Archaic Greece and the Solonian and Cleisthenic reforms in Archaic Athens

May 15th, 2018


The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2002, during a period when the author’s academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author’s work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article is based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academic historians. Despite the author’s best intentions to present this essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation. The author recommends that for any unknown words or specialised vocabulary, the readers should refer to the web for additional information.

The author admits that the bibliography used for writing this article is limited, matching the requirements of an undergraduate assignment of this level. The author did not include any additional bibliography during the translation of his work in English due to time and access limitations. Furthermore, any bibliography that he studied in later years on the same topic, only repeated the same exact historical facts under a different name; therefore, what mattered in this article was the original information and not the opinion of different scholars regarding this information. It must also be noted that the original bibliography for this article was studied from translated copies in Greek; therefore, the page numbers suggested in the citations below match the page numbers of the translated copies and not the original volumes.


This article discusses the basic social and economic characteristics of the Greek Archaic period in Greece and the innovative reforms that were introduced in Athens, originally by Solon in 594 BC, followed by Cleisthenes in 508/7 BC. The aim of this article is to evaluate the results of the reforms introduced by the two legislators and to discuss their impact on the Athenian society during the Archaic period.

This article is divided in four sections. The first section discusses the basic characteristics of the Archaic period in Greece, in relation to the social, economic and political development of the Greek city-state (Polis). This section discusses four common features of the Greek city-states, while emphasis is placed on the particular characteristics of the Athenian society before the reforms introduced by Solon. The second section discusses the Solonian reforms and the ways in which they affected the Athenian society before the intervention of Cleisthenes. The third section explains the Cleisthenic reforms and their contribution towards the transformation of Athens from an aristocratic to a democratic city-state. The final section summarises the basic points of this short study in relation to the political work of the two legislators and their broader contribution towards the development of the democratic system.

The Greek Archaic period

The Greek Archaic period began at the dawn of the 7th century BC and ended right after the Persian Wars at 490/480 BC. Despite the differences among Archaic Greek city-states in relation to their social, political and economic structures, there were four common characteristics that were shared among most of them, which played an important role in the development of the Greek city-state institution for at least three centuries.

The first characteristic was colonisation (1), and more specifically what is nowadays defined as the second Greek colonisation, which took place between the late 8th and 6th centuries BC. The demographic 'explosion' of the 9th century BC and the lack of sufficient cultivated land for food production were the two main reasons for the Greek colonial expansion towards the Western Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Another reason for this expansion was the quest for new primary resources for the development of metallurgy. At the beginning, the reach iron ores and the fertile lands of Sicily were targeted by the Euboeans, who were then followed by many other Greek city-states (Mosse & Schnapp-Gourbeillon 2002, 167-82).

The second Greek colonisation acted as cure to the agricultural crisis that broke up during the 8th century BC. This agricultural crisis was the second characteristic of the Archaic period. Hesiod describes part of the problem in his poem 'Works and Days', which shows the poverty that the farmers suffered during that time and the dangers of receiving loans from bad neighbours. In fact, the land and personal possessions of many poor farmers in Archaic Greece passed on to the hands of rich landlords through mortgage loaning, with the former becoming owned as slaves by the latter. This situation resulted to a greater socio-economic gap between poor farmers and rich landlords, who formed the aristocracy of that time (Mosse & Schnapp-Gourbeillon 2002, 184).

Based on the information recorded by Plutarch in 'Solon' and by Aristotle in the 'Constitution of the Athenians', the agricultural crisis was more evident in Athens than in any other Greek city-state (Mosse & Schnapp-Gourbeillon 2002, 184). According to Aristotle, before the time of Solon cultivated land was in the hands of 'the few' (Oligoi). The Greek word Οligoi (Ολίγοι), meaning 'the few', is the first component of the political term oligarchy, describing the possession of full political rights by a small fraction of the society, who are also the ruling social group. During the Archaic period in Athens 'the few', who were powerful landlords, offered plots of land to poor farmers, the Ektemoroi (Εκτήμοροι), who cultivated them by returning a sixth of their agricultural production to the original owner (Andrewes 1999, 151-2). In Sparta, the agricultural crisis appeared long time later only because the shares of the so-called ancestral land were by law non-expropriate to its owners (Andrewes 1999, 149). As for Boeotia, there are indications that around 700 BC, together with the dependent farmers, there used to be some free independent ones, who were allowed to cultivate small plots of privately-owned land (Andrewes 1999, 147).

The third characteristic of the Archaic period in Greece was an innovation introduced in the army, which is nowadays known as the 'hoplite revolution'. One after another, from the beginning of the 7th century BC onwards, Greek city-states adopted the phalanx, a dense military formation of infantry soldiers in files. This innovation resulted to battles won not due to the bravery of individual aristocrats, but due to the common efforts and team work of equal-in-status warriors. Equality among the ranks of the phalanx was the basis for the development of political equality among all male citizens of the city-state (Mosse & Schnapp-Gourbeillon 2002, 186-7).

The forth characteristic of the Archaic period in Greece was the minting of the first coins. The initial use of coinage was neither for commercial purposes nor for economic transactions, as this is commonly assumed. In fact, the first coins had limited circulation while they were also lacking smaller subdivisions. Coinage was first used as a mean of determining values, with natural consequence the valuation of obligations from and towards the state (taxes, fines, military expenses, etc.). The invention of coinage also contributed towards the acquisition of high social status by people of non-aristocratic background. Coinage was a form of transportable wealth in the hands of new social groups, such as the merchants and the technicians. Such groups began gaining power through the accumulation of transportable wealth, in the same way that the old aristocracy gained power from land ownership before the 7th century BC (Mosse & Schnapp-Gourbeillon 2002, 187-9).

At this point, there needs to be a brief mention of a political institution that became the trademark of the Archaic period. Tyranny was a new form of government, in which the tyrant took over the power by the use of force. Tyrants usually claimed that they represented the interests of those who felt disrespected and wronged; however, in most cases tyranny had a completely different face, which was severely brutal and oppressive. There is a long list of Greek city-states that tasted tyranny during the Archaic period: Athens, Corinth, Sicyon, Megara, Samos, colonies of the West such as Cumae, Agrigento, Gela and Syracuse, while surprising is the fact that tyranny never appeared in Archaic Sparta (Mosse & Schnapp-Gourbeillon 2002, 190-209).

The Solonian reforms

According to the characteristics of the Archaic Greek city-states noted in the previous section, it is clear that internal struggles were common due to the large degree to social and economic inequality. As noted by Aristotle in the 'Constitution of the Athenians', Solon was the first person who was invited to intervene and regulate the situation between the poor farmers and the old aristocratic elites of Athens, after a violent clash that broke out in 594/3 BC. He was probably chosen to legislate due to his social background: he was neither poor nor belonged to the old aristocracy; therefore, both opponents would have respected his judgement. As noted by Plutarch, Solon's first move was to relieve the poor farmers from slavery caused by their own debts; thus, he introduced a law that forbid the borrowing of money with a person's own freedom set as pledge. Additionally, he wrote off all recorded debts until his time (Σεισάχθεια-Seisachtheia), and reduced the interest rates for any private loans in the future.

In relation to Athens' social structure, Solon removed the old 'class' system (2), which divided the people (Δήμος-Demos) into three groups: the aristocratic Eupatridas (Ευπατρίδας), the Geomoroi (Γεωμόροι), who were land-owning farmers, and the Technetas (Τεχνήτας), who used practise manual labour or technical tasks (Mosse 1987, 177). Among these social groups, the first one consisted of the upper stratum. Based on Solon's new divisions, the Athenian Demos was divided in four new groups, this time according to their taxable income. The first group were the Pentakosiomedimnoi (Πεντακοσιομέδιμνοι), who earned 500 or more volume units (3) of dry agricultural products, most likely grain. The members of this group were the only ones who could serve as generals (Strategoi-Στρατηγοί) in the Athenian army. The second social group were the Hippeis (Ιππείς), who earned between 500 and 300 units of grain. The name of this group implies that they were able to maintain horses and probably formed the ancient Athenian cavalry. The third social group were the Zeugitai (Ζευγίται), who earned between 300 and 200 units of grain. This group consisted of free farmers who served in the Athenian infantry as foot-soldiers. Their name was connected to the word yoke and it implied that they owned a pair (Zeugos) of animals, which were used to pull an agricultural plough or carriage. Those three groups had full political rights and could also participate in the councils and courts of the city-state; of course, they had an equal amount of military obligations, for which they were expected to buy their own equipment. The forth social group were the Thetes (Θήτες), who were basically serfs without any political rights. The Thetes were not allowed in the Athenian army, not even as foot-soldiers soldiers; however, they were allowed to serve in the navy as oarsmen in the Athenian warships (Mosse 1987, 182).

In terms of political power, Solon was the first to place it into the people's hands, condemning the minority of the aristocrats. During the past, the rule was aristocratic. Nine rulers (Archontes-Άρχοντες) ruled by annual election, while there used to be the Council of the Elders meeting at the rock of the Areopagus. The Demos (Δήμος), meaning all adult male citizens and members of the hoplite phalanx, had no involvement in any political decisions (Mosse 1987, 176). Solon restrained the powers of the old aristocratic institutions of the city-state without abolishing them, and at the same time he introduced new political institutions, which allowed the participation of ordinary people. He funded the Council of the 400 (Voule-Βουλή), which consisted of a hundred members from each of the four Athenian tribes; the People's Assembly (Ecclesia tou Demou-Εκκλησία του Δήμου), which consisted of every male citizen over the age of twenty; and finally, the Heliaia (Ηλιαία) or the people's high court, which consisted of 6,000 randomly-chosen members (Mastrapas 2002, 102-3).

The power that Solon handed to the Athenian people, in combination with the cancellation of debts and liberation of enslaved farmers, were the main reasons for the dissatisfaction of the old Athenian aristocracy. Still, the social relief that was expected after Solon's reforms was not achieved. According to Plutarch's 'Solon', poor farmers continued to own small plots of land with low degree of profitability, and every call they made for land redevelopment, found Solon against it. Furthermore, despite the political powers gained by the Demos, the majority of the citizens had no access to the highest levels of political authority, which still remained a privilege for the old aristocracy.

It is important to note that according to Plutarch, the people who practised their technical skills and the merchants of Athens, gained significant economic power due to the increasing use and increasing value of coinage in every-day transactions. Solon allowed them to participate in the decision-making process and the political institutions of the city-state, which could not happen in the past. This privilege probably dissatisfied the old aristocracy of Athens, who still possessed their political powers through land ownership.

Solon's reforms aimed in compromising two opposite and relatively hostile power groups; however, such reforms only managed to partly satisfy and dissatisfy both sides at the same time. Despite the important contribution of Solon's measures to the Athenian society, the majority of the Athenian people was not pleased by his reforms. New violent clashes followed shortly after due to the increasing political and economic inequality, which allowed Peisistratos to abolish the legal government and take control of the city. Tyranny lasted between 560 BC and 510 BC, when Peisistratos' son Heppias was exiled from Athens and a new democratic system was instated (Mastrapas 2002, 102).

The Cleisthenic reforms

The Cleisthenic reforms were introduced in 508/7 BC, right after the end of the Peisistratid tyranny. Although Cleisthenes belonged to a family from the old Athenian aristocracy, which always resisted the reforms that would offer more political power to the non-aristocrats, he is nowadays regarded as the founder of the democratic system.

Cleisthenes' plan needed the full support from the Demos, and to gain it, he generously offered the Athenian people a range of new political privileges. Since the time of Solon, the urban population of Athens had significantly expanded. The merchants and those who practised technical professions controlled most of the city's economic activities, and their wealth allowed them to break social contacts with the traditional aristocracy. Cleistenes invested on this new urban population, who were mainly foreigners from other Greek city-states, in order to pass his new reforms. He offered citizenship to the non-Athenian Greeks living in Athens and created the Neopolites (Νεοπολίτες) or the 'new citizens', who automatically gained political rights (Mosse-Schnapp Gourbeillon 2002, 228).

Cleisthenes introduced a new administrative division for Attica based on territorial criteria instead of following the old tribal system. He increased the number of the 'tribes' from four to ten, and at the same time, he gave each tribe a new name taken from an imaginary ancestor. By doing this, he managed to break the traditional ancestral ties that were claimed by each of the old tribes, which limited their numbers to small kin groups (Mosse 1987, 220). Then, he organised the ten new 'tribes' into thirty municipal groups, which were called Trittyes (Τριττύες). Ten Trittyes belonged to the City (Asty-Άστυ), ten belonged to the Coastal Zone (Paralia-Παραλία), and ten belonged to the Hinterland (Mesogaia-Μεσογαία). Based on the new division, each 'tribe' consisted of three Trittyes, one from each of the three territories. By introducing this system, Cleisthenes managed to break the solidarity that used to be based on local and tribal bonds, and he homogenised the citizens of different areas. This resulted to the undermining of the power possessed by the old aristocracy (Mosse-Schnapp Gourbeillon 2002, 228), especially due to the new representation of the 'tribes' in the political institutions.

Cleisthenes also raised the number of the People's Council (Boule-Βουλή) from 400 to 500 members, this time fifty from each of his ten tribes, and for one year. The right of becoming elected in the People's Council belonged to all male citizens above the age of twenty, who were registered in the local municipal records (Mosse 1987, 220). Furthermore, the same citizens could serve in the Athenian army or navy regardless what their income.

Cleisthenes' reforms offered additional political power to the people of Athens, particularly to those who did not belong to the aristocracy and were never born Athenians. Becoming elected in the People's Council and serving in the court of justice (the Heliaia) was no longer the privilege of the wealthiest social groups. The same was to be said for serving in the hoplite phalanx as an infantry soldier. With such measures, Cleisthenes caused great discomfort to the old aristocratic circles. All the privileges they possessed since the time of Solon were now passing on to the hands of the People's Assembly (Ekklesia) and their representatives in the People's Council (Boule).

In the following year, Isagoras, one of Cleisthenes' political opponents who was supported by King Cleomenes of Sparta, attempted to take control of the city by force. In response, the Athenian people not only supported Cleisthenes' policy, but they reacted quickly, forcing Isagoras and Cleomenes away from Athens (Mosse-Schnapp Gourbeillon 2002, 227-31). This reaction showed that Cleisthenes' reforms had brought great satisfaction to the largest fraction of the Athenian citizens, who were now willing to fight for their political rights.

Discussion and conclusions

Coming to the end of this paper, it is important to note that Cleisthenes' reforms set the foundations for the development of the democratic system, which was completed under the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles several years later. Of course, such development would have been impossible without the preceding reforms by Solon, which did not satisfy the Athenian people, but opened new horizons in the political structure of their city-state. Both legislators, Solon and Cleisthenes, tried to give the best they could to the Athenian people, often coming into conflict with different attitudes, perceptions, customs and political ideas of their era. Evidently, the development of the democratic system from Solon to Cleisthenes, and then from Ephialtes to Pericles, took place gradually after the resolution of various political obstacles.

The reforms discussed above boosted all functions of the Athenian city-state, which gradually became the greatest trading and economic power of its time. Furthermore, the innovations that were introduced into the army and the navy, particularly the equality among serving troops and the increase in the number of citizen-soldiers, made Athens one of the greatest military powers of the Archaic period. The large-scale operations of the Athenian army and navy during the Persian Wars was decisive for the Greek victory and the protection of the freedom of all other Greek city-states.

The peak of this political, economic and military development for Athens came a century later, during the Classical period. The democratic ideology that was cultivated after the Solonian and Cleisthenic reforms, also triggered the development of philosophy and political thought as a result of democratic dialogue. In conclusion, the reforms of the two legislators were never constrained in the political and social domains of Athenian life. Instead, the reforms generated social and political stability, which acted as the foundation for the economic and cultural growth that occurred during the 5th century BC.


  1. It must be clarified that not all Greek city-states had colonies abroad. Athens, for example, which is the main city-state discussed in this paper, never engaged in colonisation.
  2. The term 'class' is presented in quotation marks because in Archaic Athens there used to be no real class system in the Marxist sense, as most people understand it nowadays.
  3. In Greek, the word Pentakosia means five hundred and Medimnos was an ancient Greek capacity unit for dry agricultural product. An Athenian Medimnos was roughly less than 59 modern litres.


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