The most complete information guide about Athens, Greece

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Athens in Historical times

At some point during the early historical period, the whole of Attica was united and made up a political entity centred in Athens. All the Inhabitants of Attica were called Athenians and Attica became synonymous with Athens.

Cylon and Draco

The 7th century BC was one of major political activity in municipal terms. The “polis” (town) had achieved its social and administrative shape in the previous century. Originally, there was a conflict among the powerful aristocratic families of the cities, some of whom attempted or even managed to monopolize power, in certain cases favouring the lower level citizens, especially artisans and merchants. They also established tyrannies.Draco

In Athens, in about 635 BC, Cylon, instigated by his father-in-law, Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara, established a tyranny by seizing the Acropolis with his supporters. The Athenians besieged them and finally gained control of the Sacred Rock. Some of the tyrants managed to escape but most, including Cylon, took shelter at the altar of Athena Polias and left it only when they were guaranteed a regular trial. The Athenians broke their promise and killed them, thus staining the city with the so-called Curse (Agos) of Cylon. Later, Epimenides the diviner was summoned to cleanse the city of the unholy deed.

Around 624 BC, the Athenians assigned Draco to make laws and write them down publicly so as to abolish the exclusive right of the aristocratic families who interpreted and applied unwritten laws arbitrarily. Draco’s laws, which most probably concerned only cases of murder, have made their mark in history because of their harshness. Top

Solon, the law-makerSolon

Solon was a true ruler during the unsettled time between 638 and 559 BC. In 595-594 BC, he persuaded the Athenians to re-conquer Salamis which had been in Megarean hands since the time of the Curse of Cylon. Having succeeded in doing so, he was elected archon in 594-593 and was appointed diallaktes (arbitrator on social issues). As part of his jurisdiction he publicly enacted and inscribed constitutional, family and civil laws.

The most important part of his legislations was the “seisachtheia”, a set of laws instituted in order to rectify the wide-spread serfdom and slavery that had run rampant in Athens. Under the pre-existing legal status, debtors unable to repay their creditors would surrender their land to them, then becoming hektemoroi, i.e. serfs who cultivated what used to be their own land and gave one sixth of produce to their creditors. Should the debt exceed the perceived value of debtor's total assets, then the debtor and his family would become the creditor's slaves as well. The same would result if a man defaulted on a debt whose collateral was the debtor's personal freedom.

The seisachtheia laws immediately cancelled all outstanding debts, retroactively emancipated all previously enslaved debtors, reinstated all confiscated serf property to the hektemorioi and forbade the use of personal freedom as collateral in all future debts. A ceiling to maximum property size was also instituted regardless of the legality of its acquisition (i.e. by marriage), meant to prevent excessive accumulation of land by powerful families.

An important step towards democracy was the institution of the collective exercise of power to include the lower level of citizen through the assembly of the citizens (Ecclesia tou Demou) and the people’s court (Heliaia). In order to make this measure work, Solon associated the holding of high offices with property rather than with descent and founded the Council of 400. Top

The tyran PeisistratosPeisistratos’ tyranny

Peisistratos of Athens (ca. 607-528 BC) was a Greek statesman who became the Tyrant of Athens following a (quite popular) coup. He ruled in 561, 559-556 and 546-528 BC.

Peisistratos was the son of a philosopher and teacher called Hippocrates. He was named for the Peisistratos in the Odyssey. The eromenos (an adolescent boy who was in a love relationship with an aduld man) of the Athenian lawgiver Solon, he assisted Solon in his endeavors and fought bravely in the conquest of Salamis. When Solon left Athens, Peisistratos became leader of the party of the Highlands (poorer, rural people) in 565 BC.

He used a clever scheme, calling for bodyguards after he pretended to be attacked. Those bodyguards were composed of the people of the Highlands who had entered Athens. In 561 BC he seized the Acropolis with this group of bodyguards and he became a tyrant. His rule did not last. Within a year he was driven out by Lycurgus, Megacles and others from the party of the Coast. He returned in 559 BC with the help of Megacles who had split from Lycurgus. Megacles had allied with Peisistratus on the condition that Peisistratos marry Megacles' daughter.

The Athenians were persuaded by Megacles that the goddess Athena was bringing Peisistratus home. He returned from exile in a carriage accompanied by a tall woman disguised as Athena in a suit of armor. Later, Megacles was angered by the fact that Peisistratos refused to have children with his daughter and Peisistratos was again exiled in 556 BC by Lycurgus and Megacles. He went to Euboea and remained there for almost ten years, becoming quite rich through mining. He returned to Athens in 546 BC with a considerable force and regained power with the support of Lygdamos of Naxos. This time he worked well to retain his position. Peisistratus rewarded Lygdamos by making him tyrant of Naxos.

Peisistratus began the construction of the Temple of AthenaConsolidating his power by favoring rural citizens with new land laws, Peisistratus also kept a large force of mercenaries and took hostages. He kept the democratic reforms introduced by Solon but ensured that family members held the highest offices. Peisistratos promoted the cults of Athena and Dionysos. He began the construction of the Temple to Athena on the Acropolis and also promoted a number of other public works including the lyceum, temples to Apollo and to Zeus as well as the Fountain of the Nine Springs. He also supported literature and the arts. Peisistratus had an eromenos, Charmus, himself.

The Panathenaic Festival and the city Dionysia festival flourished during his reign. Athenian coinage was introduced by about 550 BC. This may have reflected on his policy though there is no reference in documents to this. Peisistratos commissioned the first standard written editions of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer which had previously been passed down orally or "cribbed" in private copies.

The Panathenaic Festival was reorganized under Peisistratos, bringing all Athenians together. In addition, he introduced the worship of Dionysus who became particularly popular and who was associated with the flourishing of drama. After the death of Peisistratos, his sons, Hipparchos and Hippias came into power. Hipparchos was murdered in 514 BC by Harmodios and Aristogeiton, most probably because of personal revenge. Hippias was overthrown by the Spartans in 510 BC. More... Top

CleisthenesCleisthenes (from a Greek documentary)

Cleisthenes (also Clisthenes or Kleisthenes) was a noble Athenian of the Alcmeonidate family. He is credited with reforming the constitution of ancient Athens and setting it on a democratic footing in 508 BC.

With help from the Alcmeonidate clan and the Spartans, he was responsible for overthrowing Hippias, the son of the tyrant Peisistratos. After the collapse of the Peisistratid tyranny, Isagoras and Cleisthenes were in rivalry for power. Isagoras won the upper hand by becoming archon in 507-508 BC. Cleisthenes responded by gaining support from the unrepresented masses. Isagoras appealed to the Spartan king Cleomenes I to help him expel Cleisthenes. He did so on the pretext of the Alcmaeonid curse. Consequently, Cleisthenes left Athens as an exile.

Isagoras was unrivalled in power inside the city and attempted to establish an oligarchy, a form of government where most or all political power rests with a small segment of society (typically the most powerful, whether by wealth, family, military strength, ruthlessness or political influence). Therefore, he set about uprooting hundreds of people from their homes under the pretense that they too were cursed and attempted to dissolve the council. However, the council resisted and the Athenian people declared their support in favor of it. Isagoras and his supporters were forced to flee to the Acropolis where they were besieged for two days. On the third, a truce was called so that Cleomenes and his men could be released. Cleisthenes was subsequently recalled along with the hundreds of exiles and assumed leadership of Athens.

After this victory, Cleisthenes began to reform the government of Athens. He eliminated the four traditional tribes, which were based on family relations and had led to the tyranny in the first place. He organized citizens into ten tribes according to their area of residence (their deme). He also established legislative bodies run by individuals chosen by lot rather than kinship or heredity. He reorganized the Boule (city council) created with 400 members under Solon so that it had 500 members, 50 from each tribe.

The court system (Dikasteria - jury courts) was re-organized 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 in Athens about forty times a year for this purpose. The bills proposed could be rejected, passed or returned for amendments by the assembly.

Cleisthenes also seems to have introduced ostracism (first used in 487 BC), whereby the citizens voted to exile a citizen for 10 years. The word ostracism is derived from ostrako, a fragment of pottery which was used as a ballot. If a man’s name was written on an ostrako and more than 6.000 pottery fragments with his name were collected, he was driven into exile for then years. The initial trend was to vote for a citizen that was thought of as being a threat to the democracy for instance 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 e.g. Xanthippus in 485-484 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.Timeline

Cleisthenes called the whole of his reforms isonomia ("equality under the law"), rather than democratia (democracy). Soon after his reforms, his life became a mystery since none of the ancient texts available mention him thereafter.

For typical words, please consult our Greek Glossary Top


    Cylon and Draco
    Peisistratos’ tyranny

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