Clisthenes Of Athens: Biography, Contributions, Attributed Phrases

Cleisthenes of Athens (c. 570 BC – c. 508 BC) is considered the father of democracy in Athens, a nickname given by different historians. In life he was a statesman and served as a magistrate in Athens for a year.

His democratic ideas gained relevance at the end of the 4th century when he proposed a reform. To do this, he previously formed an alliance with different groups against the most economically powerful families of the time.

Source: [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

Source: [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

His most important proposal was based on establishing that in societies each individual should have political responsibility. In this way, he denied the need to be part of certain groups, on a social or economic level, to have political relevance.

These ideas caused the citizens of Athens to begin to have much more power, especially thanks to the presence of popular assemblies or also known as citizens. Meanwhile, members of the nobility and other power groups in the past began to lose relevance in Athenian politics.

Article index

  • one


  • two

    Fight for the power of Athens

    • 2.1

      Popular support

  • 3

    Your contributions

    • 3.1


  • 4

    Importance of Cleisthenes

  • 5

    Dispute with Solon

  • 6

    Phrases attributed

  • 7



There is no official document or proof that would establish the exact date that Cleisthenes of Athens was born. Historians have agreed to fix the birth of statesman around the year 570 BC. C.

Cleisthenes was close to many other important figures in the history of Greece. To begin with, it was the uncle of Agarista (the same name as her mother), who was the progenitor of Pericles (an important politician of Athens). In addition, he was one of the grandparents of Alcibíades Clinias Escambónidas, an important Greek statesman and general.

All were part of the Alcmeónidas, a family group of the aristocracy of Athens. This clan stood out since before the birth of Cleisthenes for having a very relevant role in the decisions of Athens. They were publicly cursed because of Megacles, the great-grandfather of Cleisthenes, who was accused of sacrilege.

Cleisthenes was named in honor of his maternal grandfather, known as the tyrant of Sition. His father was named Megacles, like the great-grandfather of Cleisthenes, and he had a very important role in the politics of Athens. The statesman’s mother was named Agarista.

Fight for the power of Athens

Little was known about the early life of Cleisthenes of Athens. Only a few details were known about his most important actions, all related to politics. Much of his fame is due to his appointment as a government official, in an administrative position.

This happened in the year 525 a. The role was played at a time when Hippias of Athens concentrated the power of public affairs. Hipias was considered a tyrant, but his government lasted until 510 BC. C

The end of Hippias came with the help of Cleisthenes and who decided to associate with the Spartans and thus be able to overthrow the tyrant. Hippias and his family managed to leave Athens and the dispute between Cleisthenes and Isagoras for power began.

At first Isagoras won the power dispute before Clístenes, since he got the support of some important groups and was chosen as a magistrate. In the performance of his office he reneged on some of Solon’s proposals and kept some of the ideas of the tyrants who ruled in the past.

In this way Clístenes gained importance in Athens, since he obtained the support of the less favored social classes. He proposed different reforms and managed to scare Isagoras, who demanded that Clístenes be sent into exile. He leaned on the fact that Cleisthenes’ family had been cursed in the past.

Many citizens of Athens in the end suffered the same decision to be expelled. A series of bad decisions and the attempt to dissolve the Citizens Council of Athens led Iságoras to lose his power and was persecuted.

Without Isagoras present, Cleisthenes was invited to return to Athens. He returned, like many others of the Iságoras exiles, and assumed the power of the Athenian people.

Your contributions

As soon as Cleisthenes assumed power in Athens he began to make certain changes in the form of government. It was the beginning of democracy, although he called the set of new norms that he raised isonomy, whose meaning is equal before the law.

Among his decisions was to have some monuments built to honor people executed by Hippias during his tyranny. He specifically did it with Harmodius and Aristogiton. He changed the structure of social groups and thus changed the political structure of Athens.

Another of his decisions was to eliminate the custom of people being named after the place where they were born, as in his case, Cleisthenes of Athens.

The choice of people to occupy the different political positions also underwent modifications. Cleisthenes proposed that people be chosen at random. He wanted to end the practice that government jobs were obtained through family relationships or inheritance.

The assembly that Solon created also underwent some changes. It became made up of 500 people, with 50 representing each of the 10 social structures that Clístenes had established. Each member of the assembly had to swear that their job would always be to seek the best in people.

This assembly was in charge of formulating new laws for Athens and they met to discuss these changes more than 30 times a year. These laws could be denied, returned for improvement, or passed.

All changes that show how democracy was taking shape in Athens. Furthermore, they demonstrate why Cleisthenes was considered the father of this system of government.


One of the negative facts associated with Cleisthenes is the creation of ostracism. It is not fully proven that he was the creator of this practice, but it was a common activity while he was in power.

Historians assure that the first time that ostracism was practiced was in the year 487 a. C. It was a decision to send into exile people who did not share the ideas of the government or even those classified as dangerous.

At first this exile was to last 10 years. Taking into account that Cleisthenes had to leave Athens, it can be considered that he was rather one of the first cases of ostracism in Ancient Greece of which there is a record.

Importance of Cleisthenes

Herodotus, the most important historian of Ancient Greece, was essential to learn about the life and work of Cleisthenes in Athens. Aristotle also named Cleisthenes a couple of times in one of his books.

That he is called the father of democracy is sufficient evidence of his important role, both for Greece and for the world today. He reformed the constitution of Athens and made sure that class groups, with ideas and forms of government characterized by tyranny, did not return to occupy positions of power.

The decisions and proposals of Cleisthenes had very evident consequences in Athens in the past, but it helped the evolution of democracy as a form of government, something that has been mutating and improving until today.

Currently most of the countries are considered democratic. Many put into practice what they consider to be the best form of government, agreeing with something that began more than two thousand years ago.

Its relevance stops in his political work, since there is little or no information about Cleisthenes after his restructuring of the Athenian government. There are no documents that record information about other contributions or events in his life.

Dispute with Solon

All the credit for the creation of democracy is not exclusive to Cleisthenes. Solon played a very important role in establishing the world’s first democracy.

Solón lived during century V a. C. and created different reforms and proposed some changes that served to reformulate the government of Athens. He showed great concern for the economic, social and also moral issues.

He tried to create a way to balance the different social classes. Some historians assure that Clístenes only took advantage of the ideas that Solón already had raised previously.

Phrases attributed

A very curious element of the life and work of Cleisthenes is that there is no evidence of what his physical appearance was and there are no direct quotes from him. There are only certainties about its contribution to democracy.

“Advise according to the laws what is best for the people”, is one of the phrases attributed to Cleisthenes. In reality, it was part of the oath of the Citizens Assembly that had to be recited by each of its members.

Herodotus, despite being considered the father of history and the most important historian of Ancient Greece, did not reflect in his writings any words that could be attributed to Cleisthenes. Something a bit strange because he was in charge of recreating speeches by very important characters from ancient times.

Plutarch also did not make any portrait of Cleisthenes throughout his life.


  1. Dmitriev, Sviatoslav.  Birth Of The Athenian Community . Taylor And Francis, 2017.
  2. Fornara, Charles W, and Loren J Samons.  Athens From Cleisthenes To Pericles . University Of California Press Escholarship Editions, 2003.
  3. Fredal, James.  Rhetorical Action In Ancient Athens . Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.
  4. Magill, Frank N et al.  Dictionary Of World Biography . Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999.
  5. Parton, Sarah.  Cleisthenes . Rosen Pub. Group, 2004.

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