Ancient Greece consisted of 1500 city-states, each with its own ruling elite. Athens was by far the largest, with a population of about 200,000 at the dawn of its Golden Age. While the smaller city-states, such as Corinth, Thebes and Sparta, saw the rise of hero-kings and tyrants, it was democratic Athens that ultimately produced not only the empire that led all of the Greek world but also Ancient Greece's most renowned politicians.

Solon: The Founding of Democracy

Solon was well known not only as a lawgiver, but as a poet.
Solon was well known not only as a lawgiver, but as a poet.

A poet and one of the Seven Sages of Greece, Solon was first elected by Athenians around 594 BC to enact reform at a time when strife among the social classes threatened to cause revolution. As a legislator, he initiated the decline of aristocratic power by establishing that any wealthy man could become a magistrate. This ended the monopoly nobility traditionally held over the government, and political power was henceforth granted to citizens according to their income, not their birth. Planting the seeds of democracy, Solon formed the Ecclesia, or general assembly, which possessed the power to elect government officials, legislate and hear high court appeals, and established the representative Council of Four Hundred. Finally, befitting a ruler who oversaw the rise of collective Athenian identity, Solon freed enslaved citizens and outlawed the further sale of any Athenian into slavery.

Cleisthenes: The Establishment of Democracy

Cleisthenes's reforms marked the establishment of democracy in 508 BC. Though he was a nobleman by birth, he was influenced by Solon's policies to champion even greater equality among the people. Cleisthenes's time in office marked the end of tyrants in Athens. With the help of Sparta, he overthrew Hippias, the last dictator. When he finally became ruler of Greece, it was as the head of the government Athenians now expected -- demos, or democracy -- for which he instituted a constitution. Among the major changes he oversaw as leader was the transformation of local governments from tribal alliances into demes, or councils, consisting of an assembly of local citizens under the guidance of a mayor.

Themistocles: National Defender

Themistocles was elected ruler in 493 BC with the overwhelming support of the lower classes in Athens. He had gained enough popularity while practicing law to propel him into national politics without the benefit of nepotism, which was rampant in Athenian government at the time. A keen proponent of a strong, vigorous navy, Themistocles pushed for Athens to increase her maritime power. As a military leader, he played an instrumental role in delivering Greece from the threat of Persian empire-building, serving at the battles of Marathon and Salamis, which led to the final defeat of Persia. His legacy was the blossoming of Athens during the Golden Age of empire -- a feat built upon the mighty naval strength he championed.

Pericles: The Golden Age

Pericles's greatest achievements include the building of the Parthenon and the Acropolis.
Pericles's greatest achievements include the building of the Parthenon and the Acropolis.

Pericles entered politics in 461 BC when he took part in a vote to deny power to the Areopagus, a council comprised of aristocrats. For this action alone, he would have been long remembered, as it dramatically solidified the power of the common citizen. However, Pericles did even more to usher Athens into its most radical phase of democracy. His legislative accomplishments include providing for the payment of jurors, which meant the poor could serve, and limiting the power of the aristocracy by denying citizenship to anyone born of a foreign mother and Athenian father -- a move designed to prevent strategic familial ties with the nobles of other city-states. Atypical of politicians of the era, Pericles also refused to accept gifts from the aristocracy. Finally, under his leadership, Athens formed the Delian League, an alliance among Greek city-states that established a united front against Persian invasion. Due to the overwhelming superiority of its navy, Athens ruled the Greek world with power so vast, other city-states had no alternative but to abide by its laws, customs and trade demands.