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Cleisthenes was an Athenian statesman of the late 6th century BC and arguably the founder of Athenian Democracy as we now know of it.

Family History and Early Life

He was a member of the Alcmaeonid Family, a powerful dynasty in Athenian politics who had played a major role in its history since the Archaic Period. He was born around 570 BC, the son of Megacles. At the time, their family was still affected by a public curse incurred by his great grandfather, also named Megacles, who had been Chief Archon (Head of the government) when the Athenian noble Cylon had made an unsuccessful bid to seize the Acropolis and make himself tyrant (Circa 632 BC). Some of his followers had taken refuge at an altar and did not abandon their sanctuary until they had been promised that their lives would be spared. They were, however, put to death, and Megacles was held responsible. On the advice of Apollo's oracle at Delphi, a curse was placed on the Alcmaeonids, who were forced into exile. They were recalled under the new rule of the reformer Solon in 594 BC. The Alcmaeonids were strong supporters of Solon, and Megacles's son Alcmaeon led an Athenian contingent that fought with Thessaly and Cleisthenes, the powerful tyrant of Sicyon, in the so-named sacred war for the Protection of Delphi. When the tyrant of Sicyon was looking for a husband for his daughter Agariste, he pursued Megacles, the son of Alcmaeon. The first son of that marriage was named Cleisthenes after his grandfather.

In the period following Solon’s reforms, Attica was unsettled. The old nobility thought that Solon had gone too far and were anxious to reverse the trend; the common people thought he didn’t go far enough. The Alcmaeonids, whom the curse had alienated from the nobility, championed a middle way based on Solon’s reforms. However, both parties were outmanoeuvred by Peisistratus, a noble with the support of the people, who seized power in 560 BC. After an unsuccessful attempt to share power with the tyrant, the Alcmaeonids joined the opposition. When Peisistratus, having built up his resources during a ten year exile, defeated his enemies, the Alcmaeonids were forced once again to flee Attica (Circa 546 BC).

Cleisthenes was around 25 years old at this time, and for nearly 20 years he could not return. The Alcmaeonids' part in the Sacred War ensured the favour of Delphi; this support was further strengthened by the part played by the family in the rebuilding of Apollo’s temple, which had burned down around 548 BC. The Alcmaeonids had won the contract for building a new temple for 300 talents, but, in a well calculated act of piety, they used the more expensive Parian marble for the facade in place of the limestone specified by the contract.

Political Career and Reforms

When Peisistratus died in 527 BC, his son Hippias tried to win the favour of the nobility whom Peisistratus had alienated as tyrant. The reconciliation didn’t last long. In 512 BC, at a time when Hippias became frightened as a result of the assassination of his brother, the Alcmaeonids led a coalition of nobles in a fight back against the tyranny. Their attempt was unsuccessful, and as a result they enlisted the help of Sparta. The Spartans were repeatedly urged by Delphi to free Athens, and they finally agreed, sending a force to overthrow Hippias.

In the struggle for power following the fall of the tyranny, Cleisthenes failed to impose his leadership, and in 508 BC Isagoras, the more reactionary candidate was elected chief archon. It was at this point that Cleisthenes took the people into partnership and transformed the political landscape. Before the year 508-507 was over, the main principles of a complete reform of the government system had been approved by the popular assembly. A relative of the Alcmaeonids had been elected chief archon, and therefore Isagoras had gone to Sparta to regain their help. The Spartan king demanded the expulsion of ‘those under the curse’, and Cleisthenes and his family were once again sent into exile. The Spartans had no wish to see a democratic Athens, but they miscalculated the mood of the people. The attempt to impose Isagoras as leader of a narrow oligarchy was resisted by the people, and the Spartans were forced to withdraw. The Athenians now recalled the exiles and sent an embassy to seek alliance with the Persians; for Sparta was now an open enemy, and all Athens’s neighbours were hostile to the new democracy. Events took a quite unexpected turn. The Spartan army disintegrated due to infighting from the two Spartan Kings and because Corinth did not want to see Athens humiliated. Athens was thus able to defeat both the Boeotians and Chalcidians, who had planned to join Sparta against Athens. The Athenians could now carry into the effect the democratic decisions that the assembly had taken in 508 BC.

Cleisthenes had seen that though the tyranny had improved the economic condition of the people and temporarily broken the political power of the aristocracy, most of the old families were still looking to the past rather than the future and that the full promise of the Solonian reforms could not be realised unless the principle of hereditary rule was challenged at its roots. He therefore persuaded the people to change the basis of political organisation from the family, clan and kinship group to the locality. Public rights and duties would henceforward depend on membership of a Deme (Township), which kept its own register of citizens and elected its own officials. The citizen would no longer be known only by his personal name and father’s name, but also or alone by the name of his deme. Ten new local tribes were formed to take the place of the four Ionic blood tribes, and, to make faction building more difficult, Attica was divided into three areas; the city itself and suburbs, the coastal area, and the inland area; and townships from each of the three areas were included in each tribe, ten counties, Trittyes, being formed in each areas for this purpose. In this grouping system, steps were probably taken to diminish the local influence of some of the main priestly families. The mixed local tribe became the basis of representation in public office, and the Solonian Council of Four Hundred was increased to 500 (50 from each tribe, with members selected from demes according to their numbers). Isonomia, the principle of equality of rights for all was the boast of the reformers, and there is little doubt that Cleisthenes’ reforms changed the life of the ordinary citizen. The people would move further towards their control of the executive, but already Cleisthenes gave them the opportunity, by his introduction of ostracism, to exile for ten years, by their votes, any citizen who seemed dangerously powerful.

When Athens sent envoys to make alliance with Persia, it was probably known that the price of alliance would be a token submission. This the envoys made, but, when Athens was no longer in direct danger, the tribute was discontinued. It is widely held that Cleisthenes had been responsible for the approach to Persia and fell into disgrace because of it, but for this there is no firm evidence. The last story of his ostracism is probably invented. He may have died in full honour shortly following his reform, sometime after his 60th birthday.


Forrest, W.G., The Emergence of Greek Democracy, 800-400 B.C., pp. 191-203 especially. (1966)