Ancient Greece: The Archaic Age

Temple of Zeus at Nemea
The Temple of Zeus at Nemea

Boris Johnson has spoken of the contribution a knowledge of the classics can make to understanding our own times. In the modern political world — as in the ancient — the same theme is played out again and again … with the same characters : political leaders that let power go to their heads and then pay the price (although that price is oft paid in larger measure by those they lead). It’s not all bad news, however, for Greek history is also full of inspirational stories.

Over the next few weeks we shall post a series of small articles on the ancient Greek world, a phase of human history from which we can still learn.

For other posts in the series see the Index.

The Politics of Ancient Athens

We do not know what brought about the collapse of the Greek civilization known as the Mycenaean Palace culture in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1200 b.c.) The written record we have of that civilization consists almost entirely of accounting documents, baked clay tablets, in the Linear-B script.

There follows a period (of which our knowledge is limited to myth) usually referred to as the Dark Age, lasting till the adoption by the Greeks of an alphabet at some time in the eighth century. From then to the start of the Classical period we know as the Archaic Period, when the social structure was an aristocratic monarchy.

* * *

From monarchy to tyranny

HopliteFollowing the fall of the last sovereign king of the Athenians (Codrus), the aristocrats (known as Eupatrids (of good birth) abolished the ruling status of basileus (king) and vested the equivalent power in, at first, three officials, known collectively as the archontes (archons) : a polemarch (pronounced ‘Polla-mark’ – war-lord), a king (whose duties now pertained mainly to religious matters, i.e. pacifying the gods) and the archon himself. This last was the civic leader, equivalent to an executive president of to-day.

The noble families now exercised a measure of control over the archonship until in the early-seventh century a major change to the appointment meant that it became an annual office ; henceforth the Athenians named each year after its archon.

Noble families vied with one another in what to-day we should describe as vulgar ostentation ; their differing views on matters social and political would lead to disorder, even brawling in the streets.

This combination of faction and social competition eventually led to tyranny — the Greek word tyrannos is derived from an Asian one referring to a usurper — in which one nobleman, possibly a military leader, would persuade the now well armed hoplite population to support him as ruler. ‘In short, tyrants helped to stop spiralling ambition and faction by an ultimate act of ambitious faction : their own coup.’ (Further reading: The Classical World, Lane Fox)

It should not be assumed that tyrannical rule was autocratic, at least not at first : a tyrant would take over to establish eunomia (good order), something achieved by laying down and enforcing laws that, for whatever reason, would be observed.

Tyrants, however, saw their positions as heritable ; inevitably their heirs were not as good as they and the subject populace soon became even more disgruntled than under the previous, aristocratic, régime.

* * *

The law-givers

In a simplified way we might say that the period of the tyrants was followed by the period of the law-givers. Toward the end of the seventh century factional fighting in Athens, following an unsuccessful coup, led to the introduction by the nobleman Draco of written laws : they were harsh — hence our word ‘draconian’ — but fair and, because displayed for all to see, certain. (Those, the majority, that could not read would have been able to find others to read to them.)

Early in the sixth century, after ‘consulting the people’, Solon — the man now famous for having given Athens her first ‘constitution’ and one of the contenders for the title ‘Father of Democracy’ — handed down a far more detailed set of regulations governing most of civic life.

Under Solon wealth, rather than birth, decided eligibility for government office : a timocracy. He divided the Attic population in to four property classes, according to their income (actually to how much they might produce) : the pentacosiomedimni, hippeis, zeugitae and thetes.

See this video clip on the great thinker Solon


To the ruling Areopagus Council, which consisted largely of former archons, he added another, known as the boule (the word is still used for the Greek parliament) or Council of four-hundred, one-hundred from each of the Athenians’ traditional tribes (phylae). Members of the top two property classes were eligible to the Council but only the wealthiest — the pentacosiomedimni — could hold the highest offices of state. The ecclesia (Assembly of the people) had existed in the time of the kings of Athens ; it continued in existence.

Solon abolished the dues that land-holders had had to pay to their landlords. The practice of a creditor’s taking his debtor’s person as security was banned, even existing arrangements of this type being annulled ; henceforth no Athenian might be another’s slave.

* * *

Resurgence of tyranny : the Pisistratids


Although the government of Athens was edging toward democracy, the situation was not stable : skirmishes were frequent and when, in the mid-sixth century, factional fighting broke out, Pisistratus stepped in to take control ; defeated he fled to Asia Minor. He spent some time forming useful contacts amongst aristocrats, particularly in Asia Minor, and engaging in profitable commercial operations, especially in Thrace ; then, in 547 b.c., returned with a mercenary force and established a new tyranny.

His was a benign tyranny, under which much was done for the poor that would not have been under any previous aristocracy ; he encouraged the arts and extended the influence of Athens abroad (inter alia securing vital trade routes — especially for shipment of grain from around the Black Sea — that in later years would form the basis of the Athenian empire).

On his death, in 528, he was succeeded by his son Hippias, who failed to live up to the example of the founder of the dynasty : although he appears to have reigned peaceably enough for many years, when, in 514, his brother Hipparchus was assassinated, he began a four-year reign of terror. (The murder had been aimed at avenging a sexual insult but the assassins would later be acclaimed as tyrannicides.)

The Alcmaeonid family (by now in exile) tried to oust Hippias ; on failing, they sent to Cleomenes of Sparta for help, oligarchic Sparta being well disposed toward freeing other states from tyranny and rendering them clients and therefore allies. (The Alcmaeonids, having rebuilt the temple at Delphi, had been able to secure that, whenever the devout Spartans consulted the oracle, they would be told to free Athens first.)

* * *

Sparta attempts to establish oligarchy at Athens

Cleomenes succeeded, on the second attempt, and Hippias fled to Persia. The tyranny — the period from 547 to the rout of Hippias by the Spartans in 510 — is known as the Pisistratid period.

For the next two years the Athenians seem to have run their polis more or less ad hoc ; In 508, despite the Alcmaeonids’ having led the expulsion of the tyrant Hippias, their opponent, an aristocrat named Isagoras, acceded to the senior archonship.

In a public meeting, however, Cleisthenes (of the Alcmaeonid family) — second of our contenders for the title ‘Father of Democracy’ — proposed that in future sovereignty should rest with the entire population (sc. all adult male citizens). The Council would prepare legislation, which would then be submitted to the Assembly, membership of which would be open to all male citizens over 18, i.e. also to the thetes.

Isagoras could see the way things were going and called upon King Cleomenes of Sparta, who arrived in force to establish an oligarchy (similar to the government of Sparta). Cleisthenes fled but both the boule and the people of Athens resisted strongly, Isagoras and the Spartans withdrawing to the safety of the acropolis, to which the Athenians laid siege. On surrendering, Cleomenes and his men were allowed to leave.

Sixth months later Cleisthenes returned to Athens, his reforms having received much acclaim in the city.

These reforms wrested power from the aristocratic class, from which the ranks of the tyrants had been drawn, and can really be said to have informed the Athenian democracy that would eventually underlie the system of government most of the World knows to-day. The military value of these reforms and the freedom — sc. freedom to vote — that they conferred should not be underestimated ; the fighting men of Attica were not just the weakest and poorest obeying orders : they had an attachment to the state for which they fought and this freedom it guaranteed.

All citizens became eligible for archonship and the Council. The Assembly formed a court of appeal from the decisions of the Areopagus Council.

Hitherto the social system of Athens had been based on kinship. Cleisthenes divided Attica in to three regions of roughly equal population : simplified they were the coast, the hinterland and Athens (including the Piraeus and the plain to the west of the city). Ten phylae (tribes) were created ; a tenth part of the population of each of the three regions formed a trittys (third), being a third part of its tribe.

Rather as we have wards or constituencies, Attica had demes ; registration within a deme was a requirement of citizenship. From the demes were drawn candidates for membership of the Council, for which any male citizen over 30 was eligible. The democracy was not however ‘representative’ : men were not sent to the Council to represent a point of view or a group ; the Council’s job was to prepare the business for the Assembly, which would actually take decisions.

Membership of the Council, which since Solon’s time had numbered 400, was raised to 500; it was remarkably busy but would not usually meet in plenary session, the members from each tribe (fifty in number) sitting for a tenth of the year as a standing committee (the prytaneis).

All elected mayors can trace their political roots to Cleisthenes, who instituted the election in each deme of a demarch (pronounced ‘D-Mark’).

Written by Pericles (no, not that one), who says : “I am indebted to the work of so many scholars, some of which I have tried to condense in to this page, and to the good fortune of having been born in to a classical culture and had a good education. Any errors, along with opinions expressed, are mine alone.”


Further reading

The Classical World, Lane Fox, Robin (Allen Lane, 2005)
A master writer on ancient history (and gardening)

Athens — A History, Waterfield, Robin (MacMillan, 2004)
A lively and detailed account, much recommended, but look out for the unorthodox Romanization of Greek words

A History of the Archaic Greek World, Hall, Jon (Blackwell History of the Ancient World, 2007)
A good description of the methods of historians, with warnings about their fallibility

The Oxford History of the Classical World, Boardman, John et al. (edd.) (O.U.P., 1986), cap. 1 (Forrest)
All you need know in a couple of dozen pages

The Greek Tyrants, Andrewes, Antony (Hutchinson U. Lib., 1956-74)
Another master writer — and once Wykeham Professor — on ancient history
The nicely written background notes of a professor at Saskatchewan : Email

27 thoughts on “Ancient Greece: The Archaic Age”

  1. What a lovely gallery of photographs! and a very impressively well written article. Many thanks

    It makes a great change to hear of the great Greek heroes of the day. Solon was new to me. I wonder what the Greeks would think of our current civilisation?

  2. Oh, thank you a hundred times. Since finding myself in your perplexing world I have done my best to absorb as much of the great cannon of world literature as I can by raiding my friend the strong man’s library while he is out, we watch documentaries together ( just don’t mention anything with Meerkats to me ever again though), and I have had the benefit of enjoying Stromboli’s extensive CD collection. However, the Classical world has been something of a blind spot in my education. Your admirable blog now looks set to remedy that. What a service your enterprise is to the humble scholar like myself.

  3. Interesting to find out that comedian Steve Coogan finds David Cameron [Ed: this is off topic]

  4. Ive always loved ancient civilizations!
    the Greeks had a lot better standard of living in thier time than we did in Tudor times.
    i very much doubt you would find them emptying a dunny out of a window.
    they had good hygiene, amazing ways of educating the population although not everyone could gain access to this. and of course the olympics… the first olympics was held and involved only one race a sprint (cannot remember the exact length but it was an odd number unlike say the 100m sprint)the participants ran nude and the winner was a chef.
    They obviously wouldn’t of made such a great deal out of this as we do in this day and age but as this is the first recorded competition of physical fitness that has been found we refer to it as the start of our modern day olympics. The greeks prided themselves on physical fitness, and had many a philosopher or great scholar.
    They would write on tablets which then would be erased afterwards, females were not permitted to learn the option was only open to men.
    We will never know exactly how advanced the ancient greeks became, we can guess and we can gather archeological evidence but we will never know the full extent of thier capabilities. maybe if they had survived along with thier technology we may be alot moreadvanced than we are today.
    life was probably alot better in those times as now we worry far to much over technological advances and many of us would be at a loose end without our tv’s or such like would we not?
    Still, the greeks managed to build impressive structures which are far more attractive to the eye than our modern tower block and these were built with no cranes or anything similar. there were no worries over jobs or inflation rates, the greeks worked if they did not work they did not eat, life was simple people had trades that would be passed through generations within the family unit.
    there were (in our knowledge) no goverment benefit system so if you were ill you would have to rely on your family to live.
    And although they were subject to very strict laws and codes this infact was a good way to live, they crime rate was lower as people were scared of consequences. nowadays people have come to act as they do as there is no threat of being killed or similar. We have our prisons which offer a restricted way of life but a way of life not execution.

    There are many pros and cons to take into account but i feel the quality of life in those times was probably much more fufilling. Wouldnt it be nice not to worry about the latest gadjet or gizmo and know exactly what you had to do and how to live your life rather than having to work it ll out for yourself?
    Put it this way if there were no computers, microwaves and other things you would not miss them. You would also be alot fitter and far more skilled as everything from cooking to work was done from scratch leaving less time to sit and become a couch potato. Also with no telephones people were alot more sociable spoke to each other in person i doubt the greeks would be impressed by social networking etc. Then again you never know…….

  5. Thanks to all for the complimentary comments.

    All credit to Melissa, by the way, for the nice presentation.

    * * *

    Wayne, I’m afraid they’re rather well hidden : the inevitable literals and a few minor errors here and there (you’ll see I was so anxious to be rid of Hippias in 510 that I killed him off, whereas he is recorded as fleeing Athens) ; I’ve rectified these and shall ask Melissa to effect the changes next week.

    * * *

    Janina, your reflexion on how fine life might be in the absence of the conveniences we all take for granted (“… if there were no computers, microwaves and other things you would not miss them. …”) reminds me of a check-out clerk at a supermarket, who told me quite emphatically how nice it would be to travel back in time and to live in the fifteenth century A.D. I asked her whether she thought she could bear the stench (although I thought it would have indelicate to add “… your own and that of others”).

    In our discussion of Pericles — and the start of the Great Peloponnesian War (when the population of all Attica crowded in to the city) — we’ll mention the relative lack of hygiene in ancient times and its devastating consequences.


  6. @Pericles:
    was it not the greeks who built bath houses they may of been more of a swimming pool type of complex but was access to a bathing facility none the less.
    I know the romans had bathing facilities available but am sure it would of been the greeks who had ‘bath houses’ also a similar multiple toilet if i remember rightly with a type of sponge on stick or similar that would be used instead of toilet paper. although i believe this was used by person after person who enterd so not too hygienic in that sense and of course these ‘toilet blocks’ were open planned with many people using them at a time so no privacy. i guess these were the 1st ever public conveniences.
    I am very sure that the romans in fact had a complete drainage/sewerage system . did the greeks not attempt to do something similar?
    Im not sure about the general population but i would think the more privileged would have access to something?
    But i do think that in comparison to our tudor times they were more hygienic the tudor woman would have many various perfumes and scents and would basically use these to cover up thier bodily odour and at least the greeks were not sing mercury as makeup lol.

  7. Comment by Philipa on October 17, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    I did not write that comment. I did NOT write that comment. I can’t tell you whether it’s a great post, Pericles, because I haven’t read it. When I’ve read it and if I think it’s great I’ll say so.

    [Ed: the other Philippa has now been censored]

  8. Finally managed to get some undisturbed time – please forgive my initial lame joke, folks, but this post was recommended by a valued and trusted friend who was so right in rushing over to read this. I wanted to put some comment as an acknowledgement but sadly swine flu has just reached our area and I have poorly children and have been fearing the worst. However, this post was worth the wait and was a fascinating read. I look forward to more in this series.

    This sentence resonated with me:

    a tyrant would take over to establish eunomia (good order), something achieved by laying down and enforcing laws that, for whatever reason, would be observed.

    That is something we have seen time and time again. In a state of unrest and growing chaos a tyrant can so easily be seen as a deliverer, a beacon of hope and order. Hitler was elected and really did bring order. A caution to the plea ‘the government really should do something about this’ as soon the government might be doing everything whilst the people are allowed to do nothing but what they are specifically allowed to do by the state: Napoleonic law isn’t it?

    [many thanks, Ed]

  9. Pericles was the warmonger responsible for imprisoning Anaxoragas, destroying Athenian democracy, and setting back scientific progress almost 2,000 years. If it had not been for his bungling and egomania, we would by now have craft capable of voyaging to other stars, according to Carl Sagan.
    Easy to see why such an absolte despot would have such a fatal fascination on a power-struck public schoolboy.

  10. @Little Richardjohn: Pericles died a while back. I believe ‘pericles’ is a pseudonym or at least “not that one”. hence the “no not that one” at the start of the piece. Unless you know the author of this piece personally to be an ‘absolute despot’? Crikey, a blogger set back scientific progress 2000 years? Ed – I think we should be told.

  11. Janina on Greek & Roman baths

    Right in all respects : the ancients were meticulous ; the lavatories, communal or otherwise, were limited — naturally — by the available technology.

    The Romans were the masters of the bath, because of what they achieved in the management of water. Some of their aqueducts survive in working condition after two millennia.

    * * *

    Philipa on tyranny

    I think we really need to be careful in assessing the tyrants of antiquity. The trouble lies in the pejoration of the word ‘tyrant’, to-day taken to mean one such as Stalin or Hitler, both of whom might reasonably be assumed to have started with evil intent.

    The objectives of the true tyrants of the ancient world — sc. the usurpers — were usually honourable. Although Hitler brought about certain improvements — in comparison with the economy and Laura Norder under the Weimarer Republic — his intention always was to establish the police state that Germany became in the Nazizeit and to persecute the Jews.

    Peisistratus is said to have been a man that could walk abroad in Attica and exchange banter with those tilling the fields ; can you imagine Gordon Brown’s going out without his RDPG body-guard ? Never mind Hitler.

    By the way : I concur in your recommendation for P.M.

    (In the other matter : I think this is what is called a troll ; were I you, I shouldn’t waste my time on it.)

    * * *

    Derek also : thank you.


  12. @Pericles: With you completely on knee-jerk accusations of ‘tyrant’ (and not feeding the trolls but a troll could be a contributor with the right encouragement, it was worth a try)

    I was not considering the tyrants of antiquity however, but commenting on the propensity of a society to embrace what seems like order when in chaos, such as the rise of the BNP. You mentioned Hitler and whatever his personal intentions were, he was elected by the german people. Stalin was almost a god yet utterly cruel and people were reduced to the most disgusting ends simply to stay alive – when you are having babies to grow your own food, that’s a tyrant. N.Korea, Cuba, all these places hold their leaders in almost religious awe. Compare Persia, which had religious tolerance with Cyrus the great, with Rome and say Marcellus’s taking of Syracuse. There you can compare the different atmosphere of being a member of society – being Roman meant being Roman above all else, like being American. Citizenship is almost a religion. When politics take on a religious fervour it doesn’t bode well. Men, who are cowards to the backbone, will die for an idea like a hero.

  13. @Philipa (Heh ! I’m learning the lingo.)

    “… the propensity of a society to embrace what seems like order when in chaos, such as the rise of the BNP. …”

    I suspect the rise in popularity of the BNP — a perfectly good bank, by the way, that even sponsors the French Open — has little to do with any sense of chaos but reflects the failure by the three main parties to address the concerns — particularly over Europe and political correctness — of those that turn to it (or to the UKIP).

    “… Hitler … whatever his personal intentions … was elected by the German people.”

    The Nazis were meticulous in complying with the law ; one might even say they developed the principle of deniability, Hitler always distancing himself from the activities of the SA (brown-shirts), for example, even arresting and punishing its members.

    Advocates of proportional representation might like to reflect on the fact that, had Weimarer Germany not had proportional representation (which favours minority factions), the national socialists would not have been able to attain power through election.

  14. @Pericles: you state facts which I agree with but I don’t see the point you are making, and you completely miss my point about the BNP.

  15. @Philipa:

    (I just guessed how that works. Am I slow or what ?)

    Don’t see how (how I’m missing the point, that is) ; are you not saying that the BNP advances by playing upon the people’s fear of chaos (even where none exists) ?

    Was this not precisely what Hitler used ? The fire in the Reichstagsgebäude — actually started by a disaffected Dutch communist (sc. not a member of the German or even the Dutch CP), who made a comprehensive confession — was misappropriated by Hitler as a pretext for the rounding up of communists and, eventually, the suspension of the Reichstag.

    The Treaty had been seen has the principal cause of the economic hardship and associated disorder in Germany since the end of the Great War. His rhetoric against its provisions, the Western Powers and America was warmly received, his apparently unconstitutional actions being received with some relief.

  16. @Little Richardjohn:
    And how many of us work all of our lives for a ‘tyrant’ of a boss, day in day out in a job we have never and will never enjoy, just to keep a roof over our heads?

    Or to clothe and feed our families?

    forced to live out the same tasks over and over each day, either putting stress on our bodies or our minds?

    entrapped in the same office or place of work daily , monthly , yearly?

    Never rewarded for our good work , watching those born into money prevailing when we work 10 times as hard as they do?

    limited to only basic education for we are not wealthy?

    Struggling to keep our houses, fill our fridge , though we work so hard?

    losing family members as they work in dangerous places of work?

    enlisted to fight when the country goes to war?

    Having little or no spare time to ourselves?

    Unable to have the large family that we really want because of the cost of upkeep?

    even on benefits forced to live out the same day over and over.

    looking after our sick family members not able to access an acceptable amount of care anywhere else?

    Told what we should and shouldnt do by rules , regulations , small print with many forced to break these rules to keep themselves alive when they have no homes , food etc..?

    trading goods with one and other or living on hand me downs and freebies from the kindness of others?

    Many people just breaking even rarely happy a large amount ill due to stress of money worries, jobs, life in general?

    sounds rather like…

    sounds like…


    SLAVERY! hmmm……

    oh dear, i do not think we have the right to judge the greeks in such a way when we seem to suffer many of the problems they had but in a modern world.
    And it hasnt been that long since we stopped hanging folk either now , has it…….

  17. “And it hasn’t been that long since we stopped hanging folk either now” And it will not be long before we are doing it again. We are shortly going to see a sea change of quite a dramatic sort and you guys really should be preparing for this inevitable onslaught. History teaches us that humanity is engaged in a number of clear cycles that we can not escape from. Yes the minds of the mighty may rise above these cycles but in reality they do not, indeed they tend to quickly encourage the next cycle to manifest. There is an illusion of progress, but it is also plain that we are just the same creatures we have always been. In a real sense we have had very clear tyrants for some time now, so we will move into a law givers stage, this will for a season lead to a more ordered world, and then this also will break down. Each act of selfishness leads to the next, and so on. We really should embrace yet again the concept of empire and each work for the greater good. Of course we will not, and as a result we will suffer tyrants until we are able to stomach the law. Empire is really rather attractive don’t you think?

  18. The first and those of 1936. Civilisation at its best. This will be a sham. Where’s it gone? Where’s it gone?

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