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The Government and Laws of Ancient Greece. By Timothy Callery. The History of Athens’ Government. 1. City of Athens founded in about 700 B.C. 2. Cleisthenes Born 570 B.C. 3. Oligarchy as Government until Pisistratus in 547 B.C.

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the history of athens government
The History of Athens’ Government

1. City of Athens founded in about 700 B.C.

2. Cleisthenes Born 570 B.C.

3. Oligarchy as Government until Pisistratus in 547 B.C.

4. Monarchy under Pisistratus and his son 547 B.C.-510 B.C.

5. Pisistratus son’s monarchy falls 510 B.C.

6. Athenian government organized by Cleisthenes About 510 B.C.

7. Isagoras seizes power with “The Four Hundred” Assembly in 508 B.C.

8. Isagoras Overthrown by Athenian people in 507 B.C.

9. Cleisthenes brought back to the city and helps organize the democracy of Athens in 507 B.C.

10.Athenian “Golden Age” with Pericles as lead figure in Athens from 470 B.C.- about 450 B.C.

11.Athens surrenders to Philip II and is part of the Greek Empire in about 338 B.C.


What is an oligarchy, you may ask?

An oligarchy is a system of government in which the richest and most powerful citizens rule over the city or country. The complete definition is “the richest and most powerful citizens controlled decision-making” [Our World]. These citizens were called aristocrats. They took what the peasants who worked in the fields, shops, and workshops of the city in return for protection. This is a little bit like an early version of feudalism, in which only nobles had major power. Most city-states in the Classical [city-state] Greek Era had this form of government. Cleisthenes, the person who used the Greek Solon’s idea of democracy [who founded Athens’s democracy] was the son of aristocratic parents


What is a Monarchy?

A monarchy is a government under control of one monarch, or simply a king and/or queen. In Athens, Pisistratus, and then his son were monarchs. Monarchs who had a son or daughter passed on power to their child to keep the family in power. This is what a monarch wanted to do, so that his family would stay in power. The organization of a monarchy was simple, but strict. A monarch usually also had a court, which was a group of nobles and close friends that gave the monarch advice or did a service to help him or her rule. This was really the only branch of government besides a court for trials and cases. Many city-states also had this form of government.

the first democracy in athens
The First Democracy in Athens

After Isagoras’ cruel rule over Athens angered the people, and in a stunning event, Isagoras surrendered. He had banished the aristocrats from Athens, but the people brought them back for help in organizing their new government. Cleisthenes, a strong supporter, of Solon’s idea of democracy, helped the people in forming and organized democracy. No city-state of Greece, or anywhere in the world had this form of government. It was a revolution in government, but this idea of a “government of the people”, or “rule by the people” [definitions of democracy] needed a lot of work. A full dissection of the word is demos=people, cratos= government by. Cleisthenes had to organize a WHOLE ENTIRE government that would make the people happy and content. He based most of the government on voting and people’s decisions. All of the citizens were important in ALL decisions.

organization of the government
Organization of the Government

Pynx [Assembly]--The Assembly was where any citizen could speak up and talk about things that they wanted to change; from the price of rugs, to an important military campaign. The assembly had about 6,000 people in it, and met about every 9 days. All citizens voted on these subjects in the assembly, including ostracizing. Ostracizing was when the Athenian assembly used shards of pottery with names on them, and whoever’s name appeared the most was banished from the city once a year, usually because the people thought that the citizen was gaining too much power. When they voted on normal matters, they used certain color stones, preferably grayish white, and dark gray. They threw them in a vase or pot, and when the vote was over, the pot was tipped over and they counted the votes.

Court/Jury--The Court was where all criminal cases were heard, though, the Athenian court was very different from our modern court. There were NO lawyers for anyone, but they did have a jury, and usually organizers/judges who were both paid. The jury voted on how the case’s outcome went, and the judges finalized it. Usually, the prosecutors would win these crude cases, because there were no lawyers. In Pericles’ funeral speech, he says that the free, equal, and represented Athenian citizens live “lawless”, even though there were laws, but not laws like: “You must obey the King’s orders or you will be hanged.” You could also say that the laws for all citizens were equal.

  • The People’s Court- Democratic Court- Faced with less important crimes
  • The Areopagus- Before Democracy- “High Court”- Faced with more important cases

The council [Senate] of the 500- The Council of the 500 was a kind of like our Senate today. The council proposed laws and decrees for the assembly to vote on. It was organized by ten Athenian districts/tribes who were in a group of people called a deme with fifty people representing each district chosen by a lottery, or random choosing of people. The people who were in the council were paid to do this, and they could only be in the council twice in their lifetime.

pericles funeral speech
Pericles’ Funeral Speech

Pericles’ Funeral Speech shows that the Athenian people, in theory, the common citizen, were some of the best-treated, and most equal people I the world at the time. Pericles says that Athens should be a leader in revolutionary ideas and systems that make their city-state great. Their government overall, is the best in Greece because it promotes rewards, excellence, and equality to all people. This equality can give you opportunities in life that other Greek citizens couldn't have. The opportunity is an opportunity for new ideas, products, systems, and other things are welcome, unlike in other Greek states. This equality overall gives the Athenians action to be involved politically, and in many other ways. The speech of Pericles at his funeral is really an overview of Athenian ethics, because it shows the equality, flexibility, and opportunity in Athens.

demosthenes lycurgus and plutarch quotes
Demosthenes, Lycurgus, and Plutarch Quotes

.“The things which in the main uphold our democracy and preserve the city’s prosperity [wealth] are three in number: first the system of laws, second the vote of the jury, and the third the method of prosecution by which crimes are handed over to them [the juries].”-Lycurgus

. “The …. power that calls together the Council, draws the people into the Assembly, fills the juries, and makes the old archons resign readily to the new, and enables the whole life of the State to be carried on and preserved…is the laws and the obedience that all men yield to the laws; since, if once they [the laws] were done away with and every man were given license [freedom] to do as he liked, not only does the constitution [the government] vanish, but our life would not differ from that of the beasts of the field.” –Demosthenes

. “Solon wanted to leave all the courts in the hands of the well-to-do, as they were, but wanted to give the common people a share in the rest of the government of which they had before been blocked. So, Solon divided up the citizens into four classes: the first class were those who made five hundred measures a year… the second class were those who were able to keep a horse or who made three hundred measures a year…the third class were those who made two hundred measures a year. All the rest were called the Thetes. They were not allowed to hold any political office, but took part in the government only as members of the assembly and as jurors.”

“This last privilege …proved to be of the very highest importance, since most legal disputes came into the hands of these jurors…. Every dispute was laid before them, so that they were in a manner the masters of the law…. Moreover, thinking it was his duty to help the weak majority of people, Solon gave every citizen the privilege of suing on behalf of anyone who had suffered a wrong or a crime.”-Plutarch


. “Greeks: Crucible of Civilization”

. Our World Textbook

.PBS “Greeks: Crucible of Civilization” Site

.Pericles’ Funeral Speech

. Mr. Baskin’s Notes on Athenian Democracy

. Mr. Baskin’s Essay on Athenian Democracy