Cleisthenes (active 6th century B.C.) was an Athenian political leader and constitutional reformer. The first avowed democratic leader, he introduced important changes into the Athenian constitution.
Son of Megacles, leader of the powerful Alcmeonid clan in Athens, and of Agariste, daughter of Cleisthenes, the tyrant of Sicyon, Cleisthenes was destined for a public career. Accommodating himself to the regime of the tyrants, he was chief magistrate of Athens in 525 B.C., but he and other Alcmeonids were in exile when the tyranny fell in 510.
Cleisthenes ran for leadership of Athens at the head of a noble faction favoring oligarchy; he was defeated by Isagoras, a friend of the Spartan king Cleomenes. Cleisthenes then turned democrat, threatening the position of Isagoras, who asked Cleomenes for help. The Spartan king arrived with troops and tried to disband the Council of 300 and install Isagoras as head of a new council, but the people rose and forced Cleomenes and Isagoras to withdraw. Cleisthenes returned, a committed democrat, to reform the constitution in favor of a moderate democracy.
Athens had suffered from faction, or tyranny born of faction, for a century, and Cleisthenes aimed at the root of the trouble—clan affiliations in politics. In the past, clans had grouped themselves around a particular clan leader, such as Isagoras, Megacles, or Peisistratus, and had exerted pressure upon elections and policies by their organized votes. Cleisthenes provided an alternative to clan loyalty by registering the citizens by residence as members of a deme, a small area analogous to an English parish. Moreover, he extended the franchise to vote not only to clansmen but also to members of guilds, who hitherto had inferior rights.
To facilitate central government administration, Cleisthenes brigaded the demes, 170 or so in number, into 10 artificial tribes, allocating to each tribe a number of demes drawn from the three divisions of Attica. In many elections the citizens voted by tribe, returning a tribal official who might also serve the central government.
Since in this democracy the ultimate power was vested in the Assembly of all adult males, Cleisthenes set up a Council of 500 to make government less unwieldy and to steer the Assembly. Each of the 10 tribes selected by lot 50 persons who were councilors for a year (reelection was allowed only once). The council was in permanent session, and each tribal group of 50 served as governing committee in office for a tenth of the year, conducting day-to-day business and presiding over the council and the Assembly.
These reforms lasted as long as democracy in Athens. Cleisthenes is also credited with the invention of ostracism, but this is uncertain.
Further Reading on Cleisthenes
Ancient sources on Cleisthenes are Aristotle's Politics and the Athenian Constitution, translated by John Warrington (1959). Two modern works are Charles Hignett, A History of the Athenian Constitution to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1952), and N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 B.C. (1959; 2d ed. 1967).