The Athenian Revolution
In 508 to 507 BC, Athens rose in a rebellion that overthrew and ended the system of one man rule, known as tyranny. The uprising was led by Cleisthenes (born circa 570 BC), who is known as “The Father of Athenian Democracy”. He is credited with creating the system that, with incremental reforms, governed Athens during the Classical Era.
In 527 BC, the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos died, and was succeeded as co-tyrants by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. The brothers ruled Athens competently and with a light hand, until Hipparchus was murdered in 514 BC when a romantic love triangle turned violent. After his brother’s murder, Hippias grew paranoid, and his rule became oppressive as he lashed out at enemies real and imagined. That eroded the popularity tyranny had enjoyed since the days of Peisistratos.
The number of victims and exiles forced to flee Athens grew, and their numbers included Cleisthenes, who began plotting with other exiles to overthrow Hippias. The plotters considered invading, but Hippias had a well equipped army, while the exiles did not. Lacking an army of their own, the exiles sought to enlist the help of Sparta, which had the Greek world’s best army, to liberate Athens.
The Spartans were famous for their piety, so to induce them to help, the Athenian exiles bribed the priests of Delphi, Ancient Greece’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi. For centuries, The Oracle had given petitioners cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. After the Athenians bribed its priests, however, the Oracle suddenly began giving every Spartan who showed up the same uncryptic and unambiguous command: “Liberate Athens!“.
So the Spartans marched with the Athenian exiles, chased out the tyrant Hippias and liberated Athens in 508 BC, then marched back home. Left to govern themselves, the Athenians immediately split into rival camps. The oligarchs wanted government returned to the hands of the wealthy. The populist camp, led by Cleisthenes and comprising a majority of Athenians, declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly.
The populists prevailed, but the oligarchs solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy. Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled. However, the exiles soon returned, and led Athens in a popular rebellion. The oligarchs were forced to flee their homes, and along with the Spartan garrison, were besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels allowed the Spartans to leave, but the Athenian anti-democrats were massacred to a man.
Having decisively dealt with the oligarchs, the populists rallied around Cleisthenes, who established Athenian democracy. To avoid future factionalism, the citizen body (demos) was grouped into an artificial classification system that divided Athenians into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. With each tribe thus containing a representative sample of the entire population, no tribe would have cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole.
Additionally, a new council was created, in which all citizens had the right to speak. At a stroke, the populist rebels thus eliminated parochial tendencies, and granted all citizens access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy. Basic democracy was thus established, as well as a constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms would be made to transform Athens into a direct democracy.