12 Phases of Athens and Its Democracy

The historical events that led to democratic innovations in Athens

Ancient Greece > 12 Phases of Athenian Democracy | 7 Stages in Greek Democracy

One way to look at the history of Athens is to see it in terms of the rise and fall of what is arguably its greatest contribution to the West, democracy. Democracy didn't spring up overnight, but came about gradually, in response to historical circumstances. By the time Alexander of Macedonia (and later, the Romans) took over, the people of Athens had lost their experimental form of democracy.

The 12 phases selected for this timeline of Athens come from Josiah Ober's Democracy and Knowledge. Also see the related 7 Stages in Greek Democracy, which focuses on Athens' democracy rather than the historical phases of Athens.

1. 700-595 Eupatrid oligarchy

Originally, Athens was ruled by kings, but in time, the kings were replaced by archons and the nobility was in control. The eupatrids were the (well-fathered) nobility.

2. 594-509 Solon and tyranny

By the time of Solon, the nobility and the poor were in conflict. Solon resolved the situation with compromises that the people of Athens could live with. Tyrants were common in ancient Greece, but were not necessarily bad. It depended more on whether you were a eupatrid whose power the tyrant usurped or one of the masses who sometimes preferred a single ruler to rule by many noblemen.
  • Solon's Reforms

3. 508-491 Foundation of democracy

Although Solon has a place in the annals of democracy, Cleisthenes is usually cited as the first official of Athens qua democracy. He changed the allegiances of the people by realigning the tribes.

4. 490-479 Persian Wars

During and after the Persian Wars, Athens, with its navy, and Sparta, with its hoplites, came to dominate the rest of the Greek poleis.

5. 478-462 Delian League and postwar building

Athens became imperial.

6. 461-430 High empire and struggle for Greek hegemony

7. 429-416 Peloponnesian War phase I: Stalemate

It was during this period that the plague killed Pericles. Both sides agreed to a treaty of peace, and so they signed the Peace of Nicias, which was supposed to last 50 years. It only lasted for 7.

8. 415-404 Peloponnesian War phase II: Crisis

Athens launched its disastrous Sicilian expedition. Pericles' nephew Alcibiades served as consultant to the enemy, Sparta, for a while, and Persia offered Sparta support. When Alcibiades returned to help Athens, they defeated the Peloponnesians at Cyzicus; then Lysander took control of the Spartan fleet and devastated the Greek navy, leading to Athens' surrender.

9. 403-379 Post-Peloponnesian War

10. 378-355 Naval Confederation and Social War, financial crisis

At the end of the wars between the Greek poleis and the repercussions of the temporary arrangements, Greece was much weaker. Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander loomed on the horizon.

11. 354-322 Confronting Macedon, economic prosperity

12. 321-146 Macedonian and Roman domination

Rome didn't immediately grab Greece, but after being compelled to interfere once too often, it took over.

Of course, then much later you have the proverbial turn-around when the Roman conquerors of the Greeks were themselves at least culturally conquered by the Greeks. And later still, the Greeks as Byzantines, with Byzantine Roman emperors at their head, were all that was left of the Roman Empire.