Around 508 BC Cleisthenes persuaded his fellow Athenians to adopt a new political system which began the long development of Western democracy, The emergence and establishment of democracy constitute a foundational moment in the history of society, all the more extraordinary for the context in which it occurred. The sixth century was a period of repeated internal crisis for Athens as economic and political inequality led to major social unrest and repeated civic violence. Two exceptional men dominate the history of the century and each is fundamental to later democratic ideology, one as an icon and the other as anathema.
The first is Solon, from the 590s. He rose to become leader of an Athens riven by competition between elite families and by a lack of centralized regulation. He depicts himself as a negotiator
who argued for strengthening a sense of community by controlling the abuses of power by local bigwigs by organising the community into classes according to property ownership and by establishing a stronger, more centralized legal system.
Later ancient political writers saw Solon in a similar light. The Constitution of Athens, a text from the school of Aristotle, highlights the three most important measures Solon enacted, Which paved the way for Cleisthenes’ democracy. First, he outlawed taking out a loan on the security of your own body. This meant that the poor could not become bond-slaves to the wealthy, Second, he allowed a third party to bring a legal case on behalf of a Victim, which took legal action away from the family feud and away from the inevitable oppression of the weak by the powerful. Third, he gave all citizens the right of appeal to a court, which implies the establishment of a jury, a collective of citizens. This countered the supreme dominance of the magistrates, positions already in the hands of the most powerful families. Solon strove to make Athens more stable. Whether he changed the dynamics of power significantly is harder to judge. But in the heady days of fourth-century democracy, he was viewed as a founding father of democracy, because his laws were understood to value the people over and above their oppression by the elite.
Peisistratus, the second figure to dominate sixth-century Athens, contrasts with Solon in almost every way. Around 560 he became tyrant of Athens, that is, its sole ruler or dictator, and he was succeeded by his sons, Hipparchus and Hippias. Solon evidently did not stop competition between elite families for power and status, nor did he succeed in creating a stable constitution for Athens. According to the ancient sources, there were three main groupings in Athens, the men of the plain, the men of the shore and the men of the hills, these last led by Peisistratus. The tyranny was the triumph of this third grouping -though it is hard to know how much these groupings were merely territorial and fzmlilial, or linked by some broader political concern. When in power, Peisistratus built huge temples, initiated major building projects, developed new festivals (probably including the Great Dionysia, where the tragedies and comedies were produced) and expanded Athens’ major festival, the Panathenaia, into a Panhellenic event to rival the Olympic Games. But, for later democrats, the tyrant was simply the despised and feared anathema of democracy.
In Athens, the tyrants were ousted in an act of murder that became the paradigmatic image of democratic heroism. There was even a ritual cult of the Tyrannicides with honoured statues of the two men who were said to have assassinated Hipparchus (Figure 33). Several of Athens’ favourite drinking songs celebrated the killers: ‘I’ll carry my sword in a myrtle spray,’ runs one, ‘1ike Aristogeiton and Harmodius, when they killed the tyrant, and brought equality before the law to Athens.’ Like the Marseillaise or the Star-Spangled Banner, it is not so much the zippiness 0f the lyrics as the emotional force of the song that counts an emotional force that encapsulates a political ideal.
Cleisthenes’ political agenda responded to the crises embodied in the careers of Solon and Peisistratus. After the fall of the tyrants, one might expect the elite families to struggle to fill the power vacuum. But what makes Cleisthenes’ actions momentous, as well as surprising, is the fact the sources tell us that he first won over ‘the people’. Although he himself came from an aristocratic family background in Athens, as did most democratic p01iticians over the next two centuries, he established himself as the leader of a collective of the peasants the small landowners and workers in the town. What is more remarkable still is that he used this popular support not merely to establish his own power base, but to set in place a whole series of institutions and systems of decision-making that fundamentally changed Athens and the possibilities of Western politics for ever, by making ‘the people’ their own governors. The first of Cleisthenes’ radical moves was wholly to reorganize the spatial politics of Athens, and with it the sense of belonging, of citizenship. He required each and every citizen ~enfranchised males over the age of eighteen -~ to register in a ‘deme’. The 139 demes were not simply parishes or districts where one happened to live. They were communities whose members identified themselves as ‘demesmen’, because, for reasons of family history, this deme was where they felt at home. You could not move deme (as you can change parish or district), and you joined your father’s deme as a matter of course. From Cleisthenes’ time onwards, an Athenian would identify himself by his name, his father’s name and his deme. The deme became a sign of basic social and political identity. The demes had their own cult centres for religious worship, their own finances, their own associations such as theatres and burial societies, and they appointed a ‘demarch’, a leader of the deme. It was through the deme that a great deal of Civic bureaucracy functioned. The important political impact of such foundations was to establish a structure of self-determination in each of the communities, and to give the community a sense of responsibility for all that happened in the community. This was a truly local politics.
The second level of structure was the tribe. The whole of Athens was now divided into ten tribes. Each tribe had a hero after whom it was named, with its own cults. But, most importantly, tribes formed the framework for elections to all the major political institutions and the numerous boards of magistrates and other officials. The army was organized into ten regiments, one for each tribe. Dead soldiers of the state were carried to the grave on wagons, one for each tribe. Competitions at the major festivals were often arranged on a tribal basis. The Panathenaia festival included tribal boat-races and tribal beauty competitions (men only). These tribes were made up of groups of the demes. They were designed to be roughly equal in number of citizens, and roughly balanced in regional and political affiliations. So the tribes were made up of tritlyes, ‘thirds’. Each tritzys was made up of demes from the town, from the inland and from the coastal regions (hence ‘thirds’). In this way, the tribes worked to reduce the old factionalisms with new collective affiliations. One hundred and thirty-nine demes, from the three regions, were Structured into ten tribes, to make the one city, Athens.
This new spatial organization was a stunning political revolu~ tion, designed successfully to produce interlocking commu~ hities of local and national ties and obligations. Citizenship and Tocal affiliation remain the basic building-blocks of modern democracy.