Cleisthenes of ancient Athens is considered the father of democracy.

Athenian statesman and member of the exiled Alcmaeonidae aristocracy, Cleisthenes is considered the father of democracy. Before his rise around 510 B.C., Athenian governance was left to aristocratic families who represented the wealthy. Cleisthenes emerged amid economic and political crises that created unrest between rivaling aristocratic families. This created an opening in which poor Athenians could revolt and demand representation.

Solon the Reformer

About 70 years older than Cleisthenes, Solon was the first to attempt government reforms to weaken the aristocracy. Solon ended the practice of debt slavery, created a constitution, set up a 400-person legislative body and regulated the olive oil trade to distribute its profits more equitably. He ultimately fell to a tyrant-led coup that reversed his reforms, but his ideas and innovations set the stage for Cleisthenes' more ambitious leadership.

Lessons Learned

Armed with Spartan military assistance and advice from the Oracle of Delphi, Cleisthenes wrested power from the tyrant Hippias. But he soon lost Sparta's support and a new tyrant -- Isagoras -- unseated him. After his removal, Cleisthenes realized that the power of wealthy elites must be radically reduced. It was the only way to stabilize the government enough to enact democratic reforms.

Return from Exile

During the rule of Isagoras, poor Athenians stretched by growing economic disparity became politicized and demanded representation. Cleisthenes' second bid for power came when Athens fell apart and the people rose up to request that Cleisthenes return to set up a demos, the world's first government by the people. Bolstered by popular support and strong military backing, Cleisthenes returned to power and stopped succession of tyrant rulers.


Cleisthenes moved to dilute the power of the wealthy aristocrats who had resisted reform. To do this, he broke family dynasties and divided Athenians into 10 new tribal groups called demes. Local governance was organized within each deme, and each deme would send popularly elected representatives to participate in a national legislative body. This was the world's first example of direct democracy.

Other Changes

For the first time, all free male Athenians were permitted to vote. Each tribe elected representatives to serve one-year terms in the national legislative body. The number of these representatives was determined according to deme population. Each deme also elected a military leader to oversee the Athenian military, and local militias were established. The reforms led to tribal cohesiveness that further weakened the aristocrats.