Athens is the birthplace of democracy, a process that went through various stages and setbacks until it reached its signature form under Pericles (462-431 B.C.). Pericles was the famous leader of the Athenians at the start of the Peloponnesian War (431-404)... and the great plague at the start of it that killed Pericles. At the end of that war, when Athens surrendered, democracy was replaced by the oligarchic rule of the Thirty Tyrants (hoi triakonta) (404-403), but radical democracy returned.
From 404-403 B.C., at the start of a longer period known as the Spartan Hegemony, which lasted from 404-371 B.C., hundreds of Athenians were killed, thousands exiled, and the number of the citizens was severely reduced until Athens' Thirty Tyrants were overthrown by an exiled Athenian general, Thrasybulus.
After the Peloponnesian War -- Terms of Athens' Surrender:
Athens' strength had once been her navy. To protect themselves from attack by Sparta, the people of Athens had built the Long Walls. Sparta couldn't risk letting Athens become strong again, so it demanded stringent concessions at the end of the Peloponnesian War. According to the terms of Athens' surrender to Lysander, the Long Walls and fortifications of the Piraeus were destroyed, the Athenian fleet was lost, exiles were recalled, and Sparta assumed command of Athens.
Oligarchy Replaces Democracy:
Sparta imprisoned the chief leaders of Athens' democracy and nominated a body of 30 local men (the Thirty Tyrants) to rule Athens and frame a new, oligarchic constitution. It is a mistake to think all Athenians were unhappy. Many in Athens favored oligarchy over democracy.
Later, the pro-democratic faction did restore democracy, but only through force.
Reign of Terror:
The Thirty Tyrants, under the leadership of Critias, appointed a Council of 500 to serve the judicial functions formerly belonging to all the citizens. (In democratic Athens, juries might be composed of hundreds or thousands of citizens without a presiding judge.) They appointed a police force and a group of 10 to guard the Piraeus. They granted only 3000 citizens a right to trial and to bear arms.
All other Athenian citizens could be condemned without trial by the Thirty Tyrants. This effectively deprived the Athenians of their citizenship. The Thirty Tyrants executed criminals and leading democrats, as well as others considered unfriendly to the new oligarchic regime. Those in power condemned their fellow Athenians for the sake of greed -- to confiscate their property. Leading citizens drank state-sentenced poison hemlock. The period of the Thirty Tyrants was a reign of terror.
Many consider Socrates the wisest of the Greeks, and he fought on the side of Athens against Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, so his possible involvement with the Spartan-backed Thirty Tyrants is surprising. Unfortunately, the sage didn't write, so historians have speculated about his missing biographical details.
Socrates got into trouble at the time of the Thirty Tyrants, but was not punished until later. He had taught some of the tyrants. They may have counted on his support, but he refused to participate in the capture of Leon of Salamis, whom the thirty wished to execute.
The End of the Thirty Tyrants:
Meanwhile, other Greek cities, dissatisfied with the Spartans, were offering their support to the men exiled by the Thirty Tyrants. The exiled Athenian general Thrasybulus seized the Athenian fort at Phyle, with the help of the Thebans, and then took the Piraeus, in the spring of 403. Critias was killed. The Thirty Tyrants became fearful and sent to Sparta for help, but the Spartan king rejected Lysander's bid to support the Athenian oligarchs, and so the 3000 citizens were able to depose the terrible 30.
Restoration of Democracy:
After the Thirty Tyrants were deposed, democracy was restored to Athens.
Scholarly Articles on the Thirty Tyrants:
- "The Thirty at Athens in the Summer of 404," by Rex Stem. Phoenix, Vol. 57, No. 1/2 (Spring - Summer, 2003), pp. 18-34.
- "Socrates on Obedience and Justice," by Curtis Johnson. The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp. 719-740.
- "Socrates as Political Partisan," by Neal Wood. Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), pp. 3-31.
Democracy Then and Now Articles
- Solon's Constitution
- Rise of Democracy: Cleisthenes and the Ten Tribes
- Conflict Between Eupatrids and Ordinary Citizen Farmers in Athens
- The Four Tribes of Attica
- Solon's Reforms
- Introduction to Ancient Democracy
- Stages of Greek Democracy