Sunday, January 29, 2017

Cleisthenes and Athenian Democracy

Pericles' Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz
“In a democracy, there is, first, that most splendid of virtues, equality before the law.” - Herodotus

Democracy – the most cherished and promoted form of government that the world ever encountered. Its principle of rule by the people made it an enticing and ideal form owed much to the Greeks. But how did the Greeks developed democracy? How the Athenian government ran before the introduction of democracy? How did Athenian democracy developed? And how did it end and created an impact?

Athens – Creation of a Civil Society

Athens was as a center of Ancient Greek Civilization. It flourished as a vibrant polis or city state surrounded by fertile lands known as Attica. Ancient Athenians already practiced election. They elected their magistrates or archons that administered their city’s affairs.

Archons were annually elected 9 magistrates that came from the ranks of the landed gentry or aristocrats. Only once a man can become an archon. The position of archon eponymos, held the highest esteem due to the privilege of the archon’s name being used to identify a calendar year.

While they practiced elections, they also developed their legal system. Draco created a comprehensive law for the city with his brutal prescription of punishments.

Following Draco, Solon stood among as Athens’ greatest statesmen. He eased rising social tensions in the city between the aristocrats and small farmers, which rose from the issue of debt slavery. The aristocracy dominated the government and plunged many farmers into debt. Small farmers who defaulted in their debts fell to slavery as a payment. This issue Solon solved by instituting the Seisachtheia or removal of burden, under which all previous debt disappeared and freed debt slaves from servitude.

Solon restructured Athens’ social structure by creating the 4 phylae or tribes: the pentacosiomedimni, hippeis, zeugitae, and thetes. However, Solon only reserved for the highest positions in Athens to the 3 top phylae, while the Thetes, where the land laborers belonged, had to be contented with being part of the new government institutions of Athens – the Boule or the Council of 400 and the Ekklesia.

The 2 institutions aimed to cultivate civic participation of Athenian citizens. The Ekklesia was an assembly where Athenian from the 4 phylae with an age above 18 years old discussed and voted on matters important on the city. The Boule or the Council of 400, composed of 100 representatives from the 4 phylae, on the other hand took care of the state affairs of Athens and execute punishments for those found guilty of crimes. These reforms of Solon established the foundations to which Cleisthenes later built a more developed Athenian democracy.

After Solon’s rule, tyrants took over Athens. Tyrants, unlike in the modern sense of the word synonymous to brutality, meant during the time of the Athenians someone who usurped power and claim absolute rule over the state. The rule of tyrants ended only in 510 BCE, when an aristocrat Cleisthenes took power and developed Athenian democracy to prevent there resurgence.

Cleisthenes and Demokratia

In 507 BCE, Cleisthenes introduced demokratia, or rule of the demos or people, a sort of a slogan that guided several of his reforms for Athens. He restructured the government as well as the phylae. And he changed the voting system to ensure equal opportunities. In effect, he built upon Solon’s policies and to develop an early form of direct democracy.

The Three Branches of Government

Like modern day democracies, the Athenian democracy of Cleisthenes centered around 3 institutions, dedicated in giving voice to the Athenian people. These three 3 institutions included: the Ekklessia, Boule, and Dikasteria.

The Ekklesia institutionalized the participation of the people in governance. The Ekklesia allowed any men 18 years old and above from the whole Attica to attend. It convened 40 times annually in a hillside auditorium near the Acropolis called the Pnyx. Its powers included the formulation Athens’ foreign policy, which included the decision to declare war and negotiate peace. It also approved new laws and reviewed new ones. Any decisions of the Ekklesia required a simple majority.

The Ekklesia had long existed before the time of Cleisthenes, but he added one power to it that spelled the difference – ostracism.

Ostracism became one of the Ekklesia feared power. The practiced aimed to remove anyone in the city deemed too powerful or ambitious to be a tyrant. It became also a way to punish unpopular or incompetent officials. The process condemned Athenian men to be expelled from the city for a decade. The Ekklesia voted by writing the name of the person to be punished in a potsherd, later called as ostracon. The practice of Ostracism resulted to the word ostracized, meaning to exclude.

Because of the powers and the composition of the Ekklesia, it became the center of Athenian political life. But the Ekklesia did not possessed absolute power, but shared it with another institution – the Boule.

The Boule, or the Council of 500, was the continuation of the Council of 400 that Solon established. The change in number came as a result of reforms made in the phylae or tribes, which later to be discussed. As the name stated, 500 men formed the Boule and represented the 10 phylae of Athens, each having 50 representatives. The membership to Boule, however, was not voluntary or through elections, but by random selection through lottery. The lottery included names of Athenian men aged 30 years old and above and did not served in the Boule before.

The lottery eliminated issues of popularity vote and vote buying. It also heavily reduced the chance of citizens entering the government with ulterior motives. The only issue was whose name included in the lottery – which usually were the most prominent men.

Within the Boule was the Prytane, a smaller group of men that were available to work 24 hours a day for daily administration of the Boule. Its members served for a month. A chairman, elected for every 24 hours, was a prestigious position and could only held once in a lifetime, especially later when the chairman of the Prytane also served as chairman of the Boule.

The Council of 500 served as the backbone of Athens’ government. Its men met almost every day and handled the management of Athens, from weight standardization, to welfare of the horses, to the maintenance of the military and infrastructure.

The Boule checked and balanced power with the Ekklesia. The Boule managed the agendas of the Ekklesia, although sometimes, the latter can add a topic that the former did not placed. In foreign policy, the Boule obeyed whatever the Ekklesia approved. They also had the responsibilities to welcome as well as to deal with emissaries from different nations and city-states.

The Dikasteria or popular courts served as a judiciary. They tried any cases brought by the people of Athens. Fiscal offices did not exist then so the Dikasteria received any kinds of cases, even politically motivated ones. Athens then do not had any lawyers so the citizens themselves acted as the prosecution and defense. Once again, a simple majority voted was needed for any sentence or decision of the body.

500 jurors made up the body, once again chosen by lottery. The body only allowed male citizens aged 30 years old and above to serve in the courts. The jurors of the body received salaries, even though it was small. The salaries of the jurors came from Athens’ customs collection and taxes from the foreign residents, and the so-called trierarchi, voluntary contributions of the wealthy for specific projects.

Reform of the Phylae

Cleisthenes also changed the phylae, which served as the basis of representation to the Boule. Before, 4 phylaes existed and based more on land and wealth. Cleisthenes changed the basis of phylaes to geographical features. He divided Attica into 10 phylae namely Erechtheis, Aegeis, Pandionis, Leontis, Acamantis, Oeneis, Cecropis, Hippothontis, Aeantis, and Antiochis.

Each of the phylae were composed of three trittys based on geographical features namely inland or rural, coastal, and city or urban. The groupings of the trittys to form a phylae disregarded their proximity to each other. Thus, some phylae had trittys far away from each other. In effect, the system prevented the rise of local blocs as well as allowed equal representation to the Boule. The reform also led to increase in the number of members of the Boule from 400 to 500.

Limitations of Cleisthenes and Athenian Democracy

Although Cleisthenes introduction of democracy aimed to increase the participation of the demos or citizens of Athens, the classification of being a citizen, however, weakened the purpose. Athenian citizens, meaning those who had both Athenian parents numbered around only 100,000 in the 5th century compared little to 150,000 slaves and 10,000 metoikoi or foreign residents living in Attica. Moreover, participation to the Ekklesia allowed only men 18 years old and above, further dropping the number of eligible participants to 40,000. And it did not stop there, not all 40,000 participated in the Ekklesia because the Pynx auditorium, the meeting place of the assembly, only had the capacity of 6,000, thus, the total number of participants.

Impact and End of Athenian Democracy

Although Athenian democracy had its limitation, many of the city’s greatest intellectuals wrote highly about its principles. Herodotus, the Father of History, wrote, “In a democracy, there is, first, that most splendid of virtues, equality before the law.” Other writers who valued democracy in their writings included Aristotle as well as Thucydides.

Cleisthenes reforms’ aimed to prevent the rise of tyrants, however, the threat remained. In 507 BCE, Isagoras, Cleisthenes’ rival, sought the aid of Spartan King Cleomenes to end democracy and establish a new oligarchy. Cleisthenes fled Athens and Isagoras started to build up his oligarchy. The Athenian people, however, resisted and overthrew Isagoras. The Ekklesia then called Cleisthenes and his allies back.

Democracy remained the foundation of Athens’ civil society. For the over 3 centuries, democracy reigned in Athens, with some brief intrusion of tyrants, especially after the end of the Peloponnesian in 404 BCE. It only came to an end with the rise of Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. His incorporation of Athens meant governance of the city-state must yield to his absolute rule.

Summing Up

Athenian democracy took centuries to develop. From simple election of archons, it blossomed with institution dedicated into bringing in men from every classes to participate in making decisions vital to their city’s survival and welfare.

Social tensions led to development of laws as well as reforms to make Athenian society harmonious or at least to prevent civil war and chaos. Nevertheless, tyranny developed but in the end democracy continued to return to Athens. Cleisthenes led the effort to prevent another rise of tyranny and began series of introductions and reforms that shaped Athenian democracy for centuries.

His reforms led to the broadening of franchise to other men in the society. He culminated direct democracy by allowing all men to be heard in an assembly. He reformed the institution of phylae from being based on property and wealth to become founded on geographical division. And even in this division, he made sure that all people in all placed had representation.

He also supported the practice of ostracism as a means to prevent men from attaining too much power. But he also distributed power from the aristocracy to the middle class as well. The method of lottery to choose representatives and jurors as well as term limits provided equal opportunities for men to rise in government affairs.

However, practice sometimes deviate from the ideal, in other word, Athenian democracy had its pitfalls. For instance, the number of participant in the Ekklesia only represented a fraction of the population. Some lotteries also faced manipulation by the aristocracy who controlled whose name to be placed in the lot.

Yet, despite its pitfalls, Cleisthenes democracy principle of rule of the people inspired intellectuals and political movements throughout centuries that went and will come. It built the foundations of modern Europe and the rest of the world and continued to inspire political reforms even to this day.



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