Died ca. 500s B.C.
Cleisthenes was one of the founders of Athenian democracy and an important political reformer. His reforms of 508-507 B.C. remained the basis of Athenian local government throughout the classical* period. He was the son of Megacles and the heir of the Alcmaeonid family, which played a leading role in the politics of Athens. Cleisthenes became archon* under the tyrant* Hippias in 525 B.C. He was later exiled for his opposition to Hippias. Cleisthenes returned to Athens in the early 500s B.C., and sought the archonship once again. Although defeated by Isagoras, Cleisthenes appealed to the public by presenting a program of reform. After a brief political skirmish with his political opponent, Cleisthenes prevailed and his reforms went into effect. He gave citizenship to all free adult males of Attica and reorganized the citizens of Athens from the original four clans* of the landowning aristocrats* into ten new ones. The new clans comprised citizens from the cities, the coast, and the countryside and were more representative of the citizenry. Prior to the reorganization, aristocrats could limit membership in the Athenian assembly by restricting citizenship to those they favored. Through his reforms, Cleisthenes ensured that whole clans would never automatically be on the same side, and in this way he weakened their power and influence.
Cleisthenes is also credited with the concept of ostracism*. His intention was to help Athenians reach a peaceful solution to factional strife by giving them the opportunity to exile one citizen a year on the grounds that Athens would be better off without him. The exile would last for ten years but would not result in the loss of the person’s property or status. At least 6,000 votes were needed to ostracize someone. The votes for exile were written on pieces of broken pottery called ostraka and the process was called ostrakismos. (See also Citizenship; Democracy, Greek; Government, Greek; Polis.)
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* archon in ancient Greece, the highest office of state
* tyrant absolute ruler
* clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest
* aristocrat person of the highest social class
* ostracism banishment or temporary exclusion from one's community