How Athenian Democracy Developed in 7 Stages

Better understand the roots of democracy with this list

Democracy and Knowledge, by Josiah Ober
Democracy and Knowledge, by Josiah Ober. Princeton University Press

The Athenian institution of democracy emerged in several stages. This occurred in response to political, social, and economic conditions. As was true elsewhere in the Greek world, the individual city-state (polis) of Athens had once been ruled by kings, but that had given way to an oligarchic government by archons elected from the aristocratic (Eupatrid) families.

With this overview, learn more about the gradual development of Athenian democracy. This breakdown follows sociologist Eli Sagan's model of seven stages, but others argue that there are as many as 12 stages of Athenian democracy.

Solon (c. 600 - 561)

Debt bondage and loss of holdings to creditors led to political unrest.

The rich non-aristocrats wanted power. Solon was elected archon in 594 to reform the laws. Solon lived in the Archaic Age of Greece, which preceded the Classical period. For context, see the Archaic Greece Timeline.

Tyranny of the Pisistratids (561-510) (Peisistratus and sons)

Benevolent despots took control after the compromise of Solon failed.

Moderate Democracy (510 - c. 462) Cleisthenes

Factional struggle between Isagoras and Cleisthenes following the end of the tyranny. Cleisthenes allied himself with the people by promising them citizenship. Cleisthenes reformed social organization and put an end to the aristocratic rule.

Radical Democracy (c. 462-431) Pericles

Pericles' mentor, Ephialtes, put an end to the Areopagus as a political force. In 443 Pericles was elected general and re-elected every year until his death in 429. He introduced pay for public service (jury duty). Democracy meant freedom at home and domination abroad.

Pericles lived during the Classical period. For context, see the Classical Greece Timeline.

Oligarchy (431-403)

War with Sparta led to the total defeat of Athens. In 411 and 404 two oligarchic counter-revolutions tried to destroy democracy.

Radical Democracy (403-322)​

This stage marked a stable time with Athenian orators Lysias, Demosthenes, and Aeschines debating what was best for the polis.

Macedonian and Roman Domination (322-102)

Democratic ideals continued despite domination by outside powers.

An Alternative Opinion

While Eli Sagan believes Athenian democracy can be divided into seven chapters, classicist and political scientist Josiah Ober has a different view. He sees 12 stages in the development of Athenian democracy, including the initial Eupatrid oligarchy and the final fall of democracy to the imperial powers. For more details about how Ober came to this conclusion, review his argument in detail in Democracy and Knowledge. Below are Ober's divisions about the development of Athenian democracy. Note where they overlap with Sagan and where they differ. 

  1. Eupatrid Oligarchy (700-595)
  2. Solon and tyranny (594-509)
  3. Foundation of democracy (508-491)
  4. Persian Wars (490-479)
  5. Delian League and postwar re-building (478-462)
  6. High (Athenian) empire and struggle for Greek hegemony (461-430)
  7. Peloponnesian War I (429-416)
  8. Peloponnesian War II (415-404)
  9. After the Peloponnesian War (403-379)
  10. Naval confederation, social war, financial crisis (378-355)
  11. Athens confronts Macedonia, economic prosperity (354-322)
  12. Macedonian/Roman domination (321-146)

Source: Eli Sagan's
Also see: Ober: Democracy and Knowledge (Review).

Continue with Democracy Then And Now.