Literature Study GuidesHistoriesBook 5 Affairs In Athens Summary

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Histories | Book 5, Affairs in Athens | Summary



Undaunted, Aristagoras decides to seek aid from the Athenians instead. Herodotus describes Athens and, in particular, the city's liberation from tyranny and the origins of its democratic system. The Athenians decide to remove the tyrant, Hippias, with the aid of the Spartans. To convince the Spartans to aid in the effort, they convince the oracle at Delphi to tell all Spartans who visit that it is their duty to aid Athens. The ruse is a success, and a joint Spartan and Athenian army remove the tyrant, who flees into exile. The Athenians are then faced with the problem of organizing their new free society. Cleisthenes, a leading Athenian, institutes a system whereby all men over a certain age can participate in elections for the city's ruling council. Other Athenians, their power weakened by these changes, try to induce the Spartans to overthrow the new democracy. The Spartans attack and expel Cleisthenes. The people of Athens oppose them vigorously, however, and the Spartans are forced to retreat. Cleisthenes returns, only for the Spartans to return as well. Once more, they are repelled by the Athenians who, thereafter, go from "strength to strength" and prove "how noble a thing equality before the law is."


Herodotus turns at last to the great Greek city-state of Athens, which will come to dominate the narrative. As he did with other places, Herodotus explores the history of Athens. In particular, he is interested in the origins of the Athenian democratic system. At a time when most places were ruled by a tyrant, the Athenian democracy is an oddity. It was also, by the time of the Greco-Persian Wars, fairly new. The account of Athens's removal of the tyrant and subsequent governmental reforms was fresh in the memory of Herodotus and his audience, and so the account is reliable. Of interest is the complicated picture that emerges of the relationship between Athens and Sparta. These two cities were natural rivals, a tension that ran through their cooperation during the Greco-Persian Wars and erupted into conflict later in the Peloponnesian War.

The famed fighting skill of the Spartans is one reason why other states constantly ask them for aid. Spartans also consider themselves enemies of tyranny. The Athenian trick of convincing the oracle at Delphi to talk up the prospects of liberating Athens to the Spartans is a clear indication of the popularity of the oracle and the attention to which Delphi was paid by people across Greece.

Athenian democracy is an oddity, but it is clear that Herodotus approves of it. He considers it a strength, and this theme is a constant in his subsequent narrative (although he does criticize the Athenians when warranted).

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