The Transformation of Citizenship and Democracy in Ancient Greece

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The Transformation of Citizenship and Democracy in Ancient Greece

Ancient Athens was indeed the birthplace of the democratic political system most attribute today’s modern democracies to be derivative from. However, it took a multitude of political reforms and shifts in power to reach that democracy’s final establishment. The Ancient Athenian population was divided into social classes that together created a hierarchy, but just because you lived in Athens or the surrounding areas of the greater empire of Attica, it did not mean you were inherently an Athenian citizen. Restrictions of citizenship were prevalent throughout Athens’ road to democracy, and the privileges that genuine citizenship provided changed over time; from Draconian law c. 621 BCE, to Solon’s reform of 594 BCE, to Pericles’ new regulation of 451 BCE, all the way to rule of the Thirty Tyrants following the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. Reformation from political leaders such as Solon, Cleisthenes, and Pericles, and influence from ruling tyrants all contributed the continuously morphing structure of citizenship and democracy in Ancient Greece. Circa 621 BCE, the Athenians enlisted Draco in order to form new laws. The new laws the Draco produced for the city-state granted political rights to those Athenians wealthy enough to afford the bronze armor and weapons of a hoplite.. Draco’s laws were most notable for their brute harshness. All crimes, from murder to loitering were seen as punishable by death. Draco’s laws however eventually lead to a crisis within Athenian society that put poor citizens at the mercy of the wealthy. Poor citizens, in years of poor harvests, were forced to mortgage portions of their land to wealthier citizens in exchange for food and seed to plant. The loss of land meant that farming citizens were even more vulnerable to subsequent hardships. Eventually, many of these Athenians lost the their land altogether, and became tenant-farmers or, slaves to the wealthy. The resulting crisis threatened both the stability and prosperity of Athens and the city-state reacted. Moving toward the first part of the Sixth Century BCE, the angered Athenian people longed for a more autonomous sociopolitical structure and the credentials needed to become a citizen, as well as the perks and rights of said citizenship would change yet again. The Athenians selected Solon in 594 BCE to be the driving force toward much desired reform. In order to alleviate the debt created by Draconian law, Solon created the seisachtheia, or “throwing off the burden,” which did away with all slavery, debts, and the Hectemoroi social class. Freeing these people of debts and enslavement allowed them to once again be a part of the Athenian culture, government, and work force. However, neither class was pleased with Solon’s actions. “The rich were angry at being deprived of their securities, and the poor even more so, because Solon did not carry out a redistribution of the land”. While he did create more Athenian citizens, Solon also created a social hierarchy that determined which roles one could play in public affairs.

One of the biggest reforms credited to Solon was his creation of the four distinct class systems which are broken down based on wealth: the upper class Pentacosiomedemni (whose income was 500 medimnoi of wheat or more), Hippeis (300-500 medimnoi), Zeugetae (200-300 medimnoi), and lowest class Thetes (less than 200 medimnoi). All classes could hold positions in government except for the Thetes, and only the upper class, Pentacosiomedemnoi could be a part of what Solon deemed the Aeropagus.

The Council of Areopagus was the primary judicial body of Athens around the turn of the fourth century B.C., composed of men who had served as archon. After many people expressed displeasure concerning their situation as a result of the seisachtheia and wished to bring their cases to court, Solon decided he needed a second chamber to compliment and aid his...
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