Origins of 5th century B.C.E. Athenian political and social structure

Prof. Maryanne Horowitz                              


Athens 7th c. (699-600 BCE or BC)

9 Archons in Council of Areopagus made laws.  An archon, Pomeroy argues, was a transformation of archaic "basilieus," or chieftain.Plural "basileis" (pp. 43-44,50, 73, 126)

   621 BCE Draco organized laws on stone. Severe “Draconian” punishment.                                                

   Ecclesia (or spelled Ekklesia).   

 Athens 6th c. (599-500 BCE)

 594  B.C.E. Solon, Chief archon, rescue poor peasants from debt slavery.  Invite artisans to Athens, encourage trades. Among citizens, classify into 4 levels of wealth, 4th landless laborers.  Archons open to 2nd as well as lst rank. Created Council of 400 from top 3 ranks; Council prepared business for assembly of citizens (“ekklesia”)

c. 508 B.C.E. Cleisthenes break power of 4 tribes by ancestry (“phratry”) by restructuring society into 10 tribes composed of villages by residence (“demes”) of a variety of locations and wealth.


Each tribe chose by lot 50 representatives to the Council (Boule) of  500 (expanded from Solon’s) Each tribe in charge for 1/10 of the year. Army reorganized in tribes, each contributing infantry commander, cavalry commander and “strategos” (chief general who may be relected).

500 B.C.E. meeting place for ekklesia carved on hill Pnyx. Met regularly to make policy. Gave support to Cleisthenes’s policies. Shifted power to all male citizens in assembly.


Politics in Athens 5th c. (499-400 BCE)

 (Classical Athens 480-323 B.C.E goes from 2nd quarter of 5th c. BCE to beginning of 4th quarter of 4th c. BCE).

Ostracism, first used 487 B.C.E. Each year citizens assemble in agora (10 doors for 10 tribes to enter), and may inscribe name on pottery, “ostrakon” if there’s someone to exile for 10 years.(see figure on p. 148)

5th c. succession of leaders:   Aristides, Xanthippus, Themistocles, Cimon, Ephialtes and then Pericles (461-429 B.C.E. historians label as “Age of Pericles” or “Golden Age”)

454 BCE Pericles arranges for treasury of Delian League to be moved from island of Delos to Parthenon in Athens.

451 B.C.E. Pericles persuade Athenians to limit citizenship to offspring of 2 Athenian parents. Only Athenian women then could bear citizens.  Reduced marriages with wealthy women from other city-states.

 (chief of 10 generals, chosen by generals, from 443 to death in 429 B.C.E.) Key institution of Generals chosen yearly.


Pericles formulated policy and persuaded ecclesia to vote support. Even poorest citizen important as may be an oarsman in triremes (3 rows of oarsmen) (see figure on p. 149)


Ecclesia. (male citizens over 20)  Makes laws. Assembly of all citizens met on hillside Pnyx.  6000 needed for ostracism (approx.. 40,000 voting citizens)  Older generals speak lst,  citizens over 50 spoke before others. By mid-afternoon votes as C. of Five Hundred then met.


Council of Five Hundred  one-year term possible for any citizen. 2 terms during lifetime. 50 in charge (prytaneis) present  legislation to ecclesia.  1)Makes agenda, propose legislation for ecclesia  2) review public magistrates 3) conduct foreign affairs 4) do financial administration


Annual lots for 700 government positions with salary. Citizens administer laws of Athens.


600-person juries (male citizens over 30) with some pay, some juries bigger. Jury interprets law.  No judge, people do own defense, jury decide case and no appeal.


9 Archons limited to top 3 ranks, but after 487 selected by lot and more honorific as power transferred to Council of Five Hundred.


Wealthy contribute to military, cultural, religious and civic activities. 

Popular participation. Estimate: About 2/3 of each male citizen generation participated in government, 8 % in office any particular year.

Clerks and public slaves serve government continuously.


Social Structure in Athens 5th c. B.C.E.

Population :  estimated at 40,000 citizen men eligible for ecclesia and jury; altogether 100,000 citizen men, women, children; 50,000 metics; 100,000 slaves (Thomas H. Greer’s figures in A Brief History of the Western World, 2002; population may have been larger before war of 431 B.C.E.)

5th c. B.C.E. Athens Average Lifespan:  males 45, female 36.2

Average woman bore 4.3 children, 2.7 survived infancy.

Athenian men married at 30, women at 15 on average.


Nuclear family rare. Widowed and divorced people usually remarried.

Children of divorced parents usually lived with fathers, to whose household they belonged. Children names derived from father’s family (patrilineal system)

Only a minority of children reached adolescence living with both their natural parents; most lost a parent at an early age through war or childbirth. 


Sarah B. Pomeroy, et. al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social and Cultural History (NY: Oxford UP, 2009) (pagination refer to this 2nd edition, but content is similar in first edition of 1999). (One copy on reserve for those especially interested in political & socio-economic history.)