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The Democratic Reforms of Cleisthenes

His popular support gave Cleisthenes the authority to begin to install the democratic system for which Athens has become famous, and the importance of his reforms1 led later Athenians to think of him as a principal founder of their democracy. First, he made the pre-existing villages of the countryside and the neighborhoods of the city of Athens (both called “demes2,” demoi ) the constituent units of Athenian political organization. Organized in their demes, the male citizens participated directly in the running of their government: they kept track in deme registers of which males were citizens and therefore eligible at eighteen to attend the assembly to vote on laws and public policies. The demes in turn were grouped for other administrative functions into ten so-called tribes (phylai ), replacing an earlier division into four tribes. Cleisthenic democracy used its ten tribes for purposes such as choosing fifty representatives by lot from each tribe to serve for one year on the council (boule ) of five hundred, which replaced Solon's council of four hundred. The number of representatives from each deme was proportional to its population. Athenian men were also called up for service in the citizen militia by tribal affiliation. Most importantly, the ten men who served each year as “generals” (strategoi ), the officials with the highest civil and military authority, were elected one from each tribe. Cleisthenes' reorganization was complex, but its general aim seems to have been to undermine existing political alliances among aristocrats in the interests of greater democracy.

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