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Athenian Democracy History

Athenian democracy developed around 500 BC.

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In the early Dark Age, from 1150 to 900 BC, Greece suffered encroachment and movements of people. Sources of information are Iliad and Odyssey. Before the 11th century BC economic and political organization was lost, the only memory of legendary warriors-chiefs left (Pomeroy and others 1999, 43). After excavations of the residences of the Dark Age, the scientists concluded that the chiefs held the highest status in the community. People lived in small village communities and preserved tried rules of social conduct.

In the 8th-6th century BC polises (cities-states) were formed. The state system was either democratic (Athens) or aristocratic (Sparta, Crete). The 5th-4th centuries BC were a period of the flourishing of polises. Some outstanding statesmen contributed to the democratization.

An unknown man named Draco formulated a complex of laws around 620 BC. They were concerned about homicide: family members were prohibited to take it upon themselves to avenge the killing of their relatives. Only bodies of magistrates could determine the penalty. Draco’s laws were severe, and culprits were executed even for minor offenses.

Solon, an aristocrat, known for his wisdom, wanted to strengthen the agriculture of the Athenian economy in 594 BC. The poor got the abolition of debt slavery. Solon decried both the selfishness of the rich and the leveling revolutionary inclinations of the poor (Thorley 2004, 165). Loans could not be secured by property or person, those who had fallen into slavery were freed, and the debts of the hektemoroi were canceled. Other reforms included prohibition to export grain, offering citizenship for craftspeople from other regions, empowerment the Council of the Areopagus to inquire into every man’s means of supporting himself – insisting on citizens’ earning for living. Justice was the concern of all male citizens, not only family because every male could bring an indictment in case of crime commitment.

Themistocles (537 BC- 459 BC) was an outstanding statesman and military leader during the wars with the Persians. He occupied the highest positions of archon and strategist. His political reforms promoted further democratization of the Athenian state system. He introduced elections of archons by the drawing of lots, liberated strategists board from control by the Areopagus. Themistocles provided the base for the Delian League.

Under Cimon’s (504 BC – 449 BC) leadership the League expelled the Persians from Europe. He became a leader of oligarchic alignment and came out against the democratization of Athens. He focused on Sparta in his foreign policy. He was a political rival of Themistocles and Pericles.

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Cleisthenes broke the power of rich families, abolished four ancient Ionian phyla, and established ten tribes. Attica was divided into the city, the shore, and the inland, further into thirds, demes – villages. A new body, the Council of Five Hundred, was created. According to the principle of proportional representation, the slots were distributed among demes depending on their population. A key feature of the Cleisthenic system was the use of the lot in determining the composition of each year’s boule (Thorley 2004, 176).

Ephilates’ reforms in the late 460s BC diminished the power of the Areopagus. He was assassinated and Pericle (490 BC – 429 BC) became the greatest and the longest democratic leader. He was the leading prosecutor of Cimon and used the weapon of ostracism. His reforms included permission for the poor to watch a play in theatre without paying, a decrease in the property requirement for archonship, generous wages to jurymen, and law of 451 BC. This law is controversial, as it limits Athenian citizenship only to those, who are both parents were from Athens.

The struggle between Athens and Sparta for hegemony in Greece resulted in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), in which Athens suffered a defeat.

Reference List

Pomeroy, Sarah B., M. Burstein, Stanley, Donlan, Walter and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts. 1999. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. NY: Oxford University Press.

Thorley, John. 2004. Athenian Democracy. NY: Routledge.

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