Cleisthenes, Father of Democracy, Invented a Form of Government that Has Endured for Over 2,500 Years
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Ancient Athens is best remembered for giving birth to the first democracy in history, a course of action that took many years and several leaders to develop. One of the most prominent figures of that period is without a doubt Cleisthenes, also known as "the father of Athenian democracy."

Early Life and Rise to Power

Cleisthenes came from an aristocratic Alcmaeonid family of Athens and was born around 570 BC. His father was Megacles, a dominant figure of Athenian politics, and his mother was Agariste, the daughter of Cleisthenes the tyrant of Sicyon, a city west of Corinth. Cleisthenes first came to political prominence when he was made archon (a decorated administrative official) in 525 BC during the reign of the tyrant Hippias. Shortly after, however, his family didn’t continue being favored from the Athenian authorities and as a result Cleisthenes was exiled. Whilst in exile, Cleisthenes claimed support from the sacred oracle at Delphi in order to convince the Spartans to help him remove Hippias from power, as it happened.

Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy

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After the end of the tyranny, two groups would rise and go toe to toe for control and to reshape the government of Athens. One was led by Isagoras, whom Aristotle refers to as a “friend of the tyrants” and the other was led by Cleisthenes. Isagoras initially won a minor victory by getting himself chosen as Archon in 508. However, he ignored the reforms of Solon and imposed a new (almost) tyrannical system of government, in which a few select aristocratic families held absolute power. Because of that, it was Cleisthenes who earned the support of the lower classes to impose a series of reforms. Isagoras, intimidated by his rival’s popularity, asked from the Spartan king Cleomenes to help him evict Cleisthenes from the city but things didn’t go his way.

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The Spartans sent a small force to lay siege to Athens, and Cleisthenes decided to temporarily leave the city. The Spartans were blocked by the courageous resistance of the Athenians, and Isagoras with his allies withdrew. Soon after this, Cleisthenes returned to Athens where there was no longer any obstacle to his proposed reforms.

Solon’s Role in Athenian Democracy

Before Cleisthenes, there was Solon and no one should ever forget his immense impact and contributions to the first democracy the world ever knew. Solon the Athenian was a great philosopher and one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, who is mainly remembered for being the legislator who laid the foundation for Athenian democracy with his reforms and efforts to legislate against political, economic, and moral decline. He was born in 640 BC in Athens and came from a very well-known and highly respected family with a lineage going back to the last king of Athens, Codrus. With his fiery writing, he influenced, encouraged, and excited the Athenian public who were suffering under Draco’s harsh laws and brutal legal system, while he pointed out that the city’s misfortunes and the struggles of the lower classes were a result of the people’s lost freedom because of debt and the unfair economic system.

Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens

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This became one of the main reasons why the Athenians elected Solon as their legislator and gave him the absolute power to restore the lost peace and change the city’s laws and institutions in 594 BC. Solon’s legislation was very bold and drastic, reflecting the immense size of the crisis in Athens that he was called upon to cure. Based on the principle of inequality rather than equality, as he tried to maintain balance between the social classes who were ready to start a civil war, he laid the foundations of a new form of government that would reshape not only Athenian society but would be considered the most perfect and righteous to this day, almost 2,500 years later: Democracy.

Cleisthenes' First Democracy

So, Cleisthenes was free to impose his reforms, which he did during the last decade of the 6th century. Those reforms mark the beginning of classical Athenian democracy, since they organized Attica into the political landscape that would last for the next two centuries. His reforms targeted at breaking the power of the aristocratic families, replacing regional loyalties with pan-Athenian solidarity, and preventing the rise of another tyrant. The peninsula of Attica during his reign consisted of three distinct geographical areas: the coast, the countryside, and the urban area around the city of Athens itself. This way, citizens from all parts of Attica worked together – even though separately and within their tribes – to effectively govern the city. Old associations, by region or according to families, were broken. Citizenship and the ability to enjoy the rights of citizens were in the hands of immediate neighbors, but the governing of Athens was in the hands of the Athenian “Demos” as a whole, organized across boundaries of territory and clan.

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Map of ancient Athens showing the Acropolis in middle, the Agora to the northwest, and the city walls.

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Ostracism

With the newly unified Athenian Demos, the danger of tyranny still remained. A few relatives of tyrant Pisistratus had survived and were still influential in Athens, while the new, even greater threat of the Persian Empire was increasingly spread all over the ancient world. Cleisthenes, who knew very well the consequences of tyranny, came up with his most famous innovation in order to avoid such possible future threats: ostracism. Every year the Assembly of Athenian citizens voted on whether or not to hold an ostracism. If the Demos voted to hold one, the ostracism took place a few months later, at another meeting of the Assembly. Then, each citizen present scratched a name on a broken piece of pottery; these, the scrap paper of the ancient world, were called ostraka in Greek, which gives us the word for the institution. If at least 6000 citizens voted with their ostraka, the names on the pot shards were tallied, and the most voted person was obliged to leave Athens for a period of ten years. He did not lose his property or his rights as an Athenian citizen, but he had to leave the city for at least a decade.

Voting ostraca (for ostracism, Ancient Greece)

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To be the subject of an ostracism in reality meant that a man had great influence on the city and was too capable of persuading his fellow citizens to be allowed to participate in the democratic processes of governing Athens. The list of ostracized Athenians constitutes a “Who’s Who” of the early history of democracy.

Legacy and “Father of Democracy” Status

Most contemporary historians recognize Cleisthenes as the "Father of Athenian Democracy", since he was the man who managed to reform the constitution and added public participation in politics. Additionally, Cleisthenes established the idea of "sortion", which is the random selection of citizens to fill government positions. More importantly, however, he was the one who ensured that potential tyrannies wouldn't be a problem for the city again. And despite the immediate effects of his reforms being immediately apparent in ancient Athens, his greatest accomplishment will always consist the fact that democracy, since then, has evolved and expanded to most countries of the modern world, and is still considered by many today (2,500 years later) as the best system of government.