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One of the most important changes in Greece during the period from 800 B.C.to 500 B.C.was the rise of the polis, or city-state, and each polis developed a system of government that was appropriate to its circumstances. The problems that were faced and solved in Athens were the sharing of political power between the established aristocracy and the emerging other classes, and the adjustment of aristocratic ways of life to the ways of life of the new polis. It was the harmonious blending of all of these elements that was to produce the classical culture of Athens.
Entering the polis age, Athens had the traditional institutions of other Greek protodemocratic states: an assembly of adult males, an aristocratic council, and annually elected officials. Within this traditional framework the Athenians, between 600 B.C.and 450 B.C.,evolved what Greeks regarded as a fully fledged democratic constitution, though the right to vote was given to fewer groups of people than is seen in modern times.
The first steps toward change were taken by Solon in 594 B.C., when he broke the aristocracy's stranglehold on elected offices by establishing wealth rather than birth as the basis of office holding, abolishing the economic obligations of ordinary Athenians to the aristocracy, and allowing the assembly (of which all citizens were equal members) to overrule the decisions of local courts in certain cases. The strength of the Athenian aristocracy was further weakened during the rest of the century by the rise of a type of government known as a tyranny, which is a form of interim rule by a popular strongman (not rule by a ruthless dictator as the modern use of the term suggests to us). The Peisistratids, as the succession of tyrants were called (after the founder of the dynasty, Peisistratos), strengthened Athenian central administration at the expense of the aristocracy by appointing judges throughout the region, producing Athens' first national coinage, and adding and embellishing festivals that tended to focus attention on Athens rather than on local villages of the surrounding region. By the end of the century, the time was ripe for more change: the tyrants were driven out, and in 508 B.C. a new reformer, Cleisthenes, gave final form to the developments reducing aristocratic control already under way.
Cleisthenes' principal contribution to the creation of democracy at Athens was to complete the long process of weakening family and clan structures, especially among the aristocrats, and to set in their place locality-based corporations called demes, which became the point of entry for all civic and most religious life in Athens. Out of the demes were created 10 artificial tribes of roughly equal population. From the demes, by either election or selection, came 500 members of a new council, 6,000 jurors for the courts, 10 generals, and hundreds of commissioners. The assembly was sovereign in all matters but in practice delegated its power to subordinate bodies such as the council, which prepared the agenda for the meetings of the assembly, and the courts, which took care of most judicial matters. Various committees acted as an executive branch, implementing policies of the assembly and supervising, for instance, the food and water supplies and public buildings. This wide-scale participation by the citizenry in the government distinguished the democratic form of the Athenian polis from other, less liberal forms.
The effect of Cleisthenes' reforms was to establish the superiority of the Athenian community as a whole over local institutions without destroying them. National politics rather than local or deme politics became the focal point. At the same time, entry into national politics began at the deme level and gave local loyalty a new focus: Athens itself. Over the next two centuries the implications of Cleisthenes' reforms were fully exploited.
During the fifth century B.C.the council of 500 was extremely influential in shaping policy. In the next century, however, it was the mature assembly that took on decision-making responsibility. By any measure other than that of the aristocrats, who had been upstaged by the supposedly inferior "people," the Athenian democracy was a stunning success. Never before, or since, have so many people been involved in the serious business of self-governance. It was precisely this opportunity to participate in public life that provided a stimulus for the brilliant unfolding of classical Greek culture.