Ephialtes was a democratic reformer in Athens in the early
years of the 5th century B.C. Unfortunately, no ancient biography of Ephialtes exists, so we know few details about him
compared withother prominent Athenians.
He was the son of Sophonides (Diod. 11.77.|6). Aelian includes him in a list of important public figures who were not rich (Ael. VH 2.43; Ael. VH 11.9), which we might contrast to the famous wealth of his political rival Kimon (Hdt. 6.136.3; Plut. Kim. 4.4; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 27.2-3; Plut. Kim. 10.1-2; Dem. 13.29). Aelian also calls Ephialtes a “philosopher”, but what that is supposed to mean is not clear (Ael. VH 3.17)
Ephialtes seems to have held the position of strategos (στρατηγός), or General, at Athens, since we hear of him commanding an Athenian fleet in the Aegean, shortly after Kimon's victories over Persia in 467 B.C.(Plut. Kim. 13.5). Apart from these few details, most of what we know about Ephialtes has to do with is greatest political triumph, the reform of the Council of the Areopagus at Athens. Diodorus, who is critical of the reform, summarises the event and adds a “moral,” saying that Ephialtes:
“persuaded the Assembly to vote to curtail the power of the Council of the Areopagus and to destroy the renowned customs which their fathers had followed. Nevertheless, he did not escape the punishment for attempting such lawlessness, but he was done to death by night and none ever knew how he lost his life” (Diod. 11.77.6).
Evidence about him is scant,
although we can learn a certain amoung from Plutarch’s
biography of Kimon, who was Ephialtes’ main political
opponent. Around 462 B.C., Ephialtes brought
about changes to the Court of the Areopagus. He sponsored
laws and decrees that removed many powers from
the Areopagus and gave them to the People’s Court or the
Assembly. Because the Areopagus, consisting of former archons
serving on the body for life, was the least democratic
of Athens’ political institutions, the reforms of Ephialtes
can be said to have completed Athens’ transformation into
a radical democracy.
Writing in the 4th century B.C., the orator Isocrates offers
this critical description of Athenian politics in the early 5th century B.C.:
“…the city waxed powerful and seized
the empire of the Hellenes, and our fathers, growing more
self-assured than was appropriate for them, began to look
with disfavor on those good men and true (τοῖς μὲν καλοῖς
κἀγαθοῖς τῶν ἀνδρῶν) who had made Athens great, envying
them their power, and to crave instead men who were
base-born and full of insolence (πονηρῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων
καὶ μεστῶν θρασύτητος ἐπεθύμησαν), thinking that by
their bravado and contentiousness they would be able to
preserve Democracy (διαφυλάττειν τὴν δημοκρατίαν)”
Aristotle describes the early history of
the Athenian democracy in terms of a struggle between
two factions in Athens, that of the rich, and that of the
People, with individual Athenians leading each party. After
the tyranny of Peisistratus and his sons, which ended c.510 B.C., Isagoras took the side of the rich,
and Cleisthenes took the side of the People, then Miltiades
and Xanthippus, then Aristides and Themistocles, and
then Kimon led the rich, while Ephialtes took the side of
the People (Aristot. Ath. Pol.28.2). The most significant
event in the political development of Athenian government
in the time of Kimon and Ephialtes, according to Aristotle,
was when Ephialtes:
“put down the Council of the
Areopagus” (καταλύσας τὴν Ἀρεοπαγῖτιν βουλήν) (Aristot.
Ath. Pol. 41.1). Because of the changes to the power and
authority of the Council of the Areopagus:,
“it came about
that the constitution became still more democratic” (Aristot.
Ath. Pol. 27.1).
The Argeopagus before the reforms
The Council of the Areopagus (also called the Court of
the Areopagus), its history, and its role in the Athenian
democracy is described at length, with links to the ancient
evidence, elsewhere (see Areopagus). What follows is a
brief summary of its powers before Ephialtes’ reforms, to
help put those reforms in context.
The Court of the Areopagus was an ancient institution.
It features in the mythological history of Athens, as
portrayed in Aeschylus’ tragedy Eumenides, in which the
goddess Athene puts the Eumenides, or Furies, on trial on
this Hill of the Areopagus at Athens (Aesch. Eum.). Even
under the democratic government of the 4th century B.C. after much of the power of government was in the hands of
the People, this mythology could be invoked for rhetorical
effect in the classical period, as when a certain Autocles arguing
that a certain Mixidemides should stand trial before
the Court of the Areopagus: “If the awful goddesses [i.e.
the Furies] were content to stand their trial before
the Areopagus, should not Mixidemides?” (Aristot. Rh. 1398b 25). The orator Demosthenes praises the institution
and its history: “Concerning that Court of the Areopagus could relate a greater number of noble stories, in part traditional
and legendary, in part certified by our own personal
testimony, than could be told of any other tribunal. It is
worth your while to listen to one or two of them by way of
illustration. First, then, in ancient times, as we are told by
tradition, in this court alone the gods condescended both
to render and to demand satisfaction for homicide, and
to sit in judgement upon contending litigants – Poseidon,
according to the legend, deigning to demand justice from
Ares on behalf of his son Halirrothius, and the twelve gods
to adjudicate between the Eumenides and Orestes. These
are ancient stories; let us pass to a later date. This is the only
tribunal which no despot, no oligarchy, no democracy, has
ever dared to deprive of its jurisdiction in cases of murder,
all men agreeing that in such cases no jurisprudence of
their own devising could be more effective than that which
has been devised in this court” (Dem. 23.65-66). Isocrates,
another 4th century orator, claims that, once upon a time,
the court had authority over the day to day behavior of the
citizens: “For our forefathers placed such strong emphasis
upon sobriety that they put the supervision of decorum in
charge of the Council of the Areopagus – a body which was
composed exclusively of men who were of noble birth and
had exemplified in their lives exceptional virtue and sobriety,
and which, therefore, naturally excelled all the other
councils of Hellas” (Isoc. 7.37). Aristotle says that in the
time of Draco, the legendary first lawgiver of Athens, “The
Council of the Areopagus was guardian of the laws, and kept a watch on the magistrates to make them govern in
accordance with the laws. A person unjustly treated might
lay a complaint before the Council of the Arepagites [the
members of the Court of the Areopagus], stating
the law in contravention of which he was treated unjustly”
(Aristot. Ath. Pol. 4.4 ).
The Court of the Areopagus was an aristocratic institution,
composed of “men who were of noble birth” (οῖς
καλῶς γεγονόσι) (Isoc. 7.37). It was composed of men who
had held the office of archon (Plut. Sol. 19.1; Plut. Per. 9.3).
Members of the Court of the Areopagus, the “Areopagites”
(Ἀρεοπαγίται) held offi ce for life, not only in pre-democratic
Athens but also in the latter half of the 4th century
(Aristot. Ath. Pol. 3.6). According to Aristotle, before the
time of the lawgiver Solon – the middle of the 6th century – the Court of the Areopagus itself
chose the men who would be archons, and thus future
members of the Areopagus (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.1). “Selection
of archons was by wealth and birth” (ἡ γὰρ αἵρεσις
τῶν ἀρχόντων ἀριστίνδην καὶ πλουτίνδην ἦν) (Aristot.
Ath. Pol. 3.6), and so the Court of the Areopagus preserved
itself as a body of the aristocrats of Athens.
Solon changed method by which Athenians became
archons – forty candidates were elected, and from these
forty, nine archons were picked by lot (Aristot. Ath. Pol.
8.1). Under the laws of Solon, the Court of the Areopagus
retained its role as “overseer of the constitution” (ὥσπερ
ὑπῆρχεν καὶ πρότερον ἐπίσκοπος οὖσα τῆς πολιτείας); it
could punish citizens, fine them, and spend money itself
without answering to any other governing body; and it
oversaw cases impeachment (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.4). Aristotle
describes the government of Athens under Solon as a
blend of elements – the courts were democratic, the elected
archons were aristocratic, and the Court of the Areopagus
was oligarchic (Aristot. Pol. 1273b).
The Court of the Areopagus seems to have enjoyed a
return to its former glory immediately after the Persian
Wars. Aristotle tells the story of how, during the chaos of
the Persian invasion in 480 B.C., the Council of the Areopagus
took a leading role in organising, and financing,
the evacuation of all Athenians to Salamis and the Peloponnese,
which raised the body’s status considerably (Aristot.
Ath. Pol. 23.1). He goes on to say that the Council of
the Areopagus enjoyed preeminence in Athens for almost
two decades, until the time when Conon was archon, and
Ephialtes brought about his reforms in 462 B.C. (Aristot.
Ath. Pol. 25.1)
The ancient sources are not consistent regarding who was
responsible for the reform of the Areopagus. Aristotle’s
Constitution of the Athenians, for example, mentions Ephialtes
alone at one point (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 25.1), Ephialtes
and Themistocles elsewhere (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 25.3-4), and
Pericles elsewhere (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 27.1). Plutarch also
gives credit to Pericles (Plut. Per. 9.3), but his description
of events helps straighten out the confusion and point to
Ephialtes as the man responsible for the reforms themselves:
“For this reason all the more did Pericles, strong in
the affections of the people, lead a successful party against
the Council of the Areopagus. Not only was the Council
robbed of most of its jurisdiction by Ephialtes, but Kimon also, on the charge of being a lover of Sparta and a hater
of the people, was ostracised” (Plut. Per. 9.4 ). Elsewhere in his biography of Pericles,
Plutarch refers to Ephialtes as the one “who broke down
the power of the Council of the Areopagus” (Plut. Per. 7.6).
According to Plutarch, then, Pericles may have been an important
influence behind the events, but it was Ephialtes
who actually brought about the reforms (see also Aristot.
Pol. 1274a, which seems to agree with Plutarch’s version,
and Diod. 11.77.6, which mentions Ephialtes only).