Chapter 4

Governing by Kings, Tyrants, and (Eventually) Democrats

In This Chapter

● Increasing the number of social classes

● Living under the rule of kings and tyrants

● Working with the Spartans

● Initiating Athenian democracy

If you leave a group of people in a room together for long enough, they’re bound to end up having an argument about something. TV these days is based around this concept. Usually the disagreement comes up because somebody feels unable to express a point because others aren’t listening.

The same was true 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece. Back then the arguments were about who controlled the towns and cities that had developed after the big migrations that I write about in Chapter 3. Unlike most arguments, however, these ancient disagreements ended up producing something amazing.

This chapter is the story of how a bunch of farmers and aristocrats managed to invent the system of government that still exists throughout the world today - democracy.

Shaping the New Societies

When ancient Greece’s Dark Ages came to an end in the eighth century BC, the communities that had survived in mainland Greece were very small and simple. The big expansions overseas involved thousands of people leaving the Greek mainland, severely weakening the old Mycenaean power centres (see Chapters 2 and 3).

Remembering Theseus

The shift from local governments to a centralised government took place before the Greeks started recording their own history. Without recorded history to rely on, the Greeks often turned to characters and events from their mythology to explain things.

Some later writers credited the mythological noble Theseus (see Chapter 2) for bringing the whole of the region of Attica under centralised control. He did this by setting up a council of nobles that met regularly and made decisions about the running of the area as a whole.

Of course, one man wasn't solely responsible for uniting the entire, and significantly large, territory of Attica. Still, the Athenians' mythological hero proved a very useful story to gloss over the years of fighting and plotting among several wealthy families in the region.

As a result most ancient Greeks at the end of the Dark Ages were likely to live in small villages ruled by local nobles and wealthier citizens with the most land. Life for most people was very tough, and the chances of improvement and advancement very small. Depending on who you were, you filled a certain place in society. You were born into your position, and change was virtually impossible.

As an ancient Greek at the end of the Dark Ages, your family and your clan, or extended family that you came from, were the most important considerations in your life. Your ultimate superiors were local lords to whom you and the rest of your community paid tribute.

Over about half a century, these very local communities began to come under central control by one town. This change probably wasn’t the communities’ choice; they were most likely forced into the new arrangement by threats and violence from another town in the area that wanted to expand its territory. Probably the most significant example of this was what happened in the region of Attica in western Greece (see the Cheat Sheet map) because it resulted in the formation of the city of Athens. Several important families in the region fought and plotted against each other for hundreds of years. But by the seventh century BC, the region was in the hands of an aristocratic elite.

Meeting the rating class

In the seventh century BC the people of Attica were ruled by what they considered to be a king, but this leadership wasn’t what modern people would understand as a king. The ancient Greeks used the word basileus to describe a king. This word translates as ‘sovereign’, so the individuals weren’t actually kings in the sense of Henry VIII. A basileus was just one of a board of annually elected officials - like councillors or local government officials - called the arkhons. This board formed a ruling council that met at a spot known as the Areopagus on the Hill of Ares in Athens and exercised control over Athens and the region of Attica. Eventually the title basileus became used to describe an arkhon with special religious duties.

Although this combination of a basileus and an arkhon may sound like a move toward a more open form of government, the arrangement wasn’t really much of a change. The opportunity to be an arkhon wasn’t open to everybody - only those born into the leading aristocratic families in Athens had the right to stand for election. The elections were also only open for the aristocrats to vote in! So in a way the government was as much of a closed shop as it had been under the earlier king-led system. The aristocrats were still in control; there were just more of them.

The aristocrats themselves clearly recognised the exclusive nature of the system because they named the group the Eupatridai, which means ‘the sons of good fathers’.

The power structures found in Athens and the Attica region during this period weren’t all that different from the surrounding area. Throughout Greece and the Mediterranean at the time, the vast majority of people who ruled did so based largely on the qualifications of wealth and birth. The aristocrats were generally the oldest families who’d lived in the area longest - and therefore grabbed all the best land when they arrived. Consequently, they become the wealthiest and the most influential citizens.

Introducing the new middle class

People always find something to argue about, and the system of government in Athens was no different. Any agreement among the aristocrats held only for as long the entire ruling group agreed. If one man wanted to take all the power for himself, the system could break. Indeed, by the seventh century BC the relationships among the various aristocratic families in Athens had reached a breaking point, but another potentially bigger problem existed - the growing middle class.

As Athens had grown and expanded, it had become wealthier. In particular, people who made money from trade or successfully farmed less attractive land were frequently as wealthy as the leading aristocrats. Although these successful individuals made up Athens’s new middle class, they were still born outside the noble families and had no chance of being elected to rule.

Around the same time big changes were happening to the way that the Athenians made war and fought against their enemies. The Athenians had adopted the hoplite method of fighting (see Chapter 5), which brought together and armed many male Athenians. Unsurprisingly this group soon realised they had enormous power at their disposal.

This mixture of middle-class discontent and burgeoning military strength was a time-bomb waiting to go off. All that was needed was an individual with the charisma and drive to take advantage of the situation and initiate massive change.

Surviving the Cycle of Tyranny

The Greeks used a word called turannos that means ‘the rule of one’ and is the source of the modern word tyrant. However, the ancient Greeks’ notion of the tyrant didn’t necessarily have the connotations of cruelty and harshness that it does today.

The earliest surviving instance of the word tyrant is in a poem by Archilochos. This piece of verse talks about the tyrant Gyges who reigned in Lydia in Asia Minor between 680 and 640 BC:

To me the possessions of Gyges rich in gold are of no concern, envy has not seized me, and Ido not look with jealousy on the works of the gods, nor do Ipassionately desire great tyranny; such things are far from my eyes. . .

Nevertheless, many of the tyrants who seized control in ancient Greece did go on to run repressive regimes, as the following sections explore.

Kylon: Discovering that tyranny is harder than it looks

The first attempt at tyranny in Athens was a failure. In 640 BC, Kylon tried to take advantage of the discontent in the city (see the preceding section).

Kylon was an interesting character. He was a former winner at the Olympic games (see Chapter 16 for more on the Olympics), which made him very popular with the common people who saw him as a hero. He also had the backing of his father-in-law Theagenes, who was the tyrant of Megara.

According to the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, Kylon acted on the advice of the Delphic Oracle by trying to sieze Athens during the Festival of Zeus when much of the city was otherwise engaged. Unfortunately for him the plan failed and he was forced to flee to the temple of Athena. Kylon was persuaded out by a promise that he wouldn’t be harmed but then stoned to death! Although Kylon’s plan was a total failure, it was a warning of what was to come.

Drakon: Changing the rules

Discontent rumbled on in Athens, and the Eupatridai responded to Kylon’s action by attempting to tighten their control on the city. Around 620 BC, Drakon published the first-ever Athenian law code, defining the rules by which Athens would be governed. (These laws were deliberately harsh, and Drakon’s name is the source of the word draconian.)

In particular the laws tried to break down the idea that people should look to their own family for justice and take vengeance when someone had been wronged. Drakon’s laws made clear that justice was the role of the state. This might not seem like such a controversial idea to us but it was establishing the state as able to interfere in private affairs. This was a big change because previously it had been the role of the individual to protect his own household. The law particularly affected the aristocrats of Athens who’d previously acted as they wished. Drakon was attempting to get this group under state control - a laudable aim but probably for his own benefit rather than anybody else’s.

Enter Solon: A Man of the People

With so many tensions pulling at the organisation of society, ancient Athens seemed about to break. The Athenians recognised how critical the situation had become and in 594 BC appointed Solon, a middle-class Athenian who’d made his money from trade, as arkhon. Solon is very interesting to historians because he’s the earliest Greek historical figure who’s famous, well-documented, and real.

In fact, Solon was the first ancient Greek to write his autobiography. It wasn’t actually a book but he composed numerous poems for people to recite and so remember his achievements after he was long gone.

To the people I have given such privilege as is enough neither taking away nor adding to their honour. While those who had power and were famed for their wealth, for them I took care that should suffer no injury. I stood, holding out my strong shield over both, and I did not allow either to triumph unjustly.

Making changes

Boasting aside, Solon did have a tough job to do. Athens was in a difficult situation with all the classes feeling hard done by. As a result, Solon made some sweeping changes, including:

● Cancelling debts: Solon introduced legislation that he called the seisakhtheia or ‘the shaking off of burdens’. Many peasants with small amounts of land were effectively paying protection money to members of the aristocracy from whom they rented it. If their crops failed they got further and further into debt and eventually had to vacate the land.

● Defining new political classes: Solon divided the city population politically based on agricultural wealth. This policy broke the exclusive power of the Eupatridai, and the wealthiest citizens in Athens now had the opportunity to become arkhons regardless of whether they came from one of the city’s original families.

● Establishing the new council of 400: By far Solon’s biggest change was the introduction of a new council called the boule. This assembly was made up of 400 citizens, 100 from each of the four Athenian clans, and gave an opportunity for the rest of the citizen body to participate in debate.

The reforms of Solon were publicised in an interesting way. All the individual laws were numbered and inscribed on wooden tables or axones. Each law was then quoted by number, like items on a take-away menu. Citizen were required to swear an oath that they would obey the new laws for the next ten years, the idea being that the laws would be revised a decade later.

Stepping out of the limelight

Solon’s reforms seemed like real progress. His policies attempted to prevent the Eupatridai from lording over the rest of the population, reduce the economic problems of the lower classes, and give the lower classes a voice in the process of running the city.

Unfortunately Solon was one of the first people to discover that you can’t please all the people all the time. His debt laws proved extremely popular with the lower classes and greatly helped poor farmers but the leaders of the aristocratic clans were hugely resentful. Nevertheless, it kept more people working on the land, which was Solon’s intention. But his political reforms had an entirely different outcome as the aristocrats tried to seize back control (see the following section ‘Bouncing Back to Tyranny’).


The whole point of Solon's reforms was to stop Athens from falling victim to tyrants. Unfortunately the same old problems soon cropped up again. The period immediately after Solon is another one for which historians don't have many sources. Researchers do know that in around 589 BC, Athens fell into a struggle among the aristocrats that was so bad no arkhonswere elected for two years. The Greeks used the term anarkhy - meaning 'without arkhons'-to describe this time. Of course, this is where the modern word anarchy comes from.

Solon retired from public life. The details of his later life are sketchy. Some people say that he went travelling but it seems that he eventually returned to Athens. Unfortunately by the time he died in 558 BC he saw all his good work undone by the vengeful Eupatridai and other opportunists.

Bouncing Back to Tyranny

After the crumbling of Solon’s reforms and a brief period of political anarchy, Athens was ripe for potential tyrants. Several people made attempts to seize power. By far the most successful was the man who dominated Athens in the sixth century BC - Peisistratos.

Peisistratos: Playing the system

While Solon had been trying to solve Athens’s social and political problems, the city had been in conflict with the neighbouring city of Megara. During the conflict the Athenians had successfully attacked and captured the port of Nisaea, an ally of Megara. The leader of the expedition was called Peisistratos, and his military success encouraged him to launch a political career.

Solon’s reforms and the chaos that followed had led to a split amongst the Athenian people. On the one side were the aristocrats and on the other were the democrats, from the Greek word demos which meant ‘the people’. The democrats believed that Solon hadn’t gone far enough in giving power to the whole population.

Peisistratos targeted the democrats as allies. In 561 BC he appeared in the agora or public square covered in blood and claiming to have been injured by his political enemies. He used the ensuing public outrage to his advantage and seized control of the city.

Essentially Peisistratos played Solon’s system to his own advantage. Peisistratos didn’t change anything that Solon had put in place; by using bribery and intimidation he just made sure that every year his own supporters were elected as archons. Eventually people were keen to vote for his supporters as they realised that their own prospects of advancement would be limited if they didn’t. Simple really.

Out, in, and back out again

Peisistratos’s grip on power was actually quite simple to break. He dominated Athens for five years until a faction of aristocrats led by a man named Megacles managed to drive him into exile in 556 BC.

However, Megacles was unable to keep hold on the argumentative elements within his own party, and within a few years, he sought to reconcile with Peisistratos, sealing the deal by arranging that the former tyrant marry his daughter. In 550 BC Peisistratos returned to Athens a hero.

Of course, Peisistratos didn’t stick to the arrangement with Megacles. Peisistratos already had two sons from his first marriage, and he wanted them to take power after his death. Consequently, he treated Megacles’s daughter badly and refused to recognise her as his wife so as not to weaken the position of his sons.

Unsurprisingly Megacles was upset about the situation and immediately betrayed Peisistratos to enemies. After a very brief power struggle, Peisistratos was forced into exile once again.

Regrouping abroad

In exile for the second time, Peisistratos learned from his mistakes. This second exile was much longer, lasting over a decade. During this period, Peisistratos realised that to truly dominate Athens he needed support from other powerful states throughout Greece. The benefits of this strategy were two-fold:

The Athenians would see Peisistratos as the only person able to handle the foreign affairs of Athens.

Peisistratos would be able to immediately build up an army to help him grasp and keep hold of power.

Noble failures - Harmodios and Aristogeiton

In 514 BC, two lovers named Harmodios and Aristogeiton attempted to end Hippias's rule by assassinating Peisistratos's other son, Hipparkhos, during a public festival. The plot succeeded, but Harmodios was killed during it and Aristogeiton was captured and died under torture.

But despite the relative failure, the two assassins became celebrated figures in Athens and were considered to be important heroes in the struggle for democracy. Unfortunately, this celebrated status wasn't quite based on truth. Harmodios and Aristogeiton were both aristocrats and wanted to get rid of Hippias so they could replace him with another set of aristocrats. But the romance of their story ensured their fame.

Harmodios and Aristogeiton became such celebrities that several statues were erected to their memory in Athens. The rose-tinted view of their exploits was also remembered in later ancient Greek drinking songs like this one:

In a branch of myrtle I shall bear my sword like Harmodios and Aristogeiton when the two of them slayed the tyrant and made Athens a city of equal rights.

Peisistratos spent ten years building up support in Macedonia, Thessaly, and other places to the north of Athens (refer to the Cheat Sheet map). Finally, in 540 BC, he landed with an army at Marathon and swept virtually unopposed into Athens. He declared that he was the true and legal ruler of the city. He was back in power and this time he wasn’t shifting for anybody.

Enjoying the benefits of tyranny

Peisistratos stayed in power for the next 13 years, and during this time Athens undeniably went through a boom period. Peisistratos’s aggressive foreign policy built up Athenian territory around Greece and generated a lot of revenues.

In fact, during this time some of the earliest of ancient Greece’s impressive building projects began. Virtually all of the building programmes attributed to Peisistratos are now lost but he’s said to have initiated the building of several religious buildings in the agora (the main town square, like the Roman forum) as well as a large palace for himself. The knock-on effect was that artists were attracted to Athens - like artists in Renaissance Italy, creative people went where the money was. Peisistratos’s other cultural achievement was the introduction of two new elements to religious festivals; the singing of dithyrambs (hymns sung in honour of the gods) and also tragic drama. To do so he introduced the first orchestra (performance space) in the city.

Hippias: Tyranny as a family business

Peisistratos’s hold on power was so complete that when he died in 527 BC he was able to hand over control to his son Hippias. Unfortunately for Hippias, his father’s personality had been a big part of his success. Many people who had previously supported Peisistratos turned against Hippias.

After the assassination of his brother (see the nearby sidebar ‘Noble failures - Harmodios and Aristogeiton’), Hippias became more severe, and many influential aristocrats were forced to flee Athens. Those individuals who stayed needed fresh help. The people who they turned to were something of a surprise - the Spartans.

Getting to Know the Spartans

Although the Athenians couldn’t have known it at the time, the Spartans were to become their mortal enemy and also the most feared and famous fighting force in the ancient world.

The city of Sparta was to the south-west of Athens in a region called Laconia (take a look at the Cheat Sheet map). The Greek term for the region was Lacedaemon, and that’s why the Spartans are sometimes referred to as the Lacedaemonians. Their way of life was considered to be brutal and without luxury, hence the modern word Spartan, which means simple and nonluxurious.

Growing up Spartan

The Spartans first came to prominence after the Dorian invasions (see Chapter 3 for more details) when the old inhabitants of the region were kicked out and replaced by tribesmen from the north-west and Macedonia. Being both very warlike and very good at it, the Spartans soon gained control of the whole of Laconia. By the time that Hippias was tyrant in Athens, Sparta was the leading power in southern Greece.

Two things made Sparta very different from all the other Greeks states:

● Sparta was the only state to have a standing professional army. Read more about this in Chapter 5.

● The Spartans governed themselves. Other cities in Greece were experimenting with new forms of government and different systems (see the sidebar ‘Know your ocracies’, later in this chapter), but the Spartans had a form of government and social organisation that was fixed and unchanging.

Living the hellish life of a Helot

Nearly all the citizens of Sparta were involved in running the state and were brought up since childhood to perform their roles (see Chapter 5). An unfortunate group of people known as the helots carried out farming, labour, and all other manual work required by Sparta. These people were serfs (or workers) owned by the state. The helots had come to their position because their land had been incorporated into the Spartan state, and they were now forced to work for it. It was a grim existence: The helots worked hard for little reward and no chance of bettering their station in life.

Helots made up 90 per cent of the Spartan population. As a result, the Spartans were always worried about revolts and developed a particularly unpleasant way of keeping power over the helots. Because the helots didn't count as Spartan citizens, they could technically be considered foreigners or enemies. Consequently every year the gerousia would vote to declare war on the helots and then carry out massacres to keep the numbers down. The Spartans also considered that this brutality was a useful way of giving young soldiers practice at killing.

In short, Sparta had two kings who were the top dogs, taking the roles of generals in war and chief priests in peace. A group of elected officials called the ephors and a council called the gerousia carried out the actual administration of the state. The system wasn’t particularly unusual except for the fact that many positions were for life and were full-time jobs. Thus, the aristocracy of Sparta devoted their entire lives to the official business of Sparta - which included fighting many wars.

Getting involved in Athens

The Spartans were a warlike people keen on furthering their territory, and they had a pretty brutal attitude toward violence and death - all of which makes them a surprising choice for the Athenian aristocrats seeking their help.

Yet after the failed attempt to remove Hippias, the Athenian aristocrats were forced to look to Sparta for help. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Sparta had a reputation as being sympathetic to requests for help from states under tyranny. In addition, a prophecy from the Delphic oracle (see Chapter 21) suggested to the Spartans that they should involve themselves in the Athenian situation.

The end result was that in 510 BC, the Spartan king Kleomenes led his troops into Athens and forced Hippias and his entire family to flee. He couldn’t have imagined what would happen next.

Considering Kleisthenes: The Beginnings of Democracy

When Kleomenes intervened in Athens and restored the usual form of government, fresh elections were held. One of the candidates was a man called Kleisthenes. When Kleisthenes made a series of important reforms to the Athenian constitution in 508 BC, he never imagined the impact he’d have on the history of mankind. Kleisthenes’s change - arguably - created the idea of demokratia or ‘rule of the people’.

Rather than being the product of some high-minded ideals, democracy was the result of another aristocratic squabble. Kleisthenes himself was a blue-blood Athenian aristocrat. The year before he had lost out to a fellow aristocrat, Isagoras, in the election for arkhon. Rather than seek revolution or look for military support, Kleisthenes appealed to the common people for support. In this case, the ‘common people’ were individuals who didn’t really have a voice, even after the reforms of Solon; people such as traders and farmers without much land or social status.

Kleisthenes proposed new laws in the ekklesia that allowed all citizens to take part in the process of government. Unsurprisingly Isagoras tried to block the moves, but he didn’t have enough support. As a result, Isagoras called in Kleomenes of Sparta to quell the unrest in the city.

Kleomenes and his troops turned up in Athens, but he took things a bit too far, expelling 700 pro-Kleisthenes aristocratic families from the city and then leaving Isagoras to sort things out himself. Isagoras attempted to abolish Kleisthenes’s reforms, but Kleisthenes responded by returning to the city with a small number of troops and forcing Isagoras to surrender. Finally, Kleisthenes was able to complete his proposed reform.

Reforming and reorganising

In essence Kleisthenes only made one big change: He scrapped the wealth-based classes that Solon had created nearly 90 years before and instead divided the population in terms of where people lived.

To do this Kleisthenes created ten new phulai, or tribes. Your tribe depended on where in the city you were born rather than which class you were from or how much money you had. Each tribe was further divided into demoi, or demes. These were smaller districts, like the constituencies or wards making up a City or County Council , a few streets or a zip-code district. The demoi became the units in which local business was done and meant that demoi representatives could take the views of each local area to the ekklesia and get it on the agenda to be discussed.

Knowing your ocracies

Although Athens is heralded as the birthplace of democracy, many different forms of government existed in ancient Greece and democracy was just one of them. Here are some common governmental forms (and examples from ancient Greek history):

● Democracy: Literally the 'rule of the people'. In a democracy, the people make decisions about the policy and actions of their community. In the ancient world, this tended to be participative (people actually voted and debated themselves) rather than representative (where they elected somebody to do it for them). For more on democracy, see Chapter 7.

● Monarchy: Rule by a king or queen. In this form of government, an absolute ruler is unelected, and his or her authority is unquestioned. The monarch may (or may not) be able to appoint a successor. Monarchy of a type was very popular in early Greek culture and survived throughout Asia Minor and in Macedonia.

● Oligarchy: Rule by the few. In early Athens, the aristocrats descended from the region's early settlers who had claimed the best land functioned as an oligarchic governing body.

● Plutocracy: Rule of the wealthy; from the Greek word ploutos, meaning wealth. A minimum property or wealth requirement was usually in place for those who wanted to take part in government. Plutocracies were normally mercantile communities like several of the Greek islands such as Samos.

● Timarchy: Nothing to do with people called Tim; derived from the Greek word time, which meant honour or respectability. In practice, a timarchy could be anything from the strongest warrior to the most respected family ruling a region. Many people argue that Sparta was a timarchy and some Mycenaean states are good examples of warrior timarchy.

● Tyranny: Literally 'rule by one'. In ancient Greece, the individual often seized power but sometimes he was voted in. The Greek meaning didn't have the negative associations that it does in the modern world.

Throughout the ancient world these and many more systems flourished - or they were combined as suited a particular political moment. For example, the Roman Empire was essentially an oligarchy but with elements of plutocracy; at certain points it was fundamentally a tyranny!

After Kleisthenes’s reform a massive section of the Athenian population that previously hadn’t been able to gain citizenship now could. Theoretically the change meant that any citizen from any social status could become an arkhon.

In actuality, things didn’t turn out like this - and it was very unlikely that Kleisthenes wanted any other result. During the next century nearly all the people that ruled Athens continued to be aristocrats.

Taking small steps toward democracy

What Kleisthenes achieved wasn’t democracy in the way you think of it today. Athenian political involvement depended on citizenship, which meant no women, resident slaves, or resident foreigners were able to vote. Also, it was highly unlikely that anybody outside the aristocratic elite had the money or influence to win an election.

However, Kleisthenes did recognise the power of popular opinion (and how he could manipulate it). The changes that he made ensured that the reformers who followed him in the fifth century BC could create something truly extraordinary. I talk about how the system worked in Chapter 7.

When Kleisthenes was making his reforms at the end of the sixth century BC, the word the Greeks used for popular rule was isonomia, which literally meant ‘equality under law’ and referred to the status that the creation of the tribes brought to all citizens. The Greek word demokratiahad a much more serious meaning and referred to the people holding all power. The Athenians would have considered that their state was a demokratia and would have described it as such. So demokratia was an Athenian invention!

Challenging the new order

The Spartans weren’t best pleased with the political reforms of Kleisthenes and were quick to respond when he kicked Isagoras out. In 506 BC, Kleomenes returned with another Spartan army intent on forcing Kleisthenes and his supporters out for a second time, but the Spartan attack didn’t work. The mass public support that Kleisthenes was able to call on saw the Spartans soundly defeated, and the same happened to invading armies from elsewhere the following year.

The reforms of Kleisthenes had banded the people together to a common cause in a manner ancient Greeks hadn’t previously experienced.

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