how did the ancient athenians manage? to have a functioning democracy, that is — for as long as they did?
having a real, working democratic society seems to be at direct odds with being a clannish or tribalistic society. but the ancient greeks, including the athenians, were clannish|tribal — they had phylai (clans or tribes) and phratries (kin-groups or, maybe, sub-clans). and they definitely practiced inbreeding, frequently marrying cousins. in fact, fbd marriage was obligatory in the case of a female heiress — she had to marry one of her paternal cousins so that the estate would not go out of the extended family.
so how the h*ck did they manage to come up with a working demokratia?
cleisthenes’ reforms in 508/7 b.c.
in order to put a stop to the tyrannies that were continually popping up in athens (or, more likely, to quash the powers of clans other than his own — some of his family members had been tyrants, after all), cleisthenes devised a new system whereby athenian society would be organized.
the countryside surrounding athens, attica, had been politically arranged into demes, or regions or neighborhoods. to be a citizen, though, you had to be a member of a long-standing athenian phratry (kin-group). the demes were probably dominated by the phratries that happened to live in them.
cleisthenes rearranged all the demes in a brilliant sort-of reverse-gerrymandering scheme. the new political regions (trittyes) each consisted of three different, non-contiguous areas: from the coast, from the city, and from a rural area. everyone eligible to vote would now cast their vote as a member of a trittys, not (so much anymore) as a member of a phratry.
“After this victory Cleisthenes began to reform the government of Athens. In order to forestall strife between the traditional clans, which had led to the tyranny in the first place, he changed the political organization from the four traditional tribes, which were based on family relations, into ten tribes according to their area of residence (their deme). Most modern historians suppose there were 139 demes (this is still a matter of debate), organized into thirty groups called trittyes (‘thirds’), with ten demes divided among three regions in each trittys (a city region, asty; a coastal region, paralia; and an inland region, mesogeia). Cleisthenes also abolished patronymics in favour of demonymics (a name given according to the deme to which one belongs), thus increasing Athenians’ sense of belonging to a deme.” [wikip]
this system worked, with a few short interruptions and some changes, for more than a couple hundred years. cool.
cheryl anne cox goes into a lot of detail about athenian marriage patterns. i’ve read some of her book, but not all, so i still don’t have a good overview of how it all worked and what sort of changes in how athenians mated, if any, might have happened over time. she does mention that cousin marriage occurred not infrequently, but that arranged marriages (most of the marriages of vips in athens|attica were arranged) also happened between neighbors in a deme — you know, to create alliances between important families, join up big farms, etc., etc. she also notes that marriage in the city was more heterogamous.
the phratries (kin-groups) did, apprarently, loose their significance during the classical period in athens. did this have to do with increasing marriages across the artifically created trittyes (i.e. outbreeding) with a concomitant decrease in marriages within the phratry (i.e. inbreeding)? dunno, but i’d put money on it.
also, had the phratries, which had been powerful during the greek dark ages, already been weakened by the time of cleisthenes’ reforms by the outbreeding in the demes that cox describes? i think it likely.
maybe athenian society was already primed for demokratia by the time cleisthenes got there.
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