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The history of Europe's first civilisation, that of Ancient Greece, is very obscure at least until the 6th.century B.C. It is believed that the Hellenes (Greeks) developed from the amalgamation of two distinct waves of migrants into the region:

A. The Achaeans

Bronze-users who possibly originated from the northern shores of the Black Sea who established the first fixed communities around 1400 B.C. These fixed communities developed into cities but it has to be said that little or nothing is known of them except from archeological finds and from Homer. (The Iliad and The Odyssey).

B. The Dorians

Iron-users who moved into the Greek peninsula around 1100 B.C. Culturally less developed than their Achaean neighbours they were more advanced in metallurgy which gave them a distinct advantage in warfare.




Bust of Cleisthenes



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Introduction to Ancient Athens

The Archaic Period c.1100 B.C.- 508 B.C.

The topography of Ancient Greece largely determined its political development. This mountainous peninsula with fertile plains isolated one from the other, except by the sea, imposed an isolation on the developing cities, which explains their independence from each other and the wide contrast in their systems of government. In consequence the Ancient Greeks shared only two things in common:

  • their language

  • their religion

By the 7th.century B.C. the independent city-state had been firmly established. This was the Polis. As the Greeks were the first civilisation to believe that the organization of society and the relationship between those who governed (the government) and those who were governed (the people) were not imposed by divine command - as had been the case in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, we still use today the same term politics, "the affairs of the city", determined not by gods but by men.

We do know, however, that it was in the poleis of Ancient Greece that almost every known form of government was experienced:

  • monarchy (the rule of one by constitutional means)

  • aristocracy (the rule of the best)

  • oligarchy (the rule of a few)

  • tyranny (the rule of one by unconstitutional means, usually by force, though with very important exceptions, as in the case of Athens).

  • democracy (rule of the people)

  • anarchy (no government). This was more a philosophical debating point than a reality.


Early Athenian Government

Our only source of information concerning Athens before the 6th. century is "The Constitution of Athens" certainly written in the 4th century B.C. probably by Aristotle.

During the Archaic Period Athens was governed by kings (as it would seem were the other Greek city-states of the time). The king, or basileus, was aided by a council of wealthy landowners from every region of Attica called the Areopagus, but as time passed these aristocrats, hungry for power, forced the kings to appoint an Archon. The archon was always an aristocrat appointed for one year who, with time, took over increasingly more executive power from the king until Athens, though still theoretically a monarchy, was really an aristocratic oligarchy.

Although Athens had a citizens' assembly called the Ecclesia which elected the chief magistrates of the city, real power remained in the hands of the archons aided by the Areopagus, therefore in the hands of the aristocratic minority.

The first recorded attempt to overthrow this aristocratic dictatorship was undertaken by Cylon in the 7th.century B.C. He was himself an aristocrat and this attempt to impose a tyranny was foiled primarily by the hoplites (citizen-soldiers).

However, by the early 6th.century the division between rich land owning aristocracy and the mass of the ordinary citizens had grown so great that the threat of popular revolt became a serious threat.


The Reforms of Solon (594-593 B.C.)

Solon as Archon attempted to defuse a potentially dangerous situation by cancelling the debts of poor farmers and abolishing slavery as the punishment for debt. Solon was no philanthropist - he realised that his own ruling class was in real danger of violent physical suppression unless the increasingly insupportable burdens of the poor were reduced. Although the aristocratic dominance of government and society was maintained an entire new class of Athenian citizens became eligible for service in the government recruited from the wealthy commercial and skilled artisan classes.

After his archonship Solon left Athens. He did this to see how his reforms were accepted by the Athenians without his presence. Within a very short time the situation in Athens became dramatic. The aristocracy attempted to re-establish their privileges and, of course, they were met with violent opposition.

N.B. In the history of Ancient Athens families or dynasties of aristocrats played a predominant role. Solon was of the Alcmeonides dynasty as were most of the major political figures of Athens. What is remarkable about Athenian democracy is the fact that it was not won for the common people by popular uprisings or civil war. It was imposed from above, in other words by members of the aristocratic élite - and in this context particularly by the Alcmeonides.

In 546 A.D. a quite remarkable character established himself as tyrant in Athens. He had previously attempted to obtain power by military coups d'état, all them unsuccessful. His most powerful allies in these attempts had been the Alcmeonides but as soon as he had achieved power he systematically dismantled the power of the Athenian aristocracy. This was Peisistratos. He was a tyrant but a very popular one.

For almost twenty years Peisistratos maintained peace, aided poor farmers by imposing a small sales tax on all merchandise which was then loaned to them interest-free, improved the water supply and rebuilt many quarters of the city.


The Reforms of Cleisthenes 508 B.C.

After Peistratos Athens, once again, fell into chaos as conflicting social classes confronted each other. Another member of the highly- regarded Alcmeonides family was on hand. Cleisthenes is now considered to be "the father of Athenian democracy"


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© Keith Woodall 2018

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