Classics Cleisthenes
Charlotte Schubert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0168


In 508/7 BCE and the following years the Alkmeonid Cleisthenes reorganized the Athenian phylai and demes. He set up ten new phylai in Athens bringing together the different regions of Attica (city, inland, coastal region) in a complex system of demes and trittyes. He established the Council of Five Hundred and created the office of the ten strategoi. Due to the reform, the civil rights of all Athenians were redefined, and new cults (for the phylai) and festivals (the Great Dionysia) established a new civil identity. A long discussion centers on the question whether we should see the reform in its relation to Solon’s reforms or the preceding tyranny in Athens or more related to the subsequent development of democracy in the 5th century. With regard to the institutional development in Athens, the main question is when democracy in Athens began (with Solon, with Cleisthenes, or later in the 5th century). Fundamental issues of the recent discussion are: How to define roots of egalitarianism and people’s power in archaic Greece? Was the development of Athenian democracy inevitable or already laid out in the reforms of Solon, or was it rather due to external circumstances like the military confrontation with the Persians? What were Cleisthenes’s motives (see An Emerging Democratic Ideology and Isonomia: The New Political Order)? Studies not only of cult, ritual, and performance but also of the archeology of the Agora and especially of the demes of Attica are giving new impetus to the discussion (see Archaeology of the Reform and Cultural and Political Context of the Reform).

General Overviews

Bleicken 2008, Hansen 1999, Hignett 1975, and Ostwald 1986 provide accounts of the history of the Athenian institutions describing the units of the political organization of the Athenian democracy in detail (e.g., the divisions of the demos, the Council of Five Hundred, archons, assembly) and including overviews of the Cleisthenic reforms at the end of the 6th century BC as well as overviews of the further development in the 5th century BCE. Funke 2007, Lewis 2008, Ostwald 2008, Schubert 2011 (cited under Fall of the Peisistratid Tyranny), and Welwei 1999 give an overview of the history of Athens in the time of Cleisthenes and the Persian Wars as well as of Athen’s rise to power and the following conflict between Athens and Sparta. Meier 1980 and Raaflaub, et al. 2007 discuss the general development of Greek political thought, especially of political theory in the 5th century BCE and the invention of freedom as a political concept.

  • Bleicken, Jochen. 2008. Die athenische Demokratie. 4th rev. ed. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh.

    Focuses on the systematic description of the history of Athenian institutions; gives historical background and an amply overview of research in the notes.

  • Funke, Peter. 2007. Athen in klassischer Zeit. 3d rev. ed. Beck’sche Reihe C.-H.-Beck-Wissen. Munich: Beck.

    Describes the political background of Cleisthenes’s reforms and outlines the reforms themselves. First edition 1999.

  • Hansen, Mogens Herman. 1999. The Athenian democracy in the age of Demosthenes: Structure, principles, and ideology. Translated by J. A. Crook. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    Introduction to the Athenian democracy of the 4th century BCE with systematic and historical context of one of the foremost experts on Athenian democracy.

  • Hignett, Charles. 1975. A history of the Athenian constitution to the end of the fifth century B.C. Oxford: Clarendon.

    An analysis of the Athenian constitution still stimulating and worth consulting, sometimes polemical and extremely skeptical, not suited for undergraduates. Reprint of 1952 edition.

  • Lewis, David M. 2008. The tyranny of the Peisistratidae. In Persia, Greece and the Western Mediterranean: c. 525 to 479 B.C. 2d ed. Edited by John Boardman, 287–302. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Describes the history of Athens from 528/7 BCE, the year of Pisistratus’s death, to the Spartan invasions in Attica 510 BCE.

  • Meier, Christian. 1980. Die Entstehung des politischen bei den Griechen. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

    Pioneering study, discusses the development of Athenian democracy in the 5th century BCE and the special character of Greek political thought as well as the special Athenian practice of democracy. The English version (1990. The Greek Discovery of Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press) omits the two more narrowly historiographical chapters “Prozess und Ereignis in der griechischen Historiographie des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr.” and “Die Entstehung der Historie.” Also see Isonomia: The New Political Order.

  • Ostwald, Martin. 1986. From popular sovereignty to the sovereignty of law: Law, society, and politics in fifth century Athens. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Masterly survey of the growth of popular control of government from Cleisthenes throughout the 5th century BCE; underlines the growing importance of the courts in Athens.

  • Ostwald, Martin. 2008. The reform of the Athenian state By Cleisthenes. In Persia, Greece and the Western Mediterranean: c. 525 to 479 B.C. 2d ed. Edited by John Boardman, 303–346. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Describes the reforms in the years around 500 BCE with details of the institutional reforms; provides an outlook till 480 BCE.

  • Raaflaub, Kurt A., Josiah Ober, and Robert W. Wallace. 2007. Origins of democracy in ancient Greece. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520245624.001.0001

    Presents an overview of the discussion on the origins of Athenian democracy by five eminent scholars with very different positions. Includes chapters by Paul Cartledge and Cynthia Farrar. Also see Collections of Papers and Isonomia: The New Political Order.

  • Welwei, Karl-Wilhelm. 1999. Das klassische Athen: Demokratie und machtpolitik im 5. und 4. Jahrhundert. Darmstadt: Primus-Verl.

    Historically oriented overview with detailed notes. Suited for undergraduates.

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