Who was Kleisthenes?

Kleisthenes was an Athenian aristocrat born around 570 BC – and a man, Professor Michael Scott argues, who might be regarded as the founding father of democracy. It was Kleisthenes, says Scott, who implemented “an extraordinary set of changes” that allowed Athenian men from various financial and social backgrounds to contribute equally to the city’s governance. It was a form of democracy – though not quite how we would recognise it today.

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Kleisthenes's life

“Kleisthenes isn’t the kind of person you might imagine the father of Athenian democracy to be,” explains Scott. Rather than a young, revolutionary idealist, he was a “well-seasoned, well-wrinkled Athenian aristocrat”.

And Kleisthenes was not just an aristocrat, but the maternal grandson of a famous tyrant. On his father’s side, he descended from one of the most elite families in Athens, the Alcmaeonids, who had “been at the epicentre” of politics for over a century and a half.

The creation of Kleisthenes’s governmental system between 510 and 508 BC began in a bid to turn the tables on his opponent, Isagoras. No one had previously attempted to enlist the support of the Athenian masses and Kleisthenes was intelligent enough, Scott says, to realise there was a great number of people who had not been given a voice. So, Kleisthenes added them to his faction by promising them “greater power and a greater say”.

Isagoras relied on Sparta to support him, and the Athenian masses did not approve of his bringing in an outsider army. In response, they barricaded Isagoras and his troops in the Acropolis until they agreed to surrender and leave the city entirely. At that moment, Scott explains, Kleisthenes realised there was a mass of people promised a voice if they supported him, and he had to deliver.

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There is much debate over Kleisthenes’s true initial intentions. “People really argue over this guy,” says Scott. “Was he an idealist who, despite spending his entire life in the bickering politics of Athens, was nurturing a flame for the masses to have a voice? Or was he just a scheming realist who was looking for any edge he could get at the time, and then realised he actually had to deliver on that?”

Historian Michael Scott (Picture by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)
Historian Michael Scott (Picture by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)

Despite the contention surrounding his motives, Kleisthenes did deliver his promise to the Athenians. He completely rewrote the ways in which people contributed to the city, and split Attica [the region controlled by Athens] into 30 groups called trittyes. Three trittyes – one from the city of Athens, inland Attica, and the coast of Attica – were combined to make a tribe. The 30 trittyes produced 10 tribes, and these tribes dictated how Athenians carried out military service and participated in the council. They also allowed every man, regardless of their location and social status, to engage with politics and business.

“Suddenly everyone in Athens, whether you were an elite aristocrat or whether you were the lowest born Athenian citizen, had a new way of engaging with the politics and business of Athens,” says Scott. “And it was all done through your tribe, forcing you to work with people who actually weren't geographically close to you and thus were not part or only a small part of the same old aristocratic landed support networks.”

Kleisthenes’s reforms were undoubtedly sweeping but, when we consider his legacy, Scott notes the importance of disentangling Athenian democracy from our modern definition. For instance, women were not involved in this system, and it was one entirely based on slavery. “What we see as the beginning of our journey is a system that we would not want to recognise as democracy today.”

It was a war that prevented Kleisthenes’s reforms from being ripped up by the next aristocrat to come along. Just two years later, in 506 BC, the Athens was at war with Boeotia. “Athens scored a massive victory in a way that they really weren't expecting to,” says Scott. This victory was interpreted as people fighting for themselves – “not for a tyrant, a ruler, or an aristocratic club”. Very quickly, the new system seemed somehow responsible for enabling military superiority.

This military superiority was evidenced yet again in 490 BC, in the battle of Marathon, when the Athenians beat the Persians, and again a decade later at battles of Salamis and Plataea. These three major military conflicts, Scott says, helped convince people that they were stronger under their new system.

What is strange about Kleisthenes’s story is that, after his instigation of these major changes, he disappears from the sources entirely. People assume that he perished soon after 508 BC and, therefore, “he died never knowing quite how extraordinary and how long lasting his ideas really were going to be”.

Why does Kleisthenes deserve his 15 minutes of fame?

Kleisthenes deserves his 15 minutes of fame, Scott says, because “in the muddied, difficult, confused atmosphere of following 508 BC, when everyone's looking to him to deliver on his promises, he really comes up with two brilliant new ideas for how to structure Athenian society and how to give everyone a chance to play their part in Athenian society.

“He's given people, everyone, a new way of engaging with the new political system,” he adds, “and at the same time made it possible that anyone could actually end up on its governing council.”

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Michael Scott is an ancient historian, and professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick. He has written and presented a range of television and radio documentaries for ITV, BBC, National Geographic, and History Channel. Michael was talking to Kev Lochun. Listen to the full interview and find more episodes in our 15 minutes of fame podcast series

Authors

Lauren GoodDigital Editorial Assistant, HistoryExtra

Lauren Good is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra, She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy

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