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Title: Cleisthenes  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Athenian democracy, Agariste of Sicyon, Pericles, Alcibiades, Ostracism
Collection: 6Th-Century Bc Greek People, Alcmaeonidae, Ancient Athenians, Ancient Legislators, Athenian Democracy, Greek Culture, Greek People
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as "the father of Athenian democracy", 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 with increasing the power of the Athenian citizens’ assembly and for reducing the power of the nobility over Athenian politics. [3]


  • Biography 1
    • Rise to power 1.1
    • Contribution to the governance of Athens 1.2
  • Notes 2
  • References 3
    • Primary sources 3.1
    • Secondary sources 3.2
  • Further reading 4
  • External links 5


Historians estimate that Cleisthenes was born around 570 BC.[4] Cleisthenes was the uncle of Pericles' mother Agariste[5] and of Alcibiades' maternal grandfather Megacles.[6]

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 unrivalled in power within the city. Isagoras set about dispossessing hundreds of Athenians of their homes and exiling them on the pretext that they too were cursed. He also attempted to dissolve the Boule (βουλή), a council of Athenian citizens appointed to run the daily affairs of the city. However, the council resisted, and the Athenian people declared their support of the council. Isagoras and his supporters were forced to flee to the Acropolis, remaining besieged there for two days. On the third day they fled the city and were banished. Cleisthenes was subsequently recalled, along with hundreds of exiles, and he assumed leadership of Athens.[7]

Contribution to the governance of Athens

After this victory Cleisthenes began to reform the government of Athens. He commissioned a 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".[10] 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).[11] 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. Cleisthenes’ life after his reforms is unknown as no ancient texts mention him thereafter.


  1. ^ Ober, pp. 83 ff.
  2. ^ R. Po-chia Hsia, Julius Caesar, 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 30, 2011
  4. ^ The Greeks:Crucible of Civilization (2000)
  5. ^ Herodotus, Histories 6.131
  6. ^ Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1916. 4.
  7. ^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 20
  8. ^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 21
  9. ^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 21
  10. ^ Morris & Raaflaub Democracy 2500?: Questions and Challenges
  11. ^ Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, Chapter 22


Primary sources

  • Aristotle.  . See original text in Perseus program.
  • Aristotle (1984). The Athenian Constitution. P.J. Rhodes trans. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin.  

Secondary sources

  • Morris I.; Raaflaub K., eds. (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.  
  • 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.  
  • Ehrenberg, Victor (2010). From Solon to Socrates Greek History and Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries BC. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.  
  • 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.  
  • Staveley, E. S. (1972). Greek and Roman voting and elections. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Pr.  
  • Thorley, John (1996). Athenian democracy. London: Routledge.  
  • Zimmern, Alfred (1911). The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in Fifth Century Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
  • Online Information article about Cleisthenes
  • BBC – History – The Democratic Experiment
Preceded by
Tyrant of Athens Succeeded by
Athenian democracy
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