Cleisthenes (/ˈklaɪsθɪˌniːz/; Greek: Κλεισθένης,
Kleisthénēs; also Clisthenes or Kleisthenes) was an ancient Athenian
lawgiver credited with reforming the constitution of ancient Athens
and setting it on a democratic footing in 508/7 BC. For these
accomplishments, historians refer to him as "the father of Athenian
democracy." He was a member of the aristocratic Alcmaeonid clan,
and the maternal grandson of the tyrant
Cleisthenes of Sicyon, as the
younger son of the latter's daughter Agariste and her husband
Megacles. He was also credited with increasing the power of the
Athenian citizens’ assembly and for reducing the power of the
nobility over Athenian politics.
In 510 BC, Spartan troops helped the Athenians overthrow their king,
the tyrant Hippias, son of Peisistratos. Cleomenes I, king of Sparta,
put in place a pro-Spartan oligarchy headed by Isagoras. But his rival
Cleisthenes, with the support of the middle class and aided by
democrats, took over. Cleomenes intervened in 508 and 506 BC, but
could not stop Cleisthenes, now supported by the Athenians. Through
Cleisthenes' reforms, the people of
Athens endowed their city with
isonomic institutions — equal rights for all citizens (though only
men were citizens)—and established ostracism.
1.1 Rise to power
1.2 Contribution to the governance of Athens
3.1 Primary sources
3.2 Secondary sources
4 Further reading
5 External links
Historians estimate that
Cleisthenes was born around 570 BC.
Cleisthenes was the uncle of Pericles' mother Agariste and of
Alcibiades' maternal grandfather Megacles.
Rise to power
With help from the Spartans and the
Alcmaeonidae (Cleisthenes' genos,
"clan"), he was responsible for overthrowing Hippias, the tyrant son
of Pisistratus. After the collapse of Hippias' tyranny,
Cleisthenes were rivals for power, but
Isagoras won the upper hand by
appealing to the Spartan king Cleomenes I to help him expel
Cleisthenes. He did so on the pretext of the Alcmaeonid curse.
Athens as an exile, and
unrivalled in power within the city.
Isagoras set about dispossessing
hundreds of Athenians of their homes and exiling them on the pretext
that they too were cursed. He also attempted to dissolve the Boule
(βουλή), a council of Athenian citizens appointed to run the
daily affairs of the city. However, the council resisted, and the
Athenian people declared their support of the council.
his supporters were forced to flee to the Acropolis, remaining
besieged there for two days. On the third day they fled the city and
Cleisthenes was subsequently recalled, along with
hundreds of exiles, and he assumed leadership of Athens.
Contribution to the governance of Athens
After this victory,
Cleisthenes began to reform the government of
Athens. He commissioned a bronze memorial from the sculptor
honor of the lovers and tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, whom
Hippias had executed. In order to forestall strife between the
traditional clans, which had led to the tyranny in the first place, he
changed the political organization from the four traditional tribes,
which were based on family relations and which formed the basis of the
upper class Athenian political power network, into ten tribes
according to their area of residence (their deme,) which would form
the basis of a new democratic power structure. It is thought that
there may have been 139 demes (though this is still a matter of
debate) which were organized into three groups called trittyes
("thirds"), with ten demes divided among three regions in each
trittyes (a city region, asty; a coastal region, paralia; and an
inland region, mesogeia).
Cleisthenes also abolished patronymics
in favour of demonymics (a name given according to the deme to which
one belongs), thus increasing Athenians' sense of belonging to a
deme. He also established sortition - the random selection of
citizens to fill government positions rather than kinship or heredity,
a true test of real democracy. He reorganized the Boule, created with
400 members under Solon, so that it had 500 members, 50 from each
tribe. He also introduced the bouletic oath, "To advise according to
the laws what was best for the people". The court system
(Dikasteria — law courts) was reorganized and had from 201–5001
jurors selected each day, up to 500 from each tribe. It was the role
of the Boule to propose laws to the assembly of voters, who convened
Athens around forty times a year for this purpose. The bills
proposed could be rejected, passed or returned for amendments by the
Cleisthenes also may have introduced ostracism (first used in
487 BC), whereby a vote from more than 6,000 of the citizens
would exile a citizen for 10 years. The initial trend was to vote for
a citizen deemed a threat to the democracy (e.g., by having ambitions
to set himself up as tyrant). However, soon after, any citizen judged
to have too much power in the city tended to be targeted for exile
Xanthippus in 485/84 BC). Under this system, the
exiled man's property was maintained, but he was not physically in the
city where he could possibly create a new tyranny. One later ancient
author records that
Cleisthenes himself was the first person to be
Cleisthenes called these reforms isonomia ("equality vis à vis law",
iso-=equality; nomos=law), instead of demokratia. Cleisthenes’ life
after his reforms is unknown as no ancient texts mention him
^ Ober, pp. 83 ff.
^ The New York Times (30 October 2007) [1st pub:2004]. John W. Wright,
ed. The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge, Second Edition: A
Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. New York: St. Martin's Press.
p. 628. ISBN 978-0-312-37659-8. Retrieved 31 January
^ R. Po-chia Hsia, Julius Caesar, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H.
Rosenwein, and Bonnie G. Smith, The Making of the West, Peoples and
Cultures, A Concise History, Volume I: To 1740 (Boston and New York:
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 44.
^ Langer, William L. (1968) The Early Period, to c. 500 B.C. An
Encyclopedia of World History (Fourth Edition pp. 66). Printed in the
United States of America: Houghton Mifflin Company. Accessed: January
^ The Greeks:Crucible of Civilization (2000)
^ Herodotus, Histories 6.131
^ Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives. with an English Translation by.
Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London.
William Heinemann Ltd. 1916. 4.
^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 20
^ Aristotle, Politics 6.4.
^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 21
^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 21
^ Morris & Raaflaub
Democracy 2500?: Questions and Challenges
^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 22
^ Aelian, Varia historia 13.24
Aristotle. Athenian Constitution. Trans. Frederic George Kenyon.
Wikisource. . See original text in Perseus program.
Aristotle (1984). The Athenian Constitution. P.J. Rhodes trans.
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin.
Morris I.; Raaflaub K., eds. (1998).
Democracy 2500?: Questions and
Challenges. Kendal/Hunt Publishing Co. CS1 maint: Uses editors
Ober, Josiah (2007). "I Besieged That Man, Democracy's Revolutionary
Start". Origins of
Democracy in Ancient Greece. University of
California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24562-4.
Lévêque, Pierre; Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1996).
Athenian: An Essay on the Representation of Space and Time in Greek
Political Thought from the End of the Sixth Century to the Death of
Plato. Humanities Press.
David Ames Curtis: Translator's Foreword to Pierre Vidal-Maquet and
Cleisthenes the Athenian: An Essay on the
Representation of Space and Time in Greek Thought from the End of the
Sixth Century to the Death of Plato (1993-1994)
Library resources about
Resources in your library
Resources in other libraries
Davies, J.K. (1993).
Democracy and classical Greece. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-19607-4.
Ehrenberg, Victor (2010). From
Solon to Socrates Greek History and
Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries BC. Hoboken: Taylor
& Francis. ISBN 978-0-203-84477-9.
Forrest, William G. (1966). The Emergence of Greek Democracy,
800–400 BC. New York: McGraw–Hill.
Hignett, Charles (1952). A History of the Athenian Constitution to the
End of the Fifth Century BC. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Larsen, Jakob A. O. (1948). "
Cleisthenes and the Development of the
Democracy at Athens". In Konvitz, Milton R.; Murphy, Arthur
E. Essays in Political Theory Presented to George H. Sabine. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press.
O'Neil, James L. (1995). The origins and development of ancient Greek
democracy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Staveley, E. S. (1972). Greek and Roman voting and elections. Ithaca,
N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Pr. ISBN 0-8014-0693-5.
Thorley, John (1996). Athenian democracy. London: Routledge.
Zimmern, Alfred (1911). The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics
in Fifth Century Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Media related to
Cleisthenes at Wikimedia Commons
BBC – History – The Democratic Experiment
Tyrant of Athens
Ancient Athenian statesmen
Demetrius of Phalerum