How Did Athens Become a Democracy?

Updated on October 14, 2016

The Early History of Athens

Attica is the name given to the mountainous peninsular that juts out from the Greek mainland into the Aegean Sea. Its topography is dominated by four principle peaks – Parnes, Pentelicus, Hymettus and Laurium. Interspersing these peaks are four smallish plains. The coast is extremely rocky but is ideally suitable for many fine harbors.

Attica was inhabited for several thousand years before the first Greek speaking peoples arrived around 1900 B.C. By 1400 B.C. its principle city Athens had become an important Bronze Age center. From the early days Athens was governed by kings. The kings and other officials were always chosen from a smallish group of noble families called the Eupatridae (" Good Fathers").

The Eupatrids

Although Athens went “dark” along with the rest of Greece about 1200 B.C., it appears to have been basically unaffected by the Dorian invasions. Eupatrid rule at Athens continued through the so-called Greek Dark Age. The most notable change was a steady reduction in the powers of the king. By the mid-eighth century the king was just one of many officials, called archons. Real power was exercised by the Council of the Areopagus. This body was composed entirely of Eupatrid members and acted as sovereign power in all matters.

Under Eupatird rule Athens was not governed by a written constitution but rather by oral law. The people began to demand a written code that everyone could follow. But it took a failed attempt to overthrow the government and dissatisfaction among many Eupatrids themselves before it was finally decided to adopt a written constitution. The new laws, credited to Draco, were inscribed on wooden tablets that were set up in the market place, the Agora, where everyone could see them. That it was written down was the only good thing about Draco’s code. The bad thing was that the laws were incredibly harsh and favored the Eupatrids. Within a generation they were set aside, replaced by the Constitution of Solon.

Solon | Source

The Reforms of Solon

Solon held the archonship at Athens in 594 BC. It's been said that his reforms changed Athenian society from one based on birth to one based on wealth. It’s probably more accurate to say that Athenian society, with its new emphasis on commerce, had already changed by Solon’s time and all Solon did was write new laws that reflected this change.

Solon’s laws recognized four property classes. The new laws threw open the magistracies to any man, regardless of birth, who met the highest class property qualifications and granted the franchise to, at least, the upper three classes. Sovereignty was now vested in the Assembly (Ecclesia) of the People and a Council (Boule) of 400 drawn from the four traditional Athenian tribes. Eupatrid influence was not entirely removed. The Council of the Areopagus continued as “guardian of the laws” and, since most Eupatrids were wealthy, they continued in practice to hold most of the offices and positions of influence. But the Eupatrid monopoly of the government was ended.

Ancient Attica
Ancient Attica | Source

Sectional Rivalry

Within a generation of Solon’s reforms, another problem popped up. The topography of Attica contains three natural divisions of the land - Diacria, Pedias and Paralia (see map). The population of Paralia was small but its harbors supported a large number of “new money” individuals, who had grown wealthy off of trade. Megacles was their leader. A man with the very Spartan sounding name of Lycurgus, led the wealthy land owners of the Pedias. The ancient sources don’t tell us specifically what the dispute between the Pedias and the Paralia was about. That personal rivalries among the leaders played a part is beyond doubt, but in general the merchants and tradesmen of the Paralia tended to look outward for their wealth, while the land owners of the Pedias looked inward for theirs. The population of Diacria was larger than that of the other two regions combined but the inhabitants were unable to exercise any influence because they lacked a leader. It may also have been that the area lacked enough individuals of wealth to exert influence. The region was populated mostly by mountain herdsmen and small, probably mostly, subsistence farmers, whose main concern was to make a decent living.

The assassination of Hipparchus by Harmodius and Aristogiton.
The assassination of Hipparchus by Harmodius and Aristogiton. | Source

Tyranny and Democracy

Pisistratus, who was a popular war hero, decided to take up the cause of these impoverished men of Diacria. Unable to affect change via legislation, he seized power by force, with the help of Megacles, in 561. As Tyrant of Athens Pisistratus implemented a program that not only benefitted the poorer citizens, but also simultaneously promoted trade and enriched the citizenry as a whole. He was a popular leader and mild ruler.

Pisistratus died and was succeeded by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus in 527. The brothers continued the moderate style of their father's regime. In 514 Hipparchus was assassinated by Harmodius and Aristogiton . The historian Thucydides asserted that Hipparchus' murder was really over a personal quarrel, but the conspirators had intended to bring down the tyranny by killing both brothers. Hippias now become paranoid and unleashed a reign of terror. Suspected enemies were exiled or killed.

Hippias was then expelled from Athens by a Spartan army led by King Cleomenes, who tried to install an aristocratic oligarchy. But the people rallied behind Cleisthenes, the son of Megacles, who had manipulated the Spartans to intervene by bribing the Oracle of Delphi. The Spartans were expelled and the aristocratic party was banished.

Cleisthenes, who had fled into exile, returned to Athens and enacted constitutional reforms. He kept the Solonian property qualifications. All citizens, regardless of wealth, were eligible to participate in the Assembly. His most sweeping reform was the establishment of a new tribal system. The four traditional tribes were replaced by ten artificially created new ones named after legendary Athenian heroes. The country districts were broken up into townships, called demes. The tribes were divided into thirds. One deme from each of the old regions, more or less, was assigned to each tribe. This ended the old sectional differences. A Council of 500 replaced the old Council of 400. There were 50 members chosen from each tribe by lot. The archons were still elected annually, as were the ten generals, one from each tribe. Athens was now a true democracy. The People ruled.


The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Plutarch: Solon, Penguin Books, 1960.

The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Robert B. Strassler, ed.,The Free Press, 1996.

© 2016 Wade Ankesheiln


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