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CLEISTHENES, the name of two Greek statesmen, (1) of Athens, (2) of Sicyon, of whom the first is far the more important.

1. Cleisthenes, the Athenian statesman, was the son of Megacles and Agariste, daughter of Cleisthenes of Sicyon. He thus belonged, through his father, to the noble family of the Alcmaeonidae (q.v.), who bore upon them the curse of the Cylonian massacre, and had been in exile during the rule of the Peisistratids. In the hope of washing out the stigma, which damaged their prestige, they spent the latter part of their exile in carrying out with great splendour the contract given out by the Amphictyons for the rebuilding of the temple at Delphi (destroyed by fire in 548 B.C.). By building the pronaos of Parian marble instead of limestone as specified in the contract, they acquired a high reputation for piety; the curse was consigned to oblivion, and their reinstatement was imposed by the oracle itself upon the Spartan king, Cleomenes (q.v.). Cleisthenes, to whom this far-seeing atonement must probably be attributed, had also on his side (1) the malcontents in Athens who were disgusted with the growing severity of Hippias, and (2) the oligarchs of Sparta, partly on religious grounds, and partly owing to their hatred of tyranny. Aristotle's Constitution of Athens, however, treats the alliance of the Peisistratids with Argos, the rival of Sparta in the Peloponnese, as the chief ground for the action of Sparta (c.19). In c.513 B.C. Cleisthenes invaded Attica, but was defeated by the tyrant's mercenaries at Leipsydrium (S. of Mt. Parnes). Sparta then, in tardy obedience to the oracle, threw off her alliance with the Peisistratids, and, after one failure, expelled Hippias in 511-510 B.C., leaving Athens once again at the mercy of the powerful families.

Home and foreign policy

Cleisthenes, on his return, was in a difficulty; he realized that Athens would not tolerate a new tyranny, nor were the other nobles willing to accept him as leader of a constitutional oligarchy. It was left for him to "take the people into partnership" as Peisistratus had in a different way done before him. Solon's reforms had failed, primarily because they left unimpaired the power of the great landed nobles, who, in their several districts, doubled the rôles of landlord, priest and patriarch. This evil of local influence Peisistratus had concealed by satisfying the nominally sovereign people that in him they had a sufficient representative. It was left to Cleisthenes to adopt the remaining remedy of giving substance to the form of the Solonian constitution. His first attempts roused the aristocrats to a last effort; Isagoras appealed to the Spartans (who, though they disliked tyranny, had no love for democracy) to come to his aid. Cleisthenes retired on the arrival of a herald from Cleomenes, reviving the old question of the curse; Isagoras thus became all-powerful [1] and expelled seven hundred families. The democrats, however, rose, and after besieging Cleomenes and Isagoras in the Acropolis, let them go under a safe-conduct, and brought back the exiles.

Apart from the reforms which Cleisthenes was now able to establish, the period of his ascendancy is a blank, nor are we told when and how it came to an end. It is clear, however - and it is impossible in connexion with the Pan-hellenic patriotism to which Athens laid claim, to overrate the importance of the fact - that Cleisthenes, hard pressed in the war with Boeotia, Euboea and Sparta (Herod, v. 73 and foll.), sent ambassadors to ask the help of Persia. The story, as told by Herodotus, that the ambassadors of their own accord agreed to give "earth and water" (i.e. submission) in return for Persian assistance, and that the Ecclesia subsequently disavowed their action as unauthorized, is scarcely credible. Cleisthenes (1) was in full control and must have instructed the ambassadors; (2) he knew that any help from Persia meant submission. It is practically certain, therefore, that he (cf. the Alcmaeonids and the story of the shield at Marathon) was the first to "medize" (see Curtius, History of Greece). Probably he had hoped to persuade the Ecclesia that the agreement was a mere form. Aelian says that he himself was a victim to his own device of ostracism (q.v.); this, though apparently inconsistent with the Constitution of Athens (c.22), may perhaps indicate that his political career ended in disgrace, a hypothesis which is explicable on the ground of this act of treachery in respect of the attempted Persian alliance. Whether to Cleisthenes are due the final success over Boeotia and Euboea, the planting of the 4000 cleruchs on the Lelantine Plain, and the policy of the Aeginetan War (see Aegina), in which Athens borrowed ships from Corinth, it is impossible to determine. The eclipse of Cleisthenes in all records is one of the most curious facts in Greek history. It is also curious that we do not know in what official capacity Cleisthenes carried his reforms. Perhaps he was given extraordinary ad hoc powers for a specified time; conceivably he used the ordinary mechanism. It seems clear that he had fully considered his scheme in advance, that he broached it before the last attack of Isagoras, and that it was only after the final expulsion of Isagoras and his Spartan allies that it became possible for him to put it into execution.

Analysis of his reforms

Cleisthenes aimed at being the leader of a self-governing people; in other words he aimed at making the democracy actual. He realized that the dead-weight which held the democracy down was the influence on politics of the local religious unit. Therefore his prime object was to dissociate the clans and the phratries from politics, and to give the democracy a totally new electoral basis in which old associations and vested interests would be split up and become ineffective. It was necessary that no man should govern a pocket-constituency merely by virtue of his religious, financial or ancestral prestige, and that there should be created a new local unit with administrative powers of a democratic character which would galvanize the lethargic voters into a new sense of responsibility and independence. His first step was to abolish the four Solonian tribes and create ten new ones. [2] Each of the new tribes was subdivided into "demes'" (roughly "townships"); this organization did not, except politically, supersede the system of clans and phratries whose old religious signification remained untouched. The new tribes, however, though geographically arranged, did not represent local interests. Further, the tribe names were taken from legendary heroes (Cecropis, Pandionis, Aegeis recalled the storied kings of Attica), and, therefore, contributed to the idea of a national unity; even Ajax, the eponym of the tribe Aeantis, though not Attic, was famous as an ally (Herod, v. 66) and ranked as a national hero. Each tribe had its shrine and its particular hero-cult, which, however, was free from local association and the dominance of particular families. This national idea Cleisthenes further emphasized by setting up in the market-place at Athens a statue of each tribal hero.


The next step was the organization of the deme. Within each tribe he grouped ten demes (see below), each of which had (1) its hero and its chapel, and (2) its census-list kept by the demarch. The demarch (local governor), who was elected popularly and held office for one year, presided over meetings affecting local administration and the provision of crews for the state-navy, and was probably under a system of scrutiny like the dokimasia of the state-magistrates. According to the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, Cleisthenes further divided Attica into three districts, Urban and Suburban, Inland (Mesogaios), and Maritime (Paralia), each of which was subdivided into ten trittyes; each tribe had three trittyes in each of these districts. The problem of establishing this decimal system in connexion with the demes and trittyes is insoluble. Herodotus says that there were ten [3] demes to each tribe ; but each tribe was composed of three trittyes, one in each of the three districts. Since the deme was, as will be seen, the electoral unit, it is clear that in tribal voting the object of ending the old threefold schism of the Plain, the Hill and the Shore was attained, but the relation of deme and trittys is obviously of an unsymmetrical kind. The Constitution of Athens says nothing of the ten-deme-to-each-tribe arrangement, and there is no sufficient reason for supposing that the demes originally were exactly a hundred in number. We know the names of 168 demes, and Polemon (3rd century B.C.) enumerated 173. It has been suggested that the demes did originally number exactly a hundred, and that new demes were added as the population increased. This theory, however, presupposes that the demes were originally equal in numbers. In the 5th and 4th centuries this was certainly not the case; the number of demesmen in some cases was only one hundred or two hundred, whereas the deme Acharnae is referred to as a "great part" of the whole state, and is known to have furnished three thousand hoplites. The theory is fundamentally at fault, inasmuch as it regards the deme as consisting of all those resident within its borders. In point of fact membership was hereditary, not residential; Demosthenes "of the Paeanian deme" might live where he would without severing his deme connexion. Thus the increase of population could be no reason for creating new demes. This distinction in a deme between demesmen and residents belonging to another deme (the ), who paid a deme-tax for their privilege, is an important one. It should further be noted that the demes belonging to a particular tribe do not, as a fact, appear always in three separate groups; the tribe Aeantis consisted of Phalerum and eleven demes in the district of Marathon; other tribes had demes in five or six groups. It must, therefore, be admitted that the problem is insoluble for want of data. Nor are we better equipped to settle the relation between the Cleisthenean division into Urban, Maritime and Inland, and the old divisions of the Plain, the Shore and the Upland or Hill. The "Maritime" of Cleisthenes and the old "Shore" are certainly not coincident, nor is the "Inland" identical with the "Upland."

Lastly, it has been asked whether we are to believe that Cleisthenes invented the demes. To this the answer is in the negative. The demes were undoubtedly primitive divisions of Attica; Herodotus (ix. 73) speaks of the Dioscuri as ravaging the demes of Decelea (see R.W. Macan ad loc.) and we hear of opposition between the city and the demes. The most logical conclusion perhaps is that Cleisthenes, while he did create the demes which Athens itself comprised, did not create the country demes, but merely gave them definition as political divisions. Thus the city itself had six demes in five different tribes, and the other five tribes were represented in the suburbs and the Peiraeus. It is clear that in the Cleisthenean system there was one great source of danger, namely that the residents in and about Athens must always have had more weight in elections than those in distant demes. There can be little doubt that the preponderating influence of the city was responsible for the unwisdom of the later imperial policy and the Peloponnesian war.

A second problem is the franchise reform of Cleisthenes. Aristotle in the Politics (iii. 2. 3 = 1275 b) says that Cleisthenes created new citizens by enrolling in the tribes "many resident aliens and emancipated slaves." [4] But the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens asserts that he gave "citizenship to the masses." These two statements are not compatible. It is perfectly clear that Cleisthenes is to be regarded as a democrat, and it would have been no bribe to the people merely to confer a boon on aliens and slaves. Moreover, a revision of the citizen-roll (diapsephismus) had recently taken place (after the end of the tyranny) and a great many citizens had been struck off the roll as being of impure descent . This class had existed from the time of Solon, and, through fear of political extinction by the oligarchs, had been favourable to Peisistratus. Cleisthenes may have enfranchised aliens and slaves, but it seems certain that he must have dealt with these free Athenians who had lost their rights. Now Isagoras presumably did not carry out this revision of the roll (diapsephismus); as "the friend of the tyrants" (so Ath. Pol. 20; by Meyer, Busolt and others contest this) he would not have struck a blow at a class which favoured his own views. A reasonable hypothesis is that Cleisthenes was the originator of the measure of expulsion, and that he now changed his policy, and strengthened his hold on the democracy by reinstating the disfranchised in much larger numbers. The new citizens, whoever they were, must, of course, have been enrolled also in the (hitherto exclusive) phratry lists and the deme-rolls.

The Boulē (q.v.) was reorganized to suit the new tribal arrangement, and was known henceforward as the Council of the Five Hundred, fifty from each tribe. Its exact constitution is unknown, but it was certainly more democratic than the Solonian Four Hundred. Further, the system of ten tribes led in course of time to the construction of boards of ten to deal with military and civil affairs, e.g. the Strategi (see Strategus), the Apodectae, and others. Of these the former cannot be attributed to Cleisthenes, but on the evidence of Androtion it is certain that it was Cleisthenes who replaced the Colacretae [5] by the Apodectae ("receivers"), who were controllers and auditors of the finance department, and, before the council in the council-chamber, received the revenues. The Colacretae, who had done this work before, remained in authority over the internal expenses of the Prytaneum. A further change which followed from the new tribal system was the reconstitution of the army; this, however, probably took place about 501 B.C., and cannot be attributed directly to Cleisthenes. It has been said that the deme became the local political unit, replacing the naucrary (q.v.). But the naucraries still supplied the fleet, and were increased in number from forty-eight to fifty; if each naucrary still supplied a ship and two mounted soldiers as before, it is interesting to learn that, only seventy years before the Peloponnesian War, Athens had but fifty ships and a hundred horse. [6]

The device of ostracism is the final stone in the Cleisthenean structure. An admirable scheme in theory, and, at first, in practice, it deteriorated in the 5th century into a mere party weapon, and in the case of Hyperbolus (417) became an absurdity.


In conclusion it should be noticed that Cleisthenes was the founder of the Athens which we know. To him was due the spirit of nationality, the principle of liberty duly apportioned and controlled by centralized and decentralized administration, which prepared the ground for the rich developments of the Golden Age with its triumphs of art and literature, politics and philosophy. It was Cleisthenes who organized the structure which, for a long time, bore the heavy burden of the Empire against impossible odds, the structure which the very different genius of Pericles was able to beautify. He was the first to appreciate the unique power in politics, literature and society of an organized public opinion.

AUTHORITIES - Ancient: Aristotle, Constitution of Athens (ed. J.E. Sandys), cc. 20-22, 41; Herodotus v, 63-73, vi. 131; Aristotle, Politics, iii. 2, 3 (= 1275 b, for franchise reforms). Modern: Histories of Greece in general, especially those of Grote and Curtius (which, of course, lack the information contained in the Constitution of Athens), and J.B. Bury. See also E. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (vol. ii.); G. Busolt, Griech. Gesch. (2nd ed., 1893 foll.); Milchhöfer, "Uber die Demenordnung des Kleisthenes" in appendix to Abhandlung d. Berl. Akad. (1892); R. Loeper in Athen. Mitteil. (1892), pp. 319-433; A.H.J. Greenidge, Handbook of Greek Constitutional History (1896); Gilbert, Greek Constitutional Antiquities (Eng. trans., 1895); R.W. Macan, Herodotus iv.-vi., vol. ii. (1895), pp. 127-148; U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Arist. und Athen. See also Bollē; Ecclesia; Ostracism; Naucrary; Solon.

2. Cleisthenes of Sicyon (c. 600-570), grandfather of the above, became tyrant of Sicyon as the representative of the conquered Ionian section of the inhabitants. He emphasized the destruction of Dorian predominance by giving ridiculous epithets to their tribal units, which from Hylleis, Dymanes and Pamphyli become Hyatae ("Swine-men"), Choireatae ("Pig-men") and Oneatae ("Ass-men"). He also attacked Dorian Argos, and suppressed the Homeric "rhapsodists" who sang the exploits of Dorian heroes. He championed the cause of the Delphic oracle against the town of Crisa (Cirrha) in the Sacred War (c. 590). Crisa was destroyed, and Delphi became one of the meeting-places of the old amphictyony of Anthela, henceforward often called the Delphic amphictyony. The Pythian games, largely on the initiative of Cleisthenes, were re-established with new magnificence, and Cleisthenes won the first chariot race in 582. He founded Pythian games at Sicyon, and possibly built a new Sicyonian treasury at Delphi. His power was so great that when he offered his daughter Agariste in marriage, some of the most prominent Greeks sought the honour, which fell upon Megacles, the Alcmaeonid. The story of the rival wooers with the famous retort, "Hippocleides don't care," is told in Herod. vi. 125; see also Herod, v. 67 and Thuc. i. 18.

Cleisthenes is also the name of an Athenian, pilloried by Aristophanes (Clouds, 354; Thesm. 574) as a fop and a profligate.

(J. M. M.)

[1] The archonship of Isagoras in 508 is important as showing that Cleisthenes, three years after his return, had so far failed to secure the support of a majority in Athens. There is no sufficient reason for supposing that the election of Isagoras was procured by Cleomenes; all the evidence points to its having been brought about in the ordinary way. Probably, therefore, Cleisthenes did not take the people thoroughly into partnership till after the spring of 508.

[2] The explanation given for this step by Herodotus (v. 67) is an amusing example of his incapacity as a critical historian. To compare Cleisthenes of Sicyon (see below), bent on humiliating the Dorians of Sicyon by giving opprobrious names to the Dorian tribes, with his grandson, whose endeavour was to elevate the very persons whose tribal organization he replaced, is clearly absurd.

[3] Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Arist. und Athen, pp. 149-150) suggests , "in ten batches," instead of .

[4] It should be observed that there are other translations of the difficult phrase .

[5] Colacretae were very ancient Athenian magistrates; either (1) those who "cut up the joints" in the Prytaneum ), or (2) those who "collected the joints" ) which were left over from public sacrifices, and consumed in the Prytaneum. These officials were again important in the time of Aristophanes (Wasps, 693, 724; Birds, 1541), and they presided over the payment of the dicasts instituted by Pericles. They are not mentioned, though they may have existed, after 403 B.C. At Sicyon also magistrates of this name are found.

[6] It is, however, more probable that the right reading of the passage is instead of , which would give a cavalry force in early Athens of 480, a reasonable number in proportion to the total fighting strength.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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