21. The Radical and His Protege Who Perfected Democracy
Classical Athens’ final transformation into a radical democracy is credited to the reformer Ephialtes (died 461 BC). He was opposed by the conservative upper classes, led by Cimon, son of Miltiades. The conservatives began the contest with the upper hand and control of the Athenian Assembly. That changed in 464 BC, when Sparta appealed to Athens for help in suppressing a Helot serf revolt. Over Ephialtes’ strong objections, Cimon carried the day and convinced the Assembly to send an Athenian force to help Sparta. However, when the Athenians arrived, the Spartans changed their minds. Fearing that their democratic notions might infect their remaining Helots and inflame them into joining the revolt, the Spartans sent the Athenians back. Cimon’s humiliated faction lost credibility, and leading conservatives were tried for corruption. Ephialtes engineered Cimon’s ostracism and exile, became Athens’ leader, and launched a program of radical reforms.
Ephialtes’ greatest reform was to emasculate the Areopagus, a council of elders that was more conservative than the citizen Assembly. It served as Athens’ highest court, with a constitutional review that gave it a veto over the more democratic Assembly. Ephialtes stripped the Areopagus of nearly all its powers, transferring them to more democratic bodies whose membership was drawn by lot, such as the Boule and the Heliaia. The Areopagus’ jurisdiction was narrowed to murder and arson cases. Ephialtes also reduced property qualifications for office holders, and introduced pay for the holders of public office, thus enabling poorer citizens to hold offices that previously had been the preserve of the wealthy. His reforms were strongly resented by the oligarchic faction, who assassinated him in 461 BC. His deputy, Pericles, took the leadership reins, and completed Ephialtes’ agenda, finalizing the transformation of Athens into a direct democracy.