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Updated on February 19, 2010

Cleisthenes (6th century B.C.) was an Athenian statesman who is generally considered the founder of the Athenian democracy.

He was the son of Megacles, of the aristocratic Alcme-onid family, and Agariste, daughter of Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, a city near Corinth. Cleisthenes of Sicyon had offered his daughter to the winner of a yearlong competition among suitors invited from all Greece; she was won by Megacles.

The Alcmeonidae alternately cooperated and quarreled with the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus, and Cleisthenes was probably in exile when Peisistratus died in 528. But Cleisthenes was reconciled with the new tyrant, Hippias, and became archon in 525. Another period of exile followed, probably after the murder of Hippias' brother Hipparchus in 514. The Alcmeonidae dien used their influence at Delphi, where they had played a major role in the rebuilding of the temple, to have the oracle persuade the Spartans to depose Hippias. King Cleomenes of Sparta did so in 510, and Cleisthenes returned to Athens to compete for leadership in the new oligarchic government. When his rival Isagoras was elected archon in 508, Cleisthenes turned for support to the common people, who feared the loss of their citizenship and political privileges granted them under Solon and Peisistratus. Isagoras appealed to Cleomenes for aid, and Cleisthenes withdrew from Athens; but the people rose and ejected the Spartans and Isagoras. Cleisthenes then returned and set up a democratic constitution. This may have taken several years, but ancient sources mention nothing of him thereafter.

In 508, Cleisthenes and his party emerged victorious and he set about the work of reform, the principal elements of which were as follows: (1) the four ancient tribes were abolished and ten new ones created in their stead; (2) the numbers of the boule (deliberative council) were raised from 400 to 500; (3) the country was divided into 30 trittyes (three to a tribe), each containing a certain number of demes (townships): every man registered in the deme was enfranchised and voted in the Ecclesia (general assembly); (4) ostracism was introduced.

The Reforms of Cleisthenes

Cleisthenes' reforms changed the basis of Athenian citizenship and the nature of the tribes, which were the political and military divisions of the people. Previously, citizenship had depended upon birth into one of the phratries (brotherhoods). which were subdivisions of the four tribes. Cleisthenes made the basis for citizenship geographical by dividing Attica into more than 150 denies; those living within the boundaries of a deme were put on its roll, and henceforth deme-rolls were the basic citizenship lists. Cleisthenes formed 10 tribes, each composed of groups of demes from the city, the coast, and the interior. The artificial nature of these tribes was meant to break up old regional loyalties and to put city residents in all tribes.

In the democracy the ultimate power lay in the ecclesia, the assembly of all adult males, which passed laws and elected officials. To deliberate beforehand and prepare business for this unwieldy group, Cleisthenes instituted the Council of Five Hundred. It was composed of 50 men chosen by lot every year from each of the 10 tribes, and thus in theory representative of the whole citizen body, although in fact it could not be so until a system of payment for holding public office was introduced. Each group of 50 served in turn for one tenth of the year as a standing committee of the council; known as prytaneis, they ran the day-to-day business of government and presided over assembly and council meetings. Cleisthenes' system prevailed at Athens for centuries with only a few short interruptions, and became a model for other Greek democracies. Cleisthenes may also have introduced ostracism, although this was not used until 487.


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