Ancient History & Civilisation


Towards Democracy

Histiaeus of Miletus held the opposite view: ‘as of now,’ he said, ‘it is because of King Darius that each one of us is the tyrant of his city-state. If Darius’ power is destroyed, I will not be able to go on ruling the Milesians, nor will any of you anywhere else, for each of the city-states will prefer to be democracies rather than tyrannies.’

Herodotus, 4.137, on events at a bridge
across the Danube, c. 513 BC

When the Persian King Cyrus and his commanders reached the western coast of Asia Minor as the new conquerors in 546 BC, the Spartans sent him a messenger by boat, carrying a ‘proclamation’ (another Spartan ‘Great Rhetra’). They told him ‘not to damage any city-state on Greek land because they would not allow it’.1 For Sparta, there was a clear line between Asia and Greece (surely including the Aegean), and the latter’s freedom was their concern.

In Greece, the years from 546 to c. 520 were to be the supreme years of Spartan power. Her warriors had already defeated their powerful neighbours in southern Greece, the men of Argos and Arcadia, and forced the defeated cities of Arcadia to swear an oath to ‘follow wherever the Spartans lead’.2 In battle, the trained Spartan soldiers had been heartened by the presence among them of the great mythical hero Orestes, son of Agamemnon. In the 560s BC his enormous bones were believed to have been discovered in Arcadia by a very prestigious Spartan who transferred them to Sparta, bringing the hero’s power with them. The hero’s bones were probably the bones of a big prehistoric animal which the Spartans, like other Greeks, misunderstood as the remains of one of their race of superhuman heroes (‘Orestesaurus Rex’).

It also helped the Spartans that during the sixth century BC tyrannies came to an end in most of Greece. In many city-states, the sons or grandsons of the first tyrants proved even harsher or more objectionable than their predecessors and were remembered in some spectacular anecdotes, the best of which concerned their sex life. Periander, tyrant of Corinth, was even said to have insulted a boy-lover by asking him if he was pregnant by him yet. The brittle, competitive culture of homoerotic love was indeed one source of insult and revenge, but it was not the only cause of turmoil. Tyrants had seized power at a time of faction in the noble ruling classes, after the military hoplite reform had changed the balance of power between nobles and non-nobles. Two or three generations later this military change had settled down and the former noble families could at least unite in wanting the tyrants out. Spartan soldiers were a convenient ally with whom to overturn a tyranny which had lost its point. Sparta was believed to have the most stable ‘alternative to tyranny’3 in her social and political system, the nature of which, however, outsiders did not really under-stand. Spartans, therefore, were frequently invited in by discontented nobles to help put a tyranny down. Sparta ‘the liberator’ ranged far and wide in Greece. With one eye on Persian ambition in the Aegean and a close connection with her distant kin at Cyrene (‘Black Sparta’) in north Africa, from 550 to c. 510 Spartans did indeed have a wider interest in the Mediterranean. When one of their kings, Dorieus, was forced to leave Sparta (c. 514 BC), he set off first to Libya with supporting troops, then later to south Italy and Sicily where he died trying to conquer the north-western, Phoenician end of the island.

Tyrannies had been resented as ‘slavery’ by their discontented citizens and their removal was therefore celebrated as ‘freedom’. When tyranny ended on the island of Samos (c. 522) a cult of ‘Zeus of Freedom’ was instituted, a type of cult which was to have a long history. Freedom, here, meant freedom of the citizenry from arbitrary misrule. For, within a polis, the value of freedom had not been forced to the male citizens’ attention by unfree slaves or women, protesting at what they did not have. It had become prominent thanks to the experience of the political ‘polis-males’ under ‘enslaving’ tyrannies which had overstayed their welcome. Nonetheless, even under a tyranny, the magistrates and procedures of a city-state were not suspended. Important principles of subsequent free Greek, even democratic, political life went back, by origin, to the aristocratic-tyrannical age of the seventh and sixth centuries BC. Tenure of a civil magistracy was limited in duration by law: retiring magistrates were to be scrutinized, albeit rather cursorily, when their office ended. Legal procedures also developed and there was already a public use of the ‘lot’, in some states, to select office-holders. The names which entered the ballot for office were pre-selected, no doubt with a tyrant’s approval. Between c. 650 and c. 520BC there was a continuing growth of ‘the state’. Under the subsequent democracies, these procedures were to be extended and applied by the male citizenry as a whole. But they were not introduced into a void, as if tyrants and nobles had ruled autocratically.

Nor were tyrannies the only form of government outside Sparta. Throughout the sixth century BC they continued to be replaced or avoided; and it was still a period of active Greek political experiment in the male citizen-bodies. Some of the Greek communities (such as Corinth or Cyrene) changed the number and names of their ‘tribes’; there and elsewhere, more broadly based constitutions replaced tyrants. In Cyrene, c. 560 BC, the powers of the ruling kings were curbed by a lawgiver, invited in from Greece; the reform did not cause bloodshed. In the 520s, after a time of internal turmoil in Miletus, foreign arbitrators even gave political power to those of the citizens who had the tidiest farms. By the end of the century new political terms had begun to be coined. City-states started to insist on autonomia, or self-government, a degree of political freedom which left them to run their own internal affairs, their courts, elections and local decisions. Quite where this degree of freedom began and ended would be constantly contested and redefined during subsequent centuries. By origin, the demand had arisen only because there were now outside powers strong enough to infringe it. In absolute terms, it was a city-state’s second best to total freedom, which included freedom in foreign policy.Autonomia is first cited in surviving sources as the concern of eastern Greek communities when confronted with the much greater power of the Persian kings. The context would well suit the idea’s invention.

Besides autonomia, citizens within a community would also claim isonomia, perhaps best rendered as ‘legal equality’, leaving open whether it was equality under the law, or equality in administering the law. This term is first ascribed to political proposals which followed the ending of tyranny on the island of Samos, c. 522 BC. Again, this context fits the idea well, suggesting that isonomia was a word for freedom after the resented ‘slavery’ of tyranny. The main force of the word was probably equal justice for all citizens after the favouritism and personal whim of tyrants; it was not necessarily democratic, but could become so. For, the years of tyrannies had often weakened the power of local noblemen. In several city-states, some of the nobles had been exiled and in their absence, or their curtailment, the ‘people’ (dēmos) had had good reason to learn to manage local disputes on their own behalf. By the mid-sixth century there had been signs, too, of an obstinate solidarity in some city-states among people who were not noble or rich. In Megara, c. 560 BC, the ‘people’ were even said to have forced creditors to repay all interest-payments to their debtors. But who, exactly, were the ‘people’? Those farmers with small (perhaps tidy) properties? Those who fought as hoplites? The word did not necessarily refer to the entire male citizenry, including the lower classes.

In 510 one of the last major tyrannies in Greece was ended, the rule of the Peisistratids in Athens. During the previous six years attacks by noble Athenian families had weakened the second generation of this tyrant family’s control. By bribing the priestess at Delphi, exiled Athenian nobles then obtained oracles from ‘Apollo’ which urged the Spartans to intervene and finish the tyranny off. In 510 BC they succeeded, at the second attempt. The Athenians now had to run themselves very differently.

For two years their noble families continued to compete within the surviving shell of Solon’s constitution: in an anti-tyrannical mood, they seem to have agreed to a law that in future, no Athenian citizen could be tortured. It was symptomatic of a new sense of ‘freedom’. The aristocratic Alcmeonid clan had been noble pioneers in the expulsion of the Athenians’ tyrants, but in spring 508 BC they failed to win the supreme magistracy for one of their own number. Something drastic was needed if they were to regain favour, and so it was probably in July or August, when their rival came into office, that their most experienced elder statesman, Cleisthenes, proposed from the floor of a public meeting that the constitution should be changed and that, in all things, the sovereign power should rest with the entire adult male citizenry. It was a spectacular moment, the first known proposal of democracy, the lasting example of the Athenians to the world.

Like St Paul, Cleisthenes knew from inside the system which he so cleverly subverted: he himself had been the Athenians’ chief magistrate under the tyrants, seventeen years before. What he proposed was a new role and composition for some very familiar Athenian entities. In his speech, he probably referred to a council and an assembly (both of which had functioned, at times together, since Solon), to tribes and ‘demes’ (Attica’s small villages and townships, already totalling some 140) and to ‘thirds’ or so-calledtrittyes (entities which had long been familiar in Attica’s organization). At a local level, he proposed something new; locally elected officials to be called ‘demarchs’ (‘deme governors’) would preside over local meetings in the village-demes and replace the time-honoured roles of the local noblemen. Cleisthenes’ proposal was that the male citizens should go off and register themselves in a ‘deme’ locally, and then they would find themselves allotted deme by deme to one of thirty new ‘thirds’ which, in turn, would connect them to one of ten newly named tribes. The numbers of tribes and ‘thirds’ were to be increased (to a ‘decimal system’) but the core of it all seemed wonderfully clear and straightforward. Until this moment, the highest clique in Attica had been the ex-magistrates who made up the revered Areopagus council and served on it for the rest of their lives. They could only look on and listen helplessly to Cleisthenes’ populist speech. In 508 BC almost all of them were politically discredited men, former magistrates who had been ‘selected’ in previous decades by the hated tyrants. Their main concern was to avoid being exiled for their past.

Cleisthenes’ proposals were excitingly new. Since Solon’s reforms, a second public council (other than the Areopagus) had helped to run the Athenians’ business and had sometimes brought items after discussion to a wider assembly of citizens. We know nothing about this council’s powers or membership, but it is most unlikely that almost everything which it discussed went on to the assembly as a matter of course. Henceforward, Cleisthenes’ idea was that every major public decision must go to a popular assembly by rights. A very few inscribed decrees of the Athenians which survive within decades of 508 BC begin bluntly: ‘it seemed good to the people’. In future, too, the council was to be chosen from all male citizens over the age of thirty and no restrictions of class or property are attested as limiting membership of it. In the later Athenian democracy, a man could serve on the council only twice in his lifetime, and in my view this rule, too, was enacted in 508 BC. In an adult citizenry with perhaps 25,000 men over the age of thirty, almost everyone could now expect a year on the council in his own lifetime. The implications were obvious, and like his audience Cleisthenes could see them.

So could his main opponent, the year’s leading magistrate, Isagoras. He promptly summoned the Spartans to intervene, whereupon Cleisthenes artfully withdrew from Attica. The Spartans invaded, and Isagoras gave them a list of a further 700 families who were duly exiled. This listing is a fascinating example of the detailed knowledge which one aristocratic clique might have about the others, its rivals. The aim was for the Spartan invaders to install Isagoras and his partisans as a narrow pro-Spartan oligarchy, but the existing Athenian council members (400 of them as prescribed by Solon) resisted vigorously. The Spartans and Isagoras resorted to occupying the Acropolis, whereupon the other Athenians, ‘agreeing with the council’ (though some dispute this translation of the Greek),4 joined in and besieged them. Resistance had now caught on among the citizenry, and when the Spartan invaders surrendered there was no stopping the progress of Cleisthenes’ proposals, the origin of the incident. The outrage of the Spartan invasion made them seem all the more desirable. By the early spring Cleisthenes was back in Attica and the proposed reforms could be voted through and carried out. There was now a much finer alternative to tyranny than Sparta’s system. The word ‘democracy’ happens not to be attested in any surviving Greek text before the mid-460s, but it was a very simple one to have coined on the spot.

The Athenian version counted on a very strong willingness of all citizens to participate. In 508 less than a fifth of the citizenry lived in Athens ‘city’: many of them had to walk in and lodge with friends if they were to serve and attend meetings. For one-tenth of the year a fraction of the council, the Athenians’ most visible ‘presiding’ body, would even be kept in the city on permanent alert. Yet a council of 500 continued to be manned yearly without difficulty. Assemblies, at least four a month, would meet in the city too, though they were expected to number more than 6,000 for important business. In due course, procedures to scrutinize all new council members both before and after holding office became established beside the ‘scrutiny’, still rather cursory, of magistrates. After c.460 BC an Athenian who served for a year on the council would expect to hear the brief ‘vetting’ of 509 separate participants in public affairs. As a great modern historian of their democracy, M. H. Hansen, has observed, ‘to our way of thinking it must have been deadly boring; that the Athenians went through it year after year for centuries shows that their attitude to this sort of routine must have been quite different from ours. They evidently enjoyed participation in their political institutions as a value in itself.’5

After nearly forty years of tyranny, and after centuries of aristocratic domination, this keenness was not surprising. Between 510 and 508 Athenians had feared above all a return to the noble faction-fighting which had brought them such bloodshed in the 560s and 550s. Now, there were to be no bureaucrats, no detested ‘ministries’, not even any specialized lawyers: l’état, c’est nous, all adult male Athenian citizens. To modern eyes, there were still conspicuous exclusions: ‘all citizens’ did not mean ‘all residents’. Non-Athenian residents (the metoikoi, or metics, meaning those living away from their home), inhuman objects of property (the many slaves) and the unreasoning second sex (women) were excluded without question or hesitation. These exclusions were universal in the political systems of Greek states. But what was new was that every male citizen was included equally. From now on, a male citizen might find himself on the council, appointed by lot to a minor magistracy or standing, thrillingly, in a mass meeting, waiting to vote or even (if brave) to speak on the fundamental topics of life, on whether or not to go to war, on who should pay what, on who should be honoured or excluded. On controversial questions, he would raise his hand to vote and be counted. In Sparta, when choosing magistrates, the assembled Spartiates would merely be asked to shout in favour of each candidate, and the ‘authorities’ would decide for which one they had shouted loudest. Even Aristotle considered this a childish game show. Among the Athenians, each male citizen counted for one and no more than one, the simple porter or goatherd beside the smart aristocrat. By having to choose and to be seen to have chosen, people soon learn to think and to take up informed positions. The results were anything but mob-rule.

The danger, rather, was that a leader of a frustrated option might try to rush a proposal through the assembly a second time and refuse to accept defeat. Brilliantly, Cleisthenes proposed that once a year Athenians should vote whether they wanted to hold an ‘ostracism’. If so, with more than 6,000 people present, they could cast a bit of broken pottery (an ostrakon) inscribed with the name of any citizen-candidate they proposed, in the hope that he would attract the most potsherds and thus be sent off into exile, to cool off for the next ten years. He would leave knowing that a majority had been against him, thereby ruling out his hope of a counter-coup; when he returned he would be ‘yesterday’s man’. Ostracism was a purely political process in intention and execution: it did not derive from religious beliefs or some need to expel ‘pollution’ or a ‘scapegoat’. Political through and through, it became a crucial safety valve during the next seventy years or so of Athenian politics. It also presupposed that a high proportion of the Athenians could read or could at least find somebody to read for them. However, the ability to read, in many societies, does not require the separate skill of writing. Thus we hear stories of potsherds being written out in batches for voters to take up: our increasingly large volume of surviving ostraka do show that some of them were written by the same hand breaking up one and the same pot. This organization does not necessarily point to cheating or a manipulation of the ignorant. People who did not write could still read what they held. The surviving bits of pottery contain some wonderfully rude comments against individual rotters which appeal to personal prejudice and the scandal in the news-headlines of the time. Some of them even have witty drawings on them too. There is nothing similar, of course, in Persia, Egypt, Carthage or any monarchy.

With two minor interruptions, this democracy persisted among the Athenians and evolved for more than a hundred and eighty years. In our terms, it was remarkably direct. It was not at all a ‘representative democracy’ which elected local representatives either to ‘represent’ their constituents or their own careers and prejudices. Its whole concern was to limit power-blocs or over-assertive cliques, to achieve fragmentation, not representation. In many moderns’ opinion, use of the lot was the hallmark of Athenian democracy; in fact, Cleisthenes is not known to have extended random allotment in any new way. As a Greek practice, use of the lot had a long pre-democratic history anyway, not least as a way of allotting shared inheritances fairly between brothers. Nor were property qualifications abolished for the democracy’s senior magistrates: they were to be elected, but only from propertied candidates. So far as we know, there was to be no pay yet, either, for them or for council members. But what mattered was that they served only for a year and that they were not a ‘government’ with a ‘mandate’ of their own devising. Power lay with the assembly, and in that assembly each male citizen counted for one, and one only.

To our eyes, this democracy was more just than any previous constitution in the world. Nonetheless, the administration of justice was left unchanged: cases were still heard and tried by magistrates, with only a possibility of a secondary appeal on a few charges to a wider, popular body. Cleisthenes certainly did not base his proposals on judicial reform or new law courts. To modern outsiders, then, how ‘just’ is it all? Slaves continued to be widely used; women were politically excluded; immigrants were separately categorized and were not able to claim citizenship in virtue of a few years’ residence in Attica. The point, rather, is that throughout the ancient world, even the gift of equal votes to all male citizens, to peasants as well as noblemen, was almost unparalleled (it did exist, though, in Sparta) and the combination with it of a popular, rotating council and an assembly with almost total power to enact or reject proposals was unprecedented, as far as we know.

On present evidence, the Athenians were the first to take this democratic leap. No well-informed contemporary source implies that any other Greek city already had such a system. In south Italy, nonetheless, archaeologists have proposed the Greek city of Metapontum as a forerunner. In c. 550 BC a large circular building was constructed here, with space for some 8,000 people. Surveys have suggested that the city’s territory was indeed divided into equal lots, perhaps of this approximate number. In due course, the houses along the city’s streets were built to a similar, repetitive style and size. Perhaps Metapontum had had ‘equal’ government of some sort before 510 BC, an extended oligarchy maybe, but we do not know that the owners of its land were the entire citizenry nor that the circular building was used for political meetings, let alone for equal voting by every male, peasants included. It is not the proof of a democracy before Athens.

Unlike many Greek citizens, especially those overseas, Athenians had one great asset: they had lived for centuries in the same territory. Their local social groupings and local cults gave them an unusually strong infrastructure and a sense of community on which Cleisthenes capitalized. He did not attack private property or redistribute riches. Perhaps his particular ‘clan’ gained a degree of advantage from the detailed local arrangements of citizens into new tribes, but it was an advantage in a new and changed arena. Cleisthenes brought a new justice, an equal vote for every male citizen, and the blessings of a new freedom, political participation. Justice was also applied to the local units of community life, the many demes, who were duly influenced by the centre’s new system.

Alarmed, the Athenians’ non-democratic neighbours tried to invade and kill off the new democratic system, but the newly inspired citizenry beat them back on two fronts at once. Their victories were seen, rightly, as a triumph for a freedom which they all shared: freedom of speech.6 There was no limit now, in principle, on who could serve in the new council or speak in the assembly. The ‘freedom’ at stake was not a freedom from state interference or a freedom from harassment by social superiors or unchecked magistrates. It was not a reserved area, merely protected by ‘civil rights’. Since Solon, in 594 BC, their superiors’ licence to enslave ordinary Athenians had been abolished anyway. Instead, male Athenians now had the one right which really mattered, an individual vote on every major public issue. Their new freedom was a ‘freedom to…’, worth fighting for. From their battles in self-defence they returned with hundreds of prisoners for lucrative ransom and rich plots of land: 4,000 such plots were divided from land taken from the cavalry-classes of hostile Euboea, once the champions of early Greek overseas ventures. These gains were hugely rich and probably given to the poorer Athenians, a further bonus of new democracy; the fetters of the prisoners were displayed for years on Athens’ Acropolis. Athenians who died in these first ‘democratic’ battles may even have been honoured with a new privilege, burial in a new public cemetery. But it had been a hard battle, and, in order to find allies in these years of crisis, the newly democratic Athenians even sent envoys out east to the Persian governor at Sardis. Better a distant Persian, they thought, than a Spartan-style oligarchy. When their ambassadors agreed to submit to the Persian king and offer the symbolic ‘earth and water’, the Athenians in their democratic assembly held them ‘greatly culpable’ and rejected them.7 Fifteen years later, their new democratic freedom would be severely tested by those very Persian helpers whom they had sought.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!