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

In part 1, we looked at the role of Cleisthenes. Now, in part 2, we look at the re-establishment of democracy by Thrasybulus.

Thrasybulus crowned

Thrasybulus played an instrumental part as a general in Athens’ victories in the “Ionian War” during the years 411–407 BCE as well as the (temporary) return of Alcibiades to Athens. However, after the defeat of Alcibiades’ fleet at Notium in 406 and the departure of that loved and hated general, Thrasybulus’ association with Alcibiades meant he was no longer elected general in subsequent years. After the Athenian victory at Arginusae, Thrasybulus (although he had not been a general) became embroiled in the controversy over the failure of the fleet to rescue drowning seamen, and did not play a part in Athens’ final defeat at Aegospotami.[1]

When Athens was finally defeated in the Peloponnesian War by Sparta in 404 BCE, the Spartan general Lysander imposed an oligarchic government on Athens. Known as the government of “The Thirty Tyrants”, this oligarchic group disenfranchised large swathes of the Attic population, and restricted the franchise to the 3,000 most wealthy citizens, organized as the Assembly. The Thirty imposed a reign of terror on the population, murdering up to 1,500 of the most democratically-inclined citizens.[2] Additional citizens fled into exile or were banished.

Thrasybulus was among the many Athenian democrats who fled the tyranny of the Thirty. He took refuge in Thebes and in 403 began to organize a rebellion against the oligarchic government in Athens. According to Xenophon:

Presently Thrasybulus, with about seventy followers, sallied out from Thebes, and made himself master of the fortress of Phyle. The weather was brilliant, and the Thirty marched out of the city to repel the invader; with them were the Three Thousand and the Knights. When they reached the place, some of the young men, in the foolhardiness of youth, made a dash at the fortress, but without effect; all they got was wounds, and so retired. 3The intention of the Thirty now was to blockade the place; by shutting off all the avenues of supplies, they thought to force the garrison to capitulate. But this project was interrupted by a steady downfall of snow that night and the following day. Baffled by this all-pervading enemy they beat a retreat to the city, but not without the sacrifice of many of their camp-followers, who fell a prey to the men in Phyle.

4The next anxiety of the government in Athens was to secure the farms and country houses against the plunderings and forays to which they would be exposed, if there were no armed force to protect them. With this object a protecting force was dispatched to the “boundary estates,” about two miles south of Phyle. This corps consisted of the Lacedaemonian guards, or nearly all of them, and two divisions of horse. They encamped in a wild and broken district, and the round of their duties commenced.

5But by this time the small garrison above them had increased tenfold, until there were now something like seven hundred men collected in Phyle; and with these Thrasybulus one night descended. When he was not quite half a mile from the enemy’s encampment he grounded arms, 6and a deep silence was maintained until it drew towards day. In a little while the men opposite, one by one, were getting to their legs or leaving the camp for necessary purposes, while a suppressed din and murmur arose, caused by the grooms currying and combing their horses. This was the moment for Thrasybulus and his men to snatch up their arms and make a dash at the enemy’s position. Some they felled on the spot; and routing the whole body, pursued them six or seven furlongs, killing one hundred and twenty hoplites and more… 7Returning from the pursuit, the victors set up a trophy, got together all the arms they had taken, besides baggage, and retired again to Phyle. A reinforcement of horse sent from the city could not discover the vestige of a foe; but waited on the scene of battle until the bodies of the slain had been picked up by their relatives, when they withdrew again to the city.

The Thirty then retreated, and massacred the male population of Eleusis, turning it into what they thought was a safe location for retreat.

But now Thrasybulus at the head of his followers, by this time about one thousand strong, descended from Phyle and reached Piraeus in the night. The Thirty, on their side, informed of this new move, were not slow to rally to the rescue, with the Laconian guards, supported by their own cavalry and hoplites. And so they advanced, marching down along the broad carriage road which leads into Piraeus. 11The men from Phyle seemed at first inclined to dispute their passage, but as the wide circuit of the walls needed a defense beyond the reach of their still scanty numbers, they fell back in a compact body upon Munychia. Then the troops from the city poured into the Agora of Hippodamus. Here they formed in line, stretching along and filling the street which leads to the temple of Artemis and the Bendideum. This line must have been at least fifty shields deep; and in this formation they at once began to march up. 12As to the men of Phyle, they too blocked the street at the opposite end, and facing the foe. They presented only a thin line, not more than ten deep, though behind these, certainly, were ranged a body of targeteers and light-armed javelin men…

After a rousing speech by Thrasybulus the men of Phyle:

…were victorious, and pursued the routed enemy down to the level ground. There fell in this engagement, out of the number of the Thirty, Critias himself and Hippomachus, and with them Charmides, the son of Glaucon, one of the ten archons in Piraeus, and of the rest about seventy men. The arms of the slain were taken; but, as fellow- citizens, the conquerors forbore to despoil them of their coats. This being done, they proceeded to give back the dead under cover of a truce, when the men, on either side, in numbers stepped forward and conversed with one another. 20Then Cleocritus (he was the Herald of the Initiated, a truly “sweet-voiced herald,” if ever there was), caused a deep silence to reign, and addressed their late combatants as follows: “Fellow-citizens–Why do you drive us forth? why would you slay us? what evil have we wrought you at any time…?[3]

The next day, the remnants of the Thirty lost the support of their fellow-oligarchs and retired to Eleusis. The Spartan king Pausanias managed to depose the pro-oligarchic general Lysander, and brought an army to Attica. After the men of Piraeus refused Pausanias’ order to disperse, the Spartans attacked. After some skirmishing…

“…Thrasybulus began his advance with the whole of his heavy infantry to support his light troops and quickly fell into line eight deep, acting as a screen to the rest of his troops. Pausanias, on his side, had retired, sorely pressed, about half a mile towards a bit of rising ground, where he sent orders to the Lacedaemonians and the other allied troops to bring up reinforcements. Here, on this slope, he reformed his troops, giving his phalanx the full depth, and advanced against the Athenians, who did not hesitate to receive him at close quarters, but presently had to give way; one portion being forced into the mud and clay at Halae, while the others wavered and broke their line; one hundred and fifty of them were left dead on the field, whereupon Pausanias set up a trophy and retired. Not even so, were his feelings embittered against his adversary. On the contrary he sent secretly and instructed the men of Piraeus, what sort of terms they should propose to himself and the ephors in attendance. To this advice they listened. He also fostered a division in the party within the city. A deputation, acting on his orders, sought an audience of him and the ephors. It had all the appearance of a mass meeting. In approaching the Spartan authorities, they had no desire or occasion, they stated, to look upon the men of Piraeus as enemies, they would prefer a general reconciliation and the friendship of both sides with Lacedaemon. 36The propositions were favorably received… Thus the authorities were quite ready to dispatch to Lacedaemon the representatives of Piraeus, carrying their terms of truce with the Lacedaemonians… The ephors and the members of assembly at Sparta gave audience to these several parties, and sent out fifteen commissioners to Athens empowered, in conjunction with Pausanias, to discover the best settlement possible. The terms arrived at were that a general peace between the rival parties should be established, liberty to return to their own homes being granted to all, with the exception of the Thirty, the Eleven, and the Ten who had been governors in Piraeus; but a proviso was added, enabling any of the city party who feared to remain at Athens to find a home in Eleusis.[4]

Thrasybulus addressed the Athenians convincingly:

39And now that everything was happily concluded, Pausanias disbanded his army, and the men from Piraeus marched up under arms into the acropolis and offered sacrifice to Athena. When they were come down, the generals called a meeting of the [oligarchic] Ecclesia [made up of the 3,000 richest citizens], and Thrasybulus made a speech in which, addressing the city party, he said: 40“Men of the city! I have one piece of advice I would tender to you; it is that you should learn to know yourselves, and towards the attainment of that self-knowledge I would have you make a careful computation of your good qualities and satisfy yourselves on the strength of which of these it is that you claim to rule over us. Is it that you are more just than ourselves? Yet the people, who are poorer–have never wronged you for the purposes of plunder; but you, whose wealth would outweigh the whole of ours, have wrought many a shameful deed for the sake of gain. If, then, you have no monopoly of justice, can it be on the score of courage that you are warranted to hold your heads so high? 41 If so, what fairer test of courage will you propose than the arbitrament of war–the war just ended? Or do you claim superiority of intelligence?–you, who with all your wealth of arms and walls, money and Peloponnesian allies, have been paralyzed by men who had none of these things to aid them! Or is it on these Laconian friends of yours that you pride yourselves? What! when these same friends have dealt by you as men deal by vicious dogs. You know how that is. They put a heavy collar round the neck of the brutes and hand them over muzzled to their masters. So too have the Lacedaemonians handed you over to the people, this very people whom you have injured; and now they have turned their backs and are gone. But” (turning to the mass) “do not misconceive me. It is not for me, sirs, coldly to beg of you, in no respect to violate your solemn undertakings. 42I go further; I beg you, to crown your list of exploits by one final display of virtue. Show the world that you can be faithful to your oaths, and flawless in your conduct.” By these and other kindred arguments he impressed upon them that there was no need for anarchy or disorder, seeing that there were the ancient laws ready for use. And so he broke up the assembly.[5]

43At this auspicious moment, then, they reappointed the several magistrates; the constitution began to work afresh, and civic life was recommenced… they introduced to the others their friends and connections, and so persuaded them to come to terms and be reconciled. The oath they bound themselves by consisted of a simple asseveration: “We will remember past offences no more;” and to this day the two parties live amicably together as good citizens, and the democracy is steadfast to its oaths.[6]

Thrasybulus’ role in organizing the rebellion against the Thirty and leading an initial seventy men against them, shows a high level of courage; his ability to defeat the army of the Thirty on numerous occasions demonstrates a high level of generalship and leadership ability. After defeating the Thirty and then giving the Spartans a very tough fight, Thrasybulus’ negotiation with Pausanias and convincing speech to the remaining oligarchs and the democrats allowed for reconciliation of the democratic and aristocratic factions, and led to a restored democracy. The institution of amnesty (“the oath”) demonstrates an understanding of the means necessary to reforge trust among a diverse citizen body.

Very few civic leaders, ancient or modern, have played a more important role in a critical period in a nation’s history. Yet Thrasybulus’ name is now known only to the specialist in Athenian history.

In part 3 we will look at some theories about why Cleisthenes and Thrasybulus lacked historical recognition.


[1] Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.4.13–16; 1.7.18–31
Xenophon’s collected works, translated by H.G. Dakyns 1891, digitized by Project Gutenberg 1998. via Wikisource.

[2] Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.3.11–21

[3] Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.4.6–11

[4] Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.4.34–35

[5] Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.4.39–42

[6] Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.4.43

Image credit

Engraving from Alciati, Andrea, 1492-1550; Rouillé, Guillaume, 1518-1589, printer: 1548. Emblemata, page 110: “Honor: Optimus ciuis.” depicting Thrasybulus receiving a crown or garland. Venice. Reproduced online at


Ian Joseph is a member of the Kosmos Society.