Athens in the 6th century BC

Athens was an extraordinary city in Antiquity. On the one hand because it had a very vast territory compared to the other Greek cities, 2600km², only one other Greek city had a territory larger than Athens, it was Sparta. On the other hand because Athens played a major role of great power from the 6th century. This role of great power, it kept until the end of the 4th century BC, time of Alexander the Great.

It alone occupies a region of central Greece called Attica. This region is a peninsula in the Aegean Sea. Attica has a land border only on the west side, and this land border is a border with a region further west: Boeotia, and towards the southwest, it has the city of Megara as a neighbor. Attica is a region which has three distinct plains: Eleusis (with sanctuary dedicated to Demeter), the second plain is located at the southern tip of Attica: the Mesogeum which ends with Cape Sounion. Finally, the third plain is the plain of Athens. Athens is the only city in Attica. In the 15th century, archaeologists put forward traces of a Mycenaean occupation (Mycenaean walls on the Acropolis - Mycenaean palace?).

Let's put ourselves in context: around 1200, the site resisted well to the end of the Mycenaean world. In the 8th century, it is the synoecism of Athens (attributed in antiquity to the mythical hero Theseus). Finally in the 7th century, Athens experienced a period of isolation and difficulties and did not take part in the colonization movement.

The crisis at the end of the 7th century and its solution

A civic body divided into four tribes brings together all the citizens. It sees itself as a community and the latter is called in Athens "the Athenians". Officially, this civic body is divided into four groups in Athens, but also social divisions: the Eupatrid families (aristocrats), like that of the Alcméonides; the “hoplitic class”, well-to-do peasants who work their land themselves; the thetes, poor citizens; the hectemores: poor citizens in debt and in the process of enslavement; The foreigners ; and slaves from trade. There is a double challenge to the supremacy of the aristocrats, one political by the hoplite class, the other economic by the thetes.

The old monarchy no longer exists. This kingship, if it existed, probably disappeared in the eighth century BC. Now institutions which are based on three essential elements: magistrates appointed for one year as the nine archons (the eponymous archon + the archon king + the archon polemarch + the 6 thesmothetes) always taken in the aristocracy, the council of the areopagus formed of the old archons who left office with political and judicial powers, and the assembly of the people, to which all the citizens.

What solution to give to the crisis, the legislators or the tyrants? In the 630s, we witness an attempt at Cylon tyranny repressed by Archon Megacles. In the 620s, Dracon's legislation failed (laws deemed too repressive). In 594, the Archontate of Solon imposes a reform of the institutions, it is the division of the civic body into four census classes among which the Athenian citizens are distributed. These four Solonian census classes are: the pentacosiomedimnes (more than 500 medimnes of cereals collected per year), the hippeis ("knight" from 300 to 500 medimnes), the zeugites ("laborers" from 200 to 300 medimnes) and the thetes ( less than 200 medimnes). These census classes serve to define the political rights of each citizen.

Solon also makes a judicial reform, it is the passage to the written law. The prohibition of debt slavery, the abolition of debts, but refusal to share land, is also implemented. In the long term, Solon's measures will ease social tensions and modernize the city of Athens.

Age of the Pisistratides (561 - 510)

Between 594 and 561, the aristocratic factions are in struggle. We find that of the Pedians (genos of the Etéoboutades), that of the Paralians (genos of the Alcméonides) and that of the Diacrians (Pisistratus). In 561, Pisistratus' first coup d'état (he was driven out twice, before returning to power). He relies each time on the hoplite class and leads a policy unfavorable to aristocratic families. In 528/7, it is the death of Pisistratus and the power passes to his two sons: Hippias and Hipparchus. In 514, Hipparque was assassinated and we witnessed a hardening of the regime. Finally in 510, the tyranny was overthrown.

The policy of the Pisistratides aims to stabilize society. We generally retain a positive image of the tyranny of the Pisistratides, in particular thanks to measures favorable to the peasants: the creation of deme judges for example. It is also a religious policy aimed at creating a civic religion, the cult of Athena and Dionysus. By the establishment of the Panathenaia, the aristocrats are deprived of the monopoly of religious life in the city. Finally, it is a foreign policy creating zones of Athenian influence in the Cyclades and in the straits (zone separating the Aegean Sea from the Euxin Bridge).

Athens is booming economically, with the development of agriculture, especially the olive tree and the dependence of Athens for its grain supply. Indeed, we must feed an ever increasing population. Athens saw the rise of craftsmanship with Attic ceramics which supplanted Corinthian ceramics in the period 550 - 500, in particular by relying on the technique of red figures invented around 525. The economy became monetarized: around 600 the first Greek coins appear in Asia Minor. Around 575, it is the beginning of the silver coinage of Aegina, around 550 the beginning of the silver coinage of Corinth and around 530 the beginning of the Athenian silver coinage.

Athens is booming urban. There are no walls, but a separation of spaces: the sacred (sanctuaries), the public (squares, streets) and the private (houses, gardens). Work is undertaken on the Acropolis and on the agora on the site of an ancient geometric necropolis. The agora is the place of market place and a place of political meeting: it is there that the laws of Solon are engraved. In 522/1, Hippias dedicates an altar to the twelve gods, it is the symbolic center of Athens. The Pisistratides also take care of supplying the city with water with the construction of pipelines.

The day after the fall of the Pisistratides (510 - 507)

What assessment can be given to tyranny? A strengthening of Solon's laws, a weakening of the Eupatrids, an economic boom, an easing of social tensions and the consciousness of the unity and strength of Athens. After the fall of the Pisistratides, we witness a fight for the archontate between Isagoras and the alcméonide Clisthenes, and in 508 it is Isagoras who is elected archon. In 507 Clisthène takes power and reforms.

A reform is put in place concerning the territorial divisions of Attica and the demes system is generalized. There are 139 in total. Three great regions are created: Asty (or Astu), Paralie (or Paralia) and Mésogée (or Mésogeia). Each of these regions is divided into ten Trittyes. Finally ten tribes (Phylai) are created, each comprising a Trittye from each region.

The Council of 500 is created, with the bouleutes drawn at random. It is the birth of a new regime: isonomy.


- Marie-Claire Amouretti & Françoise Ruzé, The ancient Greek world.

- Lonis, Lacity in the Greek world.

- Claude Orrieux & Pauline Schmitt-Pantel, Greek history.

Video: Discovery Tour: Ancient Greece The Agora of Athens (October 2021).