Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

The Rule of Pisistratus and the Alcmaeonidae

The Athenians were aggrieved and restless and ready to welcome almost any change. This was just the time for a crafty man to step in, win favor, and become tyrant. There was a man ready to do this. His name was Pisistratus. He was popular because of his generosity and because of his having won victories in the Olympian chariot-races. He pretended to be perfectly satisfied with Solon's laws and to care for nothing but the good of his country. The people believed him, and when he drove into the market-place one day smeared with blood, they were ready to accept his story that his enemies had almost killed him because he was so devoted to the happiness of the people. The market-place was full of the poorest men, the ones to whom Pisistratus claimed to be a special friend. Solon, too, was there, and he cried out, "Pisistratus, you have done this to impose upon your countrymen." Nevertheless, the people believed the deceiver and were ready to fall in with a proposal—made by a man whom he had engaged beforehand—that their abused friend should have bodyguard of fifty men, armed with clubs. Little by little the number was increased. "The Many" wished it, and the nobles did not dare to oppose them too strongly. After a while the guard had come to consist of four hundred strongmen. Then Pisistratus seized the Acropolis. He became tyrant, and Athens was no longer free. Solon had warned the Athenians again and again but they had no heeded him. At last he laid his shield an sword down outside his door and closed it, saying, "I have done all in my power to defend my country and its laws."

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Pisistratus now felt himself master of Athens. "How will he treat Solon?" the people questioned. They soon learned that he had no idea of doing him any harm. On the contrary, he often asked his advice in public matters; and Solon was generous and patriotic enough never to refuse it if he thought it would be of benefit to the state.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Pisistratus banished the Alcmæonidæ, but in a little while he himself was driven away. He succeeded in returning, and a wonderful return it was. It took place on a festival day, when the streets were full of people watching the processions in honor of the gods. One procession after another had passed, when suddenly the loud voices of heralds were heard crying, "Ye men of Athens, receive and welcome Pisistratus! Athene honors him above all other men, and now brings him back into her own Acropolis!" A brilliant escort followed, and then a splendid chariot rolled along, wherein sat a tall, handsome woman dressed in a full suit of armor with shield and spear, and looking much as the Greeks fancied Athene to look. Beside the chariot rode the tyrant. The people gazed and gazed. "It is the goddess herself!" some of them whispered in awe; others saw that it was only a trick; but the gates of the Acropolis were thrown open, and Pisistratus was again tyrant of Athens. Once more he was driven from the city, and this time he returned by force of arms. At last he was secure in his position, and he held it until his death eighteen years later.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Of course the rule did not rightfully belong to Pisistratus, but no one could deny that he made good use of it. It is true that he kept the highest offices for members of his own clan, but he was kind to the poor farmers and gave them cattle and seeds and farming tools. He beautified the city with magnificent temples; he built a massive aqueduct to bring down water from the mountains; and he laid out a delightful garden on the bank of a river near the city. Here were stately buildings and fountains and pleasant walks in shady groves. Here it was that the young men of Athens used to come for military exercises. He built roads to different parts of the country. They all started from an altar in Athens, and there tablets were kept on which the distances to the various places were written. The roads themselves were made much more agreeable for travelers, for milestones were put up, not plain stones, but wooden posts whose tops were carve into heads of Hermes, the god to whom men who were about to go on a journey prayed for protection. Often some amusing saying was cut on the post.

Of course Pisistratus did not forget Athene. There is an old story that she and Poseidon once vied with each other to see which could bestow the more valuable gift upon the city. Poseidon gave a spring of salt water, and Athene gave an olive tree. It was decided that her gift was the more valuable. Her name was given to the city, and she was always held in the highest reverence. Pisistratus built a temple for her worship, and every year he held a brilliant festival in her honor. The early Greeks believed that the image of a goddess was in some degree the goddess herself, and they felt sure that Athene was delighted when at this festival they formed an imposing procession and carried to the temple a dazzling new robe to put upon her statue. All those things vanished long ago, and however much they may have pleased the Athenians, they make little difference to us. Pisistratus is said to have done one deed however, for which we may feel grateful, even after twenty-four hundred years have passed; he is said to have asked all the people who knew the works of Homer and of Hesiod to meet together in Athens and compare the poems as they had been used to recite them. The version that was decided to be best was carefully put into writing; and this is how it came about that we can read the thoughts of those two great writers in almost the same words in which the early Greeks read them. Pisistratus was not satisfied with doing honor to dead poets; he invited the best of the poets then living to make their homes in Athens, and he saw to it that they should live in comfort.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


When Pisistratus died, in 527 B.C., no one tried to prevent his son Hippias from succeeding him. At first, Hippias was kind Hippias to the people, but after a while he and his younger brother Hipparchus became so haughty and insolent that a plot was made to assassinate them. Hippias escaped, hut his brother was slain. After this Hippias showed himself so tyrannical that those who had once liked him began to wish for his downfall. There were also some people away from Athens who wished the same thing. These were the Alcmæonidæ, who, had been in exile all this time. They had always hoped to return, and they were wise enough to know that the first step was to win the favor of the priests at Delphi. They watched for an opportunity, and at length it came. The temple of Apollo at Delphi caught fire and burned. "We will rebuild it for three hundred talents," said the Alcmæonidæ; and the bargain was made. Now was their chance. They not only kept the bargain, but they did much more, for they made the statues and carvings, indeed the whole building, far more handsome in every way than they had agreed. They had promised, for instance, to make the porch of the temple of limestone; but instead of ordinary limestone, they used the purest and whitest of Parian marble.



The Greeks were delighted, the priests of Apollo were ready do anything for the generous Alcmæonidæ. It was an easy matter for them to do favors so long as they had control of the oracle, and they set to work to bring the Alcmæonidæ back to Athens. The Spartans were good fighters, and they had long wished to make Attica subject to them; so now, whenever they asked the oracle for advice about any undertaking, the answer was always, "First set Athens free." At length, the Spartan king Cleomenes marched out with his army, and before long the Alcmæonidæ had come back to Athens, and Hippias had been obliged to go into exile.

The leader of the Alcmæonidæ was Clisthenes, and he soon became ruler. He succeeded in bringing about two changes that were exceedingly good for his country: he made the people more united, and he gave the common folk a larger share in the government. He set about uniting the people by dividing them in quite a different fashion from the way in which they had been divided before. There had been four "Ionic Tribes," as they were called, and every man looked up to the great folk of his own tribe and belonged to some party. Clisthenes determined to break up these parties, and this is the way he did it. He divided the whole country into districts called demes. Then he made a tribe, consisting of the people of one deme in the north of Attica, another in the south, and so on. There were ten of these tribes, but the men of the different demes were strangers to one another; and so it was not now nearly so easy as it had been for a discontented noble to raise a party to support him. Since the days of Draco there had been a Council which proposed laws to the people, and Clisthenes now gave each tribe the right to elect fifty members. However, each tribe chose a governor for itself, and also a general, who commanded the army in turn with the other nine, one day at a time. No change was made, however, in the division of the citizens into four classes according to their income from land, and it was still impossible for a man in the fourth class to hold office.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


The government of Attica was now a democracy, or government by the people. In the earlier times no one could be a magistrate who was not a Eupatrid. Draco allowed the Ecclesia to choose the magistrates from among those who received a certain income from land. He admitted all to the Ecclesia who could buy arms and armor for themselves. Solon allowed no one to be chosen as magistrate unless, as in Draco's day, he received a certain income from land but he admitted all the Ecclesia, whether they could buy a for themselves or not. Clisthenes did not allow the men of the fourth class to hold office, but he gave the people as a whole much more power than they had previously had. There were many new citizens, for Clisthenes allowed men who had come to Attica from other countries, and even those who had once been slaves, to become citizens.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


In order to give still more power to the people, and make it impossible for any man to become tyrant, Clisthenes introduced two remarkable customs. One was called ostracism. If the Council and the general assembly of the people thought that any man was getting so much power that he might become tyrant, they asked the citizens to come together. Then each one was requested to write on a shell (ostrakon) or bit of pottery the name of any man whom he believed about to become dangerous to the liberty of the state. If any one man received six thousand votes, he must leave Athens for ten years. This banishment was not agreeable, of course, but it was looked upon as a sort of compliment, for it was really saying to a man, "You are greater or more popular than any other person in the state."

The second custom was intended to prevent wealthy or powerful men from raising parties to elect them to office. If a man wished to hold some office, all that he could do now was to present his name as a candidate. Then lots were drawn to decide who should be the successful man. Of course the Greeks were not so foolish as to choose their generals in this manner; and, whatever the faults of the two customs were, they did at least keep Athens free from tyrants.

The common people were pleased with these changes, but the nobles were not, and they began to make plans to break up the democracy. They appealed to the Spartan ruler for help. King Cleomenes knew that if Athens were a democracy and the masses up the of the people were contented, there would be little hope of his at Athens gaining power in Attica. Moreover, he felt that he had been only a cat's-paw in bringing back the Alcmæonidæ and had gained nothing for Sparta. Therefore, he was not only willing to help, but he induced some of the allies of the Spartans to join him. The allies, however, withdrew, the Spartan leaders quarreled, and the whole army broke up. The people of Thebes and of Chalcis had taken this time to march out against the Athenians. But the Athenians also marched out, and beat first the Thebans and then the Chalcidians. Later the Spartans made an attempt to bring back Hippias, but the Athenians would not have him; and they were obliged to give up for the time the attempt to rule Attica.

Athens had gained statues, buildings, wise laws, and a better government; but, best of all, she had reached the point where the masses of her citizens were united in caring for their country.


Pisistratus became tyrant of Athens. He banished the Alcmæonidæ, and was banished himself, but succeeded in returning. He was kind to the poor and beautified the city. He had the works of Homer and of Hesiod put into written form.

Pisistratus was succeeded by Hippias. The Alcmæonidæ rebuilt the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the Spartans by command of the oracle brought them back to Athens and drove Hippias into exile.

Clisthenes became ruler of Athens. He made the people more united, and established a democracy. He introduced ostracism and election by lot.

Suggestions For Written Work

A boy describes Pisistratus's coming into the market-place.

A poor man tells of the changes in government made by Clisthenes.

A man who had been ostracized describes the custom.