The Rise of Athenian Democracy

The Rise of Athenian Democracy

The Rise of Athenian Democracy


  1. How were Greek kings different from other ancient Kings like pharaoh?
  2. Why did the “polis” appear during the Archaic Age and not the Dark Ages?
  3. What characteristics of the polis facilitated its citizens’ involvement in politics?
  4. How did trade disrupt the old social and political order of the polis?
  5. What were the political consequences of this disruption on many Greek city States? On Athens?
  6. Why is the year 508BCE so important?

Origins of democracy

Traditionally (during the Dark Ages and before), the duties of the leader were greatly limited. He was to lead his people into battle and offer sacrifice to the gods. That was about the extent of his abilities. He, by no means, held absolute power such as a pharaoh of Egypt might possess. Much of his limitation of power can be ascribed to the fact that the leader was chosen, and not merely a hereditary office. Why is this so important? Imagine if you are a warrior people and your leader is born into office. What if the leader’s son is a wimp, incapable of fighting? What would this mean for the tribe? In Egypt, where war was infrequent, society could survive pharaohs who were weak or incompetent, but not in the warlike atmosphere of Ancient Greece. It was the duty of the council of generals to choose the leader, obviously from amongst themselves, and since the council could choose the leader, they could also “fire” him if he was perceived as unable to perform his job. What we find here is part of the possible origins of Greek democracy: the ability to choose one’s leader and remove him from office. This is not something that one finds in either Egypt ruled by pharaoh, a god-king, or in the Middle East area of Mesopotamia ruled by priest-kings. In both cases, there is a highly centralized government which barked orders to the people and expected obedience. Yet in Greece, there was more political freedom and it was something the Greeks would continue to be fiercely proud of and which they believed made them different from any people they knew. Who was not included in this political system? Obviously a large number of people beginning with women. This made political sense for the Greeks since it wasyour role in war that provided you with the right to have a say in the government: “you fight therefore you vote”. Since women did not participate in combat they were out. The same went for slaves who were not employed in combat, not even aboard warships as oarsmen.

The rise of the polis and the idea of citizenry

It is not until the 9th century that mainland Greece begins to recover from the disruptions of the so-called Dark Ages. We saw previously that the Dorians then settled down and there was no longer any reason for the Greeks to run. It is during this period (roughly the 9th to 8th centuries) that the Greeks abandon their nomadic ways and start settling down to create the quintessential Greek institution: the city-state or *polis (plural: poleis). As mentioned before, the geography of Greece (a rough, mountainous terrain) divided Greece into small,independent countries competing for limited resources and land. Greece was heavily fragmented into small states, each Aegean. These valleys were the foundations for the rise of the polis, a unique Greek form of government and culture. It is in these modest plains, isolated from one another by mountain ranges, that the early poleis first arose.The city-states were small, independent communities separated from each other by mountains. They were also male-dominated and bound together by race. What this means is that membership in the polis was hereditary and could not be passed on to someone outside the citizen family. The citizens of any given polis were an elite group of people. Originally the polis referred to a defensible area to which farmers of a particular area could retreat in the event of an attack. The Acropolis in Athens is one such example. Over time, towns grew around these defensible areas. The growth of these towns was unplanned and they were sometimes situated well inland to avoid raids by sea. With time, the agoraor marketplace began to appear within the polis. The agora was not only a marketplace but the heart of Greek intellectual life and discourse.The scale of the polis was indeed small. When the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) came to discuss the origins of the polis in his book POLITICS in the early 4th century B.C. he suggested that "it is necessary for the citizens to be of such a number that they knew each other's personal qualities and thus can elect their officials and judge their fellows in a court of law sensibly." For Plato, as it was for Aristotle, the one true criteria of the size of the polis was that all the citizens know one another. The citizens in any given polis were related to one another by blood and so family ties were very strong. As boys, they grew up together in schools, and as men, they served side by side during times of war. They debated one another in public assemblies – they elected one another as magistrates – they cast their votes as jurors for or against their fellow citizens. In such a society – the society of the polis – all citizens were intimately and directly involved in politics, justice, military service, religious ceremonies, intellectual discussion, athletics and other things. To avoid one's responsibilities was not only rare but reprehensible in the eyes of the Greek citizen. Greek citizens did not have rights, but duties. A citizen who did not fulfill his duties was socially disruptive. At the polis of Sparta, such a citizen was called "an Inferior." At Athens, a citizen who held no official position or who was not a habitual orator in the Assembly was seen as an idiot.

Monarchies and aristocracies under fire

In the course of the 8th century, however, various factors began to undermine the authority of these traditional aristocracies. When the Greeks first arrived in Greece as wandering nomads, they had organized themselves into hierarchies based upon arete, and that arete was physical strength and courage in combat. Nobility, then, was based upon one’s ability in battle. When the Greek tribes settled into village life by the late Dark Ages, arete had altered slightly to include practical intelligence along with strength. Still, the more arete one had, the higher up in the social food chain one was. As Greeks became farmers and developed their villages, these social and political rankings became equated with the land. The more arete one had, the nobler one was, and therefore the more land (and power) one had. So, basically, nobility equaled owning large estates. And nobility, just as the warband, equaled control of government. Economic and political power was confined to a relatively small number of wealthy landowners who would have served as powerful advisors to the king (in poleis governed by a monarchy) or, elsewhere, as members of the ruling aristocratic oligarchy. Consequently, if you did not own land, you were nothing and had little to say over your life. But the introduction of trade began to change and threaten that social and political structure. As mentioned in the previous handout, many city-states during the Archaic Age had grown in size and in wealth thanks to trade. As their population grew and their economy became more diverse, however, the established political, social, and legal mechanisms of the poleis became inadequate: traditions that had sufficed for the simple, relatively small agrarian communities of the Dark Ages simply could not cope with the increasing complexities of the emergent poleis. The rise of trade provided an alternate route to wealth and influence. Concomitant with this was the introduction of coinage (c. the mid-7th century) and the transition from the older barter economies to a money economy. Thus individuals could accrue wealth and influence that was not based on land or birth. Greek nobles, however, had little interest in investing in trade. They didn’t need to since they had large estates to live off of. But they did want the goods from trade and were willing to purchase those goods. So non-nobles began to trade and some of those non-nobles were soon accumulating large amounts of cash. This produced a problem, though, within the traditional social structure of the polis. These traders soon formed a new class, a merchant class, and it was unclear where they fit into the social order. They owned no land, so the nobles thought of them as being low class and unfit to rule a polis. But they weren’t poor; in fact, some of these new merchants became wealthier than most nobles. So they were rich non-landowners. The nobles preferred to ignore them, but their wealth could not be ignored. The merchants’ voice in society was given added authority by changes in military tactics: in the 7th century armies came to rely more and more on a formation known as the phalanx — a dense formation of heavily-armored soldiers (known as hoplites) who would advance in close-packed ranks, each soldier holding a round shield on his left arm (designed to protect both him and the soldier to his immediate left) and a long thrusting spear in his right hand. Unlike the older tactics, which had involved individuals battling on foot or on horseback, this style of fighting relied upon large numbers of well-drilled citizen-soldiers. The defense of the polis came to rest more on the willing participation of its propertied citizens (known, collectively, as the demos or "common people") and less on the whim of its traditional aristocracy.

This conflict between the nobles and merchants would soon erupt into a civil war in a number of polises, leading to the rise of tyrants, which we’ll discuss shortly.

At the same time, trade led to the birth of philosophy and political science. The governments of the various Greek poleis (mostly monarchies), and the social organization of the poleis, were not things the Greeks had thought out. They had developed in response to the needs of their environment. Got war? You create a warband society. Got peace? You create kings and councils of elders. Generally, the Greeks simply assumed the gods had given them the order and governments they possessed. But with the rise of philosophy and a new wealthy merchant class, the social and political order of the polis became obsolete. The more thoughtful Greeks could hardly rely on the gods to create a new system, since the existence of the gods now became questionable. Greeks had to ask themselves “What is the best form of government possible?” It was not a question to be addressed to the gods. It was a question the Greeks had to ask themselves. They had to decide, logically and rationally, what was the best government that humans could create for themselves, and then attempt to achieve it. Some Greeks started to feel that the best government should no longer be a monarchy, and should be replaced with something else. Some believed in the need for new rulers (tyrants), but more importantly, others began to look at the possibility of involving people in the government, paving the way for a new political system called democracy.

The Rise of tyrants

All of these changes led to a loosening of the control wielded by the traditional aristocracies and the rise of various challenges to their authority, both from the demos and from those individuals who had newly risen to prominence through untraditional means. A power struggle ensued, with various prominent individuals striving to win political advancement. In many poleis, the losers in these struggles incited revolutions, posing as the friends of the demos in the latter's struggles against the traditional political and economic order. When successful, these individuals overthrew the traditional governments and established personal dictatorships. Such a ruler is known as a *tyrannos (plural: tyrannoi). The word gives us the English "tyrant," but the translation is largely misleading. A tyrannos is a ruler who rises to power by posing as a champion of the demos and maintains his position by a combination of popular measures (designed to satisfy the demos) and various degrees of force (e.g., the banishment of political rivals, the use of hostages kept under house arrest, the maintenance of a personal body guard — all designed, mainly, to keep his aristocratic rivals in line). These tyrannoi were not themselves commoners but quite wealthy men, usually of noble birth, who had resorted to "popular" measures as a means of overcoming their political foes. In 5th and 4th century Athens, with its strongly democratic traditions, it became common to portray the tyrannoi as vicious autocrats ("tyrants" in the modern English sense), but in fact many of them were relatively benign rulers who promoted needed political and economic reforms at the end of the Archaic Age.

Cleisthenes, father of Athenian Democracy

The last of these tyrants was a man called Isagoras, but he was not unopposed. Cleisthenes took an unprecedented action by turning to the people for political support and won with it a program of great popular appeal. In 508 B.C., the people revolted against their leader. It was the 1st time in history (even though the Romans will claim otherwise…) that a people would successfully revolt against their rulers and establish the rule of the people. They turned to Cleisthenes to come up with a new political organization whereby the citizens would take a more forceful and more direct role in running the city-state. He came up with a new political organization which he called demokratia, or democracy – rule by the entire body of citizens. Cleisthenes believed that there would be no citizens to conspire and attempt to abolish the system. He hoped to create a harmonious system that would give an equal voice to all its citizens. Democracy was born, and this new political system would be the single most important contribution of the Greeks to Western civilization.