieve the kind of power in its own home territory that the Athenians are able to achieve.

Early Athenian Society

Let’s take a look at the earliest society of Athens as first we come to know it. One thing about this is that the story often comes to us through people like Aristotle who liked to make things neater and put them nicely together, rather than to leave little bumps or anything like that. The society we’re talking about, this earliest society, is aristocratic and remember it’s important to notice the difference between aristocratic and oligarchic. Aristocratic implies means ruled by the best, and best in that time means simply best by birth. It means best by birth and that means if you’re going to be in the ruling group, in a dominant, an aristocrat — the only way to get there is if your father was an aristocrat.

Doesn’t matter how rich you are, doesn’t matter what a magnificent warrior you are, all that matters is birth and that is different from oligarchy which gives rule to a few but that usually means, I would say just about every case, that wealth plays a role that you can be one of the few in the ruling group if you’re rich enough. I don’t mean that they didn’t have aristocrats within an oligarchy, I’m sure that they did, it’s that that was not the critical element. Now, also in the Athenian aristocracy, you can imagine that most aristocrats are rich but some of them are not, and that’s the distinction that matters and we will come back to that point as we see Athens move out of the aristocratic condition and into one that is more based on wealth, than it is merely on birth.

Well, we are told that in the earliest times, Athens was divided up; the people of Athens were divided up into four tribes just as were all the other Ionian cities and the Athenians of course were Ionians; this is a point worth making, because most Ionians lived on the coast of Asia Minor or on the Islands of the Aegean and the Athenians were pretty much — I’m exaggerating but mostly the only Ionians on the mainland. They sort of were an interesting middling group between the Dorians of the Peloponnesus and the Greeks of other types elsewhere, and the Athenians sort of stood between the mainland where they existed, where they were, and the islands and across the seas. Each one of these four traditional tribes contained, according to this tradition, three subdivisions that were called phratres.

An easy way to translate phratres is brotherhood. Notice it’s again about family and birth. You are in phratries; you’re in that phratries, because so is your father and you inherit it, and these phratries were very important. I should have mentioned that the tribes had important religious functions that also the army consisted of four regimens, one for each tribe. So, these tribes had great reality for the Spartans. You went not only to the religious festivals of the entire state, but you went to those only for your fellow tribesmen, which gave you a sense of belonging in that tribe, and I think that’s important. The phratres were smaller versions of the same thing; phratres had religious rites of their own, and in fact, thephratres appears to have been the unit that really mattered in terms of the place where you sort of established your belonging.

I mean, if somebody came along to an Athenian in the seventh century and said, you say you’re an Athenian, how do I know you’re an Athenian? Well, after you got through saying, well you can ask my friends, my neighbors. Yeah what do they know? You say, well how would you do it? Well, I guess come down to a meeting of my phratries, they will have a record of my being a member of that phratres and that makes me an Athenian. So that’s the importance, in a way, one part of the importance of the phratres. Now, the phratres, because it was established by birth and tradition, was an aristocratic stronghold. Everywhere you can imagine, tribe, phratres, and so on, some aristocratic family or families would have had a leading role by tradition. The Greek religion did have priests, but it didn’t have a separate priestly class and during the aristocratic period, and I would say probably throughout its history, Athenian religion had the priesthoods, the chief religious places in the state were held by aristocrats, which in a primitive society in itself, gives them tremendous prestige and a lot of clout.

Probably, although I’m not sure we have hard evidence on this, probably the phratres fought side by side in the tribal regiments as well; of course they would always be commanded by aristocratic leaders. Another way the Athenian people were divided involved names of classes of people and we’ll come back to that in another context, but one class, the highest class in the aristocratic state were the eupatrids, it means the well-born, the well-sired and it turns out that in the early polis, no surprise, they dominated the best farmland, they had the chief jobs in religion, they were the government, because as early as we can tell that there was a regime after the legendary kings are gone, the number one governmental organization, you might call it, is the council of the Areopagus; gets its name from the place where it meets. If you look to the west side of the Acropolis, immediately there’s a pretty good size hill which is the Areopagus, the hill of Ares, the war god. There the council of the Areopagus met and did what it had to do, and it’s clear that the members of the Areopagus in its earliest stage were noblemen.

We don’t know enough to know whether it was all noblemen or just the leaders of the clans or whatever, but that’s where decisions were made. It’s important though to realize that in these early days of the polis they probably had very little to decide and very little to do. Most of the real life of the state in the earliest days would have been out in the countryside where the overwhelming majority of the people lived. You must imagine that it is something like, nothing like precisely, but something like the feudal manners that we find in western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

These noblemen would typically have held a lot of land and have been well to do, have had all the powers I’ve described, and were looked up to and were listened to. They would have led the military units into battle when that was necessary and we know that one of the things that they did was to serve as the source of justice in the state. If there was a quarrel between a couple of guys, they would bring it to a court. You think of Hesiod, his complaints where his noblemen, his barons were crooked, but that doesn’t mean they all were. In any case, that’s where you went. They settled any disputes that you didn’t settle by feud or by some other primitive technique. It was pretty clear that it was right to have the noblemen do it, not just because they’re aristocrats but because they would know what the law was since there was no writing before the eighth century and it was very rare after that, there was nothing like a written law code until the seventh century. Before that, if you wanted to get justice you went to a nobleman, and if you wanted to go beyond that, you went to the Areopagus, which is made of noblemen. That’s the picture in the earliest polis as best we can reconstruct it.

Now, Aristotle tells us that beginning in the early seventh century, the date he gives us, of course we shouldn’t put too much credence in it, it’s too precise, but it’s 683 B.C. This is the date he gives us and he tells us on that occasion, we are introduced to a new thing, magistrates are chosen from the aristocracy to do various jobs in the city. In Athens, the magistrates were called archons. It means, in the most technical sense, rulers, but it means really important magistrates in the state. One of these was called the War archonpolemarch, presumably he led the army. Next came the archonwho was actually the most important archon, the one who gave his name to the year. I think I mentioned the Greeks did not have a system of dating, which has a starting point, and so you can say one, two, three, four, five. Instead, like many ancient peoples, they named the year after the leading archon, the leading magistrate of the state; Mesopotamian cities did the same thing. So that archon was called the archon eponymous, the one who gives his name to the state.

So, if you wanted to know when did a thing happen, somebody would say it was in the archonship of so and so, and so and so. Well, you wouldn’t have that in your head, you would have to go someplace and look it up where there was a list of archons. Anyway, he was the most important. A third archon was known as the King archon, the archon basileus. His responsibilities were mainly religious, but I should point out that all the archons, whatever else they did, every one of them also did justice, that is, they had courts to which people could come to get their quarrels settled. Sometime after that, after these three major figures that I have mentioned to you, there was established a body of men calledthesmothetes, you’ll see this on the list of words, which were six men whose functions were apparently strictly judicial. They presided over courts that you could to for specified purposes.

Every one of these nine archons — they are sometimes referred to as the college of nine archons. They had a secretary which would have brought them up to ten, but only nine were true archons. They were elected from the aristocracy by the assembly of all Athenian adult males. That means mainly not aristocrats; they chose from among the aristocrats for these archons, who served for one year and not again. That’s a very important concept. Nobody in Athens holds an office at this time, or as far as I can tell, at any time — well, back up, at this time, for more than a year. The only thing in town that has continuity, that can develop power and influence over a period of time, is the council of the Areopagus and that’s what aristocratic and oligarchic regimes do. They are very nervous about individuals who acquire too much power, popularity, influence which will threaten the character of the aristocracy.

A fragment of an Athenian inscription dated about 425 BC which contains part of a list of archons, in this case six of them from the 520s BC / Agora Museum, Athens

Aristocracies — this may seem funny, but aristocracies love equality; equality among aristocrats, and then tremendous inequality between them and everybody else, sort of the way Yalies feel about things. Yalies are very nervous about anybody sticking his head up above the crowd, because the question is always why not me? You have high expectations of yourself and so sometimes unless you’re invaded by later religious ideas that the Greeks didn’t have, you’re not humble, you’re vying for honor. I always seek Greeks in front of me when I see Yalies. An aristocratic republic is what we have, not a monarchy, but a republic. Dominated insofar as it’s dominated by anybody but individual aristocrats, by the areopagus, and at some point in the history of that institution it consists now of men who have beenarchon.

The year after their archonship they automatically go into the areopagus and remain areopagites for life. Well, that gives the counsel of the areopagus even more power and influence, because they consist now, exclusively after awhile, of people who have been chosen for their individual qualities to be the leading magistrates in the state and now they will oversee what’s going on, and you can bet they will be looking very carefully over the shoulders of the aristocraticarchons whenever they are in power to see that they’re not screwing up, but also to see that they are not getting too mighty and too powerful.

The weight and the power of the Areopagus must have been enormous in this system. So the rich and the well-born, because they are pretty much the same in the early days of the polis, run the state in this official constitutional way, but I would also remind you that on their estates out there in the country they run the thing just as well with the farmers and everybody else out there, kowtowing to them and seeking their favorite. That’s the kind of world that we have at the start. Then it comes to Athens as it did to every other Greek state, a little bit later it looks like in Athens, all of the change and turmoil that we’ve seen in Argos and Corinth and other place. If we are right in talking about something like a hoplite revolution, it occurs in Athens too. Athens grows slowly, and again late, but it begins to engage in commerce to a greater degree than before, and in ancient handcrafted manufacturing, and just as it does elsewhere, it leads to new wealth and new class distinctions, which are now based not on birth but on wealth. We hear new terms, not all of them new, a couple of them new that come into the picture. We hear about Athenians divided into different classes.

One of these you remember was the Eupatridae, the well-born, that’s the old story and they were really only two, those who were and those who weren’t. But now we hear about people called hippeis, and it means horseman, cavalryman. Well, you can’t own a horse and ride a horse unless you have a lot of money. Horses are expensive. So, there are rich people now who are these cavalrymen. Well, they’ve had cavalry in the past, they’ve always been aristocrats, but what we will see in the future is that men who are hippeis who are not necessarily aristocrats.

At the bottom of the barrel we hear about people called thetes. They’ve always been around, they are the poor; they don’t own land. They live at the mercy of chance; they work for other people. They do anything they can to stay alive. But now comes the new thing, people called zeugitai. What does it mean? It means yoke fellows. Now, there are two senses of the work yoke that seem to be involved in this. You could say that, and this is one way that makes sense, these were men who were sufficiently well off that they could own a team of oxen, two oxen, who were yoked together to pull the plow. That would make them respectably well off farmers. We are talking about people of the hoplite class. Another theory is that they were indeed named that, because they were hoplites, because they lined up in the phalanx and they were yoked together, so to speak, by their shields touching one another.

It hardly matters which of the stories you prefer or whether you choose both; we’re talking about the same people and that tells us the important fact, that this new class of independent family farmer has arrived in Athens, and as in other states is not satisfied with his position in the state, as his own importance to the state becomes greater and greater. We will come back to this story when we talk about Solon, but think about these changes as happening, as the next change that I want to tell you about occurs. A change that didn’t happen, but if it had, it would have changed the entire course of events.

Cylon’s Failed Coup d’État

Two mass graves containing 80 ancient bodies in the Faliron Delta region of southern Athens. The 7th Century BCE bodies, belonging to young men, were placed side by side with their arms shackled above their heads. Researchers believe they may have been captured for being followers of Cylon / Shutterstock

According to tradition in the year 632, an Athenian nobleman who had become famous because of his victory in an athletic contest and who had married the daughter of a very wealthy and powerful tyrant in Megara, right next door to Attica. So, this guy was a young big shot of extraordinary character named, Cylon, attempted a coup d’état trying to establish a tyranny in Athens, just as his father-in-law had established one in Megara. His father-in-law’s name was Theagenes.

Well, as the story goes, he tried his best to gain control of the city. What did you do in Athens in the early days, if you wanted to take control of the city, is you take an armed force up onto the Acropolis, seize the Acropolis, make it your fortress, and proclaim yourself boss and see if you can make it stick. Well, he couldn’t, he was resisted by enough of his opponents that he was defeated. The leader of the resistance was the family known as the Alcmaeonidae. We will hear a lot about them in this course. But they went up there, locked up Cylon and his supporters in the Acropolis, in a temple. You couldn’t go into the temple for the purpose of killing somebody, that would be sacrilegious and so they were at a standstill. Still if you’re inside that temple and trying to avoid being killed, you still need food and drink, and most important drink. So, how could they manage it? Well, they took a cord, tied it to the temple, held onto the cord, and went down to the well and got their water claiming that they were just as sacrosanct as they had been before, and for a while it worked. But the Alcmaeonidae said, baloney. They cut the cord and killed the Cylonians.

That put an end to the Cylonian conspiracy but it brought something to Alcmaeonidae as well, a curse. The Alcmaeonids were declared accursed and driven from the city. Well, that’s for the time being, later on we will hear they’re back again and they’re very important. But the curse continues to be attached to the family, and as we get to the last end of the last third of the fifth century and the Peloponnesian War is about to break out, the enemies of Pericles will pull out the curse of the Alcmaeonidae to use against him, because his mother was of Alcmaeonids family.

For the moment, what we’re talking about here I think though, is here’s the first sign that we see of trouble in paradise. Nice, calm, happy synoecisized Athens has got trouble right here in River City. I mean in Athens. Why? I think we must imagine that there are the kinds of discontents that we have been talking about which find the leader in the form of a man who is an outstanding figure for some reason, who is willing to try to establish a tyranny, and use armed force to try to achieve their goals. That it fails, I think, is an indication that the same forces haven’t reached the power in Athens that they had reached in Megara, Corinth, Sicyon, and places like that, but it’s a warning about troubles ahead.

The Code of Draco; Athenian Colonies

Frieze of Draco giving the law / Agora Museum, Athens

The last thing I mentioned to you was the attempted coup d’état on the part of a nobleman by the name of Cylon, who was attempting to establish a tyranny of the sort that was becoming common in the neighborhood, and that he was the son-in-law of a tyrant in next-door Megara. The coup failed, but the problems that we imagine produced the coup did not go away, and once these evidence of continuing pressure for change away from the traditional aristocratic republic, which the early polis was, towards something that would challenge the unquestioned traditional rule of the aristocracy. Again, these are all traditional dates and shouldn’t be taken too seriously as precise, but probably reflect a pretty decent chronology in a general way. So, in the traditional year of 621 we hear that Athens received its first written law code, famous as the Code of Draco or in Greek it would be Dracon.

Reports that we have of it indicate that one kind of law that was included in the code was concerning homicide, which has a special place in Greek thinking. Probably it’s true of most primitive societies that homicide involves religious ideas. The Greeks believed that the killing of men was accepted in wartime, was a religious pollution that had to be taken care of one way or another. Beyond that there was also the primitive thing that was not particularly religious, but reflected primitive thinking that all homicides need to be avenged, and so the blood feud was clearly part of the way to deal with homicide in early Greek history. As is true of most early societies there comes a time that no longer will do, that there’s a sufficient civilization, urbanization, whatever it is that made the change, that people feel this has got to stop. One reason it does is, of course, because it tears the community apart, and as you are in the business of building a community, which is what’s happening here in the polis, you can’t have that going on.

One reason it is the way to settle things is, because there isn’t any proper government. There are only these noblemen. There is a council to be sure, but it’s all a question of going to somebody, who has power and has respect, and getting a judgment from them. But as time passes, that’s not good enough, and as the community becomes something that is more and more unified, there is a search for a better outcome and that is what resulted in the Code of Draco. Just the fact that there is written code, so that it is now available to anybody who read, which is not to say lots of people, but even so people who can read can now tell it to other people. That very fact is the sign of the decline of the power of the aristocracy, because they alone used to know what the law was or claim to know it, and people would go to them and say what’s the law, and they could administer it as they saw fit, which gave them extraordinary power, not to say prestige. Now, when it is possible, at least in some realms of the law, to know what that law is that has reduced the special place that the aristocrats have in society.

Stories are told about the Code of Draco; like most early law codes, and we can compare the Draconic Code with a famous or less famous ones, much older, that we find especially in Mesopotamia in the Ancient Near East. The most famous of these because it has been inscribed on a remarkable piece of sculpture which is now in the Louvre in Paris, the Code of Hammurabi from the second millennium B.C., is really quite similar in its essence. It says, if so and so does such a thing, this is what the punishment is. From our point of view, early codes like Draco are notorious for how harsh they are. The Greeks later on said that the Code of Draco was written not in ink, but in blood. In fact, what it does is to codify what had been the ordinary practice.

Nobody was inventing laws; they were writing down what had been the customary procedures. And again, a characteristic for such developments is that over time when people know how harsh these things are and as society sort of calms down from the more wild condition that it was in at an earlier time, it tends to reduce the severity of the penalties and to legislate, however the legislation goes forward, in a more gentle way. So, that’s another development which is obviously the consequence — aristocrats don’t give up their power willingly out of the goodness of their hearts. There’s pressure out there for access to the legal process for the ordinary person, and again I think, it’s easy to believe that a lot of that pressure is coming from that hoplite farmer class that is becoming more important and more demanding all the time.

Another change in the old placid life of the early Athenian republic, as we imagine it to be, is the conquest by the Athenians of the Island of Salamis that lies in the Saronic Gulf to the west of Attica between Attica and Megara. Athens and Megara will contest the control of Salamis for some time and fight each other over it, and on this occasion sometime here in the seventh century, probably towards the end of the seventh century, Athens conquers Salamis and populates it with Athenians. It’s not really a colony in the sense that these apoichia I described for you are; it simply becomes part of Attica, as do all the subdivisions in Attica. But it’s the first occasion that we see of the physical expansion of the Athenianpolis which is indicative of the kind of stuff we’ve been talking about elsewhere as well, and yet another sign takes place about the same time, end of the seventh, very early in the sixth century.

The establishment of the first overseas colony by the Athenians at a place called Sigeum across the Aegean Sea, just at the entrance to the Dardanelles, the Hellespont and that is not an accident, I think, because that root, through the Hellespont, through the Sea of Marmara, through the Bosphorus and into the Black Sea, will, as Athens develops economically, become the most critical trade route for Athens indeed. After a while when Athens has developed a mixed economy and as population grows it becomes dependent on that route for supplying it with the grain that it needs as the staple of life for its people. So, this is the first little step towards a very important development for Athens in the future.

I guess the reasons for it, late and less pressing than in the other places, but they must be the same to some considerable degree. Hunger for land which means that there is a growing population, that needs additional land and also because of the location of it, it’s inescapable I think that they were also thinking that early of commercial considerations and it turns out that there were very great commercial opportunities in that direction.

Crises and the Rise of Athens and Solon as Sole Archon

Bust of Solon, from the Farnèse Collection / National Museum, Naples

So, we’ve seen a number of signs of change moving Athens in the direction that the other Greek states were moving, which bring us in the early sixth century to the first, I think I’ve said this before but I want to say it again, to the first truly living, human being that we come across probably in all of Greek history, certainly in that of Athens, Solon, whom we think of as the great lawgiver for reasons that you’ve read about and I’ll tell you about in a moment anyway.

The reason he is so much — we can speak of him as a human being is because he wrote those poems from which I read you some excerpts the other day and that poem tells us something about him and about the world in which lived. And, of course, we have many, many stories about him, because he was very well remembered as a critical individual in the history, not only of Athens, but in Greece. The Greeks later put together a list of the seven sages, seven wise men of the archaic period in Greek history and Solon is one of the seven sages. Indeed, one of the problems about knowing the truth about what Solon did is that it’s pretty clear that lots of stories that had nothing to do with Solon were attached to Solon in later ages, because he was the prominent figure that everybody had heard about and knew something about, and so it isn’t easy to know, if somebody says Solon did this or Solon said that, whether he really did. We can only try to sort of figure it out as best we can, but that’s a special problem we have about him.

Now, what becomes apparent, as soon as we examine the things that brought Solon to the fore, is that Athens is clearly suffering a very serious internal problem as we get to these years. By the way, the traditional date for Solon’s appointment as sole archon in these years is 594 B.C. Again, we don’t have to take that literally but it tells you we’re really talking about the very beginning of the sixth century. Here’s the picture as it is depicted by Solon himself in his poems, but also in the work of Herodotus and other later writers. The crisis in its most acute form takes the shape of Athenians who have been enslaved. Some of them have not only been enslaved and live in Attica as slaves, but some of them have been sold abroad, and Solon tells us that some of them have been abroad so long they have forgotten the Athenian language. So that we have to have a picture in which this problem is one of some duration. We have to imagine it’s at least a couple of generations old in order for that to make any sense. But it reaches its peak around the time I’m talking about. And it’s this that — how did they get to be slaves?

This is not a case where people have always been slaves. These are not people who were brought from somewhere else as slaves. These are not people who were conquered and made slaves by the conquerors. These are Athenian citizens who used to be free and have become slaves, and the answer to how they became slaves is through debt. People were borrowing money and obviously failing to pay it back, and at a certain point they couldn’t borrow money on the basis of something they could offer as a surety for the loan. If they had land, it would have been gone by now. If they had movable products or movable possessions that would have been gone. All they had left to give was the person and probably, I hate to tell you this my friends, but reality is reality, probably the first thing they did was to give their children as a surety for the loan and when the loan was not met, the children became slaves of the person who had leant them money and at some point, probably this even happened to grownups themselves, so that a sufficient number of people had been so enslaved as to create a very general problem.

The story is that apart from direct slavery, there was another form of farming by very poor people that led to terrific misery. The term that the Greeks used for this was the hektemoroi, which means one sixth men, and scholars have argued about what does this mean. These were people who had been so far into debt that they were essentially sharecroppers and the question is did they keep one sixth or did they keep five sixth? I think anybody who knows anything about what’s possible on a farm like this realizes it couldn’t have been more than one sixth that they gave away, because they didn’t make enough. They wouldn’t have been able to stay alive. But in any case, these one sixth men were fundamentally sharecroppers under the control of the people to whom they owed the debt.

Another aspect of this thing was that the lands that were mortgaged in effect were shown by a stone that had the mortgage inscribed on it and placed on the soil. They were called horoi and so seeing the horoi scattered all over the fields were indicative of the pitiful lot of the poor farmers, who had fallen into debt during this period. Well, scholars have also had a fantastic time trying to figure out how this came about, and I never found anything that seems satisfactory to me, based on looking at the sources or reading people’s interpretations until once again my hero, Victor Hanson, came down the road and he’s a farmer. It’s amazing how much that helps them understand farmers and I like his interpretation of how things got that way, so let me give you a quick rundown of how that worked.

Fresco of farming in ancient Athens / Wikimedia Commons

Remember these times are times fundamentally of growth of farming skill, growth of farming return. People are making a living on areas, farmland that they could never have made a living on before, because they’ve learned how to grow the olives and grow vines and make olive oil and make wine, and they have reclaimed land, which had not been useful for farming in the past and that’s how they got into trouble, because for one thing farmers don’t all succeed. In any society, there are farmers who try to be good farmers and fail and they fail sometimes through their own shortcoming, and they fail sometimes because nature is not kind to them; luck is always part of the game in farming. But what happens is that they get into trouble because things don’t go well.

They start out; they have a crop, and the crop doesn’t do well. So, they need money for next year, both to make it through the winter and also to have seed for the following year. So, what they do is they have to borrow that money, and if the next crop is bad too, well there you go, and you can see the whole process unraveling. I think that’s probably the way it came about. According to Hanson, the majority of the farmers were not so affected. They were doing okay. It was the losers who were the ones who were suffering these things, but there were enough losers, so that this was a very serious problem. Now, this rejects other earlier theories, for instance, that the soil of Attica had become exhausted through over cropping and so on. If Hanson is right, this is less likely to be true than it used to be because there’s more diversity, diversification of farming than there had been in the past.

Another theory is that a cause of the problem was deforestation. Well, it’s perfectly true that Athens was severely deforested in the course of the centuries, so that Plato could comment on how this deforesting had denuded Athens of trees by the fourth century, but there’s no reason to think that that was happening, especially during the time of Solon. Very probably that deforestation hadn’t gone that far, and in any case its connection to problems of the farmland are less clear than they might be. Here’s what Hanson finally concludes about it. He says the crisis was a natural, evolutionary process of success and failure. A subtle transformation that occurs when there are fundamental changes in land use and a growing population and that seems to me to be the most satisfactory account of how the Athenians got into that fix.

But in that fix they were, there’s no question about it, so the question was, what is to be done? Now, the pressure to do something about it, I think is twofold. Of course, inherently, Athenians would have been bothered by all of this, even those who were not the ones who did the suffering. But it’s amazing how we all are able to bear the suffering of our neighbor, if we’re not suffering too. However, the second element I think that put pressure on everybody, was next door in Megara when things had gone bad for the poor, there was a revolution and a tyranny was established, and so it was down the road in Corinth, and so it was a little further down the road in Scythian, so that the dominant people, the satisfied people, the people who liked things as they were, were worried that, if they didn’t solve their socio-economic problem they would find themselves confronting a tyranny. After all, that’s what Cylon had in mind back thirty, thirty-five years ago and the danger was ever present, and I think that is what you need to have in your mind.

Choosing Solon

Oracle of Apollo at Delphi / Wikimedia Commons

The threat of tyranny was the great element that made chances or attempts at reform necessary and allowed the Athenians to give things a try that they would never have thought of before. So, what they finally decided to do was to select from among themselves, one Athenian who would replace all the nine archons of the usual government of Athens and be given the job of sole archon for one year, and he would be allowed to legislate for the Athenians as a way out of the trouble they were in. Now, think of how desperate things must be, and one aspect of that desperation I think we have to believe, is that there was no way they could have put together a coalition of citizens who would been sufficiently unified, sufficiently public-spirited to trust with such an activity.

We have to believe there was sufficient differences of interest on the part of different elements in the society that would have made that impossible, otherwise you don’t do this kind of thing. It is worth pointing out that something like Solon’s sole archonship is heard of about the same time in Greek history in other towns. Sometimes they appointed somebody they called an Aesymnetes, somebody who was supposed to be the guy who settled things for them. So, it’s an idea that came obviously naturally to the Greeks, but we ought to recognize what an extraordinary thing it really is. They chose Solon. Why did they choose Solon? He obviously was reputed to have the kinds of characteristics which would make him a competent, intelligent, wise, fair person to do this kind of thing. He had achieved fame, notoriety by his military activity. He had led in the war against the Megarians and had fought very well and it was out of that military achievement that he became well known, and then his other characteristics obviously were also well known.

If you read his poems, you realize he was a man who knew how to express himself and to persuade others of what he had in mind and that his approach was one that was popular. We should keep in mind what’s going on here. First of all, we are told he was a man — we have contradictory stories and I think I can understand how the contradiction arose. One story says he was a nobleman coming from extremely famous important ancestors. The other speaks of him as a man of the middle rank, which doesn’t really work out with that. I think the best explanation I can come up with that, is that he undoubtedly was a person of noble birth. In that kind of society, only such a person was likely to be looked to for a position of leadership. But I think what may have persuaded folks — well, he also couldn’t have been fabulously wealthy, but certainly he was not a poor man. But I think what convinced people that he was of the middle rank was that his message and the propaganda that he sent out in his poems, and indeed, the character of the reforms that he proposed were very much moderate.

That’s the word that came to be the one so much admired, and favored, and sought by the Greek people. Keep in mind this is the period in Greek history when the Delphic Oracle has come to the height of its influence in the Greek world and in the surrounding world as well. The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi was the most famous place that was putting forward the idea of moderation. The Greek word is sophrosyne, self control and moderation. You remember the messages at the Delphic Oracle, “know thyself,” meaning don’t imagine that you are more than a man, but that you are merely a man and don’t do anything in excess. Moderation is what should be sought. Greeks never stopped worshipping at the shrine of moderation for the rest of their history. A cynical man says the Greeks were so in love with moderation, because it was so rare among them, but I think it’s rare among all of us. So, here was Solon who was the spokesman of that very powerful mode of thinking that was pervading the Greek world at the time, and no doubt he gave it a great step forward with the things that he did and the things that he said.

Solon’s Economic and Social Measures

Solon, depicted as a medieval scholar in the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff / Wikimedia Commons

Okay, let’s look at a few of the things that he did. I’m picking out things that I’m pretty sure really were Solonian; there were others that are attributed to him that are more debatable. But the most basic problem is what are we going to do with these people who are losing their property, have lost their property, have lost their freedom, what’s to be done about that agricultural problem we’ve been talking about? So, Solon introduced the measure which is called in Greek, the seisachtheia. That measure abolished all debts that were based on the body of the person, that is, the surety given was the body of the borrower. Any debt that was so incurred was abolished, cancelled.

On the other hand, there was no general cancellation of debts. In other words, any normal debt that didn’t have that characteristic continued. Another thing that the poor and the unhappy would have liked, they would have liked general cancellation of the debt. I should point out, whenever you have lower class discontent in the Greek world there are two things that they typically asked for. One is abolition of debt, because they’re always in debt and the second thing is redistribution of the land. Now, redistribution of the land means civil war. Nobody is going to allow his land to be taken away from him and given to somebody else without a fight, and so if you go for that, what you’re going to have to do is to have armed force to achieve it. And you’re going to end up with a tyranny, because that’s the kind of things tyrants are more likely to do.

So, he avoided that and he did not permit redistribution of the land. If you just look at that land question for a moment, and the dead bondage question, you can see that it is indeed the moderate position in between the view of those, the poor, the slave, the indebted who wanted these radical changes, and the old aristocracy would have preferred to just leave things as they were. Instead, Solon came through with this middling program, and by the way apparently there was — we don’t know how this was done, but apparently they brought back Athenians who had been enslaved abroad also. So, there must have been some expenditure of funds; somehow they must have collected it from somebody and brought them back, but the most important thing is what’s done right there in Attica. What all of this does is to settle down the situation for the moment, but it does not guarantee that these very same problems that produced the difficulty we’re talking about would not reappear in the future.

I think if we looked at this measure, it’s already a clue to most everything that’s characteristic of the Solonian reforms. They are moderate, and therefore, unsatisfactory. That is, they don’t solve the problems that are there, but that doesn’t mean they are not worth anything. For one thing they ameliorate the problem and therefore they ameliorate the discontent and the danger to the freedom of the Athenians, but they also sometimes set the stage for the elimination of the problem over time, because ways are found, obviously, for people to manage these things. If the possibility of debt slavery is taken away, other forms of managing these things will assert themselves. Indeed, what we find, and I must say what I’m going to tell you doesn’t solve the mystery, but what we find as you get to the fifth century, the Classical Period in Athens, is an extraordinary situation, because it’s so good and so unusual. This is that most Athenian farmers in the fifth century seemed to have small, but adequate family farms that allow many, many, many Athenians to live in a very satisfactory way, given the expectations that they had.

It never abolished great bit land holding arrangements that some people had. There always were, through Athenian history no matter how thoroughly democratic a state became, there always were great difference of wealth between very wealthy people and very poor people. But what is extraordinary and what would have been very satisfactory to the Greek political thinkers, even Aristotle, for instance, in the fourth century, there was a great middle ground in which the people were pretty much like each other in their economic condition, which produces the greatest stability, the greatest satisfaction, the greatest capacity for self government. So, that was one of the consequences, although it didn’t happen as any direct action by Solon.

We are also told by Aristotle and other ancient sources that Solon changed the coin standard for Athens from one that was used in the west in the Peloponnesus and in the west, to one that was used in the east. He changed the weight from the Pheidonian measures, Pheidonian coin standard, to the Euboic standard, which people try to understand why and how that would work. It would have made trade with Aegean and the east better, and of course we know that that’s the area that the Athenians are exploiting vigorously now. Although we must recognize that when the Athenians get rolling in the trade business, they do tremendously well in the west as well. But there’s a bigger problem with the story about these coins than any other. As you know from what I told you before, the almost universal opinion of coin experts is, how could he change the coin standards? There weren’t any coins yet. Now, you’re either going to believe them or you’re going to believe Aristotle; you know where I am.

Okay, in other steps that turned out to be very important in the long run, he encouraged the use of the land for the purpose of producing cash crops like olive oil and wine, and the Athenians do use more and more of their soil, largely because there’s more and more of their soil that can grow that and nothing else. But as they do, the consequence is to make the agricultural output of Athens much more diversified than it had been, which saves you — the more diverse your crops, the less chance you have to be wiped out in any one year by bad results, and as a matter of fact, over time it became a very satisfactory device and helps explain again the health of Athenian agriculture when we see it in the fifth century and later.

Another thing that he did — I’m going to talk about citizenship for a moment; the Greek poleis were very jealous of their citizenship. Their theory of the polis was that all citizens were the descendants of the original founders of the city. In other words, everybody in Athens was a relative of some kind. Of course it wasn’t true; certainly in Athens we know there were many immigrants and so on. But the fact remains that that was the normal thinking about it, and the notion of this — the power, the centrality of the concept of polis to them is something we need to understand, and they were jealous of it and selfish with it. This was not something they would simply allow people to acquire, if they wanted it. This place is us and it’s not them and we don’t make people citizens, and that was essentially the thing. To be a citizen of Athens in those days, you had to have a father who was a citizen of Athens; nothing else would do the trick.

But Solon changed that; Solon offered citizenship to individuals who came to Athens to settle and could show that they had a valuable skill, a valuable craft and the results were that Athens would become in the decades following Solon, a great center for the manufacturing of a variety of things; pottery is what we have, and great painted pottery is a great part of the Athenian tradition, but sculpture also and all kinds of things that we probably don’t have, because they would have been destroyed by time. But the idea was, if you were a skilled craftsman, you could come to Athens and you would not have to be what you would otherwise be. Anybody who came to Athens, not under these rules could stay, could make themselves a permanent resident, but he would always be what the Greeks called a metoikois, we say in English a metic, meaning a resident alien, never to be a citizen.

Only citizens were permitted to own land in Attica. Only citizens had access to the Athenian courts; a non-citizen who had to go to court for one reason or another would have to find a citizen to be his spokesman. So, you really were cut off from some very — of course a non-citizen could not participate in the political life of Athens either. But these people were not going to be metics, because of the economic skills that they brought. Solon arranged for them to become Athenian citizens, very rare thing. We will have a couple of other occasions in this course and take a look in a moment when foreigners were permitted to come to Athens and become citizens, but they’re very rare and there was always something very special connected with them, and there will always be some Athenians who will raise at least one eyebrow at the idea of making a foreigner a citizen of Athens. But it turned out to be one of those things that Solon instituted that would have long range consequences, helpful to the Athenian state.

Solon’s Political Measures

Well, so much for the economic and social issues, let’s turn to the constitutional questions, because of course — but when you’re talking about an independent republic then the political and constitutional arrangements are obviously critical to everybody. I guess it’s true in any society, but it’s blatant in a republic. So, Solon changed the Athenian constitution. Up to this moment the Athenian constitution came to be what it was in the way that these things happen in nature, namely, through tradition; they just kind of grow. Nobody legislates. But Solon was appointed to legislate and he was going to attempt to deal with the problems that he saw.

So, what he did first of all was to arrange Athenian political society on a new basis. This is as very large matter. Up to now, where you were in the state, whether you could serve on the council, whether you could be a magistrate, depended upon your birth. Aristocrats alone could hold these positions. Now that was swept away by Solon’s new system. He changed it so that the determination of who was eligible to serve in these councils and offices was based on the wealth that they had. Just to show you — and this is an argument against the coinage being present in that he did not fix the rating of citizens for these jobs in money. He rated them in measures of agricultural produce, whether dry produce or liquid produce, equally available. These measures of produce were called medimnoi measures. So here’s how he worked it out.

At the top of the scale there were five — you had to have each year products produced by your land which were worth 500 medimnoi at least. So, the people who held that position, that condition were described as — get ready this is a jawbreaker, pentakosiomedimnoi, which just means 500 measurement. That is obviously a new term, a new concept, didn’t exist before Solon. It makes no sense so Solon had to invent that to take care of a certain class of people that he wanted. But the next class down was probably, almost certainly, used for a condition that was already recognized, but didn’t have a formal place in the constitution. People with 300 measures a year, but not 500, were called hippeismeaning cavalrymen. I used that term in another place before. Then people with 200 measures but not 300 werezeugitai, yoke fellows you remember, yoke men. Then those below 200 were thetes and they were the lowest class in the Athenian society invented by Solon, again, that was an old term. The only one that he invented was the pentakosiomedimnoi.

Of course, the critical thing about it — whatever else I say about it, this is the important thing; it broke the monopoly of aristocrats by birth in the political realm. The first two classes, pentakosiomedimnoi and hippeis, could hold the archonships and only they. Now, the zeugitai, as I think I mentioned to you before, were essentially the hoplite class. That meant they could not hold the top jobs in the state. On the other hand, he established a council of four hundred. The word for council in Greek is boule. So, this boule of four hundred, zeugitai could serve on that and we never will really know what the powers of that council were, because it doesn’t seem — well, as we shall see, Solon’s constitution was never really put into effect in all its respects, although this business about the measures was put into effect. But I think we can guess by analogy to other councils that it would have considerable power, that it would have decided many things. It would not have been an empty honor to be on the council of 400, nor were the thetes excluded from political power entirely.

They, of course, made up a part of the assembly; the Greek word is ekklesia and there was certainly an ekklesia before Solon. You always, in any state that we know of in the Greek world, if you want to go to war you must go to the army. Now, the thetes didn’t fight as hoplites, but they could fight as light armed troops. So, I’m sure they were consulted, although it was pretty much a formality. Nonetheless, that’s not new, but what is new and extremely important, is that Solon invents a new kind of court. It is called in Greek the heliaia, and what it is, is a court of appeal. All this time before, every magistrate, as I believe I mentioned, had a court of his own that dealt with matters that were appropriate to his court and that was the end of it. I suppose, theoretically and probably in reality sometimes, if somebody didn’t like what a magistrate decided in a court he could do to the Areopagus and in very rare occasions, I would imagine, the Areopagus could do something about it, but I think what we have to assume is that a decision by the magistrates court was it and the game was over.

Heliaia, on the other hand, was a court of appeals; that’s critical. Anybody who didn’t like the decision that he got in a magistrates court could take it to a heliaia and then have that decision overturned, if the court so decided, and that court was a truly popular court. It was open to all adult male Athenian citizens, even the thetes. That is something very new. Really quite radical, the most radical element surely in this very moderate program that Solon puts forward. Notice, he still gives the aristocracy privileges that nobody else has in the right to hold — I say aristocracy but I mean the richest people in the state, in that they alone could hold the archonship, which would have been troubling to the poor. But then he gives this new founded court of appeals to the poorest Athenian citizens, which would certainly have ranked the rich and that’s characteristic of what he is up to.

This court — here’s the way it worked. Every year Athenians could volunteer to be enrolled in the panel that would produce the courts of the heliaia, and a number of Athenians on this panel was six thousand, and then on any occasion when there had to be an actual court case, then the members, people on the enrolled list — there would be some way of picking the numbers you needed for the jury. We know how it worked in the Classical Period, but we can’t be sure it worked the same way in Solon’s time. But in the Classical Period, the very complicated way of choosing jurors, which was allotment, but such a wonderfully complicated allotment device, that it guaranteed that nobody would know who was going to sit on a particular jury until they walked into the room and began to hear the case and that was to avoid corruption of a jury.

So, whether that system was in play or not, and I don’t think it was in the detail in Solon’s time, the idea should be clear. These things are really going to be unfixable and ordinary Athenians are going to be the ones who are making the decisions. Later, theoreticians of politics of democracy would fix on that as the single most important step towards the democracy that the Athenians would ultimately reach, but by no means would Solon’s constitution, if it had been put into effect, have amounted to a thorough going democracy. Yet, the tradition always was there that Solon had done something democratic, because as you go into the fourth century, people looking back without any real good knowledge of what went on back in those days, some of them listed Solon as the founder of democracy. But it’s also true that the general understanding was not wrong about this, because there was the same tradition at the same time, that it wasn’t the same kind of democracy we have now in the fifth century. It was less democratic; and I think those traditions were correct but moderation again is the example of what I’m talking about.

Dissatisfaction and Years of Anarchy

Statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton / Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, Naples Museum

Well, brilliant, marvelous Solon was so clever he realized that when you’re moderate, the wonderful achievement of a moderate person is that everybody is dissatisfied, because the guys on that end are unhappy and the guys that are on that end are unhappy, and so he knew that there would immediately be efforts to overthrow what he had done. So, one of his stipulations was that the Athenians would have to leave his laws unchanged for ten years, and he also knew that his own life would be extremely uncomfortable hanging around Athens while everybody came and said, what the hell did you do Solon? So, he left town and went on his travels for ten years after that. Well, it saved him a lot of grief, but it didn’t save his legislation, because there was tremendous strife in Athens after the year of Solon’s archonship, indeed, something resembling chaos I think.

They were technically years of anarchy; that is to say, there was so much dispute and conflict in Athens that they were unable to elect the nine archons, just years with no archons, no name for the year, that was how serious the conflict was. What emerges in our records about what was happening is that localism, regionalism was very powerful in Attica and it was regionalism that was a large part of the problem in this period. Important figures in the aristocracy from different parts of Attica, each sought to make himself the dominant force in Athenian society, and to bring about changes that were satisfactory to them, but they ran into the fact that they had competition. To make it more complicated, it wasn’t even a nice one against one thing. There were three factions that were identified by the Greeks, by the Athenians and they all struggled one against the other.

Let’s start with the regional character of these places. One such region was called, the people in that faction — let me back up. The region was called peralia and the people who were in the faction were called peralioi. Modern scholars identify the peralia with the southern tip of Attica, starting some distance up from Sunium on the west coast carrying a little bit around to the east coast, and that was a region that was dominated by that family I mentioned to your earlier, the family that was held responsible for the killing of the supporters of Cylon, that family were the Alcmaeonidae and their leading figure, at the moment we’re talking about, was a man called Megacles, who was one of the competitors for the leading position in Attica. According to the ancient writers of the fourth century, very hard to know how much they really knew about it, it’s a matter of speculation, but anyway what they say is these people wanted a middling moderate constitution. They were probably very close to trying to retain the Solonian legislation.

Another faction were called the pediakoi and they represented the middling part of Attica, which is in fact, the very best land in Attica where grain and wheat especially, were growable and the richest people had their land. Their leader was a man named Lycurgus and they represented the old aristocracy more than any other group, and would have undoubtedly if they had had their way, just undone the Solonian laws, and gone back to the old days. They favored some kind of oligarchic regime. Then the third group lived in the region called diakrioi and they were called diakrioi. Sometimes some of our sources say hyperakrioi; I’ll come back to that in just a moment. Well, I might as well tell you about it now. It is identified with the region on the east coast of Attica, which was called the Diakria, but why they might have been called hyperakrioi is that there was some mountains between central Attica and the Diakria, which meanthyperakrioi means beyond the mountains and that would have been a geographical description of the region.

Peisistratus, the Very Special Tyrant

An archaic silver obol of Athens of heraldic type from the time of Peisistratos, 545–525 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

The leader of this faction was a man called Peisistratus who was a nobleman, an aristocrat; all of them were, but his family had come from the Peloponnesus back in the years of the great migration, following the fall of the Mycenaean world and that shows you that the Athenians had brought into their bosoms at that time, and made full citizens all aristocrats and leading people, some people from outside of Attica. Now, it was hundreds of years later and Peisistratus arose as the leader of that place and of those people. Now, he’s going to be very important; we need to say a few more words about him. In the quarrel about what shall be done Peisistratus and his group were the most radical. They represented the views of the poorest people in Attica and pressed for solutions of the kind that they would like. He, himself, had arisen to power in the usual way. He had been a great soldier and had won great victories for the Athenians and was deeply honored for that reason, and we’ll hear more from him. Ancient writers speak of him as the most demotic, the most popular, the most democratic, if you will.

So, here are the three factions with their local places, with their policies presumably, and their different leaders all struggling for power and sufficiently equal in strength, so that nobody could come out on top. Out of this, and by the way, when Solon comes home and the situation is as unsatisfactory as I’ve described, Solon becomes particularly worried about Peisistratus whom he has spotted as potential tyrant, and he goes out and he warns the people against Peisistratus, but the fact of the matter is, he fails and his warnings and his predictions turn out to be accurate, as Peisistratus does bring about tyranny in Athens for the stretch of time that he and his sons will dominate the place.

He was engaged in that war against Megara and was the number one hero in that war. He was wounded and when he came back he said that he was in danger from his enemies who were going to try to kill him and he asked the people to supply him with a body guard. They did so, and he pretty quickly took the opportunity to use his body guard to seize the Acropolis and made himself boss of Athens. For a five-year stretch from about 561 to 556, he was able to rule Athens. We know very little about the details of that period, but he was a proper tyrant one way or another. Then the two factions that were defeated managed to get their heads together to plot and to overthrow the tyranny to drive Peisistratus out. So out, he goes. For a period of time he goes abroad, wanders around, meets with other important people, goes to see other tyrants, and becomes friendly with other tyrants. And he finds one way or another to make a lot of money, and to get very rich. This is important because he is able to use this money for hiring mercenary soldiers, which will play a large part in his restoration, but not the first restoration. That comes about, because the two factions that had gotten together to drive him out, had by now come to quarrel with one another, and so taking advantage of their dissent, he made a deal with one of the faction leaders.

It was our old friend Megacles, the Alcmaeonidae. He now united with Megacles, and the two of them drove out their opponents in the form of Lycurgus and his people, and Peisistratus was restored to the tyranny. What did Megacles get out of it? Well, he got guarantees that he would be a big shot and one part of the guarantee was that Peisistratus, who had had a wife and children already — I assume she died, the first wife — now married the daughter of Megacles. Time memorial, that’s the way to produce political associations; one guy marries the one’s daughter. So, there we are. Now, the story of how Peisistratus comes back to power in this second time is charming, and I think we have to believe it in its general outlines. Well, you can decide whether you want to or not. The story is told in a couple places, but Aristotle and his Athenian Constitution tells it in one way.

Peisistratus got a tall, beautiful girl, and he dressed her up to look like Athena and he put her on a chariot and had her drive through the Attica countryside and his boys running alongside her shouted, Athena is bringing back Peisistratus to Athens. Well, you’re not going to cross your patron deity are you? So, you can imagine them just sort of kowtowing and saying, hail Peisistratus, the favorite of Athena. Well, the fact that he had a lot of soldiers and that he had Megacles on his side undoubtedly played a large part in the success. But there he is back, and everything would have been all right I guess, except that after a while Peisistratus — let me back up a second. Peisistratus’ wife, the daughter of Megacles, began going home to her father and mother and telling them sad stories, which is that her husband was not performing his husbandly duties. Why was this? Was she particularly offensive?

No, there’s no such record as that. It’s clear enough that what was worrying Peisistratus was that he did not want to mess up the clarity of the succession of his sons to the tyranny. If he had children with Megacles, and they grew up, maybe they would contest the succession and so it was in his role as a loyal and devoted father that he got himself into all kinds of trouble. Well, Megacles felt the insult, the fact that his grandchildren would not be in charge, and finally, I have to believe, even in a Greek father, feeling that his daughter had been done wrong. So, he joined up with the opposition, kicked out Peisistratus one more time. In this second exile of Peisistratus, he goes to various places to raise all kinds of money, gets mercenaries, he is supported by — this will play a role in later events. He gets very friendly with the cavalrymen, the horsemen, the nobility of Eritrea, a town in the northern part of the Island of Euboea, just off the east coast of Attica.

By the way, remember Peisistratus comes from that area, the east coast of Attica, and regionalism will not disappear from Attica for some time, and that is significant. Anyway, he gets all kinds of help from overseas and his wealth and all that, and this time he’s just going to fight his way back. No tricks, no goddesses. He lands at Marathon which has the advantage to him of being very close to Euboea, where he’s been operating with his friends in Eritrea. It also has a nice flat place for cavalry and I’m sure he acquired cavalrymen among the mercenaries that he hired. All of that allows him to get his forces together, and sure enough, when he lands at Marathon, that’s his home territory and all his people come rallying round to him and now he has a good sized army of Athenians and mercenaries and he marches inland, and in the middle land of Attica, the place called Pellini, he meets his opponents and defeats them in battle, and makes himself the tyrant of Athens once again.

One of the things he does by a trick, very soon after coming to power, is to disarm the Athenian people, so that he is now ruling in a truly tyrannical way in that sense. There’s not much pretense at having achieved this position by the popular will. He’s done so by force and trickery, and he’s prepared to maintain his power in those ways. But in his actual government of Attica and Athens in the remainder of his life, tradition is pretty clear that he did not rule harshly. If we think of the word tyrannical as meaning harsh, he did not rule tyrannically. In fact, later writers describe the way he ruled Athens, and it’s this last period that they’re talking about I think, as one that was politicos, meaning moderately and in accordance with the way a polis should be run, which does not include tyranny.

In fact, some later writers picture the rule of Peisistratus as a golden age in Athens. We’ll come back to that perhaps. But there are two edges to this thing. There’s the notion, my God he established a tyranny which later on in Athens would be the worst thing in the world you could do and yet there’s this alongside it, this tradition of a decent government under Peisistratus. Well, let’s see what he did. One thing he did was not to repeal the laws of Solon. They may never have been put into full effect, because of the turmoil but no one had ever said they’re not the law anymore. In fact, Peisistratus let them be and, in fact, he allowed them to function as they should. In other words, I would think that there was a council of 400 that was elected every year and met. We know there were magistrates, there were archons elected in the appropriate way each year. The law courts even met in the way that they were supposed to, but what Peisistratus did was not to change the constitution, but to dominate it. I think you have to imagine that there is the rule of a boss.

He doesn’t change the laws; he just sees to it that all the appropriate bodies are controlled by his people. That, for an analogy, is the way the Medici governed in Florence and they made themselves the rulers of that republic. It is true; you can’t be just totally gentle. You have to take care of your enemies, because they’re going to be enemies out there. So, Peisistratus surely exiled some aristocratic families, the ones who wouldn’t cut a deal with him, the ones who wouldn’t play ball; out they went. We know that for some part of the time, but we don’t know just when. He exiled the Alcmaeonidaes. Of course, he had this quarrel with Megacles, so that was not a surprise and they could not readily be made complacent to what was going on, although we do have, and this is remarkable, we have an actual inscription which is blatantly a list of archons who held office in Athens after Peisistratus’ death, in the period when his sons ruled Athens.

Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as “the father of Athenian democracy”, on view at the Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio / Wikimedia Commons

One of the names as archon of the city was Cleisthenes, who was an Alcmaeonid, which means makes it perfectly clear that at least later in the day the Alcmaeonids came back into Attica. We have to imagine that Peisistratus ruled this thing with great savvy and there was always time come home, if you would be a good boy and do what Peisistratus told you to do, and I think that happened in many cases. One of the things he did that was very popular was to invent the institution of circuit judges. That is to say, it used to be that if you were an Athenian citizen and you wanted to go to law, originally of course you had no choice but to go to the local big shot and have this local aristocrat settle the matter, as had been the case in the days of Hesiod. But under Solon’s system, at the very least, you could go to the magistrate in Athens, if you wanted to, and you could even appeal to his decision if you wanted too, but here’s the problem, what if you lived in Sunium? You lived miles and miles, and miles away from this, what were the chances that you would in fact, or could go to the city to receive the justice that you needed.

So, by establishing circuit justice, brought courts that were objective, that were not dominated by the local barons, he was doing a real service to the ordinary Athenian citizen, and that was seen to be a good thing. But it was also, of course, in his interest. He doesn’t want local big shots being big shots. There’s only room in a tyranny for one big shot and that is the tyrant, and so he’s serving himself, breaking down local power, unifying the state into a single thing, which is good in all kinds of ways, but it’s also good for the tyrant.

Now, the next thing I’m going to say is supposition; we don’t have any ancient evidence for it, which is, of course, open to doubt. But I would argue that he must have confiscated some of the land of the aristocrats who opposed him and with whom he did not make a deal. I say that pretty much only for this reason. Before Peisistratus we have the story of great differences in land holding between very, very big landowners and very, very small landowners and those who own no land at all, producing the problem. Nothing Solon did directly affected that situation, but when we get into the fifth century, the evidence is overwhelming that we have what I spoke of earlier, lots and lots of medium, moderate family-sized farms, some big farms, but these are not what are characteristic of the place. Well, how did that happen? When did that happen? My guess is probably Peisistratus brought that about, and if so, it would have been still another reason why he had brought popularity, remarkable popularity. The ancient sources do tell us that among the things that he did was to spend money on farmers. That is, he would give money or lend money to farmers who needed it when they needed it, which was of course one of the issues constantly before the small farmers of Attica.

So, with the money they borrowed, they could buy more land, and make their farm more self-sustaining. They could pay off debts that they owed to other people, and they could do the things that these small farmers have to do to succeed, namely, buy the equipment they need: olive presses, wine presses, and mills. They could use their loans for planting fruit trees, olive trees. All of these things could have been part of the story of how Athenian agriculture came to be so successful after the time of the tyrants, as they had not been before. Now, there’s one negative thing that I’m sure nobody liked. Peisistratus instituted the first regular direct tax that we know of in Athenian history. A five percent tax on all that was produced from the land and that money went to Peisistratus, and it made him wealthy, but also provided him with the money he needed to be this good fellow that I have been describing.

So, it all assisted his political power and his popularity. Tyrants laid down taxes. Taxes are evidence of tyranny, and all that. That’s not totally the picture we get. Aristotle tells this story, one day Peisistratus was traveling around the countryside of Attica, as I guess he sometimes did, and he went up on the slopes of Mount Hymettus, not too far from the city of Athens. You can go up there today, the notion of anybody farming on that mountain is totally incredible, nothing you could possibly grow on Mount Hymettus, but it’s been deforested by that time. So anyway, it was still lousy. I mean, mountains are not great places for farms, you may have noticed. So anyway, he goes up to this farmer and he says, “Say farmer what do you grow on your farm?” The farmer, you have to imagine a gnarled old mean, nasty old guy saying, “On my farm I grow rocks and Peisistratus is welcome to his five percent.” Well, what did Peisistratus say, off with his head or send him on to the moon? He said, well, aren’t you a cute little fellow. I hereby declare your farm exempt from taxes forever, and it became a famous thing the tax free farm. It shows up in a Byzantine encyclopedia; that story is still being told. So, you got a very special kind of tyrant here.

Consequences of Tyranny to Greek Life

Engraving of coin with Alcmaeon of Croton / Wikimedia Commons

Peisistratus died in 527 with all his power, insofar as we know peacefully, and was succeeded in the tyranny over Athens by his sons, by first wife, Hippeis who was the elder and Hipparchus. I think it’s proper to think of Hippeis as the man in charge, but Hipparchus shared considerable amount of his power and responsibility. At first it appears that they ruled in the same way that their father had, which was to say one that was moderate and didn’t cause a great deal of opposition in Athens, and, of course, there always was a certain amount of opposition. We should not forger that. Aristocratic families always vying for their own power and their own position were uncomfortable very often under Peisistratus and different ones, different families got into trouble and were driven out, and our old friends the Alcmaeonidae got into trouble again, were banished in the time of the sons of Peisistratus, and it was necessary to have a battle against them, in which they were defeated and driven out.

That will play a significant role in the future of Athens quite soon. But I think it’s in the year 514 that a very important event changes the course of things. There is a personal quarrel between the tyrants, one of the tyrants actually, and one of the noble young men, which results in a plot to kill both Hippeis and Hipparchus, led by two young men who will become known in Athenian lore as the tyrannicides, because in their plot they succeed in killing the younger brother Hipparchus, although they don’t get Hippeis. They themselves are killed and the plot fails, but its significance, I think, comes in the fact that it made Hippeis thereafter very nervous, very concerned about his safety and about the future of his regime, and the nature of the regime according to tradition changes and it becomes very harsh, and there are persecutions of people, who are suspected of perhaps plotting or hoping to plot against the tyranny, and that’s significant.

It’s a characteristic event, as I told you early on as I spoke about tyranny in general; usually in the second and sometimes if they made it to the third, there would be opposition. The opposition would make the rulers nervous, the nervous rulers would then misbehave and create further opposition and that’s the story as it happens in Athens. One wrinkle in the Athenian story is that the Alcmaeonidae, who had been expelled from the city, always active, always thinking, got into a position of a special favor to the Delphic Oracle, when there was an earthquake that badly damaged the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Alcmaeonidae bid for the contract to rebuild the temple, and in the doing of that, they spent some of their own money to make the temple even more beautiful than the contract required, which put them in great favor with the priests of Delphi, and they immediately cashed this favor in, in the form of seeking their own political advantage.

The story, as Herodotus tells it, is that their goal was to drive out Hippeis from Athens and the way to do it this time — you remember they’ve tried every trick in the world, and it hasn’t really worked. The idea now was to turn to the most powerful military state in Greece and use it for their purposes. I’m talking of course about Sparta. The tale is that whenever the Spartans sent a message to the Delphic Oracle asking for the opportunity to consult the Oracle, the answer that came back was: first free the Athenians. Well, whether that was the reason or he had reasons of his own, the very ambitious King of Sparta, King Cleomenes was to undertake the job of removing Hippeis from power in Athens quite soon. It’s in the year 511-10 that the Spartans under Cleomenes will invade Attica, gain control of the state, and remove Hippeis and withdraw. But I’ll come back to that story in just a moment.

Let me conclude our consideration of the Athenian tyranny by looking at what were the achievements and consequences of the years of tyrannical rule — many positive elements, as was so often the case with tyranny. From the economic side this was a period of great expansion of Athenian commerce, trade, very strong to the east through the Hellespont and to the Black Sea, but also in this period Athens trades very strongly with the West. I mean to say chiefly Sicily and Italy, and in fact up to that point, up to those years roughly speaking, Corinthian pottery, fine Corinthian pottery, is dominant in the western areas and this is no surprise. That’s always been the case for Corinth. But by the end of the sixth century, Athenian pottery has actually outstripped it in the western markets, which show you how much this combination of trade and industry was changing the character of Athens and making it wealthier and bringing along various elements of change in their way of life.

Another consequence of the tyrannical experience in Athens was a diminution in the power of the aristocracy, and this again is the general story wherever we see tyranny in the Greek world. It never erases aristocracy; you never see the disappearance of the distinction between nobles and commoners, and claims to the aristocracy of birth and descent from the gods. It is always there. Even in the most democratic of Greeks states, like Athens for instance, aristocracy doesn’t go away. It’s not abolished; it lives side by side with a democratic constitution. But the domination by the aristocracy, the monopoly of all the powers and influence that they used to have, it’s not there and that is a tremendously important consequence. So, when the tyranny goes away and it’s necessary to reconstruct a new Athenian constitution, the answer will not simply be to return to the old days before the tyrants.

Solon had intervened in an important way and the tyrants had made their contribution too, to changes that turned out to be permanent. It’s also true that under the tyrants, the local power of the noblemen had been reduced and the power of the government in Athens, which was not dominated by the aristocracy, but by the tyrants — that was a trend and one of the issues that would have to be worked out would be what would be the relationship between the localities outside of Athens and the city itself. Localism has been damaged but not abolished.

If there are going to be new forms of government that take place, one of the consequences, one of the precursors of that will be to further strengthen the center and weaken the periphery, and to continue to strip as best one could the influence and power of the aristocracy, which was mainly to be felt in the countryside and to increase the power of some other form of government, which center would be in Athens. On the other hand, because of the reforms of Solon, which I remind you Peisistratus and his sons allowed to stay in place, at least in the formal sense — therefore every year, think about it, people were elected archon, people where chosen for a council, law courts operated, all of these things not dominated by the aristocracy, but really, in the case of the magistracies, wealth was the criterion.

Remember ever since Solon that people who were not aristocrats, but were wealthy also participated in those jobs, and the council which was open to three out of the four Athenian classes under Solon, meant that people actually went to the council chamber, participated in decisions about what was going on. To be sure they weren’t going to do anything that the tyrants didn’t want, but ninety to ninety five percent of the time, maybe more, the tyrant didn’t care, so that they were getting — this is the point I really want to stress. They were getting experience in the business of self government. When you do that, I think the history of the world shows that once people have risen to that state, where they do participate in their own self government, it’s very hard to get them back into a state when they don’t anymore. That’s going to be very difficult to make stick.

Athens has been moved down the road to self government as a consequence, strangely enough, of the tyranny. Just in passing, I might point out that’s not a unique phenomenon. It’s very interesting to look back at the early post-colonial age in the twentieth century and to see that there were real differences between colonies that had been ruled in a — I don’t want to say tyrannical, but in an absolute way, such as the Congo or other places like that, as opposed to places that had achieved some degree of self government, even while they were ruled by European power, the difference was very great. The same experience that I am talking about now that lead to the capacity and a determination to govern oneself was more likely in places where there had been some such thing. India, of course, is a striking example. Where the Indians had managed to achieve some degree of participation in the government of their own state under the British, who in spite of all the troubles they had, have actually produced a functioning relatively democratic government in that great subcontinent. Well, that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

So, knowing what we now know, looking backward, it’s possible to say that it looks like the tyranny played a very important role in the transition from aristocratic government to democracy. That’s not what the tyrants intended. They intended to rule for as long as they could, but it was one of the consequences as we will see.

Cleisthenes’s Coup d’État

Coin portrait of King Cleomenes I of Sparta / Wikimedia Commons

Well, let’s turn once again to those Alcmaeonidae who had, as you remember a checkered past in Athens and even under the tyranny, because they had been driven out. Remember Megacles had his deal with Peisistratus, and how Peisistratus had broken that deal, so he went into opposition. He and the Alcmaeonidae were driven out, but they came back, because we find Cleisthenes name on the list of archons, but then they had been driven out again.

In the year 511-10, Cleisthenes who was leader of the Alcmaeonidae family, and political faction was in exile and was working to get the Spartans to do the job that was done. So Cleomenes takes his Spartan army in 510, he drives out the tyrants, and then he goes home. Now, the question that confronts the Athenians is what form of government should we have? Again, there’s a whole range of possibilities. Not a whole range, there are a few possibilities. One would be reactionary. Let’s go back to the days before Solon when the aristocracy was everything. There’s certainly, as we will see where people who wanted to do something very much like that.

On the other hand, what are you going to do about all these people of consequence who are wealthy and who have made it to the top, but who were not aristocrats? Then what are you going to do about all of these family farmers of whom there must be more now than ever because of my suggestion that Peisistratus had taken away land from some exiled aristocrats and distributed among families, some of whom were successful on farms and became hoplite soldiers and independent farmers. They’re not going to enjoy being put back to a position which was worse than they had under the tyranny. Because under the tyranny they were sitting on councils, and participating in these things, sitting in courts and now all this was going to be taken away, if the reactionary aristocracy had its way. That was really what the contest was, I think.

Should we continue with the Solonian Constitution only without tyrants or should we go back to an aristocracy? The contest for how to decide that was done in the usual old fashioned way. That is to say, in the contest for the archonship. The candidates of holding one view ran against candidates holding the other view and that’s where the matter would be decided. But they went at it in the old way that is the decisions were being made in the political clubs that belonged to the aristocracy. In other words, how we’re going to do this was being fought out among the aristocrats, not among the public at large. In that contest Cleisthenes who stood for the more moderate, for the Solonian, let us say, approach as his family had always done, lost.

The winner was a man called Isagoras, an aristocrat. They were all aristocrats, of course, and he engages — I should say that this election takes place after preliminary pushing back and forth in the year 508-7 and his victory means a victory for the reactionary program. One of his first actions is to establish still another council, not the council of four hundred that Solon had established, but a new council of three hundred, and it was only made up only of aristocrats. Second, very interesting and it turns out to be a very important change — introduced by Isagoras was to scrutinize the citizen’s lists and then to remove from that list lots and lots of people who were deemed to be, I guess those who were illegally enrolled in the citizen list.

They were now going to impose retroactively the traditional criterion for Athenian citizenship. Is your father an Athenian citizen? But we know that Solon had already broken through that by permitting people to come to Athens and to acquire citizenship, if they had the necessary skills and there surely had been a fair number of those, and we are told, that the Peisistratids had done the same thing for pretty much the same reason. So, over a couple of generations you had foreigners coming to Athens and acquiring Athenian citizenship and undoubtedly using it, who are now going to be disenfranchised and driven from the citizen lists.

Now, that made for quite a few discontented people in Athens. If you picked a moment after which Isagoras has accomplished these two things, that is establishing the council of 300, which is obviously going to be the governing body in Athens, an aristocratic council, and driven “X” number of people from the citizen lists, then all of those people are going to be very unhappy, and very likely they have friends who are also going to be unhappy. So, you have a situation which is by now means calm and settled, but it might have settled down as people, as they usually do when things are unavoidable, when there is no real option. Nobody’s making a different case; they would have just gotten used to things, I suppose. But now Cleisthenes decides to do things different. He does not accept his defeat as he would have had to do in the old days, having been defeated in the aristocratic contest.

Instead, in the words of Herodotus, prohetaerizetai ton demon, he brought the people into his political faction. The root of that first word, prosetaerizetai, is hetaera, which means a club, a political club, a collection of companions. That’s the name for these aristocratic societies and Cleisthenes broke the rules. He went out there beyond the aristocratic circle and he recruited people. You become part of my political faction. Well, why should they? Because he had a program that was contrary to the one pursued by Isagoras. It’s one that will result, when it is successful in the establishment of what everybody pretty much agrees was the first Athenian democracy.

The reforms that he proposed then — we have to imagine he actually went around and electioneered. That was not done before that, and persuaded people to support him in his programs, and then he put his programs through. Well, where did he put these programs through? He surely couldn’t have done that in a council of 300; it would never have passed, and I’m sure he didn’t try. Instead, he acted, I think, as though there was no council of three hundred. He did what you would have done, if you wanted to propose a bill prior to that. You would go to the assembly, whichwas the Solonian assembly, which had the right to pass laws. No doubt, it only passed laws that the Peisistratids wanted, but it was not something new. It was something people were accustomed to and he went to the assembly, and he proposed his laws and they were passed.

Well, Isagoras still had the whip hand and he wasn’t going to sit still, while that took place, and so using the force at his disposal he drove, which was that of King Cleomenes and the Spartans, who came back again when called back. No doubt, what Cleomenes had in mind when he did what he had done originally, that is, driving out the Peisistratids, was the establishment of an aristocratic republic in Athens with his friends being in charge. That’s what the Spartans typically would do if they could. So, he was shocked and annoyed, I’m certain, when he hears his friends have been somehow pushed out of power and some new fangled kind of a government that lets ordinary people participate has been instituted. So, Cleomenes comes back with his forces and drives Cleisthenes, and we are told — this is interesting figure and I can’t promise that it’s right, but it does show up in Herodotus. Cleisthenes and seven hundred families, who must have been in his faction, are driven out of Attica.

But the people are not ready to take that; they resist, and they have numbers on their side, and they end up shutting up Cleomenes and his forces, which are not many. We’re talking about probably hundreds of soldiers, no more than that, and we must imagine that there are thousands of Athenians out there who are discontent, and so they shut Cleomenes up on the Acropolis where he had run for safety with Isagoras at his side, and finally they cut a deal and they go home. And Cleisthenes and his supporters, whom I think it fair to start calling democrats, have taken over the city by this coup and are ready to go forward.

Establishing a New Constitution

Now, this requires that they establish a new constitution, because they’re going to have a regime the like of which no one had ever seen before. But in trying to understand this constitution and it’s not easy — the ancient sources tell us a lot about it, but it’s not perfectly clear what’s in everybody’s mind as they do what they do. Motives and purposes are not clear as you’ll see in a moment. But anyway, what I want you to fix on is this. Don’t imagine that what’s taking place here is even anything like the American Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where a bunch of delegates have been selected from here and there, and they all sit and argue with each other over the hot summer and finally come up with various plans. It’s better, I think, to think, if we’re using historical analogies to help us, as of course there is nothing better than that to help us. Think of the French Revolution, think of the convention where the sort of the mass of the people have gained control of the situation, after driving the king from his throne, and after really putting aside a more aristocratic council that came before it, and they sit down with radical people running around, ready to kill people. This is the outfit that’s going to end up killing the king and his queen, and all the aristocrats they’re going to lay their hands on. In other words, we are in a revolutionary situation, and there is force and terror are in the air, and everybody is fully aware of the danger of this, that, and the other thing, and of some dangers that probably don’t even exist.

We are in a situation that resembles civil war, that could be on the brink of a serious civil war, and added to that — in other words, the Athenians, who will be sitting in the assembly passing the laws that produce the constitution that Cleisthenes favors, are first of all already afraid that the local aristocrats will use force or guile against them. But on top of that there’s been two Spartan invasions of Attica in the last couple of years and there’s nothing to stop King Cleomenes from coming back again, because he doesn’t like the way he’s been treated. In fact, I’d go further; I’d say there’s every reason to fear that that’s going to happen. Again, that’s where the analogy to the French Revolution works again, because nothing that happens in that most radical period of the French Revolution is understandable. If you don’t know that, the French regularly expect that the kings and emperors of Europe will be marching against them with professional armies very soon, and their fear is absolutely justified, and so is the Athenian fear that the Spartans will be coming.

So it’s in that hot environment, where fear is all over the place, that this new democratic constitution will be shaped. There’s no question that, I think, the place where it’s happening is in the assembly. The assembly sits as you, I hope you know, on a hillside in the middle of Athens, on a hill called the pynx and there in the open air all adult male citizens are eligible to participate in what takes place. One little point, I’d also suggest to you, is what about the people who have been thrown off the citizen lists? Are they there? This is just my reasoning; we don’t have any hard evidence. My answer is absolutely they are. Who is going to tell them not to? You show up on the hill, who’s going to kick you off? Does Cleisthenes want you kicked out? Hell no, because as we will see, one of his main planks is enrolling those people as citizens.

So, in fact, I will bet a lot of money that in all the electioneering that went on about all these different things, they were a group he must have targeted and said you’ve been unfairly treated by these aristocrats. If I get in power, I will see to it that you are enrolled again as citizens. So, all of that is happening, and people are very excited about what is going on. That’s the background for these rather dry and puzzling details I’m about to lay on you to try to describe what these new laws were that amounted to some kind of a democracy.

The center of them, apparently, was reforms of the tribes, and they are in some ways very radical indeed. As you know, these tribes go back before the birth of history. Think of any primitive society you want to; it’s likely to be divided up into tribes. The tribes typically are alleged to come from some very ancient times when gods or heroes founded them. That’s certainly true of the Greek tribes, where each tribe is named after some heroic figure, some semi-divine figure in the past. So, there are four, the four traditional Ionian tribes, and that’s why this is even more radical than anything else. Cleisthenes’ law changes the tribal system in Athens from four tribes to ten tribes, absolutely brand new things that have no tradition behind them, nothing, no history or anything. Then he has to give names to these tribes, and according to the Greek practice, these tribes have to have some founding hero to be named after.

So, he picks out, I think I’m right in thinking, hundred names of heroes and he assigns them to the ten tribes by lot, and now you suddenly have ten new tribes. Now, I mean, if you can try to think yourself back to a tribal society and think about what a disruptive thing this is. All my life I’ve been a member of the tribe named after, Ion, and so have my ancestors, and so my other ancestors. No more. He’s not around anymore; there’s a new tribe that was invented that I’m a member of. So, that’s a very surprising thing. But that’s not the end of the story; each tribe now is divided up into three parts. The word for a third is trittys and the plural is trittyes, and here’s the point. Each of the tribes has one of its trittys in and around the city of Athens. It has another one in the middle of Athens and it — I’m sorry, in the middle of Attica and the third will be in the region called the coast, the Peralia.

So every tribe is geographically distributed across all of Attica, in this way that is something quite new. In the old days we have to believe that the tribes were geographically separated for regions for tribes. The city region, the coast region, and the midland region, each one of these regions has ten trittyes, one for each of the ten tribes. Now, let’s take it a step further, the trittyes themselves are formed of units that are called demes. The Greek word for it, and it’s very confusing, isdemos. Now, the demos is this deme, this political unit. It also means a village, it also means the whole Athenian people, and it also means only the poor Athenian people. So, there you are. But in the context that we’re dealing with it here, we mean these units that are geographical and have a constitutional function.

There is, however, even here a certain amount of confusion, because some of the demes are actually made up of an original village. They don’t mess with that. A deme is the equivalent of a — in other words, a deme is a deme. The two different meanings of the word deme; other demes for the constitutional purpose are made up of a number of villages. So, there would be a lot of these old demes placed into the new constitutional deme. The idea, however, is that everytrittys must be of the same size in terms of population, because the whole idea is to get each tribe to be numerically equal and one reason for that is, because the tribes will be the regiments of the Athenian army. You line up and fight in your — when you’re called to fight in the army in accordance with your deme, which is located in the certain trittys, which becomes a regiment. Your tribe is a regiment of the army.

Now, get this straight, now the demes are unequal in population but the trittyes have to be equal, so that tells you you have to have multiple demes in some and just one or two or a few in another. It is also true that the trittyes are assigned to the tribes by lot, and the thing I want you to remember, and I want to avoid as much complication as I can, is that it doesn’t really matter to the people who invented the constitution, how the demes are assigned to the trittyes, except one scholar has suggested one motive that strikes most of us as very plausible. He made a careful study of how the demeshad been distributed to the trittyes and compared them with where we know there were important religious sites.

Greek religion has many gods and deities and they have local characteristics, because there are legends about their having lived on this earth, at a certain place, or done a deed at another place. So, you have a cave of Pan in eastern Attica, and you have a place where Athena did this, that, and the other thing, and the point I’m getting at is these became shrines, places where the religion was exercised in ancient Attica, aristocratic Attica. The aristocrats owned a piece of land on which the shrine was, which meant you had to have their permission to come onto it to worship, which meant that they would have predominance, power, and influence in these areas. Well, what this scholar, David Lewis was his name, concluded was that there are quite a few times when the thing is laid out in such a way as to divide the religious site on the aristocrats land from his main dwelling on that land, so the aristocrat is separated from the place where he has religious clout as a way of dividing up his political influence and power. He reads this as one of the ways in which Cleisthenes attempted to diminish the power of the aristocracy through its local influence.

Now, this new deme is very, very important. It is the basic unit in the whole system. It was meant, I should say, to take the place of the phratry; you remember the brotherhood that was kernel of the old tribal system. It was meant that the demeshould be the basic thing. For instance, one of the most important things was that your citizenship, according to the laws of Cleisthenes, was no longer to be ascertained by going to your phratry, but each deme would keep an official roll of the citizens in that deme. So, when an Athenian boy is born, when he reaches a certain age, you have to take him to thedeme and register him, and now he can be an Athenian citizen. Well, this was one of several things that we see in Cleisthenes’ constitution in which the intention could not be carried out. That is, the phratry, and the notion of the phratryas the core of such things, was never abolished; it would have been out of the question to abolish it. It had too many religious associations, and it never really lost its place in the Athenian mind. Yes, your official enrollment as a citizen was in the deme, but there was still a tremendous allegiance to the phratry, and the phratry was still run by aristocrats. So, it didn’t have its full effect.

The deme elected an official called a demarche. We might call them mayor or whatever the local official is called, select men we say sometimes still in Connecticut, holding to our colonial traditions. The deme is also given religious functions and religious rights, because everybody knows that religion still is potent, even if you’re engaged in a revolution in Athens at the beginning of the fifth century.

Key Democratic Elements

Ostracon of Megacles / Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Agora Museum, Athens

Here’s another thing that they tried to do. Cleisthenes tried with the law, to change the way in which an Athenian was officially designated. It used to be, before Cleisthenes came along, you ask a man who are you. He would say I am Cleisthenes, the son of Megacles. Just the patronymic, just like you bear the name of your father, unless you chose to bear the name of your mother, which is evidence of how un-Athenian you really are. So, that’s the way it was, but under the laws of Cleisthenes, henceforth, citizens were to be designated not as Cleisthenes, son of Megacles, but as Cleisthenes from Alopeke, which is to say his deme.

He was to be the citizen’s name and his deme name. People have argued about what the point of all this was, but I think one limited point, before we get to the full story, is simply another way of cutting down the influence of birth in the society. It’s a way of damaging the aristocratic principle and asserting in its place — look what’s really happening here, that there is something which is the polis that has nothing to do with birth that is the part of the legal structure which is a polis. It’s a whole new concept that’s really creeping in here, replacing the old traditional way of organizing society with one that is the work of citizens coming together and determining how they themselves will be governed. Let that be the story of the tribes for a moment.

Now, here we go with another council, you’ve heard about the council of four hundred, you’ve heard about the council of three hundred. We can do better than that; we’re going to have the council of five hundred. It will be the council that is the democratic council for the remainder of the history of the Athenian democracy, with the exception of short periods of oligarchic rebellion that remove it, but it comes back when the democracy does. That council — let me simply describe it very briefly. It is open to all Athenian adult male citizens. Membership on the council comes through some combination of allotment and election — the point of it is that an assembly of thousands is not well equipped to conduct all kinds of business that has to be conducted for the state, and even its own business. You need a smaller group to prepare the agenda for a full assembly meeting, and so that was the function of the five hundred.

It is, and this is very important, one of those very democratic elements, the assembly of course was totally democratic, because adult male citizens participate if they wish. But you can easily get around that in some degree if you have a council or little group that actually determines what’s going to happen. From the first it wasn’t so. The members of the council had to be — I’m sorry, the council itself was as democratic as the assembly. So, we’ll come back to that council later on, but there it is in place. Another thing that happened, not in 508-7, but a few years down the road, but still in the same period, was that by now the army of Athens, which originally had been led simply by the polemarch, the archonwho was chosen for the military leadership had given way to generals who commanded the different tribes. It used to be that each tribe elected its own general, but in the new system now, the entire people elected the generals for each of the tribes. In other words, the ten tribes still had a general a piece, but the entire population elected him.

Usually, he came from the tribe that he was asked to command, but not always. Again, you can see what the point of this is; it has the same characteristic as so much of what we are describing. It is going to reduce particularism, localism, and make the whole people, the whole demos and their represented institutions be the decisive element in the state. And that is one of the things we’ll be getting to right next to ask ourselves what’s going on here and why is it happening. Here, l will tell you what our sources say and at the end of the day we have to make some judgments.

Marble bust of Herodotus, Roman copy of Greek original, 2nd century CE / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Of course, generally and I think properly, the source who gets the most credence from scholars today is Herodotus, who is closer to it in time than, although he’s — I should point out Herodotus is writing his history sometime, and at least he’s writing it as late as the 420s, but he himself, goes back to an earlier part of the fifth century. Therefore, he is in a position to hear stories from people who go back even into the sixth century, which makes him theoretically a more credible source than people like Aristotle, who I’ll be quoting at you, who lives in the fourth century and he’s a good whole century later than Herodotus. But Herodotus is not, of course, himself a witness to any of the facts that he adduces.

Anyway, he asks why did Cleisthenes of Athens do what he did. And his answer is a pretty stale one. He was trying to copy his ancestor Cleisthenes of Sicyon, who also changed the tribes, you may remember in Sicyon, from the old Dorian tribes to new tribes that designated the wrong people like — I mean to say the Dorians as swine men and ass men, and so on. That’s why Cleisthenes did it, and he thought it would be a nice thing to do because his ancestor, his namesake, did the same thing. Well, I don’t think we can buy that. We move into a more persuasive territory I think when we get to Aristotle, who writes in his Politics as follows: “perhaps a question rather arises,” he’s dealing with the whole question of citizenship, “about those who had been admitted to citizenship after a revolution had taken place. For instance such a creation of citizens as that carried out at Athens by Cleisthenes, after the expulsion of the tyrants, when he enrolled in his tribes many resident aliens, metics, who had been foreigners and slaves.” So, here’s a new story that we have to add to the picture, I mentioned it in passing, but it’s very important.

One of the things Cleisthenes does, and he has to do it through measures passed through the assembly, is to enfranchise the people who had been thrown off the citizen lists. One thing that you want to do, and you couldn’t have done that, given the nature of the old constitution. If you hadn’t broken up the old system of tribes, phratres, and so on, and come up with a new one which would not have the old prejudices against it. So, that’s part of the story. Again, Aristotle or one of his pupils — there’s some dispute about the document that is called the Constitution of Athens, as to whether Aristotle was the composer of that piece or one of his students. Anyway, here’s what it says, “with the aim of mixing up the population, so that a great number would share ii the citizenship, they came up with this phrase, me phylokrinein, do not judge according to tribe.” But it goes beyond tribe, it really means, do not judge on the basis of birth.

Copy of Athenian constitution from Aristotle, c.350 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

Aristotle says it was directed against those who wanted to check on family background. He goes on to say this new nomenclature, that’s what I just mentioned to you before about your name, that is, you are not the son of so and so, but rather you are of the deme so and so. He says, “so that they would not by addressing one another by their father’s names and expose the newly enrolled citizens, but would call them by the families of the demes.” This passage caused a great deal of puzzle and confusion among scholars who couldn’t understand what this was all about, and that’s I think, because the topic was mostly treated by the British. But Americans can see this right away. The best way to put it is this way — of course you wouldn’t know about this. You live in a country that is absolutely pure and without prejudice, according to race or color, or ethnic origins or religion; so you won’t know what I’m talking about. But let me pass on from an earlier generation, a darker time in which I grew.

Suppose you’re a man who came from the Abruzzi in Italy, and your name was Giovanni DeStefano. That was fine in the Abruzzi, but in America there were people that didn’t have a high opinion of people with such a name and were likely not to be opening their doors or homes to people like that. So, your son instead of calling himself Giovanni DeStefano changed his name to John Stevens, and thereupon, everything was okay. That’ the way things were meant to be in Athens. That is to say, the idea was if you had a foreign sounding name, and your father would have a foreign sounding name, if he came from a foreign place when he settled in Attica. You would be branded in that way and people who wanted, and here it was more specific, to throw you off the citizen lists would know who you were, but if you took a good solid Anglo Athenian name, why, you’d be all right.

So, I think that is the explanation and it’s all part of the same picture. Taking away the traditional influences that would be anti-democratic and replacing them with things that shattered that, and taking away the local powers, anything that smacked of the past, you try to erase as best you can. The procedure, we all agree, is by the device that the Greeks called psephisma. It was a motion passed by the assembly, and it comes to be the standard form of legislation in the Athenian democracy, the plural of psephisma is psephismata.

Now, the scholar who I was eluding to a few moments ago Lewis, he’s got the general picture right. He says we have to understand all of this was passed on the assembly in a mood of great excitement and fear, and anger, a revolutionary situation in which he imagined alluding to the revolution in St. Petersburg in 1917, that they are getting up and shouting, “all power to the ten tribes.” To those of you who are not in St. Petersburg, they were shouting, “all power to the Soviets,” but I think he’s wrong. It wasn’t about the ten tribes. The ten tribes weren’t the issue. I think if they were shouting and I guess they were, they were shouting all power to the ecclesia, to the assembly. That’s where decisions were going to be made in the future. But I do want you to take seriously the notion that the making of such a claim and doing so in heated circumstances was revolutionary, because without that, it’s inconceivable that what happened would have happened.

Now, let me go back to the boule; it was elected by a lot from proportional representation in the demes, all Athenians. The Greek word for preparing legislation for an assembly is probouleusis and such a group is probouleutic, that is, it prepares legislation. The chances are that this council was more powerful and had more independence when it was invented, than it would later on. That’s just a guess, but you know you’re at the beginning of something. You’re still living in a society in which class distinctions are very clear and very sharp, in which the idea of the ordinary citizen taking things into his own hands is new and scary. I think there would have been a lot of deference paid to the individuals who came from the higher classes, and I would guess that they would have been on the preliminary list that was elected before allotment selected among them, and that when they proposed something to the assembly, it would be given greater influence on what happened subsequently than would be true.

Bouleuterion, Athens / Wikimedia Commons

When we get down to the full scale of Athenian democracy in the time of Pericles forget about it. The boule is the servant of the assembly, without question. If the council sends in a proposed law in certain language, the assembly can vote it down or they can send it back to the boule and say, no we don’t like those words; change the words into this direction, and then send it back to us. That’s the way it was in the full democracy. My guess is it wasn’t that way in the year 505. I think it probably was meant by Cleisthenes to be a bit more conservative without being, of course in any way, reactionary.

Now, what is this all about in the larger sense? Lewis suggests that there’s something here that is personal and political and I think he’s right. One of the elements that he suggests is these demes were not assigned to trittyes accidentally, as I’ve suggested already, but were carefully laid out not only to deprive noblemen of their undue influence but he thinks probably to help Cleisthenes and his Alcmaeonidae to have a powerful voice in as much of Attica as he possibly could. Why in the world would anybody doubt that? That strikes me as being — that’s what people do when they have the power to help themselves politically they do. I would guess, in other words, Cleisthenes was thinking of his own political position in part. Again, we don’t have hard evidence for this, but just a reasonable suggestion.

Now, the other thing is, we have to, I think, believe, that this whole program of reform was supported by what we have been referring to all along, the hoplite class, these independent farmers. They are the ones who are most numerous. They are among those who will be politically active. Also, they are of course the defense of Athens now, they have to be taken very seriously and they are not about to allow themselves to be cut out or to have their own influence diminished by things that are hanging over from the days of aristocracy. So, I think we should think of this and I think just about everybody does. They like to designate this Cleisthenic democracy, this first democracy, as a hoplite democracy, and saying that the hoplites were in means that to some considerable degree, the poor are out. The chances are very great; I would say pretty certain, that the majority of citizens, the majority of Athenian citizens, were not hoplites. They werethetes.

There probably never was a time when the hoplites were a majority even in Athens. So, excluding them certainly is a limit on what you want to call democracy, and here’s where we get into sort of the debates these days. Many, many a scholar — now that the academy is essentially a branch of the Politburo will want to denigrate ancient Athenian democracy and to suggest it really wasn’t democratic. Well, there are twenty million ways you can do that. You can talk about the fact that it excluded women, you can talk about the fact that it — who else does it exclude? That it had slaves, excluded slaves, it excluded resident aliens, and all those things and then you can finally point to the fact that probably the majority of the adult male citizens were excluded from some important elements in the democracy, although as time passes that last disappears, and you have pretty much complete participation by the poor, but in Cleisthenes case that’s not so.

But I think that’s to be deliberately blind to what’s really happening. What you have is a miracle. Nothing in the world that we know of anywhere, ever like this has ever been seen before. The reaction of the other Greeks as best we can figure out was horror. This is wild and crazy, the stuff that the Athenians are doing, it is radical, it is dangerous. We must contain ourselves and avoid being in touch with them, or we should try to finish those guys off. Certainly that was the attitude the Spartans typically had towards it, and undoubtedly the normal Greek government, which was an oligarchy, certainly took the same point of view. So, I think you can look at it from either direction, probably should look at it from both, but don’t miss the point that what’s happening here is of this very special character.

What did they call this constitution? Well, we don’t know. But the chances are great that they did not call it democracy. The word democracy, our word democracy comes from the Greek demokratia, which I guess you would want to translate as something like power for the masses, for the people at large, or the people as a whole. But it was a name that was given to the Athenian constitution by a people who didn’t like it. What did they think of themselves? Well, Herodotus refers to this regime as one of eisonomia, equality of law, and I think the thing that’s most important about it is, equality before the law. That is, something that wipes out distinctions among classes of people on the basis when it comes to the law. Every man who comes before the law is equal to every other man. Well, that’s a very big change that no place else in the world had, and I think that’s not a bad way to think of it.

Now, of the principles that belonged from the first to this democracy, and was maybe as crucial as anything in characterizing it was what they called isegoria, equality of speech really. It meant equality of the opportunity to address the political body, meaning the assembly. Every Athenian male from the first adult regardless of what his money rating was, of his class, whether he was a thete or higher, everyone had the right to speak in the assembly. Now, this had been a right that was limited of course to aristocrats in many cities, or to the wealthy in other cities. But we know from some of the poems in the sixth century, it was prized as the evidence that an individual was a free man as opposed to a slave. He could get up in the center, that was the term they used, of the town, meaning wherever the meeting place was, and then speak his mind and also try to persuade his fellow citizens to do as he thought best.

We should not take this lightly. In our world, where we never imagine ourselves in such a situation, it’s hard to grasp but actually to think. If I want to I can get out there during the debate that’s going to decide what happens. I can say what I have to say. So, freedom of speech is very, very central to the Athenian idea of self government. The role of the boule in place of aristocratic councils enhances the democracy. On the other hand, things did not happen that you might think would happen. Nothing was done in the sphere of the economy. There was no change in Solonian classes or privileges. You still had to have a certain amount of money to be elected to the top things in the state. The Areopagus was left untouched, remaining a collection of former magistrates, all of whom had been aristocrats. The phratres, the homes of aristocracy were left intact. You had this hoplite democracy, which was indeed democracy, but we must imagine, I think all the evidence would support this imagination, that it was a deferential democracy in which the lower classes still looked up to the upper classes for leadership and guidance, and they themselves did not hold leading positions in the state. I think that’s the picture we have.

Ostracism as a Constitutional Device


Athenian ostraka / Agora Museum, Athens

Well, let me turn at last to one of the most interesting features of the constitution introduced by Cleisthenes; gives us a picture of how things worked that we wouldn’t get any other way. I’m talking abut the law that was passed on ostracism. Our word ostracism derives from it, but it’s something quite different. If somebody says we’re going to ostracize this guy today, it means we’re not going to invite him for a drink; we’re not going to go to his parties, things like that. No this was something far different and was a central part of the political system. Let me begin by simply describing how it worked. Every year, let us say in the month of January, that’s the way the Athenian calendar would have made it come out more or less typically, a question came up in the assembly automatically. Nobody had to move it; it was an automatic thing. The question was, “Shall we have an ostracism this year?” Now, they could debate that question, but what they were not debating was who should we ostracize. That was not at issue.

The only question was, should we have one this year? If a majority said yes, then they would go on. If they majority said no, that was it, no ostracism that year. But supposing a majority had voted for an ostracism, now we go to roughly the month of March and let’s go down to the center of town, the agora, which is the marketplace, which is the political center which is where people go to talk and all those things. That’s where the action is, and for that day and that day alone, theagora is fenced off, and there are ten gates in the fences, one for each tribe, and every citizen who wishes, goes with a piece of broken pottery. Someone has described it as the scrap paper of antiquity, and with whatever you could get, piece of glass, crayon, or whatever, you would simply write the name of a man that you would like to see ostracized that year. You would go to the gate. There would be some people at the gate, who would identify are you really a citizen, where are you coming from and all that. You, then, handed in your ostraka and you went inside the agora, where you stayed until the voting was over so that you couldn’t come back and vote again. Now, they were cleverer than the people of Florida are today.

So, now it’s over, the time has come, and what they do is they divide up all the ostraka that have been cast. They don’t divide them up I’m sorry. They put them in a big pile and count them. If there are fewer than 6,000 ballots, nobody gets ostracized. If there are 6,000 or more, now they divide them up into piles, and the one who gets the most votes, not majority, just the highest number of votes plurality, he wins. He gets ostracized.

What does that mean? It means that he must leave Attica, at a certain distance from Attica, for ten years. That’s all. He has been accused of no crime; therefore, he has been convicted of no crime. Nothing is done to his property; nothing is done to his family. At the end of ten years, he may come back and it’s as though he never left. The next day, if he wants to, he can run for public office. That’s all; that is ostracism. What’s this all about? What are the purposes of this thing? Well, I think the best way to come at this is to tell you a couple of stories and some facts. The story I guess comes from Plutarch’s Life of Aristides, who is one of the leading Athenian figures at the early part of the fifth century, and who in fact was a man who was ultimately ostracized.

The story goes like this. It’s ostracism day in Athens, and some country bumpkin, some rube comes walking up, and he spots Aristides chatting with some folks and he goes up to Aristides and he says, “excuse me sir I don’t know how to write, would you please write a name on this potsherd for me?” Aristides, of course, a gentleman he says, “certainly sir, what name would you like?” He said, “Aristides please.” “Oh,” he says, and he writes down Aristides, and by the way he said, “what is it that you have against Aristides?” I should have told you that Aristides had earned this sobriquet, the just Aristides, Aristides the just. So, the guy says, “what have you got against Aristides? I have nothing against Aristides, I’ve never seen the man, don’t know him. I’m just so damn tired of hearing him called the just.” The point of that story is to illustrate Plutarch’s point is that the system of ostracism was just a piece of silly foolishness that you would associate with democracy, which just allowed the jealousy of the ordinary man for superior people to determine what’s going on. That’s the message that Plutarch gets from that tale.

Here’s another piece of information; that’s not a tale. I think it was about 1937, 1938 an American archaeologist was working up on the north slope of the Acropolis and he came upon a well, he dug into the well, and out came 191 inscribed potsherds, ostraka with but one name written on all of them, and that name was Themistocles, who we know was a participant in a batch of ostraka in the 480s, and careful analysis of the handwriting indicated that these 191ostraka were inscribed by 14 hands writing them. Is it beginning to sound familiar to you guys, I suppose. The best guess of everybody who studies these things is that we do not have here the remains of a collection of voters, who voted and had their votes counted and then these came, but rather that these were votes that never were cast actually.

So what’s going on here? Now, I turn from my attempt at a factual account of what happened in the past to fiction. The rest of this is my imagination. We find ourselves down the middle of Athens, the day before the ostracism. We are in the home of John the potter who is a charter member of the Aristides political club, and what they are doing is sitting about chatting as they incise or paint the name onto a ostrakon, the name is Themistocles. Next day, down there outside the Agora, various country bumpkins and others are wandering into town. You step up to one of them and say; perhaps you would like to vote in the ostracism today sir? I can save you the trouble of inscribing your ballot, here’s one right now. I think this is pretty good evidence that they’re talking about organized political activities, which in fact I think totally squares with what we know about the purpose of ostracism.

I should tell you one other thing, that Thucydides himself says something very important about this. He says, ostracism was brought about, because of the fear and the insecurity that the Athenians felt about their democracy, that it was in constant danger, and that they needed something to help them. That’s the context in which he used it. Plutarch, as I say, has a more general story, the envy and jealousy natural to democracy. You must realize that hardly anybody who ever wrote anything in antiquity had a kind word to say for democracy; it’s a bad thing from the standpoint of most of the authors of antiquity. But Thucydides was there, while ostracism was a reality, as opposed to Plutarch, and I’m sure he is right.

Let’s look, first of all, at the moment when ostracism was invented in the time of Cleisthenes, before we move beyond that. What’s the situation? Cleisthenes and company have just brought about this unique, amazing, and to the rest of the world dangerous coup d’état, and invented this new wild crazy kind of government. They know that the Spartans are furious and they expect they’re going to come down anytime. They also know that in Athens, there are people who don’t like this new government. Some of them are the heirs to the old aristocracy. Some of them are aristocrats themselves. Others were very happy in the days of the tyranny. In fact, there are still relatives of the tyrants, eminent ones, who are still in Athens. In other words, they have to fear betrayal, they have to fear internal hostility, and they have to fear people who might start a civil war. At the same time as they have to be afraid of the Spartans coming up the road, and we know, because in a few years this is going to happen, they have enemies of other neighboring states. Corinthians, the Eretrians, Boeotians, Thebes, and others within the next five years — they will have invasions by those people as well.

That’s their situation, what are they afraid of? They are afraid that there will be treason inside the city, which will help invaders or simply turn the city over to them. Well then, why don’t they just lock these guys up? Well, in the first place, they probably haven’t done anything yet, and you couldn’t make a case against them. On top of which, you really don’t, if you’re Cleisthenes, you don’t want to treat all of these people as though they are the enemies of the new regime. They are, in fact, natural opponents, the friends of the tyrants and the old aristocrats; they’re on opposite sides of the argument. Why would you want to put them together by assaulting their leaders? A smarter thing would be to try to win over one faction to support your side at the expense of the other. That is my guess as to what is another explanation of what’s happening here.

Ostrakon with the name of Themistocles / Agora Museum, Athens

So, here’s another piece of fiction I want to throw at you. I imagine that Cleisthenes stops by at the house of Hipparchus, the son of Karmas, who is a relative of the Peisistratids and who would be looked to as the leading figure in that faction, and he stops by to see Hipparchus, and Hipparchus says, “hello Cleisthenes, say what is this routine, what is this crazy new law that you and your boys just put through, this ostracism law? I hear in the streets that it’s aimed at me, as the leader of the old tyranny faction, what is that?” Cleisthenes I imagine would say, “Now, where did you get a crazy idea like that? I mean, you’re a swell fellow, I’m only against these terrible aristos out there, and their Spartan lackeys, who are going to take away all the people’s rights and I know you wouldn’t want that to happen, that’s not like you. So, of course I can see your point, I can see you are alarmed, I can see that people might say, gee those old Peisistratids might be trying to overthrow this new democracy, and bring themselves back in. I know Hippeis is over there in Persia, supported by the king and maybe people would think you’re for bringing him back as a tyrant. I knew that would never be in your mind, but I tell you what you ought to do, why don’t you come over to my side and I’ll see to it — you know I have friends, I got a lot of friends. I could do you a favor. You do me a favor; I can do you a favor. I can see to it that I would just kill that rumor, and everything would be very happy.”

The next day all is well. I think there’s considerable evidence. I don’t have time for it now — not certain, but evidence suggesting that Hipparchus came on board and became part of a coalition that ruled Athens for decades after that time. And so, that year there was no ostracism, because there didn’t have to be an ostracism. I think that is very important. Most years there was no ostracism, only once in a while, and every single person that we hear ostracized was a leading political figure. Ostracism, in short, was meant to be a constitutional device to work in the political realm as a way of deterring a coup d’état, treason or other forms of unrest. You could only use it as a politician if you were the popular favorite. If you were confident that the ostracism would go your way, if you held an ostracism and that wasn’t true, you might find yourself traveling a long way from home pretty soon, and so that’s the essence of ostracism and we’ll have a look at it again because it crops up and is used but not for twenty years after it’s invented.