Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Isagoras vs. Cleisthenes & The Birth of Athenian Democracy

Currently I am struggling over how to tackle one of the more confusing and dense passages in The Histories. It's an important passage too: how Athens became the world's first democracy.

It started in 514 BCE. Two men by the names of Harmodius and Aristogeiton murdered the brother of the ruling tyrant Hippias over a lover's quarrel. This resulted in their deaths and the tyrant clamping down hard on the citizens of Athens. Taking advantage of the unstable atmosphere in the city, an exiled family by the name of Alcmaeonid attempted to overthrow the government that same year, but the coup failed. The family then decided to swell their ranks by bringing the famed Spartan warriors over to their cause. Using their connections and influence, they managed to bribe the Pythia of Delphi into convincing the Spartans to help get rid of Hippias and his family. In 510 BCE The Spartans finally sent a small contingent to help the Alcmaeonid, but this second attack on Athens also ended in a route. Angry at the humiliation, the Spartan king Cleomenes personally led an army into Attica (possibly around 508 BCE?), crushing the Athenian tyrant's forces and chasing out his allies. This left the Athenians free to choose a new leader for their polis.

There were two eligible candidates for a new tyrant: Isagoras, a distinguished Athenian noble, and Cleisthenes, grandson to a tyrant himself (the tyrant of Sicyon) and the possible architect behind the bribing of the Pythia. Perhaps not trusting the Alcmaeonid's ambitions, the people favored Isagoras as their new leader in the upcoming election. Realizing he would lose the vote if he didn't do something fast, the clever Cleisthenes decided to defuse people's suspicions by offering them unprecedented freedoms (as well as stressing the role of rotating leadership positions to ensure one man did not have all the power). This proved to be so popular that Cleisthenes won by a landslide, thus resulting in the world's first real democracy.

Furious at having lost, Isagoras went to Sparta and demanded Cleoemenes get rid of this new democracy and its too clever leader. Recognizing a possible danger to his kingship (what if the helots or non-Spartiates wanted rights of their own?) Cleomenes lead a small army of about 300 Spartans back to Athens and kicked Cleisthenes out on the flimsy pretext of a family curse. He then installed Isagoras and his allies as leaders of the city's new government. The people refused to accept this. They besieged the Spartans and Isagoras on the Acropolis until Cleomenes was forced to admit defeat and march home, taking Isagoras with him. The Alcmaeonid returned to the city and all seemed well... until a vengeful Cleomenes showed up for a third time in Attica, along with the entire Peloponnesian League! The new democracy might have ended right then and there, but luckily the Corinthians had doubts about Cleomenes' intentions and decided to return home. Cleomenes' co-king Demaratus also had doubts about the Agiad king's intentions and left with his half of the army. Alone and humiliated yet again, Cleomenes was forced to disband the rest of the army and returned to Sparta to plot revenge (this time on his unlucky co-king). Sparta would not march into Attica again until well into the next century.

Themistocles is around seven in 514 BCE (or at least in my novel) and about fifteen by the time Cleomenes is thwarted for the third and final time (remember he didn't march to Attica in the first attack). Clearly this is a crucial period in Themis' life. The problem is how to pace these events. How much does Themistocles personally witness? How much does he contribute? I have some ideas, but putting them in order has proven to be daunting. I had a couple of inspirations last night, but I'm still struggling a bit. Any suggestions on how I can achieve more inspirations?