So, we have traced the Polis to 510 B.C, which marked the end of the time of tyrants in Athens. All that remains between here and the Golden Age is the war with Persia. Not so fast! We started this series by talking about the development of the Polis and the various forces influencing its progress, but we can’t offer a complete picture without mentioning some additional factors.
Take a look at the following timeline:
I want to highlight factors that, when considered with those previously discussed, helped cement the Athenian Polis as a strong democracy -- one that would lead the world’s intellectual advancement and endure until the time of Alexander.
The first factor is the non-destructive behavior of the tyrants who ruled from 561 B.C. to 510. Despite the cruel reign of Hippias (514 B.C.-510), the tyrants did not slow down democratization. They did not make significant changes to the governmental structure and ruled in a way that was satisfying to the Athenian people. Herodotus remarked,
“Not having disturbed the existing magistrates nor changed the ancient laws… they administered the State under that constitution of things which was already established, ordering it fairly and well”
Aristotle wrote, of Peisistratus, that “his administration was temperate…and more like constitutional government than a tyranny.”
The Athenian Polis did not go backward under the tyrants, so it did not have to regain ground before it could advance.
The second factor was the political reforms of Clisthenes in 508 B.C. After the fall of the tyrants, Isagoras, a noble, tried to reverse the rising independence of the lower classes. This effort was blocked in 508 by Clisthenes, a member of the Alcmeonid family, who assumed the leadership position. Clisthenes intended to permanently break the power of local social units in favor of the state, and to make sure power was permanently placed in the hands of the people. He organized the populace into demes or political units numbering about 170. Clisthenes required that each tribe contain demes located in the country, the city, and the coast so that self-interest was equally distributed.
He also established a council of 500, consisting of 50 men from each tribe. The 500 were chosen by lot to make sure the elected asemblymen were independent. The council had responsibility for preparing bills for the assembly and supervising public business.
These reforms were tested immediately when Athens was attacked by Boetia and Chalcis in 506 B.C. Both were defeated and balance between the classes held.
The third factor strengthening the polis was the war with Persia. Even though Athens was attacked and occupied in 480 B.C, the unity created to fight a common enemy strengthened the bond between all the Athenian people.
The fourth and final factor was the reforms of Pericles after 461 B.C. Pericles, an aristocrat, had the gifts of intelligence and leadership. He became the leader of the council of ten generals and served as the de facto leader of Athens until his death in 429 B.C. During his tenure, he passed laws allowing poor citizens to attend plays for free, and began a system of compensation for magistrates and jurors. This allowed a broader spectrum of the populace to participate in their government. He also lowered the property qualification for the archonship to help breakup the monopoly of the aristocratic class. The time of Pericles has been labeled the Golden Age of Athens because the stable, open democracy provided the fuel for Athenian intellectual devlopment.
Two qualifications need to be put on that label, however. In the first place, the intellectual advancement of Athens did not start with Pericles, but was in full bloom one hundred years before him. This suggests that a sense of freedom and the support of free thought were in place during the time of the tyrants.
Secondly, the reign of Pericles signals the beginning of the end for Athens. After the Persian War, it became more imperialistic and sought to extend its power around the Aegean. That eventually caused a confrontation with Sparta setting up the Peloponnesian War and the defeat of the Athenians. Sadly, the “Golden Age” was both the pinnacle and the beginning of the end for Athens. Greed and the desire for power had corrupted once again.