The Evolution of Athenian Democracy

Updated on October 25, 2017
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

The democracy of Athens did not occur overnight but developed through many types of government. The democracy that we know today traveled from a monarchy through an oligarchy through tyranny and eventually made its way to the classical form of Athenian democracy. Many men through the ages of Greece shaped the Athenian democracy both through their successes and failures.


Order Through Dark Ages

A version of the government of the Mycenaean civilization continued into the early Dark Age of Greece. Instead of being under one king, or basileus, there were many rulers based on geographical and the socio-economic culture predominant in the Dark Age.

Further evidence in the existence of this kind of government is found in the archaeological discoveries of chieftain houses, apsidals. There were local chiefs that ruled independently of the "paramount chief" with all of them using the title of basileus.


Continued Development

As the Dark Age progressed, the power that the basileus held was diminished and placed into the hands of the council called the boule. This council was comprised of multiple chiefs and could be described as a modern-day cabinet as it provided guidance and advice to the paramount chief. Though considered a step toward democracy, the council was not heavily involved in judicial affairs.

It was during the Archaic Period of Greece that the well-known city state, or polis, developed based on geographical standards and evolving from the government of the late Dark Age with the continuation of the council. One town in each geographical area became prominent and took the role as the political leader (synoecism) and shaped the city state. The aristocracy primarily ran the city state. As the council increased in status, the basileus’ power decreased or completely disappeared.


Impact of City State

It was the development of the city state that brought Athens from monarchy to oligarchy. As each of the city states began to get more internally complex, powerful aristocracies began to control the city states taking the power from the hands of one person and into the hands of the ones who controlled the city state economically and politically. This process still left out the majority which was poor. The basileus, if it still existed, became a role that was similar to a sheriff or magistrate. This form of oligarchy opened the door for various "clans" to take control of the city states. Some city states had more than one clan ruling, but resentment developed among the masses who were still being ignored socially and economically by the oligarchy.

Infighting among the various clans and dissatisfaction within the masses invited tyranny. The ability of the tyrant to gain power was either through their military or political achievements and the backing of the lower classes. The rich were the ones adversely affected under tyranny which was the reason most tyrants did not keep control past a few generations. The oligarchy was reestablished without the power it originally had. It was due to tyranny that many of the lower classes began to understand that they had a voice and refused to accept what little the oligarchy did for them.


Structured Law

The role of the aristocracy had lost effectiveness leading to the replacement of basileus with the archons which were in essence three of the main basileus. Each one of them had their own specific duties within the Athenian government and society. They ruled with the Council of Areopagus where former archons served out their lives.

The early evidence of structured Athenian law comes from Draco who took some of the legal burden off the backs of the family and placed them under supervision of the government. "They also curtailed the opportunities of individual magistrates to shape their decisions in accord with their social official ties to particular litigants.”


Another Step

Another major step for democracy came under Solon’s reforms where much of the burden on the poor was alleviated while not completely undermining the rich. He tried to level out different economic statuses to help strengthen Athens. He created a constitution that was not solely in the hands of the powerful aristocracy and created class structures based more upon economic production.

Every class had a chance to be a part of the decision-making even through the heliaia which was "a pool of prospective jurors" in which all male citizens could participate. It was said that Solon’s "laws established the principle that the Athenian state would be guided by all citizens working together." Solon was able to abolish debt slavery and pave the way for democracy despite not being philosophically democratic. Though the reforms of Solon were monumental, they opened the door for a new tyrant to appear on the scene.


Furthering Democracy by a Tyrant

The tyrant, Pisistratus, was able to take power thanks to many things Solon did. It was under Pisistratus that many of Solon’s laws continued and Athens was pushed further into democracy as the playing field of the rich and the poor was leveled. The masses wanted more and achieved it under the tyrant. History repeated itself in turmoil rising under the leadership of his sons.

Once the tyrant and his family were run out of power, the elected archon, Isagora, took a stance that citizenship should be defined more narrowly. The masses preferred Cleisthenes who was not inclined to take away citizenship from those who had very little else in life. Once he was in power, Cleisthenes decided that the Athenian Constitution needed a complete overhaul. He redistricted Attica geographically in order to redistribute the power. The result was Athens divided into 10 major tribes who in turn made up the Council of Five Hundred, or the boule. All members of the Council of Five Hundred were selected by lot each year by the tribes. Clesithenes was not a dictator as his power was limited with his reforms needing approval of the assembly.


Another step toward democracy that Cleisthenes brought about was that of ostracism. This was used to prevent future tyrants by having one person elected to be ostracized that was considered a dangerous threat to the Athenian government. They had to leave Athens for 10 years to alleviate the threat. In the end, Clesithenes "attempted to give political equality of all services."


Handling Wealth

Another action to help push Athens to democracy, as we think of it today, occurred in 482 BC, when Athens found itself with an abundance of wealth from mined silver. One man, Aristides, desired to redistribute the wealth to the masses. Though this seemed to be a popular move, the voters decided that Themistocles’ idea of building the Navy in preparation for the conflict with Persia was the smart way to go. The Persians’ defeat at Salamis could be attributed to this democratic action. If the power had been in the hands of one man, classical Greek as we know it might have been more Persian version.

Military success was the reason that many leaders rose to the forefront. The success of Cimon gave him the much-needed popularity to help lead Athens. Cimon did not want democracy for Athens. It was only after the fall of Cimon that democracy was able to progress. This allowed Ephialtes to create more democratic reforms, including taking away some of the power that the Council of Areopagus held, and giving more power to the masses through the boule, ekkelsia, and heliaia.


Democracy Achieved

It was under the leadership of Pericles that democracy advanced further for Athens. He shared power with the ekklesia and redefined Athenian citizenship. The power of the assembly waned, and the power of the voters increased.

Through all of this, the Greco-Persian Wars helped bring to the forefront many of the leaders that pushed democracy along. When faced with adversity, democracy pushed on with decisions by the masses such, as choosing Themistocles option. It was also after the battle of Marathon that the Athenians realized how important leadership was. From then on the selection of the archon became more scrutinized, and the power of the Council of the Areopagus decreased. In fact, many wanting to hold office were actually interrogated. It was during the Greco-Persian Wars that the act of ostracism was heavily used to prevent more tyranny.



- Sarah B. Pomeroy et al., Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

- Robert Morkot, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece (New York: Penguin Group, 1996).


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