By introducing these quasi-democratic innovations while retaining aristocratic election of the rich to magistracies and the oligarchic power of the few in the Council of the Areopagus, Solon had introduced a radical set of compromises “I stood holding my stout shield over both parties [the poor and the rich];” he wrote. “I did not allow either party to prevail unjustly. justice Solon meant what we might call social justice. However, factional strife soon began again. Athenians seem to have taken sides in accordance with both region and class. The plains people were mostly aristocrats who felt Solon had gone too far, the hill people mostly poor farmers who felt he had not gone far enough, and the coast people mostly artisans who thought he was about right.
In 560 B.C. their quarrels delivered Athens into the hands of a tyrant, as the Greeks called a dictator, even if benevolent. This was Pisistratus, a noble, who had made himself leader of the hill people. In and out of office for some years, Pisistratus owed his final return in 546 to the vast wealth that he had acquired from the silver mines on his estates in the north and to the mercenary troops from Argos whom he hired with this wealth. Pisistratus and his son, Hippias, dominated Athens until 510 B.C.
Though Solon’s constitutional measures had not endured, his economic policy made Athens rich, as Athenian pottery became the best and most-sought-after in Greece. Pisistratus pushed commercial success still further, partly by shrewd alliances with other poleis. At home, his was the only party. He exiled those aristocrats who refused to support him; he would often keep the son of a noble family as a hostage to ensure the family’s loyalty. Having come to power as leader of the poor, he gave them loans, embarked on a lavish program of public works to be sure there were jobs for all, subsidized the arts, and increased the magnificence of state religious celebrations. His sons followed his policies, but the noble families whom Pisistratus had displaced continued in opposition, often from exile. When Hipparchus, one of the sons, was murdered in 514 B.C., executions multiplied, the government grew even more tyrannical, and the exiled nobles came back in triumphant alliance with the Spartans in 510 B.C.
By 508 Cleisthenes came to power on promises of constitutional reform. These he fulfilled by striking at the political influence of the clans in elections, and by giving the guildsmen equal weight. Using as a basic new political unit an old territorial division called a deme-a small area something like a ward in a modern city-Cleisthenes ordered all citizens to be registered as voters within their demes, irrespective of their origins, thus giving the guildsmen equal franchise with the clansmen. Whoever was a member of a given deme in 508-507 B.C. remained in it permanently, and so did his descendants, even if they moved away.
Cleisthenes also rezoned Attica into three new regions that did not coincide with the former coast, hill, and plain. He regrouped the demes into trittyes that, unlike the twelve older trittyes, were in general not compact and adjacent, but chosen from all three territorial subgroupings. Finally, by drawing lots he put every three trittyes together into a political “tribe.” Instead of the four old racial (or genuinely tribal) groups, there were ten of these new political tribes; their membership cut across the old family, regional, and class lines. Each of these new, artificial tribes had members from each of the three new territorial divisions. Thus the former influence of the noble families had been effectively cut down. Cleisthenes had invented a fundamental tool of democracy-the gerrymander.
Each deme annually elected a number of its members (proportionate to its population) as its representatives, and from them the ten new tribes selected by lot fifty each to be members of the new Council of Five Hundred, replacing Solon’s Council of Four Hundred. Solon had given Athenians equality before the law; Cleisthenes gave them equality at the ballot box. The four old racial tribes, the old brotherhoods, and the clans continued to play a major part in religious and social life, but their political role was virtually over.
The ten groups of fifty tribal members of which the Council of Five Hundred was made up each governed in continual session for a tenth of the year, and the chairman of the committee of fifty that was sitting at any given time was selected afresh by lot every day. During each thirty-six-day session the committee members lived in a special state building and were fed at public expense. They could summon the remaining councilors to a full session whenever they wished. No citizen between the ages of thirty and sixty could be a member of the council more than twice, or chairman of a day’s session more than once. Thus, with swiftly changing large groups of citizens receiving responsibilities for short times, almost any citizen could hope to enjoy the experience of participating in government at some time during his life (citizens were still males only).
Still, Greek society and the growing economy depended upon the systematic exploitation of slaves. Public works, manufacture, agriculture, even trade and war production required dependent labor. Like all ancient peoples, Greeks took slavery for granted, as their law code and their literature show. Free men who could afford slaves, if only as personal servants, did so, and slave women performed household chores. These slaves were outside the political system both as slaves and because most were foreigners. Thus Athenians were not kept as slaves in Athens, though they might be in Corinth. In time slave and barbarian, or non-Greek, came to be nearly synonymous for some Greek commentators, and barbaros came to cover all non-Greeks. The term did not imply savagery, however, but simply being “they” (outsiders) rather than “we.”
We know little about the life of the slaves, for they were not in a position to leave records, and because we do not know how slavery functioned we cannot say how basic to society it was. Their voice is best heard through what we can learn of their actions as revealed in the records of the dominant elements in society. Obviously, some Greeks owned no slaves and may have disapproved of slavery; some owners treated slaves as fellow workers; other owners reduced the life of the slave to a cycle of toil, punishment, and sustenance. Moreover, slaves were of different significance at different times and in different cities. At best we must recognize slavery as an institution basic to Greek society, and in particular to agriculture.
We know somewhat more about the role of family life in ancient Greece, though again not enough. Certainly women enjoyed legal rights that placed them above slaves; equally clearly, they had no political rights and few legal ones, and the personal freedom most women enjoyed depended on the social position of their husbands. Women appear to have had less significance in Athens than in Minoan society, for they were likely to be confined to their homes. There, however, they had much, though not absolute, authority over the running of the household. In Sparta alone did women play roles outside the home or beyond the religious festival.
The role of women tended to be defined by social class. Among the poor, wives might work as stall-keepers in the market. Aristophanes refers to “business-women,” and still others were courtesans. But the major badge of identity was the key to storeroom or cellar that a wife carried with her. If she was reasonably well-to-do, she would preside over slave girls and a substantial household to which the husband paid little attention. Nonetheless, the household would remain his. And a daughter who inherited property because there was no male heir was required to marry her father’s closest relative.
The seclusion of women was intensified by the facts that marriages were social or economic alliances and that men entertained one another in the Agora, the Assembly, or in their homes. Male homosexuality was accepted, especially between an older man and a boy, and though these relations were at times nonphysical, the presumption was that men spent their time outside the home and with each other. Even so, the role of the family was very important, for it was through the family that property was inherited, that citizenship continued from generation to generation, and that the moral code was transmitted.
There is much dispute among historians as to the role of women in classical Greece. Virtually all the evidence is for Athens, and much of it is ambiguous. There is no dispute about the fact that in the law women had little standing or protection. Since society focused on the polis, which emphasized the family and its honor, women were given little latitude in sexual matters at a time when men had much latitude. Because Athens was in effect a warrior society and others were generally (except for Sparta) agricultural, this left little room for women beyond the home, where they were expected to look after their children (with the help of servants if they were in the upper class).
Still, the flowering of Greek drama during this time shows many powerful roles for women, and to the extent that art mirrors life, it is apparent that woman were powerful, whether in calling attention to violations of law and custom on the part of men or in pursuing the honor of family. Further, modern distinctions among political, economic, and social spheres of activity may well be misleading when applied to ancient Greece. During the last decade the study of women in antiquity has evolved into the history of gender, since status as such may not be the central issue. Whate does seem clear is that the separation of men and women in social life meant that the house was not cut off from the public world but was in some measure an expression of it.