This is the longest post I'll ever write (I hope). In the path to democracy I posted a 2 page summary of how Athens went from being a normal city to the world's first democracy. Here I post the 8 page version I began with, so you can see some of the fun stories I had to cut to squeeze it down.
I'd be interested to know, is there anything in this version you think should have made it into the final instead of what I chose?
Warning: if you already know all this, or you have no interest in Greek history, then this article is going to bore you witless. Eject now. If you want a quick summary, go to the 2 page version. For the rest of you, here's the story.
Democracy came to Athens in three giant leaps and two major interruptions. The leaps were the constitution of Solon the Wise, the reforms of Cleisthenes, and the reforms of Ephialtes. The interruptions were the Tyranny of Peisistratus and the Persian Wars. Here's a timeline of how it happened:
A few wealthy families own all the land while the common people struggle to survive. Many poor men have to borrow just to feed their families. Debt default is rampant, and a bankrupt can legally be sold into slavery to recoup his debts. The city is an oligarchy in which only wealthy aristocrats have power.
The injustice is so great civil war could break out at any moment, but rather than fight the Athenians hit on a novel solution: they turn to a man called Solon, who everyone agrees is both wise and fair. Solon is commissioned to write a constitution for Athens. The common people expect Solon to cancel all debts and redistribute the land. The farmers expect him to affirm that they should be in charge, that wealth and property cannot be forcibly taken from the people who own it, and that everyone should be expected to pay their just debts.
Solon duly delivers. He cancels all existing debts (the wealthy are furious). He affirms the rule of the wealthy landholders (the poor are furious). He organizes executives called archons to run the city, who are elected only from amongst the wealthy landholders (commoners are furious). Retired archons join an oligarchy called the Council of the Areopagus, whose members are the rulers of Athens. He creates a law making it illegal to sell a citizen into slavery for debt (the wealthy are furious). He creates a body called the Ecclesia, meaning Assembly, of all the citizens of Athens. The Ecclesia can let the Areopagus know, by vote, the opinion of the common people (the oligarchs are furious). At this stage the Ecclesia is an advisory body at best, but it is destined, about 130 years later, to become the world's first democratic parliament.
No one is happy. Solon hops on his boat and sails off into the sunset. He goes on a world tour and will not return home for many years. As he tours Egypt, by the way, Solon runs into a couple of priests who tell him of an ancient city which sank beneath the sea. That's right, Solon is the source of the story of Atlantis, which comes to us via his distant descendant, Plato. For years after, the priests probably cacked themselves with laughter every time they recalled that naïve tourist and the silly story they made up.
Meanwhile, back in Athens, everyone can agree on only one thing: they all loathe the new constitution equally. Obviously therefore it must be fair. Solon becomes known as Solon the Wise, and is enrolled as one of the Seven Sages of the ancient world.
Solon was no democrat. He left Athens as an oligarchy of the wealthy, with checks and balances in place to ensure the common people got a fair deal. Solon's constitution ruled Athens until…
Pisistratus effects a series of armed coup attempts. He's successful on the third try. Pisistratus sets himself up as Tyrant of Athens. Tyrant in those days did not have the negative connotations it has today. It merely meant Pisistratus ruled with the backing of armed force. He generally runs the city according to the constitution, though he manipulates it to favor the people over the aristocrats, and stacks the archonship positions with his own family. He was generally respected and liked.
527 or 528BC
Pisistratus dies. His elder son Hippias inherits the Tyranny.
The younger son Hipparchus proves to be a pain in the ass, in more ways than one. Hipparchus, who is gay, develops a crush on a beautiful young man called Harmodius. Harmodius however is already a serious item with an older man called Aristogeiton and spurns the brother of the Tyrant.
Hipparchus gets spiteful revenge by insulting the young sister of Harmodius. He ejects her from a public festival, implying she is not a virgin, and in doing so ruins any chance of her making a good marriage.
The insult to the family is mortal. Harmodius and Aristogeiton hatch a plot to kill Hipparchus. Of necessity, if they wish to survive, they must also kill Hippias and so end the Tyranny. The plot goes horribly wrong when the assassins incorrectly think they have been betrayed. They fall upon Hipparchus at once and stab him to death, but Hippias survives unharmed. Harmodius and Aristogeiton are killed.
After this, Hippias becomes paranoid and cruel. Something has to be done.
The powerful Alcmaeonid family comes up with a brilliant idea. They bribe the Oracle of Delphi. From that point on whenever a Spartan travels to Delphi to consult the Oracle, he is told, "First, liberate Athens."
The Spartans eventually get the message. They decide maybe they should liberate Athens. A Spartan army arrives. Hippias flees to the Persians and the Tyranny is ended. Statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton are raised in the Agora and the dead lovers are known forever after as the Tyrannicides. A gay love triangle has changed the destiny of Athens, and the world.
With the fall of the Tyranny, a senior member of the Alcmaeonid family named Cleisthenes rose to prominence. Cleisthenes at once began tweaking the constitution to drive Athens towards democracy. Candidates for the archonship are selected by lot from amongst all those who pass a minimum wealth test. The people then vote from amongst the candidates. This prevents anyone from stacking the official jobs.
Cleisthenes introduces ostracism: once a year, the people can vote for whomever they think should be forced to leave town. The "winner" is exiled for a period of ten years, after which he may return. Nobody gets ostracized until 487BC, and then there's a flurry of victims. In short, anyone who becomes too much of an irritant to the people is going to be sent on a long holiday.
Cleisthenes is often called the Father of Democracy, because he created all the necessary institutions. The Council of the Areopagus still has the power to nullify laws, and decides all foreign policy, so Athens remains an oligarchy. The power of the people is strong, and they are demanding ever more control over the city. Democracy is getting close, but then the second interruption arrives.
Hippias, the exiled former Tyrant, persuades the Persians to back him for an armed takeover. In return, Hippias will make Athens a client state of the Persian Empire. It's more complex than this, because the Athenians have been encouraging Greek cities in Ionia, what is now Western Turkey, to revolt against their Persian masters. The Great King has decided it's time to silence those pesky Athenians.
A Persian expeditionary force lands down the road from Athens, at an obscure beach called MARATHON. The Athenians assemble every man they've got. Under the leadership of their best General, Miltiades, the men of Athens attack the Persians and drive them into the sea.
It was a stunning victory. After Marathon, the Athenians were convinced they could do anything. The importance of Marathon to western civilization cannot be overemphasized. John Stuart Mill considered it the most important battle in British history, even more so than Hastings. Aeschylus, who founded western drama with his tragedies, considered fighting in the line at Marathon his greatest achievement.
Squabbling between the oligarchs and the common people continues. Five members of the Areopagus are ostracized in this time, including Xanthippus, the father of Pericles, who went in 484BC and then was recalled to fight in the next war…
The Second Persian invasion of Greece.
The Persians vastly outnumbered the Greeks but, thanks largely to the clever planning of the Athenian General Themistocles, the Persians were driven out a second time. You could write a whole book about this. In fact, someone did: Herodotus, the Father of History. I'm going to skip the whole thing to focus on Athenian politics.
Themistocles is the man of the hour. He receives a standing ovation at the next Olympics. He becomes the first non-citizen ever to receive an honor guard of Spartans.
The Council of the Areopagus performed very well during the Persian Wars. Its members were the men who led Athens to victory. When the war was over, the reputation of the Areopagus was enhanced, and the campaign of the democrats to introduce full democracy had actually gone backwards.
Cimon, the son of Miltiades who led the Athenians at Marathon, has risen to become an outstanding General and the foremost conservative of his day. He is a staunch defender of the privileges of the Areopagus. He is also exceedingly popular with the people. Cimon donated the entire grounds and the gymnasium of the Academy, which decades later would become the hangout of Plato.
Athens is now split three ways. The democrats think the people should be in charge, the wealthy aristocrats with Cimon's backing think they should be in charge, and most scary of all, Themistocles probably thinks he should be in charge.
People begin to fear Themistocles is setting himself up to be the next Tyrant of Athens when he builds a temple to Artemis of Wise Counsel. This is his subtle way of saying that he's smarter than everyone else.
Themistocles is ostracized. Shortly after he is charged with treason and ordered to return to Athens to stand trial. This is the Athenians' subtle way of saying they want him dead.
Knowing full well he will be executed if he returns, Themistocles runs for safety to his former enemy: Persia. The Great King is only too happy to have the world's best strategist on his team. He installs Themistocles as Governor of Magnesia.
Ephialtes, "a man uncorrupt and upright in political matters", is doing his best to complete the reforms begun by Cleisthenes almost 50 years before. Ephialtes prosecutes various members of the Areopagus for corruption, hoping to weaken them.
But Cimon is determined to retain the oligarchy and not let the rabble take control. While Cimon is there, Ephialtes can make only minor headway.
A revolt erupts in Sparta. The helots, who are serf-like slaves, make a concerted effort to throw off Spartan domination. Cimon, a deep admirer of Sparta, raises a troop of volunteers and goes to the aid of the Spartans. The Spartans take one look at the freedom-loving Athenians and worry they might take the side of the helots. The Spartans send the Athenians home as "not required", but welcome the assistance of troops from other cities. The insult to the Athenians is extreme. The Athenians blame Cimon for putting them in a position where Sparta can insult them.
Ephialtes and his bright young lieutenant Pericles see their chance and grab it. Pericles prosecutes Cimon. It is the first time Pericles is prominent in public affairs.
Cimon is ostracized.
The moment Cimon is gone, Ephialtes pushes through his reforms. The Areopagus has all its political powers removed, reduced to a court for murder and heresy. Without Cimon, the Areopagus hasn't the force to withstand the change. Athens becomes the world's first total democracy, with the Ecclesia as its parliament.
Days later, Ephialtes is assassinated, and the book begins.