Cleisthenes is known as "the father of Athenian democracy". Modern bust, on view at the Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio.

Cleisthenes (Greek: Κλεισθένης, also Clisthenes or Kleisthenes) was a noble Athenian of the Alcmaeonid family. He is credited with reforming the constitution of ancient Athens and setting it on a democratic footing in 508/7 BC.[1] For these accomplishments, historians refer to him as "the father of Athenian democracy."[2] He was the maternal grandson of the tyrant Cleisthenes of Sicyon, as the younger son of the latter's daughter Agariste and her husband Megacles. Also, he was credited for increasing power of assembly and he also broke up power of nobility for Athens.[3]



Cleisthenes was the uncle of Pericles' mother Agariste[4] and of Alcibiades' maternal grandfather Megacles.[5]

Rise to power

With help from the Alcmaeonidae (Cleisthenes' genos, "clan"), he was responsible for overthrowing Hippias, the tyrant son of Pisistratus. After the collapse of Hippias' tyranny, Isagoras and Cleisthenes were rivals for power, but Isagoras won the upper hand by appealing 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, and Isagoras was unrivaled in power within the city. Isagoras set about uprooting hundreds of people from their homes on the pretext that they too were cursed, and attempted to dissolve the council (βουλή, boulê). However, the council resisted, and the Athenian people declared their support of it. Hence Isagoras and his supporters were forced to flee to the Acropolis, remaining besieged there for two days. On the third, they fled and were banished. Cleisthenes was subsequently recalled, along with hundreds of exiles, and he assumed leadership of Athens.[6]


After this victory Cleisthenes began to reform the government of Athens. In order to forestall strife between the traditional clans, which had led to the tyranny in the first place, he changed the political organization from the four traditional tribes, which were based on family relations, into ten tribes according to their area of residence (their deme). Most modern historians suppose there were 139 demes (this is still a matter of debate), organized into thirty groups called trittyes ("thirds"), with ten demes divided among three regions in each trittyes (a city region, asty; a coastal region, paralia; and an inland region, mesogeia).[7] Cleisthenes also abolished patronymics in favour of demonymics (a name given according to the deme to which one belongs), thus increasing Athenians' sense of belonging to a deme.[8] He also established legislative bodies run by individuals chosen by lottery, a true test of real democracy, rather than kinship or heredity. He reorganized the Boule, created with 400 members under Solon, so that it had 500 members, 50 from each tribe. He also introduced the bouletic oath, "To advise according to the laws what was best for the people".[9] The court system (Dikasteria — law courts) was reorganized 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 around forty times a year for this purpose. The bills proposed could be rejected, passed or returned for amendments by the assembly.

Cleisthenes also may have introduced ostracism (first used in 487 BC), whereby a vote from more than 6,000 of the citizens would exile a citizen for 10 years. The initial trend was to vote for a citizen deemed a threat to the democracy e.g. 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 485/84 BC).[10] 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.

Cleisthenes called these reforms isonomia ("equality vis à vis law", iso=equality; nomos=law), instead of demokratia. Soon after his reforms his life becomes a mystery, as no ancient texts mention him thereafter. It is possible that Cleisthenes himself suffered ostracism, for seeking support from the Persians against the Spartans.[citation needed]

Cleisthenes' ideas revolutionised the way of thinking in Hellas at the time.[citation needed] But even Cleisthenes could not bring full change to Athens, and old institutions of the rich aristoi still existed, such as the areopagus.[citation needed] However, some scholars would argue that modern day western politics are shaped by his work.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Ober, pp. 83 ff.
  2. ^ R. Po-chia Hsia, Lynn Hunt, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, and Bonnie G. Smith, The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures, A Concise History, Volume I: To 1740 (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 44.
  3. ^ Langer, William L. (1968) The Early Period, to c. 500 B.C. An Encyclopedia of World History (Fourth Edition pp. 66). Printed in the United States of America: Houghton Mifflin Company. Accessed: January 29, 2011
  4. ^ Herodotus. The Histories, 6.131
  5. ^ Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1916. 4.
  6. ^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 20
  7. ^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 21
  8. ^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 21
  9. ^ Morris & Raaflaub Democracy 2500?: Questions and Challenges
  10. ^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 22


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Morris I.; Raaflaub K., ed (1998). Democracy 2500?: Questions and Challenges. Kendal/Hunt Publishing Co. 
  • Ober, Josiah (2007). "I Besieged That Man, Democracy's Revolutionary Start". Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520245624. 
  • Lévêque, Pierre; Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1996). Cleisthenes the Athenian: An Essay on the Representation of Space and Time in Greek Political Thought from the End of the Sixth Century to the Death of Plato. Humanities Press. 

Further reading

  • Davies, J.K. (1993). Democracy and classical Greece. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674196074. 
  • Ehrenberg, Victor (2010). From Solon to Socrates Greek History and Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries BC.. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780203844779. 
  • Forrest, William G. (1966). The Emergence of Greek Democracy, 800-400 BC. New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  • Hignett, Charles (1952). A History of the Athenian Constitution to the End of the Fifth Century BC. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Larsen, Jakob A. O. (1948). "Cleisthenes and the Development of the Theory of Democracy at Athens". In Konvitz, Milton R.; Murphy, Arthur E. Essays in Political Theory Presented to George H. Sabine. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 
  • O'Neil, James L. (1995). The origins and development of ancient Greek democracy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 084767956X. 
  • Staveley, E. S. (1972). Greek and Roman voting and elections.. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Pr.. ISBN 0801406935. 
  • Thorley, John (1996). Athenian democracy. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415129672. 
  • Zimmern, Alfred (1911). The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in Fifth Century Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

External links

Preceded by
Tyrant of Athens Succeeded by
Athenian democracy

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  • Cleisthenes — [klīs′thə nēz΄] fl. c. 500 B.C.; Athenian statesman …   English World dictionary

  • Cleisthenes — Cleisthenes …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Cleisthenes — aštriasnukės plekšnės statusas T sritis zoologija | vardynas taksono rangas gentis atitikmenys: lot. Cleisthenes rus. остроголовые камбалы ryšiai: platesnis terminas – plekšninės siauresnis terminas – aštriasnukė plekšnė …   Žuvų pavadinimų žodynas

  • Cleisthenes — or Clisthenes biographical name circa 570 after 508 B.C. Athenian statesman …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Cleisthenes — /kluys theuh neez /, n. active c515 c495 B.C., Athenian statesman. Also, Clisthenes. * * * …   Universalium

  • Cleisthenes — Cleis•the•nes [[t]ˈklaɪs θəˌniz[/t]] n. big anh fl. c515–c495 b.c., Athenian statesman …   From formal English to slang

  • Cleisthenes — /ˈklaɪsθəniz/ (say kluysthuhneez) noun fl. 508 BC, Athenian statesman; important in the founding of Athenian democracy …   Australian English dictionary

  • Cleisthenes — /kluys theuh neez /, n. active c515 c495 B.C., Athenian statesman. Also, Clisthenes …   Useful english dictionary

  • Cleisthenes herzensteini — Conservation status Not evaluated Scientific classification Kingdom: Animalia Phylum …   Wikipedia

  • Cleisthenes (genus) — Cleisthenes Scientific classification Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Class: Actinopterygii …   Wikipedia

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