The tribe (phyle) represented the basic division of the race (phyle). In Attica, the population was Ionian and there were four tribes. By contrast, Dorians normally grouped themselves into three tribes, as at Sparta and in Crete (Hylleis, Pamphyloi, Dymanes). Traditions about the tribes of Attica refer to various names, some of geographical, and others of religious reference. Stephanos of Byzantium, for instance, mentions tribes by the names of Autochthon, Paralia, Actaea, and Diakria. By a different division, the four tribes are referred to as Dias, Athenais, Posidonia, and Hephaestias. But fairly early on, the so-called 'Ionian' tribes came to the fore, their foundation being variously attributed to Ion, son of Xuthus, or Apollo. These were the Geleontes, the Hopletes, the Argadeis, and the Aegikoreis, which correspond, along with others, to the Iones of Asia Minor. Their names are probably linked with certain specific cults (e.g. Zeus Geleon).

Initially the tribe was the union of kindred families, and the status of a member of it was hereditary. The tribe was presided over by the phylobasileus, who retained rudimentary judicial and ritual functions up to the Classical period. Its members were linked by blood ties, later mainly expressed as solidarity in time of war. Hence it emerges that the tribe also functioned as a military unit.

With the reforms of Cleisthenes the old 'four tribes' were abolished and were replaced by ten new artificial tribes named after local heroes. For this reason the heroes in question, who were selected by the Delphic Oracle, were termed 'Eponymous'. The altar with the statues of the Eponymous Heroes was in the Agora, facing the Metroon. The ten comprised Hippothoon (the Hippothontis tribe) son of Poseidon and Alope; Antiochus (Antiochis) son of Heracles and Meda; Telamonian Ajax (Aiantis); Leos (Leontis), who sacrificed his daughters to save the city according to an oracle of Apollo; Erechtheus (Erechtheis); Aegeus (Aegeis); Oeneus (Oeneis); Acamas (Acamantis) son of Theseus; Cecrops (Cecropis); and Pandion (Pandionis). In Hellenistic and Roman times the tribes were increased by three, to honour leaders and emperors (Antigonis; Demetrias; Hadrianis).

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