The Reforms Of Cleisthenes Essay, Research Paper
Having prevailed against Isagoras and the Spartans, ordinary Athenians turned to Cleisthenes, the man who had unsuccessfully stood up against Isagoras on their behalf. Windows in history rarely open to revolutionary political change. But such a window opened in 507 BC. Cleisthenes was recalled from exile and asked to build the world’s first government of the people- the demos- a government that we now call direct democracy. His unprecedented task was to forge a government that genuinely reflected the will of all Athenians, aristocrats and commoners.
Cleisthenes first major reform was his reorganization of Athenian society. In 503-502 BC, he divided Athens and the surrounding countryside of Attica into 140 local units, called demes. The demes varied in size, but each male citizen belonged to one. Cleisthenes combined the demes into trittyes. There were thirty trittyes- ten in the city, ten along the coast, and ten in the interior. Cleisthenes combined the trittyes into tribes (phylai). (The four tribes comprising the Council of 400 lost their political significance after this point.) The ten tribes he formed were comprised of three trittyes each. Cleverly, he declared that each tribe would have one trittye from the city, one trittye from the coast, and one trittye from the interior. This division of regions ensured that each tribe had a mix of interest groups and families. A powerful aristocratic family from one region would at most dominant only one of the tribe’s three trittyes. It would have to compromise with the other trittyes to conduct business. This undermined old channels of influence.
Also, it is important to point out that unlike the four tribes that had long dominated Athenian politics, the ten new tribes created by Cleisthenes were not hereditary. By freeing tribes from hereditary restrictions, Cleisthenes increased the number of Athenian males who were eligible for citizenship. Therefore, more male citizens than ever were able to meet regularly in the Assembly to discuss and vote on matters important to the city-state, from the price of olives to the raising of taxes and declarations of war. The Assembly was comprised of every male citizen, 18 years or older, regardless of economic class. Each male citizen had one vote, regardless of economic class. The wealthiest Athenian male had one vote. The most destitute
Athenian male had one vote. As such, the general assembly was an example of direct democracy.
In a second historic reform, Cleisthenes replaced the old Council of 400 with a new Council of 500. Like its predecessor, the new Council was a representative body whose purpose was proposing laws to the Assembly. This was extremely important because the Assembly could not consider laws on its own; the Assembly could consider only those laws proposed by the Council. The Council’s 500 representatives were drawn from the ten new tribes. Each tribe had 50 representatives. To ensure that the Council of 500 represented all regions of the city-state, Cleisthenes required the tribes to elect their representatives from each deme based on population. For example, if a tribe was comprised of 10 demes of equal population, then the tribe would be required to send to the Council 10 representatives for each of those 10 demes- a total of 50. If, by contrast, a tribe had 10 demes but half of its population lived in just one of those demes, then the tribe would be required to send 25 representatives for that large deme and 25 more representatives for the nine other demes–again, a total of 50 representatives for
Eligibility for the Council of 500 was restricted. To be a representative, a tribal member had to be in the top three economic classes and be at least 30 years old; moreover, no one could serve on the Council for more than two, non-consecutive, one-year terms. The eligibility requirement may seem unfair, but the Council helped the lowest economic class, too. Previously, the lowest economic class was poorly represented, if represented at all, by the Council of 400 because the four tribes on which that old Council was based excluded much of that class. The ten new tribes created by Cleisthenes, on the other hand, included that class. So while it is true that males of the lowest economic class were not eligible to represent their tribes on the new Council of 500, at least they could hold their representatives accountable, by voting.
In another, less important reform, Cleisthenes appears to have increased the number of archons from nine to ten and to have made the second highest economic class eligible for archonships; previously, only members of the highest economic class had been eligible to be archons. He also limited archons to one-year terms. It does not appear that Cleisthenes altered the character of the Council of Areopagus, however; it continued to act as a high court.
A final reform, important more for symbolic reasons, was the creation of the institution of ostracism. Ostracism enabled the city-state to temporarily banish citizens considered dangerous to the public welfare. Each year the Assembly would decide whether to hold an ostracism vote. If that decision was made, then a date for a public vote was set. On the appointed day, on a fragment of pottery, each eligible citizen wrote the name of the person he wished to be ostracized. The person who had most of the required minimum of 6,000 total ballots cast (out of a voting population of about 30,000) had to leave Athens within ten days and remain away for ten years. The person ostracised lost no property or civil rights, and the Assembly could recall the person, if needed. It was merely a means for the city-state to prevent any citizen from gaining too much power, the kind of power that could lead to tyranny. Aristotle reported that the first ostracism occurred in 487-485 BC, against Hipparchus, a relative of Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens whom Cleisthenes had succeeded. Among other prominent Athenians to be ostracized were Aristides (483 BC), Themistocles (471 BC), and Cimon (461 BC). Hyperbolus, a minor Athenian demagogue, was the last person ostracized (417 BC).
What happened to Cleisthenes after instituting these reforms is a mystery. What is known, however, is that his reforms revolutionized Athenian life. In a mere 50 years, Athens had changed from a narrow democracy dominated by an aristocratic oligarchy, to a tyranny, to the beginning of history’s most famous democracy. His reforms nurtured an age of achievement and prosperity, marking the beginning of the Classical Period and what would be called Athen’s Golden Age.