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Reforms of Cleisthenes

The reforms of Cleisthenes were implemented shortly after the overthrow of the Pisistratid tyranny in ancient Athens in the late 6th century BCE. The result of these innovations was the emergence of democracy. The very word "democracy" originated as a result of Cleisthenes' reforms. Power shifted to the "demos," which did not refer to the "people" in the modern sense of the word, but to full-fledged citizens who were members of one of the territorial districts, known as demes, in Attica. The reforms undertaken by Cleisthenes in 508-507 BCE aimed to weaken the political influence of the aristocracy, which would have retained its significance under the previous arrangements.

Territorial reform

According to Aristotle, Cleisthenes established territorial districts called demes and gave them names. Modern scholars primarily believe that demes existed as small settlements and villages at the time of Cleisthenes' rise to power, but they did not play a significant role in the political and administrative structure of Attica.

A deme could be likened to a micro-polis. Each community had its own governing bodies, including the assembly of demotes. The head of administration was the demarch, elected for a one-year term. Local matters, such as leasing of deme lands, financing public constructions, and religious rituals, were predominantly discussed in the demote assemblies. The system of demes essentially represented the presence of homogeneous population groups living in proximity and jointly addressing common issues.

Cleisthenes finalized the issue of Athenian citizenship. Only members of a deme could be full-fledged citizens. It was the deme that was responsible for co-opting new citizens by admitting them to its lists after a vote by the demotes. Several generations could live in Athens as metics without possessing civic rights. According to the reform, the patronymic was replaced by the name of the deme. This requirement was not fully implemented. Later, both methods were combined in official naming, for example, "Pericles, son of Xanthippus, from the deme of Holargos." A citizen could reside in any of the demes, buy houses, but at the same time, they continued to be registered in the deme to which their ancestors belonged at the time of the Cleisthenes' reform. Those residing in a foreign deme had to pay a special tax.

Attica was divided into three regions - urban, coastal, and central. Each of these regions was divided into 10 trittyes (measuring 1½-2 square miles) consisting of one or several demes. Three trittyes located at a distance from each other in different regions formed a phyle. Each phyle and trittys had comparable populations. The novelty of the reform lay in the random allocation of trittyes to phyles. The phyle consisted of randomly located urban, coastal, and inland demes. The purpose of this innovation was to prevent regional interests within the phyle from prevailing over the interests of the entire state. Athens, which was also divided into demes, ceased to exist as a city-state. From a political perspective, Athens "merged" into Attica or, in the metaphorical expression of R. Osborne, "expanded its boundaries" to the state limits. At the same time, the city became the political center. Representatives from demes located in various corners of Attica belonging to the same phyle had to gather in one place that was most convenient for everyone to resolve common issues. Naturally, Athens became such a place.

The new 10 phyles were named after Attic mythological characters, whose names were chosen by the Pythia. Thus, the reform was carried out as if with the knowledge and support of the gods.

Schematic map of Attica showing urban, coastal, and inland zones

Political reform

According to the reforms of Solon in Athens, there existed a state council called the Boule. It consisted of 400 people. The function of the Boule was to develop draft laws called probouleumata, which had to be approved by the Assembly. Cleisthenes increased the size of the Boule to 500. The reform was not limited to changing the number of council members. The council of five hundred was elected from each deme. Each of the ten phyles had a quota of 50 members. Council members were chosen through an annual lottery among the demotes. Each deme represented a certain number of people in the legislative body. Since this government body had representatives from the entire demos of Attica, elected by random lottery, the Boule reflected the prevailing opinions and political currents among the people.

Each phyle, by lot, obtained the prytany within the Boule. Their responsibilities included convening and conducting the Assembly, international negotiations, receiving ambassadors, counting the treasury revenues, and more. After the prytany's report, the next 50 bouleutai from a different phyle would take over. The remaining 450 members of the Boule would sit as needed. Each prytany performed its functions for 35 or 36 days.

An important part of the reform was not only the organization of the work of state institutions but also the procedure for selecting Boule members. The lottery, through which any Athenian, whether an aristocrat-eupatrid or an ordinary full-fledged demot, could become a member of the legislative body, eliminated the possibility of election-related disputes.

The role of the Assembly also increased. The judicial power also shifted from the "aristocratic" Areopagus to the people. From each phyle, 600 people were selected by lot for the popular court (heliea).

To prevent the threat of democracy from outstanding individuals who could pose a threat to the power of the demos but did not violate the law, the procedure of ostracism was introduced. A person subjected to ostracism was forced to leave Attica for ten years. At the same time, they retained all their property and civil rights, which were restored after the expiration of this period.


Cleisthenes' reforms became one of the key stages in the development of Ancient Athens. The country established democracy, the foundation of which was laid by Solon in the 590s BCE. The demos actively began to participate in political life, and the reforms themselves contributed to the emergence of politicians from the people.

The reforms carried out by Cleisthenes significantly reduced the political influence of aristocratic clans and fraternities.

Related topics

Ancient Greece - Hellas, Aristotle, Pisistratid Dynasty, Greek Tyranny, Athenian Democracy