Cleisthenes – Democratic Leader of Ancient Greece

Cleisthenes, a noble born Athenian politician, is largely credited with helping the Athenians embrace a new system of government known as democracy. Prior to this political system, the city-state was governed by a system where the noble-born minority ruled the majority. The people of Athens protested and dethroned the old ways.

Now referred to as the Father of Athenian Democracy, Cleisthenes, a nobleman himself, watched the revolution with interest. He would eventually help the Athenian citizens embrace a new form of government. Here’s more information about this Ancient Greek politician:

About Cleisthenes

Cleisthenes was born in Athens around 570 B.C. A member of an aristocratic family known as the Alcmaeonids, he was raised to believe that he was meant to rule of the majority of the people of the city-state, just like the rest of his family had done before him. His life, however, didn’t live up to his family’s expectations.

Instead, he actually helped overthrow the very system of government that he was raised to embrace. In doing so, he assisted the people he was taught he had to rule over by helping them embrace this new form of government.

Cleisthenes and Hippias

Before jumping into the dethroning of Hippias of Athens, it’s important to point out that his title, “tyrant,” had a very different connotation than it does today. Back in Ancient Greece, a tyrant was merely a ruler who had come to power through unconventional means.

Hippias of Athens had taken power around 528 BCE and had become cruel by 514 BCE following the murder of his brother. He enacted unfair tax laws and executed a large swath of Athenians. Seeing a chance to make a change, Cleisthenes allied himself with the Spartans in order to overthrow him.

Unfortunately, Isagoras, an aristocrat, joined in the power vacuum for the throne and won. For a brief period of time he ruled but so upset the Athenians that they deposed him and called for the leadership of Cleisthenes.

Reconstructing the Law

Cleisthenes then managed to temporarily come into power. When this happened, he began working toward his vision of a better government. Calling his reforms “isonomia,” or equality through law, he made many changes. Under his leadership, for example, membership of the Boule, a council that ran the affairs of the city, increased its membership.

It is also believed that he introduced what was to later be known as ostracism. Under it, 6,000 Athenian citizens could vote to exile one for a decade. During this period, the property belonging to the exiled citizen was kept intact and undisturbed.

Supporting the Lower Class

Cleisthenes also made changes that supported the city’s lower class a lot better than the previous system did. His changes imposed had to do with increasing the political opportunities of the lower classes. Originally, there were four tribes that governed the city. This was reorganized and broken up into ten tribes based on area of residence rather than family relations. In addition, he ordered the dropping of naming individuals after fathers in favor of naming individuals after their regions to further promote pride from a place rather than a family.

Even with all of this, it was his establishment of the random selection of citizens to government positions that truly established his place in history as a promoter of Athenian democracy.

While Cleisthenes did much for the city of Athens in terms of abolishing all he could of a regime built on family legacy rather than personal power, he would eventually be kicked out like so many before him. Still, his alterations to how Athens was governed echoed throughout the ages, encouraging later governments to strive for similar political goals.