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Biography of Clístenes de Atenas (s. VI a.C.)

Athenian reformer and politician who lived in the 6th century B.c. He was the head of the Democratic Party in Athens and is responsible for one of the most important political reforms of the classical Greece, which was condemned to banishment, political exile that condemning the Athenian citizens who deemed dangerous to the own city-state. Cleisthenes, after the triumph of his opponents, the oligarchic party eventually suffer himself condemned to ostracism.

Historical-political context

The classical Greece was formed by a series of independent city-States, ruled by aristocratic oligarchies. Despite their independence they often joined in a League within which the most important just to impose it. The two most important poleis were Athens and Sparta.

Athens was the capital of the Attica and devoid of the typical militarism of Sparta, eventually becoming the engine of the Greek world. The most sophisticated model developed limited democracy and laid the foundations of Western society. Its inhabitants proclaimed independence, freedom and equality.

Prior to Cleisthenes a series of huge political figures as Dacron or Solon had given shape to the Athenian State. Had been achieved under a same politics join human groups that already before shared a same dialect and maintained a certain affinity that made them feel like members of a set yet to be defined. This was the time of the creation of Athens and its constitutional system. The aristocrats showed power as archons, charge that initially was for life, but that in the eighth century limited his Government a decade, after which, the best among them were part of the Areopagus, the Court of Justice to try civilians and military causes, and the object of power of the nobles in Athens; the other two large institutions were the Bulé (boulh), legislative, formed by four hundred citizens elected annually, and the Eklesia (ekklhsia) consisting of all citizens and which voted laws presented by the Bulé. Greek democracy was restricted, of the 400,000 inhabitants who had Athens in the 5th century b.c. only tenth enjoyed civil and political rights. The village, before the reforms of Cleisthenes, was divided into four classes according to their fortune.

Between the 8th and 6th centuries a. C., Athens and Sparta had become the two hegemonic cities in Greece. Sparta was a heavily militarized and aristocratic state that established their power based on achievements and ruled their subjects States with a very strict control. The unification of Attica by Athens, by contrast, was conducted peacefully and by mutual agreement; Athenian citizenship was granted to the inhabitants of small towns. The nobles, or eupatridae, abolished in 638 a. C. hereditary monarchy and ruled Athens until the middle of the 6th century BC.

This century, the 6th BC, Athens it is the key moment for the formation and consolidation of democracy. This process took three milestones of strong relevance, the first of the reforming work of Solon applied to the Dracon code; the second major milestone was the prosperous tyranny of Pisistratus, and finally, the reform undertaken by Cleisthenes.

The eupatridae kept his full authority thanks to its supreme power for Justice, often in an arbitrary manner, and their upper class status. But this privileged position of the eupatridae was doomed to extinction. The unification of Attica was that arts and especially the trade's prospered in a way not known previously. The traditional wealth of the eupatridae, based on the possession of large herds and immense estates, was overshadowed by the of a new social class engaged in the trade. The new rich, who did not already belong to the nobility, demanded a political power equivalent to their economic situation. Another great support of the nobles, its monopoly on military Cavalry also began to falter before the growing importance of the Hoplites, that well trained and organized into compact training useless were the cavalry. All these aspects began to emerge at the end of the 7th century BC and finally exploded in the 6th century B.c.

In 621 b.c. politician Dracon wrote, for the first time, the Athenian law and limited considerably, the up to that time untouchable judiciary of the nobles. Twenty years later, in 594 BC, the Athenian lawmaker Solon gave the first blow of importance the eupatridae hereditary power, to enact its reform of the draconian code, which could be regarded as an attempt to organize a democracy; in this reform abolished debt slavery and the fight between the big landowners and the bourgeoisie was completed to provide a gradual increase of the power of the magistrates on the nobles and substitute lineage criteria of wealth when it comes to appoint officials. During the brilliant command of the tyrant Pisistratus, of forms of Government began adopting democratic elements since the population acquired greater power while the nobility was relegated more and more into the background. Hippias and Hipparchus, son of Pisistratus, inherited power from his father, but were most despotic. Hipparchus was murdered and Hippias was sentenced to banishment by Cleisthenes, after a popular in 510 a. insurrection C. During the ensuing political conflict, democracy supporters obtained, under the command of the political Cleisthenes, the total victory around the 502 BC, started a new political era, based on democratic principles and that power was handed over completely to the people by means of a new Council open to all citizens and that comes to outshine the Areopagus.

His life

Little is known about the biography of the great Athenian reformer. He was son of alcmeonida Magacles, but ignored the place and date of his birth, as well as biographical data prior to its eruption in Athenian politics. As a politician he was the leader of the party of the people and tenaciously opposed the triumph of the oligarchy, at the time that struggled to establish a political system in which sovereignty all citizens the exercise.

The great political rival of Cleisthenes was Isagoras, the leader of the aristocratic party. While Cleisthenes defended the continuation and development of the reforms of Solon to the full sovereignty of the demonstrations (dhmoj), Isagoras advocated the restoration of the oligarchic Government and the cessation of solonidas reforms, which had the support of Sparta.

In 510 BC, Cleisthenes appears in the Athenian political scene to overthrow the tyrant Hippias, son of the famous Pisistratus and take charge of the power in the city, but in 508 BC Cleisthenes was expelled from Athens by Isagoras, due to strong pressure from the powerful Sparta, which looked with fear by the reforms initiated. Isagoras decreed the atimia (atimia) about Cleisthenes, the genos (genoj) and all his supporters (in total estimated that the decree will affect more than seven hundred families), under the excuse that the alcmaeonidae had been responsible for the death of Cilon and his followers in 638 BC

With the expulsion of Cleisthenes was unleashed a period of struggle between the aristocratic party, at the head of which was Isagoras, and the alcmaeonidae, supporters of Cleisthenes. Fights end with the rise to power of Isagoras, which with the support of Sparta becomes tyrant of Athens. Support from the Spartans, both unpopular measures taken by Isagoras as well as pressure from supporters of Cleisthenes, gave rise to a popular riot that forced Isagoras to take refuge on the Acropolis, which was besieged by the population who called back to Cleisthenes to take the reins of Government. It was the year 507 BC

The victory of Cleisthenes was the withdrawal of the Spartan troops, led by Cleómenes Iof Athens. Sparta lost so their chances of establishing an oligarchic Government on Athens and, therefore, the possibilities to exercise its influence over the region. It was at this time how much was born the proverbial enmity between the two Greek cities.

Among the 507 and 501 BC, Cleisthenes served as Archon of Athens. It was between these years, when it was one of the most important and original reforms policies in the history of Athens, and which was a direct heir to the democratic rule of the Athens of the V and IV century BC

The reforms of Cleisthenes

The reform of Cleisthenes basically consisted of the passage of a limited Constitution, in which only 40,000 of the 400,000 inhabitants of Athens enjoyed civil and political rights, to a Constitution based on the isotemia, i.e. in the equal right for all citizens.

The Athenian society immediately prior to the reform of Cleisthenes had undergone a deep process of evolution and growth both economically and ideologically, however, remained a society with an important weight of tradition and the gentry. Large families (genos), grouped in clans (sibships) and at the same time, in the four traditional tribes (fileas), continued to dominate the society and politics. But out of all this framework had a growing class of recent citizens who did not belong to any of the large genos and therefore lacked all kinds of rights and representation. On the other hand, the access to the higher courts and the fullness of the political rights, was restricted to the first two groups created by Solon Census and which corresponded with the more privileged classes economically (pentacosiomedimni and hippies). The Areopagus, bastion of power of the aupatridas, was still a strong political influence. In contrast, the two inferior tribes had their political rights very limited, almost in exclusive to its participation in the Eklesia. Below all of them were foreigners and Freedmen, who joined in the last two classes censitarias to ask that you recognize their rights. We can say, in summary, that the old ideal of the eunomia (eunomia 'good order') had been replaced by the of isonomia (‡sonomia 'equal citizen').

The great merit of Cleisthenes filed to know understand these social demands and translating them into a series of policy measures that could be adjusted to the demands of the two lower censitarias classes but without causing the revolution between two classes higher censitarias.

We can say, despite the large problems of dating, Cleisthenes led to ends its reforms among its ascent to the arcontado in the 508-507 BC and the BC 501

The territorial reform

The dual objective of Cleisthenes was to grant a greater scope for the right of citizenship and to achieve, at the time, sovereignty for the people. But to carry out this ambitious objective, it was necessary to carry out a land reform that end with the power of the nobility in the field and put an end to territorial, gentilicios and family interests. To achieve this, proceeded to divide the population into three groups: demonstrations, tritties and fileas.


The demonstrations were the rural communities, prior to Cleisthenes, in which lived the greater part of the rural population of Attica. Cleisthenes turned them into administrative units and in the base of the civic life of Athens, even urban communities were divided into demonstrations, using the classic division into districts. In total, Attica was divided into a hundred and forty démos, inhabited by a population of between one hundred and three hundred citizens. With the reform of the demonstrations Cleisthenes managed to break the traditional distinction of citizens according to their family background, which was transformed into a purely geographical distinction.

Its expansion was not fixed, so that each could increase his territory at the expense of others. They received its name from the villa acting as head of its district, a legendary character who became the patron of the demonstrations or a topographic accident that define him. Citizens were, all admitted to their corresponding demonstrations at the age of 18 years, regardless of which was its origin, status or family. It appeared so called demotic, a name indicating the place of origin of each citizen, and that would be invariably of lifetime and common to all those who share a same demonstrations.

Another important aspect of this reform was to extend citizenship to resident individuals in Attica, which part of the system of demonstrations saw its conversion into citizens than with the previous gentilicio system easier.

The demonstrations functioned almost as independent communities since they had their own Assembly (Agora), which chose its President (mark), managed the administration of local finances, community property, the parties or the representation of the district courts of the Heliaia. It maintained its own religion, festivities and carried out the census on their citizenship. Each demonstrations had their representation in the Bulé city, in proportion to the population which had.

Established the demonstrations proceeded to divide the Attica in three districts of population more or less equivalent: Asty ('city'), ('inside') Mesogea and the Paralia ('Coast'). This division was purely artificial and respond to administrative and non-geographic criteria.


To undertake its legislative reform in Athens, Cleisthenes was aware that the regional parties could weaken the democratic Government. To avoid this to happen, Attica divided in the three above-mentioned areas (Asty, Mesogeia, and Paralia) and each one of these areas was in turn divided into ten tritties, or districts, and each tribe received a portion of each area. Annually, was chosen a tritiarca who was in charge of the trittia. It could thus be that the cohesion of the tribe had more weight than the potential regional alliances.

It seems that the tritties were based on a previous division of which little is known, but that it would have a completely different character. Everything concerning the territorial reform of Cleisthenes the tritties are presenting a greater difficulty, since its purpose has not come clear to our days. It is possible that they constitute as a means of avoiding the formation of autonomous structures exceeding the demonstrations, or as a means of avoiding these to reach an excessive importance. Ignored what order to exact of these divisions, although some historians have speculated on the possibility of were created as a means of partitioning the demonstrations between the tribes and thus be able to create these.


With the reform of the traditional Cleisthenes four tribes (Fileas) of Attica were replaced by ten. Truly primitive tribes were never disappear and transformed into cultural units.

The new tribes of Cleisthenes lost completely the gentilicio character of its predecessors and is constituted as a purely territorial constituencies, with a heterogeneous and artificial formation. Each of the tribes was formed by three tritties, one in each region (Asty, Mesogeia, and Paralia). The tribes lacked, in this way, a strong internal drive that might put at risk, when playing back the family situation, the State thought by Cleisthenes. It was to eliminate the particularism local for the benefit of the good of the community; at the time is avoiding the divisions of the tribes to coincide with any kind of power of local clans. Cleisthenes worried about giving the new tribes of a similar to the one of the old religious and traditional character four tribes, so it gave each of the new tribes with the name of a mythical hero, all of Attica, but these names were not chosen at random, instead underwent his election to the prestigious Oracle of Delphi, who chose them among a list of a hundred names.

Each tribe designated by lot to fifty of its members so that for a year, they joined the ranks of the Bulé. Thus on the one hand ensured the total opening of the citizenship to any individual residing in a demonstrations at the time getting a greater participation and political representation of the same.

The tribes were headed by a filarca (charge this that replaced the old filobasileus), whose mission was to direct the Affairs of the tribes, which included presiding over the Assembly and religious ceremonies held in honor of the protecting deities of the tribe and manage the treasure gathered funds. In addition, they were responsible for sending the contingent of Knights that each tribe should necessarily bring the citizen army. In the military aspect, the filarcas relied on of one of the two hiparcas.

The ten tribes were also part of the basic structure of the Athenian army. Each tribe recruited a battalion of Hoplites (taxei) and another Trooper among its citizens.

Territorial reforms of Cleisthenes overcame the former opposition and imbalance between the countryside and the city, at least in aspects relating to the rights and duties of citizenship.

The administrative reform

Possibly the great triumph of Cleisthenes was due to the fact that its reforms were able to comply with the existing institutions, which were transformed with the aim of giving sovereignty to the people, but not marked a radical break with the previous tradition. It was not a revolution, it was rather an evolution wisely directed by one of the most brilliant politicians of antiquity. The once powerful Areopagus was not dismantled, although Yes suffered a deep cut in his powers for the benefit of the more democratic bodies and where citizenship had easier access. A theory that says that such a cut of powers did not actually take place in times of Cleisthenes, but such a transformation occurred later, at time of the radical reforms of Ephialteshas recently spread.

The Bulé

The Bulé (boul½) was, perhaps, the most important piece of all the reform of Cleisthenes. She was the axis and basis of popular sovereignty as pursued by Cleisthenes. The Bulé was the bastion of the citizenry against the pressures of the aristocracy in the Areopagus. The Bulé met in a building known as the Buleuterion (bouleuthpion).

The Bulé of Cleisthenes was formed by five hundred representatives, known as buletai (because of this, also was known as the Council of five hundred), which were fifty per each tribe, chosen by lot among those proposed by their respective demonstrations, as we have already said, in reason and the population of the same. The buletas were supposed to be over thirty years and his role was limited to a maximum of two times in life, being the term of office of one year and being forbidden to you are exercising in consecutive years. The system of rotating the Bulé, which it contrasted deeply with the Areopagus where the charges were appointed for life, it was intended to prevent abuses of power, preclude the creation of a breed of leaders, and above all, to ensure that every citizen exercising office at least once in their lifetime, provided this develop in a normal way.

The Bulé quickly became one of the organisms of greatest importance of Athens, to the point that one of the last measures taken by Cleisthenes, in 500 BC, was to establish an oath for the buletas in which they were forced to ensure the good of the community. This in addition to the importance of the Bulé, refers to the continuing concern of Cleisthenes to avoid abuses of power and the perversion of his reform program.

The main mission of the Bulé consisted of preparing the sessions to be subsequently discussed in the Eklesia. Citizens affairs were first treated at the Bulé and if this was considered necessary to elevated to the Eklesia, which decided solely on the issues that the Bulé handled him, hence the immense power of this Council. Once the Eklesia took its decision, it was forwarded to the Bulé which was responsible for enforcing it. The Bulé was endowed with broad powers in financial and administrative matters.

The Bulé was founded as a permanent Council, but the presence of five hundred members in the city for a year was a completely unworkable appearance, also that having that bring together them was a waste of time and a waste of media, by what was instituted a permanent Commission composed of fifty members known as pritanos, which remained in place during the tenth part of a year (pritania), time in which o the new fifty pritanos for a period of thirty-six days. In front of each pritania was the epistato or President, who was also chosen by draw (first thing in the morning) and whose term of office lasted a day. The epistato was the most important of the city person, since in his hands was the same address, was it taking the decisions of urgency and on the assumption that the Bulé and the Eklesia met on the same day, corresponded to preside over both. The pritanias system was oriented from the beginning to limit the power of the Areopagus, since the logical thing would have been to use this Board as a substitute for the Bulé, given how easy it is to meet (the majority of the members lived in the capital) and the small number of them.

The Bulé peculiar performance may lead us to think that it was the highest political organ of Athens, which is false, now that this category was to the Eklesia. Prior to the reform of Cleisthenes, the real composition of the Eklesia in each session was very random, by which this could be exploited by different political leaders if they managed to make sure the assistance of his supporters in that particular day had intended to present a specific proposal. This is why became necessary the existence of a prior agenda so that everyone knew the issues to be addressed in the Assembly, was also necessary the prohibition of any matter that was not in the order of the day before. Cleisthenes was found with this problem, and given the need to give this power to a Council, decided to create a new one, the Council of five hundred (or the Bulé), rather than give such power to the Areopagus, which would be equivalent to again give the power to the aristocracy.

The Eklesia

The Eklesia was a popular Assembly in which all of the citizens took part, and in which everyone had to say. It was in this body where Cleisthenes attained his dream of full sovereignty of the people, since any citizen could speak and be heard in it.

Originally this organization was led by Archon eponymous, but Cleisthenes was able to replace it with the epistato on duty. The Eklesia should be convened at least once for each pritania, and in all cases in which an emergency is produced. The meeting place of the Eklesia became known as the Pnyx, highlights of the large Grandstand and bleachers in which citizens were to expose their grievances or to take the floor.

The Eklesia was located above the Bulé and certainly above the Areopagus, though as we have already said, their decisions were restricted to the issues presented by the Bulé. Its powers included from Economic Affairs to decisions on war or peace. The Eklesia function was vote judiciaries, as well as carry out the trials of residence. Also acquired this body with judicial powers that it had seized to the Areopagus as for crimes of high treason.

In the Eklesia the ideal of democracy, it reached its maximum expression, citizens, in complete equality they ruled in common their own State thanks to the commitment of the whole community.

The Heliaia

He is known by this name to the people's court whose mission was to prosecute ordinary crimes and misdemeanours appeals, while more serious crimes were the Eklesia competition. This Court was prior to Cleisthenes, which only carried out a reorganization of the same by means of which its six thousand members were distributed in ten courts of five hundred members, becoming the thousand remaining configured as alternates.

The high courts

Two were the great courts of Athens, the archons and the strategists. The first, the highest judiciary in the State, was held always by the nobility. This aristocratic and undemocratic character was attacked by Cleisthenes, which unable to eliminate the charge or democratize it, developed a process similar to the one of the Areopagus. The number of archons was elevated to ten, one for each tribe. Its role was limited to a mere administrative character as managers to enforce the decisions of the Eklesia. The only exception to this system of arcontado was the Archon Polemarco, who kept his post as Supreme Commander of the army.

On the other hand, were the strategists, elected from among the tribes at the rate of one for every tribe. Strategists headed each of the regiments contributed by tribes. All of them were under the Supreme authority of the Archon Polemarco.


The reforms of Cleisthenes were not limited to the aspects already mentioned, in an attempt to break with the old aristocratic tradition, developed a new calendar whose main characteristic was their independence from the religious and which went on to govern the Affairs of the political life.

Cleisthenes created a calendar divided into ten periods (pritanias), with which the public affairs were governed and which governed the shifts of political alternation.

The ostracism

The reform of Cleisthenes, despite his attempt not to break definitively with the aristocratic tradition, meant one revolution so much as soon as it kicked off the power to the nobility (process as saw began earlier, but that was now consolidated) to leave it in the hands of the people. The own Cleisthenes was aware of this threat, which joined the old tyrant Hippias, he threatened from exile to regain lost power. For these reasons, and in order to avoid that their reforms were destroyed, Cleisthenes established the institution of ostracism.

Ostracism was the legal capacity of the Eklesia to expel from Athens to anyone that the Assembly consider dangerous for popular sovereignty. The procedure was an absolute democracy, since once you start the process, in the Eklesia, was a meeting of citizenship where each individual broadcast a completely secret ballot containing the name of the citizen that he considered that he should depart the city. If someone obtained a minimum of six thousand votes should leave the attic within a maximum of ten days and stay away from it for at least ten years. A banishment sentence not supposed loss of citizenship, or of property, or even the family of the convicted person suffered any kind of disrepute, since after the legal deadline, the citizen could return to Attica and would recover its previous position.

Cleisthenes introduced hemlock for the enforcement of the death penalty and abolished the judicial torture to the free citizens.


The figure of Cleisthenes became one of the most important Greek historical tradition to be considered, little more or less, as the father of the State of the classical Greece. Cleisthenes was able to understand and interpret the popular feeling and developing demands calling for the village for almost a century. Proof of this is that the State born of his reforms lasted for two centuries. Thus, Athens became the most advanced state politically from his time, and which in the long run was more significant, the cradle of Western culture.

He achieved her dream, introducing equality between citizens on their rights as to the extent in which each had the right to participate in the political life of the community. He knew how to solve possible shortfalls in preparation for citizenship, which gave all of the power, to establish the collegiality and the Rotary system as unquestionable bases of its reforms. It created a laborious institutional apparatus and a whole battery of rules and regulations with which the delivery total of power to the people was viable and not ran the risk of being stuck in an endless arguments and partisan interests that blocked the State.

Cleisthenes, however, was unable to break completely with the power of the privileged classes and they benefited from its higher riches to copy the positions of State, Cleisthenes did not take into account or could not avoid, that being more disadvantaged classes not paid fees they would have difficulties to abandon poor revenues and engage in a job for which they would not receive a salary, but it was for the common good. This reform wouldn't until the time of Pericles, which would allocate a salary to the politicians. On the other hand, Cleisthenes was equally incapable of ending the censitarias classes.

According to the own Aristotle, Cleisthenes was not the inventor of democracy, since that term has not even had coined in his time, but if it was his predecessor and which laid the groundwork for subsequent legislators could develop the Greek democracy on the pillars by the willing.


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