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Sparta versus Democracy in Athens

The tyrant Pisistratus died in 527. He was succeeded by his two sons who ruled jointly – more of the succession and dynasty creation common among the propertied.

Among the propertied, passionate opposition to Pisistratus's sons remained. In 514 a young aristocrat assassinated one of the sons. Some other aristocrats attempted but failed to assassinate the surviving son, Hippias. Hippias retaliated with a murderous passion of his own, and some aristocrats fled into exile. At the shrine to the god Apollo at Delphi (about 100 kilometers northeast of Athens) a priest encouraged the exiled aristocrats by suggesting that Apollo was on their side. A leading aristocratic family from Athens, the Alcmaeonidaens, had used their wealth to contribute to Apollo's shrine, and their influence won the support of the city of Sparta against Hippias. To do the will of Apollo, Sparta, in 510, sent an army that defeated Hippias and sent him fleeing to Persia.

Sparta's army put into power an oligarchy of Athenian aristocrats, but most Athenians didn't accept this turn of events. The oligarchy found itself unable to rule and, in 508, progressive members of the upper classes united with commoners, and this coalition of forces amounted to a popular resurgence that was able to overthrow the oligarchy.

The most prominent leader of the resurgence was a rebellious son of the Alcmaeonidaen family, Cleisthenes, who wished to govern in a way that brought more unity among the Athenians. Across recent generations immigration had made Athens a mix of people unrelated by blood, and Cleisthenes extended to many immigrants, and to some slaves, the same rights that Athenian citizens had. He drew up a constitution for Athens that divided Athenians into ten "tribes" based not on blood relations but on where people lived. Each tribe had its own military unit, shrine, priest and assembly. It was an early version of big-tent politics and a step in the direction of giving power to common people. Any member of a tribe could participate in the election of local and state officials. Each tribe sent fifty representatives for one year of service to a city assembly.

The popularity of Cleisthenes' reforms brought new enthusiasm among Athenians for their government and city. This enthusiasm and Cleisthenes' new military organization made Athens stronger militarily, and its strength was soon tested. In 506, Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies invaded Attica hoping to crush the democracy in Athens, which Spartans saw as a defiance of religious tradition. The new politics and morale won over tradition. Athens defeated the invaders and the invaders withdrew. And to stave off any future aggressions from Sparta and its allies, the city of Athens extended its strategy of strength through unity: it allied itself with with Persia.

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