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Cleisthenes of Athens: Facts & Reforms

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

This lesson will discuss the reforms of Cleisthenes, an Athenian statesman of the sixth century who reorganized Athens' political structure and has been called the father of democracy.

The Anti-Bully

Sometimes, when people get bullied around and later find themselves in a position of power, they use that power to punish their tormenters and then bully everyone else. Not Cleisthenes. Banished twice before becoming the leader of Athens, he went in the opposite direction. He was not only a just ruler, but he also made it impossible for anyone to ever be a tyrant in Athens again.

Who was Cleisthenes?

Scholars think that Cleisthenes was born around 570 B.C.E. in Athens, Greece. His entire clan was exiled by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus in 546, and they stayed in exile until 508 B.C.E. By that time Peisistratus' son Hippias was ruling. The Delphic Oracle told the Spartans that they needed to overthrow Hippias' government and allow Cleisthenes and his clan back into the city.

Cleisthenes, the Father of Democracy
Cleisthenes

As the leader of his clan, Cleisthenes was one of the candidates to be archon, or head of state once Hippias was gone. But he was opposed by Isagoras, who used an old curse on Cleisthenes' family (more on that below) as an excuse to again exile him from Athens. Isagoras used his own Spartan army to enforce the exile.

Isagoras then started making laws to strengthen his position. These included disbanding the Athenian Council, the Boule. It was only when the Athenian people rose up and trapped Isagoras that Cleisthenes was able to return again. Isagoras was exiled by the people, and Cleisthenes was made archon.

The Alcmaeonid Curse

The curse of Cleisthenes' family, the one Isagoras used to exile him, was based on an event that had happened over a hundred years before. Cleisthenes' distant ancestor, Megacles, had been the first archon of Athens. A leader named Cylon had attempted a coup, but when it failed he ran to the Temple of Athena with his followers to seek refuge. Instead of respecting tradition and allowing Cylon and his followers to negotiate for their safety, Megacles massacred them, thus enacting the curse.

Reforms

Once he was in power, Cleisthenes didn't act like he was cursed. Instead of worrying about revenge or trying to make himself stronger once he was a leader, Cleisthenes looked at how the political situation in Athens had caused the tyranny of Peisistratus, Hippias, and later Isagoras. He wanted to make sure that kind of tyranny never happened again.

Politically, Athens had been made up of four tribes based on families. Cleisthenes rearranged the system so there were ten tribes based on where a person lived. He called the new tribes demes. He then abolished patronymics in favor of demonymics, or place a person lived in. Both these changes were meant to eliminate conflicts between the clans spilling into Athenian politics.

Next, Cleisthenes established sortition, which meant that people were randomly selected for government positions. He reorganized the Boule, or the Athenian Council, so that it had 500 members -- 50 from each demes. An equal number of jurors were chosen from each demes, too.

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