In 508 B.C., the citizens of Athens revolted against an evil tyrant and his allies, the Spartans. It took the Athenians only 3 days to run off their adversaries. When all was said and done, Cleisthenes became the leader of Athens.
At the time, Athens was a mere village with a 2000 year old Egyptian civilization to the south and the Persians to the west, just as old and rightly claiming an empire that stretched from India to the Saudi peninsula. To the east of Athens were the Romans and Etruscans. Athens was situated in the center and in a perfect location to benefit from trade, which also made it an attractive target for the Persians and the Spartans.
Cleisthenes was born into the ruling class, what the Greeks called aristocrats, with a privileged upbringing. But as he watched his village rise up against this oppression, he had an epiphany: the citizens had a right to govern themselves and a say in their own destiny.
For the first time in recorded history, in the year 508 B.C., the people turned on their rulers and took control of their own future. And after doing so, they called on Cleisthenes to govern them.
Cleisthenes carved out a platform on the Acropolis (which originally was a rocky outcropping above the city), where rich and poor alike could stand and make their case to the people. This site is the forerunner of today’s American Congress and the British Parliament.
Every 9 days the people came together to vote – a white stone for yes, black stone for no – on every thing from the price of olives to the levying of taxes for roads. Cleisthenes created the first democracy and the first “one man-one vote” belief that all citizens, rich and poor alike, had an equal say in their lives.
Because all men had an equal say and nothing separated the people from their government, there was no politics of envy, no poor versus rich, no “us against them” mentality.
It comes as no surprise that directly after Cleisthenes implemented democracy, the Greek culture flourished. The great dramas and tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, the magnificent art and the expansion of thought from men like Socrates, all came out of the dark shadows of previous oppression and into the light of freedom and democracy.
When I read all this last night I was astounded and saddened that it took me over 40 years to learn this. These are great lessons not taught in school.