Notes on Athenian Democracy

The hero Theseus was rumored to have instilled the democratic sensibilities in Athenians during the Bronze Age when he brought the twelve districts of Attica (an area capable of housing twelve different cities) together and in so doing he limited the rule of the kings. He recognized certain families as Eupatrid, or “well born” and created the Council of Areiopagos. However Athenian democratic law can be traced to the Archon, Solon. Solon’s leadership as an Archon grew due to increasing tensions between rich and poor, making it so that all debts were canceled and that people could not be sold into slavery as collateral if they could not pay their debts.

This new class system, divided into four categories, lasted for two hundred years before the aristocracy overthrew the democracy. Peistratos convinced the Athenians to give him a bodyguard which he used to take the Acropolis and establish a tyranny, tracing his lineage back to Neleus, the father of the Homeric hero Nestor. He was exiled three times but returned and died a tyrant until his sons established their tyrannies: Hipparchos was killed and Hippias ruled an oppressive tyranny until he was banished and Kleisthenes of the Alkmeonid family took over as king and established new laws, including the famous ostracism laws where the Athenians would banish one man from Attica for ten years.

Over the years, Athens became increasingly more democratic with committees chosen by lot, voting eligibility opened up to the third class, and the public regularly reviewed the activities of public officials through the council of five hundred. The golden age of Athens was not long lasting, however the memory of it has endured largely due to the great writers like Plato and Aristotle, along with Herodotus and Thucydides, who kept alive the spirit of Athenian excellence, while maintaining a healthy skepticism towards the corrosive tendencies of a democratic regime.

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