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
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
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
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?
- New buildings on the Acropolis
- Critical editions of Homer
- The Pan-Athenians festival featuring athletic contests
- Emphasis on Dionysus--the party god and festivals like the
- Poetry competitions
- The birth of theater
- Black-figure pottery featuring (first) Heracles and (later)
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
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
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
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.