Kleisthenes and the Icons of Democracy

Mogens Hansen looks at the launch of democracy in 6th-century Athens and those who have sustained it since.

In the autumn of 1993 and in the spring of 1994 most Western countries celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of democracy. What we commemorate is, in fact, the anniversary of Kleisthenes' reform of the Athenian constitution which took place in the year 508-7 BC. In Athens as in all other Greek city-states the year began after the summer solstice, whereas to place the turn of the year after the winter solstice is a Roman and Christian tradition. Furthermore, since our calendar has omitted the year 0, the 2,500th anniversary of Kleisthenes' reforms of 508-7 BC takes place in 1993-4 and not in 1992-3. So much for the calculation of the anniversary. But what is it that we are celebrating?

In 510 BC the Peisistratid tyrants were expelled from Athens, but the revolution soon resulted in a power struggle between the ruling body of nobles (aristocrats) who returned from exile led by Kleisthenes and those who had stayed behind, led by Isagoras. When Kleisthenes found that he had no hope of success with only his aristocratic faction to help him he – as Herodotos tells us – 'took into his faction the ordinary people (the demos)'. In the end he successfully opposed Isagoras and reforming the Solonian institutions, he introduced a new form of constitution 'democracy', which was actually arising in several Greek city-states at the time.

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