Rise of Democracy in Athens

Rise of Democracy in Athens

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Way back when there wasn't a draft and people didn't look to the military for a paycheck, although they may have seen it as an avenue to great wealth. Ancient cultures, including Athens, expected their wealthier citizens to serve as soldiers, providing their own horses, chariots, weapons and armors, and reaping rewards, if they won, through pillaging.

When ancient Athens needed more bodies for their military, they looked to ordinary citizen soldiers to augment the aristocracy's cavalry. These soldiers were small farmers barely able to stave off starvation for themselves and their families. Being required to serve in the military might provide plunder, but it would provide a hardship because the able bodies would be absent when they were most needed for agriculture.

Early Armies Manned By the Wealthy

As long as the military strength of a country depends on cavalry, the nobles and those with sufficient wealth to provide horses have a legitimate claim to power. After all, it's their lives and goods on the line. This was the case in Ancient Athens.

"And indeed the earliest form of constitution among the Greeks after the kingships consisted of those who were actually soldiers, the original form consisting of the cavalry for war had its strength and its pre-eminence in cavalry, since without orderly formation heavy-armed infantry is useless, and the sciences and systems dealing with tactics did not exist among the men of old times, so that their strength lay in their cavalry; but as the states grew and the wearers of heavy armor had become stronger, more persons came to have a part in the government."
Aristotle Politics 1297B

Need More Soldiers? Decrease the Qualifications

But with the rise of the hoplite, non-equestrian army, ordinary citizens of Athens could become valued members of society. For Athens, the hoplite warrior was not the poorest of the poor. Each hoplite had to have enough wealth to provide himself the requisite body armor to fight in the phalanx.

"Know that this is good for the city and for the whole people, when a man takes his place in the front line of fighters and keeps his position unflinchingly, has no thought at all of shameful flight, gives himself an enduring heart and soul, stands by his neighbour and speak words of encouragement to him: this is a good man in war."
Tyrtaeus Fr. 12 15-20

Rich vs Poor in Athens

By becoming a part of the hoplite phalanx, an ordinary citizen of Athens was demonstrably important. Along with his military importance came a sense that he had a right to be involved in decision-making processes. See Four Tribes and the Ancient Social Order in Athens. War meant the small farmer / ordinary citizen had to leave his farm, which could fail and his family starve unless a conclusion to the battle in which he was fighting was reached by the time he was needed to work his field. See Land Shortage in Athens. In addition, some of the aristocracy (known as eupatrids) became wealthier than ever because an economy based on the exchange of commodities was replaced by coinage. The first clear sign of a new tension caused by the economy that developed between the eupatrids and the ordinary citizens was Cylon's attempt to usurp power in Athens.

Olympic Athlete

Cylon, an Athenian nobleman or eupatrid, was an Olympic athlete whose victory in 640 B.C. won him a king's daughter and access to the top position in Athens. He married the daughter of Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara see map section I e-f. A tyrant, in the 7th century B.C., meant something different from our modern concept of a tyrant as a cruel and oppressive despot. A tyrant was a usurper in ancient Greece. Think coup d'etat. He was a leader who had overturned an existing regime and took control of the government. Tyrants even had some measure of popular support, usually. The concept is complicated. For a detailed look, see "Ancient Tyranny," by Sian Lewis.

Botched Coup

Cylon wished to become tyrant of Athens. It is possible he had radical reforming tendencies that would have appealed to poor farmers. Even if he did not, he must have counted on their support, but it never came. Backed mainly by his father-in-law Theagenes' threatening forces, Cylon attacked the Acropolis in Athens. Cylon thought he had selected an auspicious day, but his interpretation of the Delphic Oracle had been wrong (according to Thucydides). The Oracle had told him that he could become tyrant during the great festival of Zeus. Zeus was honored on more than one annual occasion and Cylon had made assumptions without adequate information. Cylon assumed it was the Olympic festival.

Curse of the Alcmaeonids

Cylon lacked a broad base of support, perhaps because the Athenians feared he would be a puppet of his father-in-law. At any rate, his plot failed. To save their lives, some of his fellow conspirators sought sanctuary in the Temple of Athena Polias. Unfortunately for them, in 632 B.C., Megacles of the Alcmaeonids was archon. He ordered the killing of Cylon's supporters.

Although his supporters were killed, Cylon and his brother managed to escape. Neither they nor their descendants were ever to return to Athens.

The People Get Fed Up

The privileged eupatrid (aristocratic) few in Athens had been making all the decisions for long enough. By 621 B.C. the rest of the people of Athens were no longer willing to accept arbitrary, oral rules of the eupatrid thesmothetai 'those who lay down the law' and judges. Draco was appointed to write down the laws. Athens may have been a late-comer to the written law code since it may already have been done elsewhere in the Hellenic world.

Problems Introduced by the Law Code of Draco

Whether or not it was intentional, when Draco codified the laws, it brought to public attention Athens' outrageous and archaic penalties. Part of the excess was Draco himself.

The story goes that when asked about the harshness of his punishments, Draco said the death penalty was appropriate for stealing even so much as a cabbage. If there had been a worse penalty than death, Draco would gladly have applied it to greater crimes.

As a result of Draco's strict, unforgiving code, the adjective based on the name Draco -- draconian -- refers to penalties considered excessively severe.

"And Draco himself, they say, being asked why he made death the penalty for most offences, replied that in his opinion the lesser ones deserved it, and for the greater ones no heavier penalty could be found."
Plutarch Life of Solon

Slavery For Debt

Through the laws of Draco, those in debt could be made slaves -- but only if they were members of the lower class. This means members of a genos (the gennetai) could not be sold as slaves, yet their hangers-on (orgeones) could.


Another result of the codification of laws by Draco -- and the only part that remained part of the legal code -- was the introduction of the concept of "intention to murder." Murder could be manslaughter (either justifiable or accidental) or intentional homicide. With the new law code, Athens, as a city-state, would intervene in what were formerly family matters of blood-feuds.

Greek Terms

  • AlcmaeonidsThe Alcmaeonids were a powerful family of Athens descended from Alcmaeon, son of Nestor. Megacles, son of Alcmaeon, was the archon responsible for killing the followers of Cylon. Cleisthenes, son of Megacles, was archon in 525. Pericles and Alcibiades were other noteworthy Alcmaeonids.
  • ArchonThe word archon is applied to certain officials who were in the time appointed by lot and held office for a limited period of time in ancient Athens. One of these archons is referred to as the "eponymous archon" because the period of his archonship was referred to by his name. This is important for dating events in Greek history.
    More on Archons
  • AthensAthens is named after its patron goddess Athena. On top of its highpoint, known as the acropolis, were Athens' important temples, especially, the Parthenon. Since the acropolis was easily made defensible with walls, cities, including Athens, formed around them, citizens gathering within in times of attack. Northwest of the acropolis was the Areopagus where homicide cases were tried. The assembly met on the Pnyx hill. The center of Athens was the agora, an open public place, and market.
  • EupatridsThe well-born or aristocracy of Athens. The /eu/ means 'good' or 'well' and the 'patrid' refers to the father as in patriarchy, so the well-born are well-fathered.
  • HopliteThe Hoplites were the heavily armed infantry soldiers of the Greeks. It is thought by many that the name "hoplite" comes from a Greek word "hoplon" for a specific shape (large and round) of the shield with a "flat offset rim (itus)" and two handles on the inside possibly invented by 700 B.C.
    More on Hoplites
  • PolisIn the ancient world, from before the time of empires and modern-style countries or nations, political entities were cities and the environs. These cities constituted the states, making them city-states. The Greek form was the polis.
  • ThesmothetaiThe 6 archons of Athens known as the thesmothetai were the layers down of the law.

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