Evolution of the Athenian Political System: from Monarchy to Aristocracy to Democracy
The founding of the city of Athens remains shrouded in legend, but the fact is that once the Greeks became established here, they were never driven out by the area's previous inhabitants, the way they were in many other parts of Greece. Like the other Greek city- states, Athens was originally a monarchy ruled by a king. Then, in 682 B.C.E., the government was changed: The city was now ruled by a trio of archons elected by the adult male citizens to one- year terms, after which they served on a council called the Areopagus, judging murder cases and preparing issues to be voted on by the general assembly. Their number was later increased to nine.
After the fall from power of Pisistratus's son Hippias in 510 B.C.E., the statesman Cleisthenes proposed a constitution which made Athens the first recorded democracy in world history. This constitution registered every Athenian over the age of 18 as a citizen, both of the city and of the deme, or local community, in which he lived. It also created a council of 500 whose members were chosen by lot, whose primary purpose was to prepare business for the general assembly. Officials whose conduct had cost them the support of the people were banished for ten years.
The famous lawmaker Solon was elected in 594 B.C.E. He served at a time when the best farmland had been acquired by aristocrats, and small farmers had gone into debt and were forced into slavery. Solon cancelled all debts and allowed any qualified citizen to run for public office. His work was continued by Pisistratus, an army commander who became tyrant in 561 B.C.E. Pisistratus gave land as a reward for political support, of which he had plenty from the lower classes.
It was Ephialtes who, in 462 B.C.E., completed the move to democracy. He removed all but certain ceremonial and religious functions from the aristocracy. Not even his assassination at the hands of some Athenian nobles was enough to reverse the process which he had set in motion. All Athenian citizens, regardless of wealth, were eligible to join the assembly.
Athens During the Golden Age: Development of the Military and of the Arts
The so-called Golden Age of Athens lasted for only about fifty years, following the Greek victory in the Greco- Persian Wars, which ended in 479 B.C.E. This was a time of great literary and philosophical achievement, during which the playwrights Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides flourished. After Athens was defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C.E., it ceased to be the most powerful Greek city- state, although art, literature, and philosophy continued to flourish, as is exemplified by Plato and Aristotle. Part of the reason for this was the nature of the Athenian spirit. These people never had any fear of the truth, no matter how ugly it seemed.
It was during this golden period that Pericles, believing that the glory of his city should be made visible to all, erected many of Athens' most famous buildings, including the Parthenon, which he erected on the Acropolis, the Persians having wrecked the buildings that had formerly stood on the mountain. But the city's prominence went far beyond th arts and humanities. Athens also became the seat of the treasury of the so- called Delian League, which had hitherto been located at Delos. (The Delian League had been formed in 476 B.C.E. at the Olympic games.) Athenian courts also handled legal disputes throughout Greece, and their navy maintained a constant presence throughout the Ægean. Other city- states used Athenian coins and system of weights and measures.
In ruling over the other members of the League, Athens often succeeded in instituting the same democratic regimes as she had at home. And the masses had every incentive to keep the government working that way, for the aristocrats would exact a bloody revenge if ever they were allowed to regain power again. In addition, the less powerful members of the League could count on Athens to protect them against raids by their enemies; and having a common currency— which was, in any event, a highly respected currency, having the images of Athena and her sacred owl on it— meant that they could trade freely with each other.
Trade thus flourished in the Ægean during this period. At its people's own request, the neighboring state of Megara was annexed to Athens in 459 B.C.E., and gave military support to the Egyptian ruler in his rebellion against Persian rule (this campaign ended in disaster, however, with all of their ships being destroyed). In the following years, Athens conquered Ægina and Bœotia (except for Thebes) and made them part of the League. Pericles also sought to make alliances with more distant states, going as far as the Black Sea.
It was not only Athenian citizens who made names for themselves through their intellectual prowess. Great thinkers from other states flocked to Athens, knowing that their ideas would be welcomed there. Such geniuses included Anaxagoras of Clazomenæ, who believed the universe to be a kind of super- organism; Democritus of Abdera, who first developed the atomic theory of matter; and Herodotus, who of course has been known to posterity as the "father of history."
The sciences were well developed in the Golden Age and afterward, too. Hippocrates set forth the principles that have served as the standards for medical practice ever since; and Aristotle classified known plants and animals and described the reproductive system of the spiny dogfish. Pericles summed up his city's role in the area with the words: "Our city is an education to Greece."
The Decline of Athens
The other city- states viewed Athens with ambivalence. On the one hand, they were impressed by her intellectual, artistic, and political achievements. On the other, they were envious or even fearful of these qualities, which were often antithetical to their own oligarchical ideas, or alarmed by the way Athens was constantly expanding her territory, an enterprise which often involved swallowing up other communities. In particular Sparta was opposed to the democratic form of government that Athens embodied, and towards the end of the fifth century B.C.E., the Peloponnesian War broke out, with Athens having Attica, Eubœa, Thessaly, and communities on the northern and eastern shores of the Ægean Sea on her side, and Sparta being allied with most of the Peloponnesus, Bœotia, and Macedonia. The regions of Achæa, Etolia, and Epirus remained neutral throughout the conflict. In the meantime, Pericles died in the plague that struck Athens as a result of people crowding behind the city walls for safety. The Delian League was also dissolved following the war.
From the beginning, city- states that had become subjects of Athens revolted against their rule. The island of Naxos did so in 466 B.C.E., just ten years after the Delian League had been formed. During this revolt, Themistocles had fled the island to seek asylum with the King of Persia. The cause of Naxos's rebellion is not well understood; it may have been the Athenians who in the plenitude of their power destroyed the fair promise of united action against Hellas, in order to establish a maritime empire instead of an alliance of cities of equal rank, or it may have been that the other cities refused to submit to any form of confederation, and thus risk compromising their independence. It is not even certain whether Themistocles was an outright traitor or if he had been fleeing political strife at home.
Upon the death of Pericles, two rival factions began competing for power. Neither of the leaders they supported— Nicias (who wanted to sue for peace) and Cleon (who wanted to continue the war)— had the sound political judgment of Pericles. Athens remained in a state of constant internal turmoil, with the Assembly reversing at least one of its decisions in a period of two days. Cleon also attempted to have the Assembly execute every adult male in Mytilene in reprisal for that city's revolt.
The Athenians might have been victorious in the struggle, if only they had withdrawn when they were winning. But the arrogant demagog Cleon, blinded by his earlier victories, insisted on continuing the struggle. Athens's luck ran out and Cleon himself was killed in battle. The city did recover somewhat from the ravages of war, but the Golden Age was past. But the influence of the people from that age has been felt ever since.
Within a few centuries Athens was to become part of the expanding Roman Empire.