Sparta and Athens are like black and white, right and wrong in the mind’s eye of many. Sparta was involved militarily, and politically, in the events, which led to constitutional changes in Athens in 508/507 BCE. Herodotus, writing some 70 years later, begins his account of these Athenian developments with the Spartans.[1] The Lacedaemonians are the Hellenic ‘land army’ power at this point in history; and their involvement must be duly emphasised.[2] Sparta, per Herodotus, was manipulated into acting against the Pisistratid tyranny in Athens by an Alcmaeonid influenced Delphic oracle. The Spartans were ideologically opposed to tyrannical forms of government and practiced an oligarchic diarchy at home.[3]  Tyrants promoted citizens to prominent positions from outside the Eupatridae, and were, therefore, anti-establishment in Spartan eyes.[4] Hippias’ mother was an Argive, and the Athenian relationship with Argus was another motivation for Sparta.[5]

Spartan Power & Athenian Tyranny

In 510, a Spartan force led by Anchimolius, lands at Phalerum, but is defeated by Thessalian cavalry, who aid the Pisistratidae as Athenian allies.[6] Anchimolius is killed with many Lacedaemonian soldiers. Cleomenes would avenge this defeat and lead a Spartan force to besiege Hippias and take Athens, ending 36 years of Pisistratidae tyranny in 510.[7] These earlier events, confirm, how intrinsically, Sparta is involved in what becomes ‘the Athenian revolution’.

Ober champions ‘the Athenian people’ as the instigators of the political changes, which herald what some call the beginnings of democracy. He endorses the people of the demos, as the driving force for change, rather than Cleisthenes. Historical narratives traditionally identify leading characters, often, at the expense of less appealing storylines involving homogenous masses.[8] Herodotus, states that Cleisthenes: “took the people into his party” and “had won the support of the common people of Athens” [9]  – and later historians have, on this basis, lauded Cleisthenes as the leader of this democratic revolution.  Ober and de Ste. Croix both examine, in detail, the evidence in Herodotus for the motivation behind the actions of Cleisthenes. Was he a genuine political reformer, or, a subtle manipulator, using what was at hand to benefit the Alcmaeonidae cause? Or, as is more likely, was he a bit of both? Cleisthenes instigated populist, and fundamental, changes to the Athenian constitution, by increasing the number of “tribes” to 10, renaming them, and including 10 ‘demes’ within each tribe.[10]

Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution, written a century after Herodotus,states:

 “Cleisthenes…enlisted the people on his side, offering to hand over government to the multitude.”[11]

Cleisthenes, according to this source (which derived its information from Herodotus’ Histories), “withdrew”, when Cleomenes and his Spartan troops came to the aid of his friend, and Cleisthenes’s political opponent, Isagoras. The Spartans, on the advice of Isagoras, expelled seven hundred Athenian “households” associated with ‘a blood curse’.[12] The Alcmaeonidae (Cleisthenes’s family) were the family targeted by these expulsions. The Athenian Council resisted the oligarchic changes that Archon Isagoras attempted to foist upon them; and “the multitude” expressed their power to overcome the Spartan soldiers. Cleomenes, Isagoras and the Spartan force took refuge in the Acropolis.

The fact that a foreign power, Sparta, was directly involved in an attempted military-backed coup, makes its catalytic role in the Athenian democratic revolt essential to the outcome. This is the event that pushes the multitude of middle rank Athenian citizens to assume greater power within their assembly and the Athenian people to follow their lead. Herodotus emphasises the sacrilegious racial aspect of this ‘incursion’, when recounting Cleomenes’ confrontation with the Acropolian Priestess, who commanded:

 “Spartan stranger… Do not enter the holy place. No Dorian is permitted…”[13]

If this account is true; and Cleomenes denied his Dorian status and did not heed the warning, it can be viewed as analogous, to Sparta’s attitude to their Hellenic neighbours. Their actions represent a belief in their right to interfere wherever they saw fit. Democracy can be considered a response, even, a side-effect, of the Athenian resistance to Sparta’s imperial intentions in Athens. Sparta, generally, preferred to have ‘friends’ in place, as leaders, within the governments of their neighbouring states, rather than direct military control (Messenia excepted). Pro-Spartan political factions offered more cost effective, and less overtly visible, power within neighbouring Hellenic regions.[14] It is ironic that this Athenian, democratically led, state would soon become an imperial power to rival and surpass Sparta in the coming decades, through the Delian League.[15]

de Ste. Croix reminds his readers that Aristotle advised:

“It is essential that a constitution be constructed with an eye to military strength.”[16]

It may not be too fanciful to interpret Cleisthenes’ actions in: expanding the size of the council and the number of Athenian tribes, and instituting the demes within these – as means by which to politically combat the pro-Spartan faction led by Isagoras. That Isagoras immediately attempted to reduce the ‘Boule’ from 500 to 300 members, likely confirm this.[17] These changes were, also, militarily beneficial to Athens, as witnessed by their army’s great victory in 506 over the Boeotians, Spartans and Chalcidians.[18] Democracy encouraged, and inspired, greater participation in the defence of the Athenian polis by its citizens. De Ste. Croix, quite rightly, points out the quintessential Cleisthenes’ amendment, basing Athenian citizenship on membership of a “territorial” deme, instead of on kinship, via the “phratries and the four old “Ionian’ tribes”.[19] He criticises Herodotus on the basis of not identifying the salient political ramifications in his account of Cleisthenes’ constitutional changes, but, perhaps, Herodotus didn’t feel compelled to spell out the obvious to that section of his readership who would already comprehend these matters. Herodotus, it seems, from his digressive ‘tour guide’ literary style, is writing for a broad audience.  I do agree that the Aristotelian account is far more politically nuanced.[20]

Anti-Spartan concerns may, also, be the reason why the Cleisthenes’ constitutional changes do not overtly favour his own Alcmaeonidae faction. Democracy, has become in this instance, a powerful new tool of resistance to Spartan influence in Athens. Herodotus emphasises the changes that Cleisthenes made to the tribal names, naming them, all but one, after Athenian heroes.[21] This is parochial politics, playing to the Athenian masses.  Cleisthenes is opening the door to power for more Athenians, to prevent the pro-Spartan faction from gaining control of Athens. It begs the question, whether a subtle identity shift has occurred, with Cleisthenes clearly now an Athenian first and a Eupatridae second?

Morris makes an interesting case for another, broader, ideological shift having begun in the archaic period, in the eighth century. He argues for the attractions of the middle ground, and that more Greeks were seeing this as the fairest space to conceive of themselves. Not too rich and not too poor, but somewhere in the middle.[22] Somewhat like a paean for the middle classes; I wonder whether this is another example of modern writers viewing history through the issues of their own age?  Herodotus, writing in the late fifth century, records, “the common people of Athens, previously held in contempt.”[23] Indicating this appreciation of ‘the middling’ was not universally embraced. Despite this, I agree there are additional influences, which shaped these beginnings of Athenian democracy. There are “longue duree” origins to consider, in the distant chronological view, and the more recent.[24] Did, during the decades of Pisistratidae rule in Athens, there emerge new citizens, not from the traditional phratries?[25] Were these individuals and their families, then, threatened by the Isagoras faction, who wished citizen rights and council membership to be exclusively in the hands of those defined via traditional kinship? Affirmative answers to these questions are well within the bounds of likelihood and possibility. Clearly then, the Spartan intrusion was the catalytic event, but it likely came, consequential of preceding changes and political reactions to those shifts from both within Athens and without. Cleisthenes was a politician responding to the dynamics at work in Athens during his time. Anti-Spartan concerns were likely at the top of his agenda, but they did not exist in isolation.

Herodotus confirms the Spartan connection to these events, when he recounts Cleomenes’ subsequent address to Sparta’s allies of his intention to restore Hippias as tyrant in Athens.[26] The Spartans were no friend to this nascent democracy and, even, preferred the devil they knew in despotism, to this potential new threat. Herodotus, one senses from his writing, is a supporter of Athenian democracy over the oligarchies and tyrannies. Conclusions can be drawn, regarding the importance of Sparta, as Athens’ pre-eminent Hellenic enemy, to the formation and consolidation of Athenian democracy. The coming Peloponnesian War has its roots in these late sixth century events in Athens. Two very different constitutions and cultures are clashing, and are involved in a power struggle, politically and militarily, and this would increase exponentially. It will be the ‘best of men’ vs ‘all of the men’.

© Robert Hamilton

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[1] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 64-65.

[2] Herodotus, Hist, 1. 56.

[3] Cartledge. P, Spartan Reflections, (London, 2001) pp 57-58.

[4] Forrest. W, A History of Sparta 950-192 BC, (London, 1969). pp 79-80.

[5] Aristotle, Const. 17.3.

[6] Grote. G, History of Greece, (Routledge, 2013) p 189.

[7] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 63.

[8] Ober. J, “I Besieged that Man’s Democracy’s Revolutionary Start”, in Raaflaub. K, (ed.), Origins of Democracy   in Ancient Greece, (Berkeley, 2007). p 86.

[9] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 66, 69.

[10] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 69.

[11] Aristotle, Const. 20.1.

[12] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 71.

[13] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 72.

[14] de Ste. Croix, G, “Sparta’s Foreign Policy”, in Whitby. M, Sparta, (Edinburgh, 2002). p 221.

[15] Ps. Xen., Const. Ath., 1. 14.

[16] Aristotle, Politics, 2. 7, 1267a 20-1. In de Ste. Croix. p 142.

[17] Aristotle, Const. 20.3.

[18] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 74-78.

[19] de Ste. Croix. G, Cleisthenes I: The Constitution, (Oxford, 2004). p 131, 138-139.

[20] Aristotle, Const. 21.

[21] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 66-67.

[22] Morris. I, “The Strong Principle of Equality and the Archaic Origins of Greek Democracy”, in Ober. J,          Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, (Princeton, 1996). p 40.

[23] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 69.

[24] Ober. J, (ed.), Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, (Princeton, 1996) p 91.

[25] de Ste. Croix. G, Cleisthenes I: The Constitution, (Oxford, 2004). pp 144-145.

[26] Herodotus, Hist, 5. 91-92.


Ancient Sources

Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, (trans.) H. Rackham, (London, 1952).

Herodotus, The Histories, Rev. Ed., (London, 1972).

Moore. J, (trans.), Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy, 2nd ed., (Berkeley, 1986).

Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, (trans.) B. Thayer.*.html Viewed 27 March 2017.

Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, (trans.) E. Marchant, Viewed 27 March 2017.

Modern Sources

Cartledge. P, Spartan Reflections, (London, 2001).

De Ste. Croix. G, Cleisthenes I: The Constitution, (Oxford, 2004).

Forrest. W, A History of Sparta 950-192 BC, (London, 1969).

Grote. G, History of Greece, (Routledge, 2013).

Hayden. P, The Philosophy of Human Rights, (St Paul, 2001).

Ober. J, (ed.), Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, (Princeton, 1996).

Ober. J, The Athenian Revolution, (Princeton, 1996).

Orwin. C, The Humanity of Thucydides, (Princeton, 1994).

Raaflaub. K, (ed.), Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, (Berkeley, 2007).

Rhodes. P, “Pisistratid Chronology Again”, Phoenix, Vol. 30.  219-233.

Tritle. L, “Kleomenes At Eleusis”, Historia, Vol. 37.  457-460.

Whitby. M, Sparta, (Edinburgh, 2002).