In the 4th century, The Athenian political system underwent a tremendous shift in terms of the political leadership. Over the years, Athens managed to adopt full peasant democratic governance, moving away from the rule of kings. The transitional period was marked by a sequence of ‘championship’ that significantly led to the development of the Athenian constitution in creating a system of governance that largely represented the voice of the people and gave the people the power to demand accountability. Democracy is understood as freedom and sovereignty given to people. The hallmark of the Athenian constitutional development was the dispersal of tribes in accordance to geographical mappings, the establishment of a representative government and limiting the powers of government officials. The following paper explores the political climate witnessed in the earliest periods during the ruling of Solon and how war, struggles for land ownership and debt slavery fuelled political changes. The paper also discusses political changes in the middle period as a result individual search for power, the creation of wealth and the presence of the navy system. Lastly, the paper explores the last period, highlighting contrasting views among aristocrats who supported and opposed democracy in Athens together with the implications of the Peloponnesian War in the struggle for democracy.
In the context of Athenian history, it is reasonable to start with the kings that had ruled in Athens before the Athenian constitution took place. Although one may lay an emphasis on the ‘kings’ that ruled their own homes and territories in Athens, it is necessary to point out that Athenians believed that Theseus, a mythological hero, was their first king. According to Plutarch, Theseus was a unifying king known for his exploits who created a political state with Athens at its center. However, in 8th and 7th BC centuries, the aristocrats, or the wealthy Nine Archons ruled Athens. Their wealth was the primary contributing factor to becoming a king.
Aristocratic families, who were considered the nobles of Attica, seemed not only to have a tremendous amount of political influences but were also massively acquiring wealth in Athens. According to Aristotle, “Not only was the constitution at this time oligarchical in every respect, but the poorer classes, men, women, and children, were the serfs of the rich”(n.p.). A large number of Aristocrats owned vast tracts of lands, almost all the land available in Athens. The aristocrats maintained power within their circle through the Areopagus memberships, which was a meeting council on the hill in Athens. Annually, seven noble members were chosen to serve as government officials and give lifetime membership thus keeping power within the Aristocrats. Meanwhile, on the other hand, small land owners and poor families were continuously falling into the debt slavery. The concentration of wealth among the few rich enabled the rich families to buy up small lands that belonged to poor people and create large estates. In return, poor people were forced to work on these large estates for their survival. It was a period where wealth determined the social status of a person. Interestingly, the king that should be mentioned in this context is Cylon, the celebrity famous for winning the Olympics. His fame resulted in the decision to find his supporters and present himself as the tyrant of Athens. Cylon’s tyranny led to the need in establishing the written codes that would protect the citizens from unfair treatment.
Draco is known to be the first legislator in Athens due to the reason that he established the laws that were later marked with the adjective ‘draconian’ that could be associated with harshness and cruelty. Plutarch draws the reader’s attention to the peculiarities of death penalty that would wait for a person who broke the law. The key point is that minor offences could result in death. As little is known about Draco, he is usually mentioned in the context of cruel legislations that replaced oral law with a written code. The need for the above-mentioned written code has occurred due to the unfairness of judges who were subjective in making decisions about the future of the Athenians. A new set of laws was made by Solon, a wise man living at that time. In “The Athenian Constitution”, Aristotle enlarges upon the peculiarities of Draco’s and Solon’s governance, stating that while Draco’s one was law-drawn, Solon’s governance was marked with the rise of democracy.
As Solon came into ruling during the earliest period in Athens, the inequalities between the rich and the poor became a striking concern to him. Plutarch describes the situation by explaining that
[...] all the common people were weighted down with debts they owned to a few rich men. They either cultivated their lands for them and paid them a sixth of their produce and were hence called Hectemorioi or Thetes, or else they pledged their own persons to raise money and they could be seized by their creditors, some of them being enslaved at homes, and others being sold to foreigners abroad. (Plutarch, p. 54)
In extreme case, parents were forced to sell their children or go to exile to avoid the harshness of the rich and powerful creditors. The ability of a majority of the people to oppose these kinds of oppressions and overcome injustices allowed Solon to lead the people. He outright rebuked inequalities and cancelled all debts as discharge, wiping out all existing debts. As a result, Aristocrats began crumbling down as more power was given to the people regardless of their family name or wealth accumulation. Social development was increasing and aristocrats were forced to give in to the pressure of the minority. To some extent, they did lose their power to control which favored the rule of the few. Solon ensured that all citizens were freed of outstanding slavery debts, cancelled all debts that were placed on the common people by rich creditors and widened the eligibility opportunity to hold public office for all citizens. Solon considered his efforts and policies for the majority of Athenians‘‘ the best that they would accept’’ (Plutarch, p. 57).
Although Solon put an enormous amount of measures to regulate and control the powers of aristocrats, the battle between social classes persisted. In real sense, aristocrats did not entirely lose their powers; they merely gave in to democracy but still held power in monarchy. Through monarchy, aristocrats took advantage of the hereditary land ownership thus still maintain a balance of wealth and power in relation to the Constitution of the Athenians (Aristotle, 2008).
Additionally, political changes become eminent during this period. Threats of possible foreign and civil wars in Corcyra and landownership wrangles were causing endless uprisings among the majority of Athenians. Many people were killed on the basis of hatred and revenge for unpaid debts against claims that they did not support democracy.
Oppressed citizens were longing for equality and justice. Therefore, although Solon wanted to leave his place as a leader in the hands of the king that preceded him, he was compelled to eradicate Draconian laws and give the common people the opportunity to enjoy resources such as oil exportation and share power. Thus, he divided the people into classes, giving each class a certain level of abilities and powers. Solon also reviewed the ownership of properties through the issuing of wills, a law that did not previously exist. A man was entitled to give his property to those whom he best regards without force or coercion. Therefore, Solon was a king that has made a striking difference.
Pisistratus and Cleisthenes
Politics in Athens in the middle period took a new twist with more individuals seeking for power. During the times of Pisistratus and Cleisthenes, individuality in terms of leadership becomes increasingly profound. Rulers were more concerned about their governance as individuals rather than a ruling party. In “The Athenian constitution”, Aristotle dwells upon the stages of constitution, claiming that “The fourth was the tyranny of Pisistratus; the fifth the constitution of Cleisthenes, after the overthrow of the tyrants, of a more democratic character than that of Solon” (n.p.). However, Aristotle also claims that Pisistratus’s “administration was more like a constitutional government than the rule of a tyrant” (n.p.). Thus, the tyranny of Pisistratus did not affect poor people. On the contrary, the ruler helped them to eke out. As far as Cleisthenes is concerned, it is necessary to mention that he “secured the goodwill of the masses” (Aristotle, n.p.). Therefore, the underlying rulers were far more democratic in their attitude to the Athenian people.
The Empire and the Navy
The Persian war also fostered the search for individuals’ powers and the creation of wealth empires as a means of gaining a certain level of control. In addition, the creation of the navy brought about a changing political climate in Athens. With a strong and well-equipped navy, Athens aim was to conquer the Black Sea which was an integral trading route thus boosting Athens economic and political prevalence. In essence, Athens was proclaiming to their neighbouring cities its strength and capabilities to dominate the waters without fear. Plans were also underway to prepare attacks on sea-board cities thus initiating the Persian wars.
Moreover, political alignments were taking a different turn with the onset of democracy. Politically, concern for and interaction with the poor was increasingly gaining popularity among many political leaders ingratiating with the poor and common people reflected a sense of sovereignty to the people ensured that leaders secured power. The political scene was shifting from an aristocratic point of view that involved the noble men to the majority of the common people.
Pericles and Alcibiades
The last period in Athens mark tremendous democratic calls with aristocrats such as Pericles and Alcibiades openly supporting the development of democracy in Athens. Before, the increased riots and uprisings among the common people for equality, the Athenian constitution was mainly used by the noble people for their own benefits. During the period, Androcles, the democratic leader, produces a number of slaves and resident aliens (Plutarch, p. 262). Pericles and Alcibiades strongly advocated for democracy with the views that each citizen of Athens had the right to take up public office regardless of wealth status or birthplace. The democrats regarded each free-born male as eligible to participate in government matters. In addition, the strong belief that the common people were central in the revolution of Athens allowed democratic societies to seek empowerment for the people and abolish the rule of the few rich people. On the other hand, the anonymous writer of the Athenian Constitution refutes democratic concepts citing them as a means of depriving Athens of its greater benefits and an excuse to blame a few people for individual for bad decisions (Anonymous, p. 18).
The Peloponnesian War
The onset of the Peloponnesian war reflected the struggle for democracy in Athens. Athenians did not lose the war intentionally, although to some extent some mishaps which could have been avoided largely contributed to the loss. The quest for oligarchy was apparent and the loss of the war exposed the weaknesses of democracy in failing to safeguard the Athenian Empire. Thucydides mentions that the underlying war has entirely reshaped the role of Athens in Greece. The results of the Peloponnesian War have contributed to the well fare of Sparta and its dominance in Greece. The war particularly began the existing conflict between the oligarchs and democrats, striking the differences between the two (Thucydides, 1954).
The Athenian democracy presents a broader outlook at the development and growth of democracy today. Although the democratic system developed in Athens was not perfect, it greatly upheld a broad spectrum of democratic concepts witnessed in many democratic nations. The ancient Athenian political system is divided in various periodic times. The grouping of these periodic timelines into three outlines; earliest, middle and last period provides a cross-sectional view on the events that led to the rise and development of democracy. Additionally, six main sources provide in-depth information on the timeline of Athens and its political changes.