Cleisthenes: History, Accomplishments, Reforms & Quotes

Occupying the office of chief archon (chief magistrate) in Athens around 525 BC, Cleisthenes of Athens kick-started massive democratic reforms when he sided with the people’s Assembly to clip the power of Athenian nobles. Cleisthenes, who is generally known as the Father of Athenian Democracy, is famed for introducing those changes, particularly in the legal, social, economic, and constitutional landscapes of ancient Athens, which in turn enabled more citizens to participate in the governance of Athens.

Who was Cleisthenes and what were some of his major contributions to development of democracy in world history?

Below is the biography, accomplishments and major quotes by Cleisthenes, a statesman whose works impacted world history and continue to shape the world we live in today.

Also known as the Father of Athenian Democracy, Cleisthenes is most famous for introducing huge reforms that in so many ways contributed immensely in advancing Athenian democracy. | Cleisthenes – biography and achievements

Quick facts about Cleisthenes of Athens

Born: c. 570 BC

Died: c. 507 BC

Family: The Alcmaeonids

Mother: Agariste of Sicyon

Father: Megacles, son of Alcmeon

Offspring: Megacles

Grandparent: Cleisthenes of Sicyon

Major achievement: Democratic reforms in Attica

Also known as: Father of Athenian Democracy

Cleisthenes is said to have hailed from the very influential Athenian family the Alcmaeonid. His family produced many statesmen that helped the affairs of the city for a very long time, perhaps since the early Archaic period.

Cleisthenes’ family

Cleisthenes was the son of Athenian statesman Megacles, one of the powerful men during the era of Solon and Greek tyrant Peisistratus. One of Cleisthenes’ ancestors was also known as Megacles the Elder, the statesman who orchestrated the murder of Cylon and his supporters in 612 BC.

The Alcmaeonidae Curse

The actions of Megacles the Elder, Cleisthenes’ great-grandfather, during his time as chief archon tarnished the image of the family for a very long time. His opponent Cylon was attempting to capture the Acropolis of Athens in order to rise to the status of tyrant. Not only did Cleisthenes’ great-grandfather stop Cylon, but he also ruthlessly murdered scores of Cylon’s supporters.

With many of the families of the murdered supporters of Cylon laying the blame at the door step of Megacles, a curse (from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi) was placed on the Alcmaeonids, resulting in many of Cleisthenes’ family members committing themselves into exile for quite a long time.

Due to Megacles’ cruel actions against Cylon and his supporters a powerful curse was thrown at the Alcmaeonid family, forcing many of them to flee Athens and go into exile. Megacles was Cleisthenes’ great-grandfather. The Alcmaeonid family also had famous statesmen and scholars like Axiochus, Xanthippus and Pericles. | Image: Bust of Pericles in the British Museum, dated 1911. One of the most famous Alcmaeonidae, Pericles was an Athenian general, orator, and statesmen.

The return of Cleisthenes’ family

Following the rise in power and prominence of Athens’ foremost lawgiver Solon, the Alcmaeonids (Cleisthenes’ family) made a comeback into the political landscape of Athens. Together with Solon, the Alcmaeonidae were in favor of political and social reforms to help avert a possible civil war in the last decade of the 6th century BC.

Cleisthenes’ family fought against the tyrant Cleisthenes of Sicyon

Cleisthenes’ grandfather Alcmeon was heavily involved in defending the new political landscape of Athens under Solon’s reforms. Alcmeon marched an Athenian army against the likes of Thessaly and the tyrant Cleisthenes of Sicyon.

Interestingly, the tyrant Cleisthenes of Sicyon, the man who once tried to seize the Oracle of Delphi, gave his daughter’s (Agariste) hand in marriage to Alcmeon’s son Megacles. From the union between Megacles and Agariste came forth a number of children, including Cleisthenes of Athens.

The Alcmaeonids’ devotion to the oracle at Delphi saw them invest heavily in rebuilding the temple of Apollo. Cleisthenes’ family came to the aid of the oracle after it had been razed to the ground in 548 BC.

Did you know: The statesman Cleisthenes of Athens was named after his maternal grandfather Cleisthenes of Sicyon, the tyrant?

How Cleisthenes’ family tried to broker peace between two polar factions in Athens

Solon’s reforms were met with great applause from the non-noble folks in Athens and its surroundings (i.e. Attica). However, Athenian nobles were aggrieved as they criticized Solon’s reforms for being excessive. Wanting to gain back their power in the city, the nobles tried to derail those reforms. Cleisthenes’ family, the Alcmaeonids, immersed themselves as the peace brokers.

Second exile of Cleisthenes’ family

In the ensuing negotiations, Peisistratus, a powerful noble and renowned military man, took advantage of the situation and seized power in 560 BC. Peisistratus had carefully appealed to and secured the support of the masses and the poor.

After a failed attempt to wrestle power out of the hands of the tyrant Peisistratus, Cleisthenes’ family was forced to go into exile again around 546 BC. At the time, Cleisthenes was in his mid-20s. The future Athenian statesman would remain in exile for more than two decades before returning to Athens.

Cleisthenes’ rising influence in Athens

After the death of the tyrant Peisistratus around 527 BC, Cleisthenes and a number of his family members returned to Athens. The period marked the rise in political influence of Cleisthenes. In 525 BC, he was elected chief archon (i.e. chief magistrate) of Athens.

About a decade later, around 512 BC, Cleisthenes and his family was again on the receiving end of fierce resistance to their power. That resistance came from Peisistratus’ successor Hippias. Ultimately, Cleisthenes’ helped his family defeat Hippias.

How Cleisthenes’ gained the support of the Popular Assembly

With Hippias driven out of Athens, Isagoras of Athens became chief archon in 508 BC. Cleisthenes then started to work on getting the trust of the common folks of Athens. He worked with the popular Assembly to enact reforms to make the government run with a popular consent. However just as those reforms were about to be implemented, Isagoras had convinced the Spartans to intervene and expel Cleisthenes and his family out of Athens.

The people of Athens threw their support in favor of Cleisthenes just in time to halt Isagoras’ plan. The popular Assembly recalled Cleisthenes and his family back to Athens.

Cleisthenes’ contributions to Athenian democracy

Cleisthenes was a long opponent of the unfair and sometimes biased privileges people enjoyed in the upper echelons of Athenian society by virtue of their family’s history. He, therefore, set out to reform the political system of Athens. He saw himself as the statesman to fully realize the aspirations of Solon’s acclaimed reforms.

He was able to convince the popular Assembly to support reforms that dissociated family/clan/kinship from political pursuits. With those reforms, power was able to move from a few powerful families to the locality. Real power was placed in the hands of elected citizens of the deme (i.e. district/county). Regardless of one’s father’s political or economic status, the common people (plebs) could aspire to become county or district officials and administrators.

Cleisthenes encouraged the compilation of the names of male citizens 18 and above in the various demes. This allowed the common people to get civic rights that were for a long time declined to them. Records of properties of the members of the demes of Attica were kept, which in turn allowed the district to put taxes on them.

When it came to the composition of the Athenian Boule (i.e. the Council of Five Hundred), Cleisthenes’ reforms allowed for the members (the bouleti) to be selected from each Attica deme. The number of members from each deme was dependent on the size of the deme.

During the time of Cleisthene, there existed about 100 demes. Two centuries later, that number had ballooned to around 170. All of those demes collaborated with each other for the overall progress and unity of Athenian society. This is testament to the immense contribution of Cleisthenes and his democratic reforms.

Other major achievements of Cleisthenes

Cleisthenes helped popularize phrases such as “equal rights and justice for all”. By the virtue of the reforms he pushed for, it is clear that he truly tried to walk the talk on those principles.

Another very important accomplishment of Cleisthenes came in the form of people’s surnames and names. Prior to Cleisthenes’ reforms, a father’s name was everything for an Athenian citizen. This practice helped perpetuate bias and nepotism in all areas of Athenian culture. Cleisthenes instituted a practice where people were known by their names or their names along with their father’s name.

Cleisthenes worked hard to get rid of four powerful Ionic blood tribes. In their place, he elevated the status and power of 10 local tribes. Historians reason that Cleisthenes took this decision in order to make Athenian politics less faction-based. The 10 tribes had members from all over Athens, including people from the coastal as well as the inland areas.

He increased the Solonian Council of Four Hundred to 500. Each of the 10 local tribes elected 50 members from the various demes to the council.

READ MORE: Top 15 Most Influential Leaders from ancient Greece

More Cleisthenes facts

  • Cleisthenes of Athens, the Greek statesman of the 6th century BC, is best remembered for working very hard to increase the common people’s participation in public life. Isonomia was the term given to those principles of equality and justice.
  • Like many of the writers and scholars that came after Cleisthenes, famous Greek historian Herodotus was full of praise of Cleisthenes. The historian described Cleisthenes as “the man who introduced the tribes and the democracy”.
  • In so many regards, the reorganization of the four tribes into the 10 new tribes was aimed at making Athenian military force more powerful. In addition to having the power to decide whether one was Athenian or not, the tribe set the regulations for military service.
  • Prior to Cleisthenes, membership into the old four Ionian tribes was based on family descent. With Cleisthenes’ new and improved system of governance, descent was scrapped off in favor of a more democratic system.
  • In Cleisthenes’ time, the Council of Five Hundred was reorganized, allowing it to be better equipped to prepare the city’s political and administrative business for the popular Assembly.
  • There were about 140 demes during Cleisthenes’ time. Those demes were given a quota of councilors to make up the Council of Five Hundred. In some cases up to 23 councilors came from one deme.
  • The Cleisthenic changes were praised for allowing Attica prepare adequately to ward off invasions from Boeotian and Euboeon states
  • He allowed the deme to acquire an identity and influence that it did not have prior to the reforms. The deme was not merely an important political unit, it was said to be agricultural, financial, legal, cultural, and most importantly a religious unit of ancient Athens.
  • After scraping off a government system which was based on heredity or family descent, Cleisthenes kept the older social structures that allowed religion to be part and parcel of an individual’s civic identity. For example, the 10 tribes, which had active cults, were named after heroes in Athenian or Salaminian mythologies.

Famous quote

Cleisthenes quote | Cleisthenes’ greatest contribution to Athenian society came in the form of his democratic reforms that allowed citizens to participate in the public life. Prior to Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms Attica was rocked by decades of aristocratic party feud.

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