Democracy is amongst the most defining and prized characteristics of our modern world. How and when did it begin? Scholars trace the origins back to the political reforms introduced by two Greek statesmen in the 6th century BCE. First by Solon in 594BC, and then expanded upon by his indirect successor, Cleisthenes in 508BC.

Civilization on and around the Greek mainland had long pre-dated these democratic developments. The bronze age had begun in Greece around 3150BC, and for roughly two millennia, monarchic civilization flourished. But around 1150BC, a sudden cultural collapse occurred, ushering in a four hundred year dark period, leaving little historical trace, aside from pottery of reduced sophistication.

Archaic Period (750 BC)

But then around 750BC, a renewed burst of activity occured, events again return into clearer historical view, marking the start of what is called the Archaic period. Interestingly, the historical record here indicates that noble families had already supplanted the rule of kings by this point, though it is not fully clear just how this came to pass.

Civilization was becoming more robust. Population and commerce increased, leading mother cities to spawn independent satellite colonies, eventually comprising a vast constellation around the Mediterranean.

But as civilization generally ascended, it was not without its discontent and resentment. Peasant farmers and their family members found themselves routinely sold into slavery, when poor harvests left them unable to repay debts. At the same time, a brand new middle strata of citizen-soldiers, known as "hoplites", grew increasingly frustrated at their lack of political access.

This widespread, bubbling discontent eventually drew a response, when a flurry of tyrants ("tyrannos") rose up across the Greek world, toppling aristocratic ruling families in various Greek cities. These tyrants were relatively benevolent leaders (negative connotation would only later come to be associated with the the term "tyrant"), as they rode in on popular support and attempted to address public concerns. This pattern was prevalent enough that the period became known as the "Age of the Tyrants".

Fearing the prospect of just such an overthrow in Athens, the ruling family sought to preempt the situation by appointing an emergency statesman in 594BC; his name was Solon. His task was to end an ongoing civil war, and to restore stability.

Solon

Solon entered the scene and enacted a wide array of profound reforms. He ended the problem of peasant slavery, by outlawing the option to offer oneself as collateral for a loan. Furthermore, he forgave all such outstanding debts.

But it would be political reforms that defined Solon's legacy. Solon ended the noble monopoly on power, first by abolishing birth as the requirement for high office. In doing so, Solon directly opened up political participation to non-nobles generally.

As part of this political reform, Solon vastly expanded the power of the Athenian Assembly, a body open to all male citizens over 18 years of age. Previously, the Assembly had been a mere passive body, probably meeting only when called upon to receive magistrative announcements from above. But with Solon's reforms, the Athenian Assembly was transformed overnight into a critically involved political organ. Now the Assembly would meet routinely, it would be endowed with the capacity to approve/disapprove individual items of public policy, both foreign and domestic. The Assembly was also now given the authority to determine the worthiness of magistrates who sought admission into the highest council in the land, known as the Areopagus.

After implementing these reforms, we are told that Solon received flack from both sides. Nobles thought he went too far and non-nobles thought he had not gone far enough. Believing himself to have fulfilled his usefulness, Solon voluntarily stepped away from Athens, vowing not to return for a period of ten years. He decided instead, to "see the sights" in Egypt.

In his absence, the nobles would not abide by their reduced role for long. Within a few years, elections were suspended. The situation devolved into factional strife, resulting in the rise of Athens' first tyrant, Peisistratos, in 561BC. His reign proved to be quite culturally productive, relatively peaceful, and economically beneficial to the people of Athens. His reign lasted all the way until 527BC. Peisistratos handed power over to his sons, but another round of political unrest would follow.

It would take Claisthenes in 508BC, building upon Solon's democratic foundations, to bring the system to a point where it was sturdy enough to persist. Cleisthenes brought a new level of representation to the rural masses. He vastly expanded the system of Assemblies, to include an assembly in each town, and an assembly for each of the ten newly defined political tribes. This new system meant that suddenly political participation was vastly more widespread throughout the population. Not only did Cleisthenes brilliantly re-draw administrative lines, but he scattered political affiliations between citizens, in such a way that their combined political voices would extend well beyond the reach of local nobles, who had traditionally been able to impose leverage over citizens in their vicinity.

Less than a century later, in 451BC, Rome itself would send a delegation to Athens, seeking to learn from the Greek example, as the Romans were beginning a similar political experiment in representative government.

Source: Worthington, Ian. University of Missouri-Columbia. The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World. The Great Courses, 2009.

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