However the peasant class was still oppressed and enslaved having no rights better than slaves. They were impoverished, either tilling the land of the aristocrats and paying them a sixth of the produce (sharecroppers) or farming their own land. Those who farmed their own land were the worst off. They owned very little as the few aristocrats owned most of the fertile land of the plains. We can infer this from the fact the when during the constitutional crises in Solon’s time Plutarch in his book (p: 54, Rise and Fall of Athens) describes the various factions contending for power he describes them as the extreme democrats from the Hill, the extreme oligarchs from the Plains and the party desiring a mix of the two extremes from the Shore. When we consider this in light of Attic geography we see that since the drainage of rain water would enrich the plains with fertile soil from the hills then it follows that the rich aristocrats could grow the excess produce required to maintain their status. The hills with their poor soil would be teeming with the peasantry who on their small patches of land would be unable to produce enough grain for subsistence and hence would have to borrow the excess from the aristocrats. In Plutarch and in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians we find clear mention of the practice of borrowing with the debtor’s person as security (Plutarch, p: 54). Thus the creditors could not only seize the property of the peasants (debt slaves) but also their families (who were their property too) and themselves as well. This greatly compounded the economic inequities and angered the masses who now stood poised for revolution. Thus we enter the fourth stage.
The general populace of Attica was already seething and seeking nothing short redistribution of Aristocratic lands. Added to this was the ever present Athenian nemesis of aristocratic infighting. The blood feud mentioned in section 1 had come to a head when Solon was called to rescue Athens from herself (594 B.C.). The faction supporting Cylon’s party and the one behind the Alcmeonids had ripped the city in two. Solon set himself to resolving this issue first by convincing the Alcmeonids to stand trial after which they were found guilty and exiled (Plutarch, Solon). Then he set to formulate laws in accordance with his doctrine of harmonious government. His aim was to provide stability not through sweeping reforms but through compromises between the rich and the poor and the stemming of aristocratic violence. At this point we might ponder upon the reason why the peasants were demanding change after hundreds of years of serfdom and slavery. One reason that comes to mind is that they may have been inspired by the fact that the hoplites had gained political ascendancy not long ago historically.
The tools of the aristocratic rivalries were the blood feud (which often led to armed conflict), alliances through marriage and use of office. To prevent marriage based alliances Solon instituted limits on dowries so that families may not oblige one another by material means. Plutarch on page 62 of his book contends that Solon abolished dowries but there is archeological evidence to the contrary (Trumbach). A direct attack on the blood feuds was his laws concerning funerals and death outlined on pages 63 and 64 of Plutarch’s book. He forbade speaking ill of the dead, lacerating of the flesh and extravagant mourning by women at funerals and ostentatious funerals all of which celebrated the divisive internal conflicts of the aristocrats. He wanted to promote loyalty to Athens rather than families and so circumvent the rise of tyranny which he abhorred (as is obvious by his vehement public opposition to Pisistratus’s machinations; Plutarch, p: 74). His laws concerning wills and education of the young also reflect this.
However the most significant reforms made by Solon were the ones he made in connection with the peasantry. Here he redefined the nature of citizenship and though they do not seem revolutionary his directives had a tremendous impact on Athenian politics. Where formerly an individual's status had been largely a matter of birth and wealth, now it would seem that all citizens were defined according to their economic class. Solon established four classes of citizens: the pentacosiomedimni (with an annual wet and dry produce of 500 measures), knights (with an annual income of 300 measures), zeugitai (annual income of 200 measures, most likely rich peasants), and thetes (serfs--i.e., the poorest members of society, who may have owned a small amount of property but not enough to qualify for full citizen status) [Plutarch, p:59/60].
The thetes were for the first time given the right to sit on the ekklesia (assembly) and serve on juries. This along with their emancipation from debt slavery (Solon had outlawed accepting the person of the debtor as security and “discharged” people from all such loan obligations) invested them with dignity. Though power was still in the hands of the aristocracy as the thetes were not eligible for office there was a balance between the poor and the rich in that only the Areopagus could propose the law the but only the assembly could vote on it. Solon also allowed that any citizen could bring a law suit on behalf of any other citizen who was injured by someone [Plutarch, p:60]. This promoted the feeling of solidarity and friendship among the newly expanded citizen body. But perhaps more importantly it gave the thetes a share of actual power since the cases brought to trial would be decided upon by them and so any aristocrat would have to think twice before mistreating an ordinary citizen. Ironically despite all of Solon’s measures to forestall the rise of tyranny he had to witness Pisistratus ascend to the position of tyrant of Athens. Here begins the fifth stage.
Pisistratus, an aristocrat, can be thought of as a transitional figure in a state moving from oligarchy to democracy. He was the leader of those of the Hill while Lycurgus led the Plain and Megacles (an Alcmeonid) led the Shore. His first set himself up as tyrant through appealing to and inciting the people (peasants). As documented in Plutarch(p: 73) and Aristotle (p: 157) he wounded himself accusing his opponents for the act and so secured by popular consent a bodyguard of fifty club bearers for himself. He used this force to seize the Acropolis and so became tyrant (561 B.C.). Soon however he was ousted when Megacles and Lycurgus joined forces.
There then came the time when Megacles felt sidelined by Lycurgus and so formed and alliance via marriage with Pisisratus by giving him his daughter. Pisistratus returned to Athens as tyrant. His reign was brief since he was not really committed to the alliance and did not wish to impregnate Megacles’s daughter. Megacles therefore called off the alliance and Pisistratus was exiled once more. However he grew rich in exile and this time hired a mercenary army with which he regained control of Athens. Thus if we review the methods used by him to obtain power we observe that he used all the tricks in the book, so to speak, and only when he used the traditional way (like Cylon) to assume power did he succeed. This variety of methods points to the obvious conclusion that he was very much a transition because we must note that all three methods worked though two were only temporarily successful.
Aristotle (p:158/159) describes Pisistratus as a benevolent tyrant who ran the state like a private citizen. He was kindly disposed towards the people because he relied on them. He kept them happy and gave loans to the bankrupt not just to keep them employed as farmers but also to keep potential troublemakers occupied (Trumbach: This may be due to the fact that many people Solon had freed from debt-slavery had nothing to do since they still had only poor land or no land and there had been no redistribution of the land in Attica). A point to note is that while Solon’s constitution was still in force not much had changed for the peasantry from and economic and political point of view since they were confined to the same bad land and still denied the higher offices. His sons, the Pisistratids as they were called, managed to keep the tyranny alive after his death but were later overthrown by the ever-present Alcmeonids who were supported by the Spartans (510 B.C.)
In the sixth stage do we see the first bloom of real democracy as Cleisthenes (an Alcmeonid) comes to power. His method of doing so is an important indicator of how far Athenian democracy had come from the time of kings.
He was in competition with Isagoras who had the support of the aristocracy since they were averse to the idea of an Alcmeonid tyranny (Trumbach) after the Pisistratid one. Therefore Cleisthenes turned to the people for support and won it by promising them greater control in the affairs of the state and curtailing of aristocratic privileges. Isagoras in response to this called in the Spartans to help him win control but in fact lost it when the people revolted against the imposition of his rule. Cleisthenes, who had been exiled, returned as a champion of the people (his celebrity was partly due to his family’s role in the overthrow of tyranny and because of his forceful personality).
The reforms and social changes that he made were the most significant steps in towards the democratization of the Athenian state. He first revamped the political map of Attica. Cleisthenes established a new system of 10 tribes instead of the traditional four. He began by dividing Attica up into 30 geographical sections or trittues (literally: threes). These 30 trittues were allocated by region, with 10 in the city, 10 covering the coastal regions, and 10 covering the inland regions. Each of the 10 tribes was comprised of one trittus from each of these three disparate regions (Aristotle, p: 164). One can speculate that this was done in order to break the power of the traditional aristocratic families who held sway over the various major regions of Attica. It can be argued that since voting was tribe based these families had considerable influence over it but now as the tribe was redefined this would be prevented. Proof of this influence can illustrated by considering the facts presented before regarding the aristocrats who led the peoples of the Hill, Plain and Shore in Solon and Pisitratus’ times. Thus conflict between these traditional factions would be lessened.
Cleisthenes also formed a boule consisting of 500 men (50 from each tribe), chosen each year by lot. Except for the generals (strategoi) all officials no matter their rank (even Archon) were selected by lot to give a fair chance to any citizen (even thetes if only in theory) to get appointed no matter their class or background. The Archons, however, were prominent men selected from candidates elected previously by the people (Aristotle, p: 165). The annual term limit was probably there to guard against the incompetent and the corrupt (Trumbach).
Cleishthenes also formulated the law on ostracism whereby those considered potential tyrannoi or threats to democracy were exiled for ten years. This further strengthened the fledgling democracy by providing it with a new weapon.
Therefore we can say with reasonable accuracy that it was in fact during Cleisthenes’ rule that democracy was first established in Athens with the old order of exclusively aristocratic government abandoned in the face of new political realities. Even though aristocrats were at the helm of power, it was now shared with the thetes as well. Cleisthenes, in effect, lived up to his promise of limiting the privileges and powers of the aristocracy.
In the third part I will describe the democratic process through Periclean Athens down to the time Alcibiades when Athens finally lost the Peloponnesian war.
Before anything else, however, we have to take a look at the developments and changes in the Hellenic world and particularly Athens following the Persian wars (490-479 B.C.).
It was true that Cleisthenes’ reforms (especially of the boule) did give the peasants a say in the proposals that were sent to the assembly but the Areopagus still was the province of the aristocracy which, though restrained, exercised considerable authority. When Persia invaded and Athens was faced with the terrible choice of staying back and resisting or abandoning the city.
According to Aristotle (p: 166) when the generals were at a loss it was the Council of the Areopagus that took charge and made the whole city take to the sea. The victory at battle of Salamis further enhanced their prestige and so for a time they were the ruling party. But the process of democratization could not be reversed.
Before this time the main hurdle in the advancement of the peasant class was the lack of contribution they made to the defense of Athens. But now things had changed tremendously. Athens had become a naval power--a nation of seafarers—with the trireme as the mainstay of the Athenian navy. Xenophon the orator (“On Democracy and Oligarchy” on page 37 para 2) in the constitution of Periclean Athens mentions that the bulk of the masses were the people who manned and rowed these warships and so their share in public office by lot and by election is justified. He says that their contribution is even greater than that of the hoplites but that they must still leave the position of the strategoi in the hands of the “right” people.
In light of the above facts we can more clearly understand the meaning of the events that took place during the time of Pericles. In this, the seventh stage, the Areopagus gradually lost its power and the strategos (being elected and aristocrats themselves since no peasant had the necessary military schooling) rose in prominence. Even before this time Pisistratus had started out as a leader of the people and strategos and this is one reason why ostracism was instituted (Aristotle, p: 165, 3). Therefore we see that Pericles himself starts out as a military man and so distinguishes himself as a patriot and soldier. A thorough aristocrat, he was related to the Alcmeonids on his mother’s side. He received his education as documented by Plutarch from great sophist teachers like Damon and Anaxagoras. Sophism should be considered an adaptation by the aristocracy made to their education system to learn the skills necessary to maintain dominance in an increasingly democratic society. These included oratory and rhetorical skill, cross-examination and a scientific approach to life. They allowed the sophist politician to sway public opinion in his favor in the increasingly powerful assembly. That is why Plutarch (p: 171/172) refers to his investing himself with regal dignity and acquiring a “thundering and lightning” style of speaking so that could persuade anyone to accept his point of view. In fact the word rhetores was given to people who could influence the public in such a way.
Athens had turned the joint defensive alliance (against Persian incursions) of the Delian League into an empire of tribute paying subject city states maintained by her naval superiority. Following Aristides suggestion she had started supporting her citizens on the revenues thus received (Aristotle, p: 167). The various city and army officials received their pay from the tributary funds kept at Delos.
When Pericles entered the political arena he was faced with competition from Cimon, the leader of the aristocratic faction. Thus Pericles decided to embrace the cause of the people. Cimon’s popularity was also due to the fact that his excessive wealth enabled him to win the affections of the poor. Since Pericles could not compete with Cimon on that front he as Plutarch tells us (Plutarch, p: 174) concentrated his efforts on distribution of the public wealth among the common citizenry. With allowances for public festivals, fees for jury service and grants etcetera he “succeeded in bribing the masses and enlisting their support in his attack on the Council of the Areopagus.” Having never been selected Archon (a noteworthy fact) he was not a member of the Council. With popular support and the efforts of the democratic leader Ephialtes he removed many of its members on charges of administrative misconduct and later even had Cimon ostracized. Together Ephialtes and Pericles proceeded to strip the Areopagus of its supervisory powers as well. Aristotle (p: 169) mentions demagogues. These were politicians who used popular passions to incite the people to their ends. It is to be noted that such a type of politician can only be a potent force in a democratic city-state where he could reach the masses sitting in the assembly. The weakening of the Council gave strength to such men.
Hence we see that soon Athens was supporting the democracy at home by enforcing tyranny on her allies. There was no need for any equitable redistribution of land when the resources the Empire yielded were enough to sustain the citizen body of Athens. History points towards Pericles as the one who appropriated the funds at Delos.
On pages 173 (4) and 177 of his book Plutarch details how the democracy was kept alive by feeding it the tributes from the subject states. Pericles arranged for the allotment of lands of the subject peoples to Athenians, sanctioned grand displays of pageantry and festivals and commissioned a massive public building program that was unrivaled in the Hellenic world. All these measures along with the swelling of the city bureaucracy (the Athenians made allies subject to the jurisdiction of their own courts, this being a further source of revenue and employment [Aristotle and Xenophon, p: 40 (16)]) the large navy and the garrisons among allies employed about a third or more of the non-aristocrats of Athens. Professor Trumbach estimates this figure around 16750 men.
Pericles’s popularity, quite predictably, soared and he was able to have his political opponent Thucydides ostracized and thus became undisputed leader for the next 15 years (Plutarch, p: 183).
Democracy now evolved to the level that Pericles could claim in his celebrated funeral oration (Thucydides, p: 145) that Athenians were equal before the law and that a talented person could circumvent the barrier of poverty or class to distinguish himself by service to the state. He goes on to say that to escape from poverty is up to a person himself and it is his own lack of effort that may keep from achieving distinction (Thucydides, p: 147). While Pericles, in his grandiloquence, may have overstated the case it is true that the common citizen was much better off than in preceding times as Xenophon explains (On Democracy and Oligarchy, p: 39) that it was risky to hit a slave in Athens since it may turn out to be citizen, implicitly pointing to the grave legal repercussions (in popular court) of such behavior. Now even the zeugitai--Solon’s third class comprising of rich peasants--were allowed into the ranks of the Archons indicating, among other things, the diminishing powers and prestige of the office as the strategoi ascended politically (Aristotle, p: 169).
Near the end of Pericles’ career we observe how democracy and the freedoms it allowed was a double edged sword. From Plutarch we gather that though Pericles himself was above reproach because of his incorruptibility his friends and associates like Aspasia and Pheidias were tried and persecuted by his opponents on false charges. When things went against the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War they, in their anger, voted to end his command and fine him (Plutarch, p: 202). Such a prompt dismissal was an impossibility in the earlier stages that I have mentioned, illustrating the new strength of the ekklesia.
In the eight and final stage we will consider events in the life history of Alcibiades, the ward of Pericles and beloved student of Socrates. An outrageous
, charming and exceedingly handsome man, Alcibiades was, like Pericles, related on his mother’s side to the Alcmeonids. The background for his story is the Peloponnesian War between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan Confederacy. He discredited his political opponent Nicias in much the same way as Pericles got Cimon defamed by alleging that he had sympathies for Sparta. He used intrigue to bring this about before the assembly like Ephialtes and Pericles did.
According to Plutarch he was appointed general and induced the Athenians to send their infamous expedition to Sicily (p: 257/261/263) in 415 B.C. During this time was accused for the desecration of the Hermae in Athens and mocking the Mysteries of Eleusis. He was recalled from the campaign to stand trial but escaped to the Spartan side before they could pass judgment on him. Because of the unpopularity of sophist views among the general populace these aristocrats who had received sophist training were frequently brought down on charges of impiety or blasphemy in democratic Athens. Thus his political opponents used demagoguery and incited the people to pass judgment on Alcibiades. They sentenced him to death and confiscated his property (Plutarch, p: 266). Here once again we witness the power of the popular courts in Athens and how the masses who inevitably decided on cases now had the authority once possessed only by the archons and the Areopagus.
Alcibiades after this time let opportunity guide him by attaching himself to whichever party he could find support with. Meanwhile oligarchy was established in Athens for a brief time before the people returned to power again. He had supported democracy and the Athenians now desired his return. He did return to Athens triumphant after his campaigning and was accepted with open arms by his countrymen. They now honored him and gave him absolute powers as a general (Plutarch, p279). However, the popular government, fickle as it was one again was swayed by his enemies to find fault with him and he was soon relieved of his command. He then left them for good. It cannot be proven that he was indispensable but the fact is that soon afterwards the Athenian fleet was captured and Athens lost the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C.). Democracy was abolished and the Spartans set up and oligarchy in Athens (Trumbach).
In the third section we see the ekklesia become the ultimate authority on all matters of state. Democracy had matured. It was the ekklesia that determined not only questions of military policy but relatively trivial matters as well. It seems unlikely that those living at the far corners of Attica would have found it practical to attend the meetings of the assembly (except perhaps when during the Peloponnesian War the whole populace was confined in the city), especially those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale and so in that way the democracy was limited.
The ekklesia must also have delegated a most of the day-to-day business of state to the appropriate boards or individuals because it might have been unfeasible or a body of that size to look after such matters properly. On the other hand, all state officials were acutely aware that, at the end of their year in office, an account of their actions had to be submitted to the people for scrutiny. This must have put a damper on corruption and misuse of office.
The reliance of the democratic constitution on lot for appointment to government posts and the annual term limit shows that the people were more concerned with guarding against the possibility of corruption or undue use of political authority (e.g. a particular family or group dominating an office) than with ensuring competence of various officials. In the fully matured democracy all state officials (with the exception of the strategoi) were appointed by lot from the general populace. The possibility of another Pisistratus arising in such a political climate, where power was so diluted, was extremely low. To further guard against the rise of the tyrant, the practice of ostracism was instituted as well and used rather indiscriminately by the assembly.
The archons and the Council derived from them had lost most of its executive and judicial authority as observed in the third section. The strategoi had (since they were elected and thus most definitely aristocrats) had acquired most of this authority. But it is obvious from the lives of Pericles and Alcibiades that the strategoi, while still influential, enjoyed no particular authority over the ekklesia which could easily remove them from command when displeased.
The boule was equally democratic since members were selected from the citizenry by lot ensuring a fair chance of appointment. Since any citizen could address the ekklesia and, if persuasive, formulate state policy certain individuals gained particular authority through the popularity of their policies or the force of their personalities. These were either aristocrats with training in oratory and sophism (and hence manipulation of people) or demagogues seeking to incite the public. These factors often undermined the efficacy democracy and subjected it to the whims of the influential. Perhaps this was what contributed to an extent to the Athenian defeat.
The popular courts were also instrumental in the functioning of a viable democracy though in the last few stages they were often misused for political ends. The aristocrats knew that, eventually, they could find themselves brought before a popular jury and condemned, less for their actions or any based on any solid evidence than for their politics or general reputation. The lives of Pericles and especially Alcibiades are clear illustrations of this fact.