Development and nature of Athenian democracy

  • The radical changes to the Athenian constitution by Cleisthenes (565-500BC0 were aimed at breaking the power and influence of the traditional four tribal clans.
  • Previously, the old aristocracy had monopolised the political system in Athens.
  • The objectives of these changes were to give all Athenians a part in the election of local and state officials and were a step towards representative government.
  • However, other changes had to occur before Athens could become a complete democracy.
  • Athenian democracy (democratia) had a number of features, for example:
     All adult male citizens could propose legislation, debate and vote.
     All citizens could stand for office.
     The generals were elected by the citizens
     There was payment for officials and jurors.
  • Athenian citizens had to fulfil the following requirements:
     Be male, 16 years old, freeborn
     Both parents had to be Athenian, married
     Be registered on the deme roll
     Be scrutinised by the councillors
     Spend two years in the army as a cadet before becoming a member of the assembly.
  • During and after the Persian threat, changes were made to the internal government of Athens:
     In 462BC, Ephialtes pushed through a law that deprived the Areopagus of all of its functions save that of being a court for homicide. The archons became answerable to the Council of 500, not the Areopagus.
     In 458BC, the archonship became a paid office.
     In 457BC, the zeugitae or hoplites were admitted to the archonship. Sometime later the thetes were admitted.
  • In 451BC, a payment of jurors was introduced by Pericles. This seems to have been a democratic move to allow poorer citizens and the elderly to participate. These reforms had all been designed to end the aristocratic rule in Athens. nevertheless, Athenian democracy depended on aristocratic leadership.
  • Four of the major institutions were the Assembly (Ecclesia), the Council of 500 (Boule), the Magistrates and the Heliaea, and the law courts.
  • Important officials were the strategoi and archons.
  • The Areopagus had lost a lot of its powers and did not play a significant role in the democracy of the time.

Political institutions and officials of Athenian democracy


/ Composition/place of meeting / Duties/responsibilities
The Assembly - ecclesia / All citizens – met on the Pnyx at dawn. 6000 citizens needed for important business / Ultimate power. Met 40 times a year. Questions of domestic and foreign policy put to citizens. Elected magistrates. Issues debated freely. Voting by show of hands except in cases of treason or ostracism, then by ballot
The Council of 500 (Boule) / 500 members. Had to be more than 30 years of age and only elected twice in a lifetime. Met everyday except holidays at the old Bouleterion / Chosen by lot from the 10 tribes and worked on rotation basis, with each group of 50 serving approximately 36 days. Rotation was to impede corruption. Members fed at public expense, housed in the Tholos and paid 1 drachma a day. Prepared business for the Assembly to discuss and vote upon. Executed much of the Assembly’s decisions. Responsible for much of the day-to-day administration of the city and its financial matters. Saw decrees carried out, managed public property and supervised the collection and expenditure of public money and the building of public works. Supervised army, navy, officials and election of the Strategoi.
Dikasteries / 6000 citizens. Had to be more than 30 years of age. 600 citizens for each tribe. Chosen by lot. Met in or near the Agora / The usual size of a jury (dikastai) varied from 201 to 501. Jury chosen on day of trial. Archon presided over court to maintain order, not dispense justice. Defendant spoke in his own defence and each case judged on own merit
Archons / 9 archons and their secretary elected annually by lot. Office at the Royal Stoa. / Received 4 obals a day while in office. Not eligible for re-election but became life members of the Areopagus. Duties as religious officials and magistrates in the courts. Year named after chief archon ‘eponymous’. Presided over Great Dionysia festival. King-archon had jurisdiction over religious cases and conducted mysteries and other festivals.
Strategoi / Elected annually by all the people, each tribe voting for one strategos / Supervised the army, navy, cavalry, and conducted foreign policy and called meetings of the Assembly. By Pericles’ time, most important position in Athens. Not paid. Could be re-elected. Could be fined, exiled, or sentenced to death for not carrying out duties.