Though in the early part of the Classical period the city of Athens was both culturally and politically dominant, it was not until the late sixth century BC that it became a leading power in Greece.
The attempted coup by Cylon of Athens may be the earliest event in Athenian history which is clearly attested by ancient sources, dating to around 636 BCE. At this time, it seems that Athens’ monarchy had already been ended and the archonship had replaced it as the most important executive office in the state, though the archonship could only be held by members of the Eupatridae, the families which made up Athens’ aristocracy.
The earliest laws of Athens were established by Draco, in 621/0; his law on homicide was the only one to have survived to the Classical period. Draco’s law code aimed to replace private revenge as the first and only response of an individual to an offence committed against them. The law code of Draco, however, failed to prevent the tensions between the rich and poor which were the impetus to Solon’s reforms.
In 594/3 BC, Solon was appointed “archon and mediator”. Exactly what his reforms consisted of is uncertain. He claimed to have taken up the horoi to set the land free, but the exact meaning of horoi is unknown; their removal seems, however, to have been part of the problem of hektemoroi – another word whose meaning is obscure. Solon was also credited with abolishing slavery for debtors, and establishing limits on who could be granted Athenian citizenship.
Solon instituted radical constitutional reform, replacing noble birth as a qualification for office with income. The poorest – called thetes – could hold no offices, although they could attend the Assembly and the law courts, while the richest class – the pentacosiomedimni – were the only people eligible to become treasurer, and possibly archon. He set up the Council of the Four Hundred, responsible for discussing motions which were to come before the Assembly. Finally, Solon substantially reduced the powers of the archon by giving citizens the right of appeal; their case was judged by the Assembly.
A second wave of constitutional reform in Athens was instituted by Cleisthenes towards the end of the sixth century. Cleisthenes apparently redivided the Athenian population, which had previously been grouped into four tribes, into ten new tribes. A new Council of 500 was instituted, with members from each deme represented. Demes were also given the power to determine their own members (which, in turn, provided them with influence over the membership of the citizen body more generally) and to somewhat determine their own judicial arrangements. These reforms gave the citizen body a sense of responsibility for what happened in the community for the first time. Between the reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes, the Athenian constitution had become identifiably democratic.