ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS           home | history

Athens, Democracy and Slavery

MAPS of the

Athens was a Greek city-state about 25 by 50 miles next to the Aegean Sea, in an area called Attica. Its people were primarily engaged in agriculture but also in maritime trade and commerce. Athens was ruled by a wealthy elite — an oligarchy — with communities in the surrounding countryside dominated by local families of wealth.

With population increases in the 600s BCE, lands were divided among sons, generation after generation, into smaller and smaller plots, and people began plowing land only marginally suitable for growing crops. Over-plowing increased soil exhaustion. For the average Athenian prosperity had declined, and Athenians were looking for opportunities abroad.

Common farmers were in debt. Lenders had the right to sell debtors into slavery, and they were selling borrowers as slaves abroad. The ruler, Draco (for whom the word draconian is derived), created a penalty of death for idleness or the stealing of food. Unrest frightened the landed wealthy — the aristocrats. Some aristocrats sought to diminish the unrest by supporting a fellow aristocrat, Solon, who believed in a justice decreed by Zeus for all Athenian citizens. Solon prohibited debt bondage and enslavement of the poor. He ended tenant farming and limited the size of land that any one person could own. Solon reduced the penalty for idleness to a small fine, and he enacted laws to care for widows and orphans. He outlawed the pimping and male prostitution that had come with poverty, and he had the city removed the dead from its streets.

Solon's reforms didn't create good times. Much of the land was still in the hands of the aristocracy, and the aristocrats continued to hold top government jobs and seats on deliberative bodies. Athens continued to be overpopulated in relation to the productivity of its agriculture and the availability of land for new generations. With no democratic process to change government, more change came through violence. An enterprising aristocrat, Pisistratus, bought himself an army, and he led a violent overthrow of city's political authority. He took as hostages the sons of leading families, and the head of some families fled into exile (with Pisistratus leaving their property unconfiscated).

Pisistratus had all but his own active forces disarmed, and he tolerated no political grouping other than his own. He would be classified as a "tyrant." He might also be described as a populist. He sponsored religious festivals and public games. He made available to common farmers money lent at decent rates — which they needed between harvests. He boosted trade by building roads. He improved the city's means of obtaining fresh water. He beautified the city by sponsoring sculpture and by improving the city's temples, and his projects gave Athenians full employment.

Pisistratus died after 34 years of rule (in 527) and was succeeded by two sons who were to rule jointly. It was now aristocrats who were to make trouble. Among them was a young man who managed to assassinate the younger son. The head of a leading aristocratic family won support from the city-state of Sparta in a plan to overthrow the remaining son. Sparta viewed what had been happening in Athens as against the will of Apollo — a god of Truth among other things. In the year 510, Sparta sent an army that defeated the other son, Hippias, and sent him fleeing to Persia. Sparta put in power in Athens an oligarchy of Athenians aristocrats. But the Athenians were not inclined to tolerate it. In 508 a clique of progressive members of the upper classes — the Roosevelts of their day — united commoners and led a popular response that brought them to power.


Migrations had made the Athenians mix of people unrelated by blood. A constitution was written that divided Athens into ten "tribes" based on where people lived. Each tribe had its own military unit, shrine, priest, and political assembly. A new enthusiasm for their city arose among the Athenians, a new morale that strengthened Athens militarily.

That strength was soon tested. In the year 506, Sparta and its allies invaded Athens, hoping to crush the democracy and what they saw as the Athenian defiance of religious tradition. The Athenians defeated the invasion, and the city made an alliance with the great imperial power Persia aimed at scaring off another such invasion.

Athens remained a slave state, and women were still without a voice in political affairs. Of the 40,000 adult males free to participate in deciding issues, less than a sixth did so. Athens lacked a professional civil service, and a few ambitious politicians were able to use their knowledge of the workings of government to garner for themselves a degree of political power and influence. Wealth continued to be an influence in politics. Common people did not have the leisure to serve their city as officials or as members of juries. Venal judges presided at courts of law marked by corruption and perjury.

Some wealthy Athenians grumbled about the vulgarity of democratic politics. Among them was the playwright Aristophanes. He disliked seeing men attempt to create a following by promising rewards and playing on superstitions. Some men of wealth felt exploited for the sake of what they saw as an ignorant, disorderly mob. Some found government too slow in making judgments and getting things done.

Athens, indeed, had serious challenges ahead that it would not handle well.

CONTINUE READING: Greeks against Persia and Themselves

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.