Which of the Two Oligarchic Revolutions Had More of an Impact on Athenian Democracy?

May 2, 2020 By iwano@_84 Off

The first oligarchic revolution was in 411BC and known as ‘The Oligarchic Coup’ or ‘The Four Hundred’. This change in government came about for a number of reasons including the lack of money and resources due to the failure of the Sicilian expedition (Thuc. 6 ). The revolution started in the fleet stationed at Samos in the summer of 412BC where Alcibiades professed that he could win Persian support for the Athenians but only if they were governed by an oligarchy instead of a democracy (Oxford Dic. of the Classical World pg. 295). The second oligarchic revolution was known as the ‘The Thirty’ or ‘The Thirty Tyrants’ (coined by Diodorus)who took power after Athens defeat in the Peloponnesian war. Due to the peace terms imposed by Lysander, the thirty were chosen to run the government and draft new laws however their power led to the death of many a democratic opposition including citizens and metics and a reign of terror that saw the execution of Theramenes, the once leader of the moderate oligarchic party (Oxford Dic. of the Classical World pg. 759). The impact of the two oligarchic revolutions upon Athenian democracy had varying degrees of effect but we must also consider the political leaning of our key sources such as Xenophon, Aristotle and Thucydides. Thucydides describes the response of Athens to the crisis as “Nevertheless, with such means as they had, it was determined to resist to the last, and to provide timber and money, and to equip a fleet as they best could, to take steps to secure their confederates and above all Euboea, to reform things in the city upon a more economical footing, and to elect a board of elders to act as preliminary advisers regarding the state of affairs as occasion should arise. In short, as is the way of democracy, in the panic of the moment they were ready to be as prudent as possible (Thuc. 8. 1. 3-4). It could be inferred from that statement that to be ‘prudent’ meant a move to oligarchy and that it was deemed by Thucydides that to be a democracy meant that you were less ‘prudent’ than another form of government. This could be interpreted as Thucydides being pro-oligarchy and thus his writing being biased in favour of the oligarchs to a certain degree.

At the start of the first oligarchic revolution in 411BC Alcibiades led his listeners to believe that a democracy was too untrustworthy to win Persian support but an oligarchy would instil more trust due to a reduced amount of people in charge. Pisander, who had been sent to Athens from Samos, convinced the Athenians that an oligarchy was necessary and was charged by the Athenian people to take ten others and make the arrangements as necessary with Alcibiades. In practise the Persian negotiations did not work and Alcibiades who had hoped to be returned from exile by the oligarchs in Athens was left disappointed. By this point however the revolution was well under way and prominent democrats and opposition were slowly disappearing due to death or exile creating intense fear among the Athenian population. By the time Pisander returned in the May a meeting was held to reorganise the constitution and five men were elected to select the council of four hundred with full powers of government (Oxford Dic. of the Classical World pg. 295). Aristotle mentions in his work ‘Politics’ that by selecting a Preliminary Council over the main Council of five thousand this itself was a step towards oligarchy as the Preliminary Council have authority over the Council and though the Council itself is democratic, the Preliminary Councils power is oligarchic (Aristotle. Politics. 1299b).

The four hundred composed of many extremists who shifted the government away from a moderate oligarchy and so the four hundred never called upon the selected five thousand as agreed. The four hundred failed at peace negotiations with Sparta and lasted a meagre four months in government before being replaced by the five thousand they had never allowed to hold power. This was aided by the fleets in Samos threatening a return home to restore democracy to Athens. The change to the five thousand was perceived as a step back towards democracy but remained an oligarchy with the power now in the hands of five thousand rather than four hundred. The five thousand were made up of Athenian citizens but only those who could afford to give wealth to the war effort. In all likelihood the five thousand were probably made up only of the hoplite class and above (Ryan K. Balot pg 214). The five thousand recalled Alcibiades from exile finally in the hope that his military leadership would aid their cause.

The toll of the oligarchic revolutions of the Four Hundred on the Athenians was high. The inability of the Athenian citizens to realise the political persuasions of their fellows led to deep fragmentation into what could be described as two cities (Athens and Samos). It bred intense mistrust among the citizens within Athens but also in the democratic fleet at Samos. The oligarchs appear to want to seem legitimate in their claim that oligarchy was the necessary measure for Athens to win the Peloponnesian war which we can see by how they approached the topic; sending Pisander to speak and then Oligarchic propaganda in Athena to the idea of ‘saving the city’ (Thuc, 8.53). However the mistrust and fear propagated by the oligarchic party is amplified not only as Athenian citizens would have had a deep anxiety of anything other than democracy which they viewed as their birth right and their internal creation, much like the Romans after Sulla would have viewed a monarchy. An example of measures taken by the Athenians to attempt to prevent similar events occurring and to promote democracy would be the erection of monuments displaying democratic ideals and processes; ‘an inscribed stone recording the decision of the restored democracy in 410 to administer an oath to the Athenian people by which they swore to kill anyone who attempted to overthrow the democracy’ (Oxford Journals). The same article describes new structures built in the agora to signal the revival of democratic rule, specifically a new house for the Council of Five Hundred. The Athenians were clearly prepared to spend money on creating a strong foundation for democracy to remain and wanted to erase the memory of the oligarchic revolution of 411BC by destroying the physical remanence of what they did in the old council house and building a new structure to represent the new start featuring design that ‘encouraged transparency and accountability among councillors’ (Oxford Journals).

In 403BC the Tyranny of the Thirty was imposed upon Athens by Sparta after the Athenians loss at Aegospotami and Lysander’s siege of the city (Xen. Hell. 2.2. 7-16). This oligarchy lasted for one year before the city returned once again to democratic rule. The Tyranny of the Thirty was a much more dramatic episode in Classical Greek history than the revolution of the Four Hundred. The Thirty were led by the oligarchic extremist Critias and moderate Theramenes (though this was disputed by Lysias in his speech ‘Against Eratosthenes’ who thought of Theramenes as an extremist unlike Xenophon), who appointed sympathetic members to join the boule. The oligarchs then started on a bloody path to get rid of any prominent democratic opponents and their supporters under the instruction of Critias. Theramenes did not agree entirely with the killing of innocent men, according to Xenophon in his History of Our Times, and put forward the idea of incorporating more citizens into their rule. Critias responded by having him executed. The body count was approximated at 1,500 with many others fleeing Athens (Oxford Dic. of the Classical World pg. 759). This oligarchic revolution unlike the previous did not have the consent of the citizens and was forced rather than accepted. When Athenians took up arms against Critias in Athens, Critias brought in Spartan troops to fight, stationing them on the Acropolis and thereby alienating the Athenian citizens even more (Oxford Dic. of the Classical World pg. 759). The direct impact of the Tyranny of the Thirty was much higher in terms of how it affected the people immediately. The Athenians had lost a war, had an oligarchic rule imposed upon them after the terrible fright and turmoil of the previous oligarchic revolution and now had to face the ultimate humiliation and defeat of having Spartan troops brought into their city to support the government they didn’t approve of. The killing was much more prolific during the Tyranny of the Thirty and so Athenian emotion must have been extremely fearful, angry and disgraced.

The two oligarchic revolutions both had a serious impact upon Athens and the Athenian people but the first revolution of the Four Hundred would have had a stronger impression. This is because the revolution of the Four Hundred was accepted by the Athenian people as something necessary to win the Peloponnesian war. The second revolution of the Thirty was the result of losing that war. The hope that came with the first revolution forced the Athenians to try oligarchy, which they did with freedom. Their decision to do this would have had a much greater psychological impact on Athenian citizens than the second revolution which was to be expected by losing the war. The Athenian people introduced rites and rituals, buildings and monuments that would be seen in everyday life to impress the importance of democracy and its ideology and to remind them of the bad decision they had made in the first revolution. Symbolic inscriptions on monuments became more common and the oath being taken by Athenian citizens was of upmost importance since it was the Athenians themselves who had voted for oligarchy in the first revolution. The democrats used their cultural resources in adroit ways to promote their vision of the way Athens should be ruled. The public rituals were a facilitator for democratic ideals to be articulated to the Athenian citizens and a way to reinforce the commitment of Athenians to democracy. They now had irrefutable empirical evidence that wealth was no guarantee of reliability in the ruling class and should not have significance to power in creating an oligarchy.

After the war in 403BC when Athens regained control of her own government it was mandatory for Athenians to swear the oath of reconciliation in which each citizen publicly demonstrated his assent to democratic rule and to forget past wrongs, meaning the oligarchic revolutions. We derive the word ‘amnesty’ from the ancient Greek ‘amnestia’ which translates as ‘not remembering’ and played a key role in the Greeks moving forward from 403BC. Even thought there was a significant impact on Athenian democracy from the second revolution, the impact of the first decreed that an oligarchy would never again take control in Athens by the will of the people.


Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Penguin Classics, 1984

Balot, Ryan K, Green and Injustice in Classical Athens, Princeton University Press (15 Oct 2001)

Oxford Journals, ( http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/content/117/4/1274.full?sid=a2353136-746a-41c6-ae2c-ca1e091db088 )

Roberts, John, Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, Oxford University Press, 2007

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Penguin Classics, 1972

Xenophon, Hellenica (Kindle Addition), Amazon Media

Xenophon, History of My Times, Penguin Classics, 1979