Terms to Know About the Government and Social Order of Athens:
Social Units of Athens:
The social units of early Athens were hierarchically organized (from small to large) into:
Households ==> Clans ==> Villages ==> Tribes.
Most family heads in Ancient Greece were subsistence landowners. The property was held by and transmitted through the oikos 'household', which consisted of a family plus any free or slave dependents.
It is from the Greek word oikos that we get the word 'economy'.
A group of ancient Greek families claiming descent from a common ancestor was known as the genos 'clan'. The families of the genos shared religious cults. Shared religion proved to be a strong bond. It was the heads of the gene (plural of genos) who arranged marriages.
It is from the Greek word genos that we get words like the English 'gene'.
Thirty gene (clans) formed a phratry, which Michael Grant says was probably the equivalent of a village or city-ward. Each phratry held an annual religious festival in which it enrolled new members.
Three phratries formed a tribe or phylai headed by a tribal king. The earliest known function of the tribes was military.
Greek tribes were corporate bodies with their own priests and officials, as well as military and administrative units.
The English word 'phylum', used in Biology to distinguish groups larger than species etc., is related to the Greek word Phylai.
The original 4 phylai in Athens were the:
Kings of Athens:
Early Athens had kings, like most other ancient city-states. These kings gradually morphed into less permanent officials.
According to tradition, the tribes of Athens (Attica) were originally united under a single (Medontid; the descendants of King Codrus) king. His job was to hold the tribes together. Historian Chester Starr, however, says Athens' tribal kings lacked power to unite factions -- they were not medieval-style monarchs. Ancient tribal kings were weak, especially financially. Life was simple; everyone, including the king, was expected to work.
Sameness led to a sense of relative equality and enforced the idea that all tribesmen had rights. Even so, equality was only relative. Society was divided into 2 social classes. The upper class sat in council with the king for major problems and provided war leaders. This reduced the need for a king who was also the military leader.
Archons Replaced the Kings of Athens:
It is thought that at an early date a war leader (polemarch - from Greek words for war polemos + rule arche, which also gives us 'archon') was appointed to share power with the king of Athens.
Soon the king found himself subordinated to a 2nd, new archon in civil affairs. A king named (Aristotle's Athenian Constitution 3.3) Acastus is thought to have surrendered his position as king in favor of a lifetime appointment as archon (later, first archon). Athens kept a king-archon for religious matters. In perhaps the mid-8th century, the lifetime-archon appointment was replaced with a 10-year term.
Historical Progression of Top Officials in Athens:
- King ==>
Polemarch & King ==>
Polemarch, King, & Civil affairs Archon ==>
Polemarch (military), First Archon (civil), and King-Archon (religion) ==>
Thesmothetai (3 other Archons)
From about the 680's the appointment was made every year. Somewhat later, 6 more archons were added, the Thesmothetai 'layers down of law', so there were 9 annually-elected officials. This meant the monarchy (one ruler) was replaced by an aristocratic oligarchy ('rule by the noble few').
By the time of Solon (c. 638-558 B.C.), if not before, archons automatically became members of the Areopagus. They held office for life, administered justice, and advised the thesmothetai. Since archons were noblemen (eupatrids), so were members of the Areopagus, but another (at this time less important) body, the assembly (ecclesia) was comprised of all citizens of Athens and Attica, including the lower class peasants, laborers, artisans, and tradesmen, the orgeones.
Aristotle on the Early Government of Athens
"Now the ancient constitution, as it existed before the time of Draco, was organized as follows. The magistrates were elected according to qualifications of birth and wealth. At first they governed for life, but subsequently for terms of ten years. The first magistrates, both in date and in importance, were the King, the Polemarch, and the Archon. The earliest of these offices was that of the King, which existed from ancestral antiquity. To this was added, secondly, the office of Polemarch, on account of some of the kings proving feeble in war; for it was on this account that Ion was invited to accept the post on an occasion of pressing need. The last of the three offices was that of the Archon...."
Aristotle -Athenian Constitution
Articles on Greek Democracy in Athens
- 7 Stages of Greek Democracy
- The Four Tribes of Athens
- Q. Were All Ancient Greeks Required to Vote or Risk Being Labeled Idiots?
- Conflict Between Farmers and Aristocrats
- Draco, the Draconian Law-Giver
- Solon's Constitution
- Cleisthenes and the 10 Tribes of Athens
- Rise of Democracy - Greek Technical Terms
- Ancient Writers on Athens' Democracy