The Tribes and Eponymous Heroes of the Ancient Athenians

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Attic amphora depicting Achilles and Ajax playing dice.  6th century BCE. / Creative Commons


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By Dr. Kevin T. Glowacki
Professor of Classical Studies
Indiana University Bloomington

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In 508/7 B.C., the statesman Kleisthenes proposed a set of reforms that re-organized the Athenian citizens into 10 tribes (phylai). In order to prevent the people living in any one geographical area from becoming dominant, each tribe was composed of citizens from the city, the coast, and the inland areas of Attica. Athenians served in the Council (boule), on juries, and in the military according to their tribes. The tribes also had their own officials, sanctuaries, and religious calendars. Therefore, membership in a tribe was very important for political, social, military, and religious reasons, and the tribal structure was one of the essential elements of early Athenian democracy (demokratia) and equality under the law (isonomia).

The 10 tribes of the early Athenian democracy were named after 10 mythical heroes, selected by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi from a much larger, preliminary list of names provided by the Athenians. Each hero was represented by a bronze statue on the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes in the Athenian Agora. Important information pertaining to each tribe was posted beneath the relevant statue, and the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes became an important public “bulletin board” and meeting place. The original 10 ten tribes and their heroes were:

Order
508/7
to
307/6 BC
Tribe Eponymous Hero Identity/Myth
I Erechtheis Erechtheus Early king of Athens, sometimes confused with Erichthonios; sacrificed some of his (many) daughters to save the city; defeated Eumolpos of Eleusis in battle; killed by Poseidon; later worshipped on the Acropolis.
II Aigeis Aigeus Early king of Athens; son of Pandion(?) and father of Theseus.
II Pandionis Pandion Early king of Athens.
IV Leontis Leos Son of Orpheus; father of three daughters who sacrificed themselves to save the city.
V Akamantis Akamas Son of Theseus.
VI Oineis Oineus Son of Dionysos(?) or Pandion(?).
VII Kekropis Kekrops Early king of Athens; father of Aglauros, Herse, and Pandrosos.
VIII Hippothontis Hippothoon Hero from Eleusis.
IX Aiantis Aiax (Ajax) Hero from Salamis; son of Telamon; fought at Troy.
X Antiochis Antiochos Son of Herakles.

Athenian citizens (adult males only) served in the Council (Boule) according to tribe. In the early democracy, the Boule was composed of 500 members (50 from each of the 10 tribes).  In addition, each tribe would take its turn at being the chair or “presidents” (prytaneis) for about a month at a time. However, the order in which each tribe served as “presidents” was not always the same. On the other hand, the tribes are listed in a regular, set order on various official documents (e.g., casualty lists, public decrees).

The names of the tribes and their regular order are represented by this mnemonic phrase (taking the first 2 or 3 letters of each name):

ErAigPaLeAk OiKekHipAiAn (ER-AIG-PA-LE-AK OI-KEK-HIP-AI-AN)

Of course, the political structure of Athens was not static, and the number of tribes changed over time reflecting different political diplomatic relationships. For example, in 307/6 B.C. the Athenians paid honor to two Macedonian kings, Antigonos I Monopthalmos and his son, Demetrios Poliorketes, by creating two new tribes (Antigonis and Demetrias) named after them. Two statues were added to the Monument of the Eponymous heroes (bringing the number to 12). The new tribes were added to the front of the list:

Order
307/6
to
224/3 BC
Tribe Eponymous Hero
I Antigonis Antigonos I Monophthalmos
II Demetrias Demetrias Poliorketes
III Erechtheis Erechtheus
IV Aigeis Aigeus
V Pandionis Pandion
VI Leontis Leos
VII Akamantis Akamas
VIII Oineis Oineus
IX Kekropis Kekrops
X Hippothontis Hippothoon
XI Aiantis Aiax (Ajax)
XII Antiochis Antiochos

In 224/3 B.C. another Hellenistic king, Ptolemy III Euergetes of Egypt, was added to the list of heroes (13). The new tribe of Ptolemais was inserted into the 7th position:

Order
224/3
to
201/0 BC
Tribe Eponymous Hero
I Antigonis Antigonos I Monophthalmos
II Demetrias Demetrias Poliorketes
III Erechtheis Erechtheus
IV Aigeis Aigeus
V Pandionis Pandion
VI Leontis Leos
VII Ptolemais Ptolemy III Euergetes
VIII Akamantis Akamas
IX Oineis Oineus
X Kekropis Kekrops
XI Hippothontis Hippothoon
XII Aiantis Aiax (Ajax)
XIII Antiochis Antiochos

When war broke out between Athens and Macedon at the end of the 3rd century B.C., the two “Macedonian tribes” (Antigonis and Demetrias) were removed from the list (and monument) of eponymous heroes (11).

Order
200 BC
Tribe Eponymous Hero
I Antigonis Antigonos I Monophthalmos
II Demetrias Demetrias Poliorketes
I Erechtheis Erechtheus
II Aigeis Aigeus
III Pandionis Pandion
IV Leontis Leos
V Ptolemais Ptolemy III Euergetes
VI Akamantis Akamas
VII Oineis Oineus
VIII Kekropis Kekrops
IX Hippothontis Hippothoon
X Aiantis Aiax (Ajax)
XI Antiochis Antiochos

This situation seems to have lasted only a few months. In 200 B.C., King Attalos I of Pergamon, who had helped the Athenians against Philip V of Macedon, was named an Eponymous hero (12 again). This new tribe (Attalis) was placed at the end of the list:

Order
200 BC
to
AD 124/5
Tribe Eponymous Hero
I Antigonis Antigonos I Monophthalmos
II Demetrias Demetrias Poliorketes
I Erechtheis Erechtheus
II Aigeis Aigeus
III Pandionis Pandion
IV Leontis Leos
V Ptolemais Ptolemy III Euergetes
VI Akamantis Akamas
VII Oineis Oineus
VIII Kekropis Kekrops
IX Hippothontis Hippothoon
X Aiantis Aiax (Ajax)
XI Antiochis Antiochos
XII Attalis Attalos I

The number of tribes remained stable until 124/5 A.D., when the Roman emperor Hadrian was named an eponymous hero (bringing the the total up to 13 again.). The new tribe was inserted into the 7th position:

Order
after
AD 124/5
Tribe Eponymous Hero
I Antigonis Antigonos I Monophthalmos
II Demetrias Demetrias Poliorketes
I Erechtheis Erechtheus
II Aigeis Aigeus
III Pandionis Pandion
IV Leontis Leos
V Ptolemais Ptolemy III Euergetes
VI Akamantis Akamas
VII Hadrianis Hadrian
VII Oineis Oineus
VIII Kekropis Kekrops
IX Hippothontis Hippothoon
X Aiantis Aiax (Ajax)
XI Antiochis Antiochos
XII Attalis Attalos I

Many of these changes can be noted in the archaeological record of the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes, since the base had to be modified to accommodate the changing number of statues.

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