Founders of democracy unsung | Part 1: Cleisthenes’ democracy

Imagine a United States in which George Washington was never celebrated as the “Father of his Country” or the “Indispensable Man”! Imagine a Great Britain in which knowledge of the Magna Carta had been relegated to specialists in constitutional history, or a France which did not celebrate Bastille Day! Yet this seems to have been the situation in ancient Athens in regard to the founder of its democracy, Cleisthenes son of Megacles, and the re-founder of the democracy after the terror of the “Thirty” in 403 BCE, Thrasybulus son of Lycus.

Why is this? Why were these Athenian democratic leaders barely celebrated by their fellow citizens, if at all, and then their names allowed to fall into obscurity?

The changes to Athens’ government put in place by Cleisthenes were ground-breaking: after the expulsion of the Peisistratid tyrants, Cleisthenes instituted the first true democracy in Athens in 507 BCE.  According to Aristotle:

These reforms made the constitution much more democratic than that of Solon; for it had come about that the tyranny had obliterated the laws of Solon by disuse, and Cleisthenes aiming at the multitude had instituted other new ones, including the enactment of the law about ostracism.[1]

Despite these achievements, the Athenians put up statues of the so-called “Tyrant Killers” Harmodius and Aristogiton (who killed the brother of the tyrant Hippias, which only led Hippias to impose a harsher form of rule) but no statue to Cleisthenes was ever raised, nor any other monument.

During the Ionian phase of the Peloponnesian War, Thrasybulus as general or co-general of the Athenian fleet was responsible for the victories over the Spartan fleet at Abydos, Cynossema and Cyzicus.[2] Later, after Athens’ defeat by Sparta in 404 BCE, Thrasybulus organized the rebellion against the oligarchic “Thirty” who had been placed in power by Sparta. He then commanded the volunteers who defeated the Thirty in battle at Phyle, ambushed their cavalry, and at Munychia in the Piraeus defeated the oligarch’s army, a defeat which destroyed the Thirty’s leadership and collapsed the dictatorship.[3] He then passed a law which pardoned all but a few of the oligarchs, preventing bloody reprisals.[4] His fellow citizens gave him an olive crown[5]…and that was that.

It is my (and others’) contention that societies, like individuals, tell themselves the stories they want or need to hear. Why were these exceptional citizens essentially written out of their city’s stories? Let us look at these Athenians’ accomplishments more closely, to see if they warranted a greater demonstration of their fellow citizens’ gratitude, and why they did not feature in their city’s story.

Cleisthenes: 2004 sculpture
Modern sculpture of Cleisthenes, Ohio State House

Cleisthenes’ democracy

The origination of Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms had a rather long and convoluted development. Although the Solonian constitution had democratic elements, the aristocracy remained in control of the city, until the aristocrats were displaced by the tyranny of Pisistratus and his son Hippias. According to Herodotus, the aristocratic family of the Alcmaeonidae, of which Cleisthenes was leader, or in which he had a prominent role at that time, bribed the priestess at Delphi, so that, whenever the Spartans consulted the Oracle, they would be reminded that they should adhere to their reputation as anti-tyrant and chase the Pisistratids from power. At long last, the Spartans complied and sent an army to Attica and deposed the tyrant Hippias, son of Pisistratus. The aristocrats then reasserted their leading role in politics, leaving Athens in a state of “stasis” like that which had lead to the tyranny in the first place.[6]

Herodotus, like many ancient historians, takes a somewhat dim view of the motives of any politician who embraced increased democracy:

Athens, which had been great before, now grew even greater when her tyrants had been removed. The two principal holders of power were Cleisthenes an Alcmaeonid, who was reputed to have bribed the Pythian priestess, and Isagoras son of Tisandrus, a man of a notable house but his lineage I cannot say… These men with their factions fell to contending for power, Cleisthenes was getting the worst of it in this dispute and took the commons into his party.[7]

Christopher Blackwell describes the path to reform as follows:

Isagoras, using the example of recent history, called on the Spartan king Cleomenes to help him evict Cleisthenes from the city. While that had worked well for the Alcmeonidae earlier, it failed this time; when Isagoras and the Spartans occupied the city and tried to disband the government and expel seven hundred families, the Athenians rose up against them and drove them out. So Cleisthenes was free to impose his reforms, which he did during the last decade of the 6th century. These mark the beginning of classical Athenian democracy, since (with a few brief exceptions) they organized Attica into the political landscape that would last for the next two centuries.

His reforms, seen broadly, took two forms: he refined the basic institutions of the Athenian democracy, and he redefined fundamentally how the people of Athens saw themselves in relation to each other and to the state. Cleisthenes’s reforms aimed at breaking the power of the aristocratic families, replacing regional loyalties (and factionalism) with pan-Athenian solidarity, and preventing the rise of another tyrant. Cleisthenes made the “deme” or village into the fundamental unit of political organization and managed to convince the Athenians to adopt their deme-name into their own… Using “demotic” names in place of “patronymic” names de-emphasized any connection (or lack thereof) to the old aristocratic families and emphasized his place in the new political community of Athens.

The peninsula of Attica consisted of three more-or-less distinct geographical areas: the coast, the countryside, and the urban area around the city of Athens itself. Traditionally residents of these areas had their own concerns, and often conducted politics according to regional interests. To counteract this tendency, and to encourage Athenian politics to focus on interests common to all Athenians, Cleisthenes further organized the population. Each of the 139 demes he assigned to one of thirty trittyes (τριττύες), or “Thirds”. Ten of the Thirds were coastal, ten were in the inland, and ten were in and around the city. These Thirds were then assigned to ten Tribes (phylai, φυλαί), in such a way that each Tribe contained three Thirds, one from the coast, one from the inland, and one from the city. Each of these ten Tribes sent 50 citizens each year to serve on the new Council of 500. So, while local politics, registration of citizens and selections of candidates for certain offices, happened in the demes, the tribes were the units of organization that figured most prominently in the overall governing of Athens. Citizens from all parts of Attica worked together, within their tribes, to govern the city (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 21.3).

All of these reforms constituted a remarkable re-shaping of Athenian society along new lines. Old associations, by region or according to families, were broken. Citizenship and the ability to enjoy the rights of citizens were in the hands of immediate neighbors, but the governing of Athens was in the hands of the Athenian Demos as a whole, organized across boundaries of territory and clan.

But, with the Demos newly unified and the authority of the older, more aristocratic system undermined, the danger of tyranny remained. ..Cleisthenes sought to avert this danger by means of his most famous innovation: ostracism. Every year the Assembly of Athenian citizens voted, by show of hands, on whether or not to hold an ostracism… and the “winner” was obliged to leave Athens for a period of ten years…[8]

While the nature of these reforms do not sound radical, they had a profound impact. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Cleisthenes

…persuaded the people to change the basis of political organization from the family, clan, and phratry (kinship group) to the locality…Isonomia, the principle of equality of rights for all, was one of the proudest boasts of the reformers, and there is no doubt that Cleisthenes’ work led to a much wider and more active participation by all persons in public life.[9]

The ability of Cleisthenes to determine an institutional method of breaking the power of the aristocrats and placing that power in the hands of the demos, persuading the people to change their entire political apparatus in order to try this new system, and then making the system work, indicate a statesman/politician with superior qualities.

Once the new democratic system was in place, Cleisthenes fades from the historical record. Did he die? Did he lose political influence as soon as the new system was instituted? We do not know. But despite his success in developing a new and successful system of democratic government, the Athenian public appears never to have celebrated Cleisthenes’ success. No statues, no olive wreaths, no monuments were evidently erected to the man or his memory.

In part 2, we will look at the re-establishment of democracy by Thrasybulus.

Related topics

Founders of democracy unsung | Part 2: Re-establishment of democracy by Thrasybulus

Founders of democracy unsung | Part 3: Lack of historical recognition


[1] Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, 22
Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 20, translated by H. Rackham. 1952. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.
Online at Perseus

[2] Donald Kagan 1987. The Fall of the Athenian Empire, pp 218–225, 231, 236–246. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

[3] Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.4.5–7, 2.4.13–17
Xenophon’s collected works, translated by H.G. Dakyns 1891, digitized by Project Gutenberg 1998. via Wikisource.

[4] Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.4.36–38

[5] Cornelius Nepos, Lives of Eminent Commanders, Thrasybulus VIII.iv
Translated by Rev. John Selby Watson. 1886.

[6] Herodotus, The Histories, 5.60–65
Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920.
Online at Perseus

[7] Herodotus, The Histories, 5.66

[8] Christopher W. Blackwell, “The Development of Athenian Democracy,” page 4, in Adriaan Lanni, ed., “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context” (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, edd., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities []) edition of January 24, 2003.

[9] Russell Meiggs, Cleisthenes of Athens,

Image credit

Christoforidis, Anna: Bust of Cleisthenes, created for the Ohio House and Statehouse. 2004.
Photo: Ohio State House, via Wikimedia Commons


Ian Joseph is a member of the Kosmos Society.