From around the 9th century BC, a king ruled Athens along with a council of noble advisers to assist him. Gradually, these nobles grew more and more powerful due to Athens's economic success. This group of men evolved into a body known as the Areopagus, which would eventually develop into an oligarchy.
Athens's oligarchy was composed of nine rulers, also called "archons," elected by the Areopagus. The archons made decisions regarding Athens, and then submitted these decisions to the Areopagus for approval or denial. In this, the seeds of Athenian democracy can be seen.
Athens was fragmented by many different factors: rioting, unrest, and general public disapproval of the government. Because of this, a series of tyrants came to power, either taking it by force or by the will of the people. To ancient Athenians, "tyrant" did not have the same negative connotations that it does today. Three rulers from this age were extremely important: Solon, Pisistratus, and Cleisthenes.
Cleisthenes was the first ruler that is really considered democratic. He gave ordinary citizens more say in government. In this direct democracy, everyone had a voice.
Solon was elected in 594 BC by the people of Athens. He put in place many reforms that laid the foundation for an Athenian democracy. He outlawed debt slavery, passed laws to aleve the suffering of citizens, and created a four class system for inhabitants based on income. The wealthiest two classes could become members of the Areopagus. The third wealthiest could serve on the Council of 400. The poorest class was allowed to vote on important measures brought by the Council of 400, as well as participate in the people's court. Despite Solon's massive changes to government, Athens's economic problems persisted.
Pisistratus kept control of Athens with the help of a mercenary army, although he helped develop Athenian democracy. He gave more power to the poorest citizens while taking it away from the richest. He encouraged economic growth, and sought mainly to reduce the power of the wealthiest in Athens.
Cleisthenes was the last major step in achieving Athenian democracy. He made all free men in Athens citizens, enabling them to participate in government. Older citizens could be picked by a lottery to serve on the Council of 400. The Assembly, which was comprised of male citizens, could veto any council decisions, and it was the only legislative body with the ability to declare war. This separation of powers was the essence of democracy in Athens.