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Theseus and Democracy at Athens

It was a traditional Greek practice to explain significant historical changes such as the founding of communities or the codification of law as the work of an individual “inventor” from the distant past. Just like the Spartans, for whom the legendary Lycurgus1 was remembered as the founder of their city-state, the Athenians also believed their polis owed its start to a single man in the distant past. Athenian legends made Theseus2 responsible for founding the polis of Athens at a remote date by the synoecism of villages in Attica, the name given to the peninsula at the southeastern corner of the mainland of Greece that formed the territory of the Athenian polis. Since Attica had several fine ports along its coast, the Athenians were much more oriented to seafaring and communication with other peoples than were the almost-landlocked Spartans. Theseus made an appropriate mythical founder because he was described as a traveling adventurer, sailing, for example, to the island of Crete to defeat the Minotaur3, a cannibalistic monster, half-human and half-bull. This exploit, like his other legendary adventures, or “labors” as they are called in imitation of those of Heracles, became favorite subject matter for vase painters. There can be no historical reality to the story of Theseus as the founder of Athenian democracy, but the civilizing nature of his legendary labors—he defeated many monsters who threatened travelers and polis residents alike—made his story appropriate to the aspirations of Athenian civic life.

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