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The Past

How democracy got its strange and turbulent start in ancient Athens

Some of the weirdest characters in Greek mythology were Athenian kings.
Credit: Rrose Selavy / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • In 490 BCE, Athenians went to the polls to elect their annual military officers and civilian magistrates. The outcome of the election is sometimes felt to have determined the entire history of the Western world.
  • Ancient Athens has become synonymous with democracy, and the exploits of the Greeks are lauded for saving the world from tyranny. Yet Athens had not always had a democratic system of government.
  • Some of Athens’s mythical kings rank among the weirdest characters in the whole of Greek mythology.

Excerpted from The Harvest of War: Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis: The Epic Battles that Saved Democracy, written by Stephen P. Kershaw and published by Pegasus Books.

As winter was turning into spring in the year they called ‘The Archonship of Hybrillides’ (490 bce), the free, native-born, adult, male Athenians did something utterly extraordinary. They went to the polls to elect their annual military officers and civilian magistrates for the next year. Hardly anyone else anywhere in the ancient world had a democratic political process like this, and the outcome of the election is sometimes felt to have determined the entire history of the Western world.

Hybrillides and his fellow citizens certainly knew it was important. Athens was under threat from the might of the Persian Empire of King Darius I. Persian forces had already made one attempt at invading Greece, which had come to grief in the rough seas off the Mt Athos peninsula about eighteen months before, and Darius had demanded ‘earth and water’ as tokens of submission from the Athenians, which they had unceremoniously refused to provide. They knew what was coming. 

Standing for election was a charismatic and controversial figure, Miltiades (‘Son of the Red Earth’/‘Redearthson’) son of Cimon. He was an Athenian aristocrat with many domestic enemies; he had operated as a tyrant, admittedly on Athens’s behalf, in the Thracian Chersonese (Gallipoli peninsula); he had close and possibly ambiguous relations with the Persians; and he had narrowly escaped death on two recent occasions, first when he evaded the Persian invasion force by the skin of his teeth as it was heading for Greece, and second when he had arrived in Athens, only to be put on trial for his tyranny in the Chersonese. He had been acquitted then, and he was elected now, as one of the ten strategoi (generals) who would command their respective tribal contingents in the inevitable war. It was one of the most politically and militarily significant decisions ever made. An equally important choice was the appointment alongside Miltiades of Callimachus (‘Beautiful-Fighter’) of Aphidnae as the polemarkhos (‘polemarch’ or ‘war leader’). The two men would take up office in the summer of 490 bce. 

Mythical Athens 

Ancient Athens has become synonymous with democracy, and the exploits of the Greeks at the three epic battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis are lauded for saving the world from tyranny. Yet Athens had not always had a democratic system of government. In the mythical tradition the city was ruled by kings, who had a zero-tolerance policy when it came to democracy. In Homer’s Iliad, Odysseus is said to put any ‘man of the people’ firmly in his place: ‘sit still,’ he says, ‘listen to men who are better than you; you are unwarlike; you are impotent; you are an irrelevance in combat and in counsel; we can’t all be kings; the rule of many is a bad thing; there should just be one king and commander who takes the decisions on behalf of his people.’ No ordinary person should ever challenge the authority of a mythical king, and when a common soldier, who is incredibly ugly, bandy-legged, lame in one foot, round shouldered, pointy-headed and never shuts up, criticizes the supreme commander Agamemnon, Odysseus thrashes the unfortunate man with his golden staff, making him cringe and cower, burst into tears, and break out into livid bruises. The army think it is the best thing that Odysseus has ever done. 

A defining element in the self-image of the Athenians, which undoubtedly played a key role in stiffening their resistance to the Persians, was the idea that they were autochthonous, i.e. the aboriginal inhabitants of their land (Greek: khthon = ‘earth’). This defined them as definitively different from the Spartans, whose traditions expressed their nature as incomers equally strongly. The second-century ce travel writer Pausanias informs us that Actaeus was the first king of Attica (the region of which Athens was the main city). However, an inscription known as the Parian Chronicle, which records a selection of key dates in Greek history/mythology, calculated from a base line date of 264/263 bce when it was inscribed, takes its starting point as the reign of Cecrops I, who it describes as ‘the first King of Athens’: ‘From when Cecrops became king of Athens, and the land previously called Actica after the earth-born Actaeus was called Cecropia: 1318 years [i.e. 1581/1580 bce].’ 

The date can doubtless be taken with a pinch of salt, but the fact that Actaeus was born of the very soil of his land was crucial. 

Some of Athens’s mythical kings rank among the weirdest characters in the whole of Greek mythology, and Cecrops was no exception. He too was truly autochthonous, having been born literally from the earth with no recorded parents. He had a human body with a serpent’s tail, and was a civilizing figure whose reign witnessed a widespread modernizing of social customs and one of the most important incidents in Athenian mythology – a divine dispute between Poseidon and Athena for possession of Attica. To stake his claim Poseidon smashed his trident into the Acropolis and a saltwater spring came into being, but Athena trumped this with the infinitely superior gift of an olive tree. She took possession of Attica, and called the city Athens after herself. 

A succession of usually earth-born and sometimes semi serpentine kings ruled the city, including Cranaus, who was also said to have been on the throne when the Great Flood (kataklysmos) associated with Deucalion (the ‘Greek Noah’) occurred, dated by the Parian Chronicle to 1528/1527, Erikhthonius, who was born from the sordid aftermath of Hephaestus’s attempt to rape Athena, and Erekhtheus, in whose reign the Parian Chronicle records that the fertility goddess Demeter first came to Attica (1409/1408), the first corn was sown by Triptolemus (1408/1407), and the Eleusinian Mysteries were first celebrated (date unclear). 

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Further down the Athenian mythical king-list, their great monarch Theseus took the throne after his various impressive monster-slaying feats, Minotaur included. Plutarch says that Theseus was a big admirer of Heracles and performed these deeds in emulation of his Labours, and the Athenians may well have constructed the story to provide themselves with an ‘Attic Heracles’, probably as late as the last quarter of the sixth century, when Athens was making its final steps towards democracy. In the historical period, Athens’s number-one hero certainly needed to be given democratic credentials: although he was a monarch, he was made into a political reformer with democratic leanings. His greatest achievement was said to be the synoecism of Attica: ‘From when Thes[eus . . . became king] of Athens and amalgamated [synoikisen] the 12 communities [poleis] and grant[ed] the constitution [politeian] and the democracy [demokratian] . . . of Athens [. . .] 995 years [i.e. 1258/1257].’ This synoecism was the amalgamation of all the small independent communities of the region into one state, with Athens as its capital – one people, one city, one town hall and council chamber, and one common set of interests. As Plutarch wrote: ‘Theseus promised both a kingless constitution and a democracy to the powerful, with himself as the only commander in war and guardian of the laws, while in other respects everyone would have equal shares.’ This is historically false, but mythologically interesting: even mythical Athenians came to be seen as democrats. 

Theseus was also credited with establishing the Panathenaia Festival to Athena, fighting off a major assault on Athens by the Amazons, and then laying aside his royal power. In Homer’s Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, the Athenians take fifty ‘black ships’ from their ‘well-built citadel’ to Troy, but it is notable that they are the only contingent who are described as a ‘people’ (demos). The Iliad was edited at Athens in the sixth century, and this pointed reference to their democratic credentials might also reflect contemporary preoccupations. That is certainly the case in Euripides’ tragedy Suppliant Women, first performed in about 423, where Theseus has a spat with a herald from Thebes. When the Theban asks, ‘Who is the ruler (tyrannos) of the land?’ Theseus gives him a lecture on Athenian politics: don’t ask for a tyrannos here; the city is free, not subject to one-man rule; the people (demos) are sovereign; political office is held on an annual basis; rich and poor are equally honoured. The herald is unimpressed: his city is ruled by one man, he says, not by a mob (okhlos); no one can trick the city with weasel words and manipulate it to his own advantage; the common people (demos) are incapable of making a proper speech, so they can’t possibly know how to govern a city effectively; time, not speed, gives superior understanding; a farmer might not be stupid, but his workload doesn’t allow him to look at the common good; and anyway, the better people think it’s a sad state of affairs when a low-born nonentity becomes well known by seducing the common people with his slick tongue. 

Theseus rises to the bait: this doesn’t seem to have much to do with your errand, he says; you started this argument; listen to me; there’s nothing more hostile to a city than a tyrant; to have one man controlling all the laws is unjust; written laws allow both the weak and the rich equal access to justice; the little guy can get the better of the bigwig, if he has right on his side; freedom is the right to be able to put proposals to the city and have them debated; if you want to be famous, you can be, and if you don’t, you can keep quiet; what is fairer for a city than that? The herald never gets the chance to respond because Theseus makes him deliver his message, although he starts by saying, ‘OK. I’ll speak. But as far as our argument goes, you can have your views and I’ll think the opposite.’ 

Theseus’s mythical democracy was not quite the classless society of its onstage incarnation, however: Plutarch tells us that rather than allowing ‘his democracy [demokratia] to become disorderly or diverse because of a random multitude pouring into it’ he segregated the Athenians into three privilege groups: the nobles (Eupatridai), who excelled in dignity; the landowners, who excelled in usefulness; and the artisans, who excelled in numbers. 

Theseus is also said to have made a clear-cut ethnic and geographical division between the Ionian Athenians and the Dorian Peloponnesians, who derived the name of their land from the mythical King Pelops: Peloponnese = ‘Island of Pelops’. Theseus erected a pillar at the Isthmus of Corinth with a two-line verse inscription: the one facing east said, ‘Here is not the Peloponnese, but Ionia’; the west-facing one read, ‘Here is the Peloponnese, not Ionia.’ Their Ionian ethnicity was very important to the Athenians, and the fact that Theseus reputedly established various rituals including the ‘Crane Dance’ at the Ionian cult-centre of Delos on his way back from slaying the Minotaur was exploited by them as they asserted their leadership of the Ionian world. 

Not all of Theseus’s personal dealings, however, were consensual. Prior to the events that triggered the Trojan War he kidnapped Helen of Sparta – he was already fifty years old and she was still a child. Outrage at this caused political chaos, which gave his domestic opponents, led by Menestheus, their chance. Menestheus was said to be the first person to ‘set himself up as a demagogue, and ingratiate himself with the multitude’, and he played on the ill feelings generated by Theseus’s reforms: the nobles thought that he had robbed them of their local royal powers (whatever they might have been), and had treated them as subjects and slaves; the hoi polloi felt they had been robbed of their native homes and religions, and that the various ‘good kings who were their own kinsmen’, i.e. the nobles, had been supplanted by ‘one master who was an immigrant and a foreigner’. The power of local loyalties in Attica was strong, and would in due course be a major factor in the Athenian success in repulsing the Persian invasions, but on this occasion it led to factional infighting and political chaos in which Theseus lost control. He fled to the island of Scyros, where, so he thought, the people were friendly to him. But he had misjudged the situation badly, and King Lycomedes pushed him off a cliff. So Athens went back to being a monarchy, and the Athenians, ‘masters of noise of battle’, duly fought at Troy under their new King Menestheus, ‘son of Peteos, driver of horses.’

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