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Athenian Democracy

This map is part of a series of 16 animated maps showing the history of Ancient Greece.

In 508-507, the Cleisthenes reforms established the framework for democracy, thanks to the creation of an egalitarian civic space.

Attica was reorganized into three regions: the city / the coast / and the interior. These three regions were themselves divided into ten sectors, called trittyes. The population was organized in tribes, each made up of 3 trittyes: one for the town, one for the coast and one for the interior. Thus there were ten tribes. The aim of this reform was to create a new sense of solidarity among the citizens from the various regions of Attica in order to overcome the traditional ties based on clan or family.

During the decades that followed, two military victories over the Persians reinforced the Athenian democracy. In 490, the citizen-soldiers, or hoplites, played an important role in the battles at Marathon, which showed that democracy could act as a highly motivating goal for the citizens. Then, in 480, victory in the naval battle of Salamis ensured that democracy was now considered the most efficient political model.  

The main centres of power were located in the city of Athens, in the heart of Attica.  

The Ecclesia, or citizens’ assembly, held its meetings on the Hill of Pnyx. Citizens approved the laws and budget by raising their hands. They also voted on war and peace.  

The Boule, or Council of 500, met at the Bouleuterion on the Agora. Its members, 50 for each tribe, were chosen each year by lot from a list of volunteers. The Boule submitted laws to the Ecclesia, managed the treasury and supervised the magistrates who were responsible for running the city. Among these magistrates, there were 10 strategoi who held their meetings at the strategeion. They were elected for one year and were responsible for the army and foreign affairs. The most famous of the strategoi was Pericles, elected every year between 443 and 429. Other magistrates, the archons, were selected by lot for one year. They supervised the application of laws and ensured that justice was delivered properly. 

Another building in the Agora was the Heliaia, a people’s tribunal composed of 6,000 citizens aged 30 years or older. They were elected for one year. The judges were selected by lot from this group before each case. The Heliaia’s sessions were held in public. 

The Areopagus, a group of former magistrates, judged all violent crimes. Its sessions were held on the hill bearing its name close to the Acropolis. 

Athens was the first city to make democracy the basis for its institutions and its power. But this democracy remained vulnerable and only involved a small part of its population: excluded from the democracy were women, who had no political rights, metecs (or foreigners) and the very large number of slaves.