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An invented political structure: 508 BC

The democratic reforms introduced by Cleisthenes include a bold restructuring of Athenian political loyalties. Until now there have been four long-established tribes, based on links of clan, region and religion. Every citizen of Athens is a member of one of these four tribes. Inevitably noble families wield great influence within them. Inevitably they are a powerful bulwark against any real democracy.

Cleisthenes offers in their place an abstract structure which seems to jump straight from the drawing board. Amazingly, he succeeds in imposing his utopian concept on an intrinsically conservative society.


He breaks up the power base of the landed families by making the village (the demos or deme) the unit of electoral democracy, and by mixing the demes in random groups. The blend is to be strictly geometrical.

Attica, the territory of the Athenians, is divided by Cleisthenes into three regions - the city itself, the coastal area and the inland area. Each of these is again divided into ten smaller regions, making thirty in all.


With this pattern in place, Cleisthenes' next move is to replace Attica's four traditional and meaningful tribes with ten new and deliberately meaningless ones. Each new tribe is to consist of one region from the city, one from the coast, one from inland. Membership of all democratically elected bodies will henceforth be shared equally between the ten tribes.

So the citizens of Attica suddenly find themselves, on an entirely random basis, members of new and important groups. On issues greater than those of the village, new loyalties will be purely political. The old tribes remain in place for religious purposes.


The astonishing thing is that such a coldly rational system works and is accepted from the start by the electorate. (Time later blurs the rational element, for membership of a tribe is to be hereditary rather than regional after the initial allocation.) The ten new tribes soon become a basic factor of everyday life, underpinning the highest achievements of Athenian democracy throughout the 5th century.

There are few examples in history of a blueprint making such a successful transition to the real world.


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