In the 6th century B.C.E., the city of Athens
implemented some of the most significant political reforms in world history. These reforms eventually produced a system
called Democracy, and this innovation forever changed political theory. But before we get there, we need a bit of
context. The constitutional history of ancient Athens,
or at least the important bits, can be easily divided into three distinct eras. First, Athens was an Oligarchy, which means
that a small group of powerful families ruled the city. In time, Athens underwent a radical transformation,
and became what I’m going to call a Limited Democracy. Roughly a century later, Athens changed yet
again, from a Limited Democracy to a Full Democracy. Although, even at the height of Athenian Democracy,
political rights were not extended to women, or children, or slaves, or foreign residents,
who together made up like 90% of the Athenian population. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s begin back during the Oligarchy. During this period, a small council called
the Areopagus was at the centre of Athenian political life. You can kind of think of the Areopagus as
a Senate or a Council of Elders, only way more exclusive. Membership tended to be based on birth, which
meant that all political activity was limited to a few powerful families. The poor were basically ignored. This council was responsible for political
appointments, and surprise surprise, these tended to go to friends and family. In the early years, political appointees served
for life, but over time, this was reduced to 10-year terms, and even later to 1-year
terms. There were three important political appointees. The first was called the Basileus, which just
means King. To be clear, this person wasn’t really the
king, this was just a throwback title left over from an old forgotten monarchy. The Basileus officiated religious festivals
and performed important sacrifices. The symbolic connection to the old monarchy
made this a prestigious position, even though politically it was virtually powerless. The second appointee was called the Polemarch,
which means War Leader. This person was the Commander in Chief of
the Athenian military, which was obviously a big and important job. The Polemarch also had a minor role in Athenian
religious life, and would participate in any war related festivals or ceremonies. The third position was known as the Eponymous
Archon. Historians attach the word eponymous to this
name simply because the Athenians, like many other ancient states, named their years after
the person in charge. The Eponymous Archon, or, just Archon, was
the city’s chief government official. They stood at the head of the government bureaucracy,
and administered the Athenian state. Obviously this was the most important position
in Athens. There were also six less important positions,
called Junior Archons. It’s confusing, we don’t have to get into
it, but every public official was technically “an Archon,” which meant that people sometimes
called them “The Nine Archons of Athens.” Today, we just call the most important public
official “The Archon.” The Junior Archons aren’t really important,
they just helped out with the legal system. The only reason I mention them is because
they’ll come up later, but, I mean… don’t worry about it. So that’s our baseline. The Nine Archons of Athens. As we move away from Oligarchy and towards
Democracy, the most important things to remember is that the three major positions, the Basileus,
the Polemarch, and the Archon, were all appointed by the Areopagus. In the early 6th century B.C.E., there was
a prolonged political dispute within the Areopagus, and all public business ground to a hault. As a solution, the oligarchs found a compromise
candidate to serve as Archon, and empowered him to implement a series of reforms to ensure
that this wouldn’t happen again. This man’s name was Solon, and in time, his
reforms would help produce the world’s first full democracy. Solon came to office with a political agenda. He believed that the way to stop the infighting
between the oligarchs was to basically invent politics on a national scale. Solon’s theory was that if he could empower
the poor and get them involved in the political process, paralysis at the upper levels of
power would become impossible. So, for the first time ever, Solon opened
up Athenian politics to every adult male citizen. He did this by establishing an Assembly of
Athenian Citizens. From this point forward, this Assembly was
at the centre of Athenian politics. Virtually every government decision ran through
the Assembly, from military procurement, to diplomatic relations, to declarations of war. The world had never seen anything like this. It was revolutionary. A minimum of 6,000 citizens had to be present
before a vote in the Assembly could take place. From what we can tell, tens of thousands showed
up on a regular basis to make their voices heard. Before the voting, any relevant speakers were
invited onto a stage to make their case before the crowd. Voting was done by a show of hands, and it’s
important to recognize that there was no secret ballot. Everybody knew how their friends and neighbours
were voting, and they weren’t shy about telling them if they disapproved. By the way, in Athens, there was no such thing
as an ironic detatchment from politics. Good citizens had strong political opinions. This level of public engagement is what people
mean when they say Athenian Democracy, and there’s never quite been anything like it. But it’s not like the old oligarchs gave up
all of their power. Solon set up a new council, separate from
the Areopagus, called the Boule. This council was responsible for deciding
what went before the Assembly for a vote. With all of its legislative authority taken
away, the old Areopagus was left with virtually no power. I want to talk about how this council was
organized, but first I need to quickly explain how Solon reformed the Athenian class structure. He divided all Athenian citizens into four
economic classes. For our purposes today, all we need to know
is that these classes were basically the Ultra Rich, the Very Rich, the Moderately Rich,
and Everybody Else. So, Solon used these four classes to inform
the make-up of his new council, allowing each class to appoint 100 men to the Boule. The fact that 300 of the 400 members were
appointed by rich people was by design. Make no mistake, this was aristocracy by another
name. We don’t exactly know how people got appointed
to this council, but it’s safe to assume that each class held some sort of internal election. Speaking of elections, the “Nine Archons of
Athens” were no longer appointed by the Areopagus, and were instead elected by the people. Each of the four economic classes held its
own election. Poor Athenians couldn’t be candidates themselves,
but they could vote for rich people who alligned with their interests. The 10 candidates from each class with the
most votes were all mixed together into one group of 40. Of these 40 candidates, 9 names were picked
at random, and these people became the Basileus, Polemarch, Eponymous Archon, and the 6 Junior
Archons. Again, this system was stacked in favour of
the rich, but it was a step in the right direction. At the time, the Athenians justified the randomness
in these elections with with piety, saying that they always liked to give the final say
to the gods. In practice, this was a pretty simple way
to reduce the influence of money in politics, since no amount of bribery could ever guarantee
a result. Under this new democracy, Athenian politics
flourished. Pretty quickly, three major factions emerged,
each vying for power. First, there was the Plains Faction. These people tended to be rich landowners,
who lived on the plains outside of the city. The Plains Faction were the remnants of the
old landed aristocracy. Consequently, they fought to preserve the
prerogatives of the rich, and opposed any further political reforms. As landowners, they worked to protect their
profits by opposing any initiatives that would lower the price of food. Next, there was the Hill Faction. People in the Hill Faction lived on the hills
in and around the city. The hills were pretty lousy places to live,
since you couldn’t really farm or build very much on them. This faction consisted of the poorest citizens,
who, up until recently, had been locked out of the political process. They loved the political reforms, and favoured
any initiatives that would further improve their standard of living. Obviously the Plains Faction and the Hill
Faction did not like each other. The third faction was the Coast Faction. The area near the coast was a bustling economic
zone, full of artisans, and manufacturing, and lots of trade. This faction included both rich and poor citizens,
but what united them was the fact that their livelihoods depended on trade with the outside
world. The Coast Faction was cosmopolitan and reform-minded,
but above all they were interested in making money. In order to get the Coast Faction on board
with the new Athenian democracy, Solon offered Athenian citizenship to any foreign-born skilled
professional that wanted to move to the city with their family. The Coast Faction loved this policy, and it
helped propel Athens into an economic boom. But as I’ve said, Athens wasn’t a full democracy
yet. The system was still institutionally biased
towards the rich, which over time, created a bunch of unforeseen problems. The three factions hated each other, and it
was increasingly difficult to get anything accomplished. Also, despite the safeguards built into the
system, a series of strongmen found it a easy get themselves elected Archon and seize power. Athens entered a brief period of tyranny. At the end of this period, the strongmen were
thrown out of the city, and another set of reforms were implemented, transforming Athens
from a Limited Democracy to a Full Democracy. r This new system was a significant improvement,
and fixed a lot of old problems. Most importantly, it dealt with the persistent
factional gridlock. As a first step, the old class system was
thrown out the window. In its place, 10 new artificial groups were
created, called tribes. Each tribe covered a certain geographic area,
and each was deliberately designed so that all three political factions had equal representation
within each tribe. Again, the purpose of these tribes was to
stop the gridlock. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Athens was further subdivided into 139 “demos,”
or “deme,” each belonging to a specific tribe. Every deme had its own council, and was lead
by an elected official called a Demarch. The Demarch, along with the council, could
pass little bylaws, and raise its own revenue as needed. This was a pretty ingenious invention. Over time, each citizen’s political identity
became intertwined with their deme. We even have evidence that some people started
replacing their family name with their deme name. Now that the old wealth-based classes were
gone, the Boule had to be completely restructured. Membership was increased from 400 to 500,
and from now on, each of the 10 tribes got to elect 50 people to the council. This time, there was no institutional bias
toward the wealthy. Elections were run locally, so each deme got
to choose a handful of their own candidates. All candidates from the same tribe were pooled
together, and 50 were selected at random to represent their tribe in the Boule for that
year. Citizens were only allowed to serve in the
Boule twice in their lifetime, with a mandatory 10-year gap in between terms. With these limitations, any ambitious citizen
had a pretty good shot at getting elected at some point in their life. As before, the Boule prepared the agenda for
each meeting of the Athenian assembly. However, this new and improved Boule was even
more powerful than before, and most of that had to do with a new mechanism called the
Prytaneis. The Prytaneis was basically an executive committee
within the Boule. The 360 day Athenian calendar year was evenly
divided into 10 parts. For 36 days a year, each tribal delegation
got to serve on the Prytaneis, which was responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the
Athenian state. If the Athenian Assembly decided to build
some ships, this committee got the money and hired the shipbuilders. If public employees needed to be paid, this
committee figured out how to get the money into their hands. If a foreign diplomat needed to speak with
the Athenian government, they spoke with this committee. To put it very simply, this committee ran
the government. During those 36 days, all 50 members of the
Prytaneis lived together in a house in the centre of Athens. The committee worked 24 hours a day, in shifts. Just in case there was ever an emergency,
there was a rule that 17 members had to be on duty at all times. Every day, one person was chosen at random
to to serve as chairman of the committee. The chairman was in charge the state seal,
the key to the state treasury, and the key to the state archives. It was a symbolic thing to serve as chairman,
but people still considered it an honour. So, the Boule was more powerful than ever,
but that had to come at the expense of something else. Gradually, all 9 of the Archons became less
and less important. Eventually they became so weak that the duties
of each Archon were performed by a series of randomly selected Athenian citizens. The fact that the Polemarch, who was in charge
of the Athenian military, was now a randomly selected citizen should raise some eyebrows. Luckily, even though the Polemarch was still
technically in charge of the military, he was relegated to ceremonial duties, and new
positions rose up to do the heavy lifting. Each of the 10 tribes elected somebody called
a Strategos. Strategos basically means general, and together,
the Strategoi commanded the Athenian armies and admiraled her fleets. But just as importantly, they were instrumental
when crafting military policy. When the Assembly was debating anything warfare
related, it was customary to invite all ten Strategoi to give their opinion. Sometimes there were lively debates back and
forth, but when there was a consensus among the Strategoi, the the Assembly tended to
defer to their expertise. Strictly speaking, each Strategos was only
supposed to serve for one year, but the Assembly wasn’t afraid to extend their terms, especially
during wartime. So, a lot of care was taken to make sure that
Athenian politics wouldn’t fall into factionalism and infighting like it did back in the old
days. A lot of progress had been made on this front. The tribes were non-ideological, and each
tribe was given its turn to be in charge of the Boule’s executive committee. But weak factions still sometimes rose up
around specific issues, and there was always the danger that one of these days, this could
produce another tyrant. To prevent this, the Athenians built a release
valve into their system. This release valve was called Ostracism. Once per year, there was a special Assembly
meeting. Unlike every other meeting, when people arrived,
they grabbed a smashed piece of pottery that was provided for them. Each citizen used this pottery as a makeshift
ballot, and etched a name into the surface. The names were tallied, and if one name received
more than 6,000 votes, the person with the most votes was Ostracized, or banished from
the city for a period of 10 years. There was no need for any proof of wrongdoing,
or criminality, or anything. To put it quite simply, when an Ostracism
went into effect, the most unpopular person in Athens, usually a politician, was expelled
from the city. This was a crude but effective way to fight
against the emergence of both strongmen and factionalism. If a minority of citizens could get anybody
banished from the city, it was tough to get a divisive political movement off the ground. The vote took place every year, but that didn’t
necessarily mean somebody was banished every year. If no one individual received 6,000 votes,
no action was taken. As Full Athenian Democracy was implemented,
the city ballooned into a manufacturing powerhouse, exporting its products and its culture all
over the Mediterranean. It didn’t take long for the Athenians to develop
a reputation for their unique political system, and for the city itself to become a major
hub for political thinkers. From Italy to North Africa to the Near East,
cities began adopt political institutions that looked an awful lot like the Athenian
ones. After centuries in the sun, Athens was eventually
conquered by outside powers, but the example they set and their contribution to western
political thought continues to be one of the most important things that any state has ever
produced.