The Rise of Athens (Part II--Pisistratos to Cleisthenes)

Breakdown of Solon's Compromise

Just about all people have their great legendary heroes, and the Greeks had more than their share, heroes like Persues, Jason, Achilles, Odysseus, and Heracles--some of whom might be semi-historical, others who are purely mythical.  What's interesting about the Greeks is that some of their real-life heroes were meno whose stature was every bit as great as the heroes of legend.  Among these heroes, the men who laid the foundations of Athenian greatness: Solon, Pisistratos, and Cleisthenes.

Solon stands out as particularly admiarable: a political reformer, lawgiver, poet, and philosopher.  He worked toward a lasting solution of Athen's economic problems and served as a mediator between rich and poor.

But Solon was unable to put a permanent end to Athenian quarrels.  He got the Athenians to promise not to change any of his laws for ten years without his consent--and then he took off, resisting, perhaps, the temptation to become a tyrant.  But maybe he should have stayed around, because, soon after his departure, the Athenians were at odds with one another once again.

The two wealthier factions (the Party of the Plain and the Party of the Coast) couldn't get along, with Miltiades emerging as the Plain leader and Megacles as the leader of the Coast party.  Quarelling was so bad that the Athenians couldn't hold archon elections.  This leads to litereral anarchy (a time when there is no archon). 

With so much confusion, it's not surprising that an ambitious man felt he could take advantage of the situation and make himself tyrant.  That man, a gifted cousin of Solon, Pisistratos.

Pisistratos' Three Attempts to Seize Power

Pisastratos, though a wealthy man, became the dominant figure in the Party of the Hill, the party representing the poorer people of Athens.  Good support, but Pisastratos needed a bit more of an edge.  He claimed to have been beaten up as part of an assassination attempt, and asked for an armed body guard.  Fearing the disorder that would result should the Hill Party's main leader be killed, the other groups agreed to allow this.  But, with the help of the bodyguard, Pisistratos is able to seize the Acropolis, and, with control of this strategic point, he can dominate the whole city for the next five years (c. 561-556).  But, in the end, the two more elite groups, Plain and Coast decide to join forces and expel Pisistratos from the City.

But, as soon as Pisistratos is gone, the Coast and Plain types, lacking a common enemy, are no longer friends.  To gain the upper hand, Megacles (the Coast Party leader) decides to cut a deal with Pisastratos.  Pisastratos gets to come back, and he'll marry Megacles daughter: the typical family/political tie that often bridges potential tensions among the ruling elites of history.  A 5'10" beauty named Phye dresses as the goddess Athena and leads Pisastratos back into the city--but not for long.

Pisistratos, with two grown sons already, doesn't consumate properly his marriage to Megacles' daughter.  No child means that this political alliance isn't going to work as planned.  Megacles is furious and, without Megacles help, Pisisatratos can't hold on to power.  He's exiled again, this time for ten years.  But then, when he thinks the time is ripe, he attacks, defeating an Athenian army and taking control for the next 13 years (c. 540-527).

The Benevolent Tyranny of Pisistratos

"Death is a better, milder fate than tyranny," says Aeschylus, and that tends to be true.  But, for a while at least, tyranny (unconstituional rule) may work out ok.  The tyrant needs support, so he does things to increase his popularity--and, sometimes, what's popular is also what's right.  The first years of Pisisatratos look pretty good.

1.  Party strife comes to an end. Megacles is exiled again, and Miltiades heads north to oversee Athenian interests elsewhere. 
2.  Pisistratos leaves the democratic institutions of Solon intact.  With Pisastratos restraining hand always there, we've got an Athens safe from its democracy.
3.  Pisastratos avoids foreign conflict (conflict he couldn't afford) and focuses instead on colonization--very good for economic development and for giving the poor opportunities for a fresh start.
4.  Pisastros expanded the land devoted to Olives, but, having annexed the land of many of his wealthy opponents, he could redistribute land to some of the poorer folk of Athens and secure better terms (in general) for those who worked the land of others.

Pisastratos' greatest contribution to Athens may have been his championing of the arts.  Achievements include:

All in all, pretty impressive.  But what happens when Pisitratos is gone?  Will his sons Hippias and Hipprachus continue to do as well?
Reign of Hippias

At first, Hippias (528-510 BC) continued to rule as his father had, encouraging poetry, drama, and the arts.  But this didn't last--and all because Hippias' brother Hipparchus fell in love--with a young man named Harmodius. The trouble was that Harmodius already had a lover--Aristogeiton.  Hell hath no fury like the brother of a tyrant scorned, and Hipparchus retaliated by insulting Harmodius sister.  He refused the sister a ceremonial role played by an Athenian virgin: you're not qualified, he says.  Ouch.

Harmodis and Aristogeiton plan to kill Harmodius in revenge--and, while they are at it, take out Hippias.  They assume they'll get a flock of supporters--but they don't.  They do manage to kill Hipparchus, but Harmodius also dies, and Aristogeiton is hunted down, tortured, and killed.

After the death of his brother, Hippias wasn't the same, and ended up following the pattern paranoid tyrants so often follow.  He decides to get his enemies before they get him, and he purges Athens of those he thinks may be plotting against him.

And it's not going to be easy for the Athenians to get rid of their now-troublesome ruler.  Hippias still has strong support, and he's got the resources to hire plenty of mercenaries.

What to do?  Turn to the traditional defender of justice, truth, and the American way of life: Sparta!

The Alcmaemonids, now lead by Cleisthenes, persuade the oracle at Delphi to quit answering Spartan inquiries.  No matter what the question, Delphi say, "First, free Athens."

Well, the Spartans are reluctant, but finallly King Cleomenes leads out the Spartan troops, driving Hippias out of Athens and capturing his family (510 BC).

Rise of Cleisthenes

Well, it's out of the frying pan, and into-- just what?  Right back to where we left off: party strife in Athens, now with a new temptation, the temptation to call in the Spartans for assistance.  One politician did just that.  Isagoras, archon for the year 508, saw that the assembly was going to pass legislation he didn't like.  So he invited Cleomenes and the Spartans back. They captured the Acropolis and set up Isagoras as a Spartan puppet.

Athens was in a great deal of trouble, but salvation came from a rather unlikely source.  Up to this point, Cleisthenes had been little more than a party man, a man looking out for the interests of the Alcmaeonid family and the Part of the Plain.  But he proves now to be a real statesman.

Cleisthenes forces beseige the Acropolis and, faced with starvation, the Spartans surrender.  Unheard of!  Spartans come back with their shields or on them.  No one gets Spartans to surrender.  And, with this extraoridinary military success, Cleisthenes become enomously popular, just as Solon had become popular after Salamis.  And, also like Solon, Cleisthenes uses his poer to make political reforms.

First of all, Cleisthenes breaks up the old tribal divisions of Athens (four tribes) and redivides the Athenians into ten tribes: the ten Cleisthenic tribes.  Each of these new tribes was composed of three "trittyes," each trittys representing a region dominated by different party (hill, coast, plain).  Each tribe now sent 50 members (chose by lot) to a new "Boule," this time called the council of 500.  Boule represenatives for each tribe were chosen by lot.  What this meant, of course, was that members of different traditional tribes and (even more) different political parties had to work together.  A wealthy "Plain Party" type would have "Hill Party" types representing his tribe at the Boule--and he'd have to learn ot work with them. 

Each tribe also elected annually one "stragegos," (general), and so the Athenians had ten generals ready to serve their turn at the head of Athenian forces.

Cleisthenes also reorgainzed the demes of Athens and gave them a new purpose.  Prior to Cleisthenes, demes were just land divisions.  Now they take on a political significance as the basic unit of Athenian political organization.  There are 139 demes, each with its own demarch, and each with its own religious and social functions.  The demes functioned as miniature cities, and they were, in some ways, what made Athens into a true democracy.  Organization into small political units with considerable power over day-to-day life invested in the best way to ensure wide-spread political participation.

Cleisthenes seems to have introduced another innovation: ostracism.  Once per year, the Athenian assembly decided whether or not to hold an ostracism.  If they decided yes, two months later the ostracism was held.  If 6,000 total votes were cast, the person receiving the most votes was exiled for ten years.  No confiscation of property.  No loss of status.  Just make yourself scarce for a while.

It seems an odd practice--but it's certainly better than assassination and (perhaps) a good way to let off political steam. 

In any case, the reforms of Cleisthenes provided a more than decent solution to the political strife in Athens--a good thing, because Athens was going to face some severe tests: first, wars with Sparta and Boeotia, and, soon after, a war with the mightiest empire the world had ever seen--that great power to the east, Persia.