Category: Historical subjects

Political Institutions in Classical Athens

The democracy of Athens reached its full development with Kleisthenes’ reforms in 507 B.C., and preserved it until their defeat in the Lamian War in 322 B.C. - when the Macedonians interfered in the city’s internal affairs. The constitution was named democracy because the power to rule was drawn by the citizens, that is, the demos.

The citizens

Citizen rights were obtained only by a minority of the inhabitants of Athens. Citizenship was either granted by birth, or, scarcely enough, offered to beneficent foreigners. In the first years of the democracy, descent from a citizen father was a sufficient criterion for citizenship; but since the middle of the 5th c., the privilege also required heredity by an Athenian mother. Naturally, the numerous slaves and travelers were without citizen rights; and the same goes for the metics, who, although being residents of the city, were not descendants of citizens. Athenians attained adulthood at the age of 18, but they could not exercise their political rights until they had served a two-year military time. Women were deprived of political rights. They could bestow citizenship on their male offspring only under two conditions: if they were descendants of citizens (in which case they were called astai), and if they were married to a male citizen.

Political bodies and organs of governance

The people of Athens (demos) exercised their power through participation in mass political bodies and organs of governance, as well as by taking some of the various offices. Political bodies were the Ekklesia (Assembly of the people), the Court of Heliaia; and the basic organs: the Council of the Aeropagos, and the Council of Five Hundred (Boule).

The Ekklesia was the assembly of the citizens, which was normally held on the Pnyx. All citizens were entitled to participate, but only a fraction was able to turn up to meetings. Pnyx could only fit in 6000 of the 30000 to 50000 adult citizens of Athens. At any rate, the decrees were usually ratified even by lesser participants. The Ekklesia was summoned about 40 times a year, and the meetings often went on all day from dawn to dusk. Many Athenians could not take the day off from their occupations, while others were residing far off the center and had to travel for hours. Since 403 B.C. a reimbursement was introduced, so that fear of losing the daily income would not deter the citizens from exercising this significant privilege.

The Ekklesia could debate every matter concerning the city. It decided on the rule of majority, and usually voted by show of hands. An exact count of hands was, at most times, unnecessary for the result was obvious to the eye. The agenda was created by the Council of Five Hundred, which was also responsible for summoning the Assembly.

All citizens were entitled to become members of the Council of the Five Hundred, but only for two non-consecutive times in their lives. The councilors were drawn by lot for an annual tenure. Each of the 10 tribes that divided the demos designated 50 councilors. They met every weekday except holidays. The contingents of each tribe served in rotation as the organizational and executive committee of the Council – and were called prytaneis. Their period in office was a tenth of the political year, which lasted for ten months. They were holding daily meetings, and, in response to the demand for being always in readiness, they lived together in a special prytany house called the Tholos or Skias. They had oversight of everyday matters and they were responsible for convening the Council. They prepared the agenda which the Council discussed and the Assembly decided upon. They also prepared proposals that would facilitate the decision making process.

The second basic organ of governance was the Council of the Aeropagos, which got its name from the place where it met, the Hill of Ares (Areios pagos). Membership was life long and it was granted exclusively to former archons after the conclusion of their annual tenure. In the past, Aeropagos was the only Council and wielded great authority. Since all the archons were aristocrats, the nature of the Council was conservative. Its main task was to safekeep the laws. After setting up a fully developed democracy, the power of the Council was curtailed to the authority of judging cases of felonious homicide between Athenian citizens, and supervising important matters of cult. However, due to its long history and the status it acquired, it could, often times, take important initiatives especially during periods of crisis. From the mid-5th c., the archons were also selected among the ranks of wealthy peasants, the zeugitai, and not solely from the class of the aristocrats. Thus, the Council gradually dropped its aristocratic character.

The Court of Heliaia was the second mass political body of the Athenian state. It was founded, allegedly, by Solon at the beginning of the 6th c. Even before the full development of the Athenian democracy, it wielded great authority, which expanded, after the democratic reforms, by taking up responsibilities of the Council of Aeropagos. Any citizen could bring to the court a case of wrongdoing against him or the city. The court was mainly preoccupied with political cases.

Six thousand citizens over 30 years of age were picked every year by lot as jurors. They had to swear the Heliastic Oath and gather every day unto a specific place. Another selection by lot appointed the number of jurors needed on each particular day. The number of the jurors that manned everyday courts hinged on the importance of the vexed case, and varied from 201 to 2501 members. On special occasions, the court sat in plenum of 6000. The verdicts were unappealable. On account of the court’s size, and of the importance of the cases it examined it represented the demos on a par with the Assembly.

The magistrates (archons)

Responsibility over the various matters of the city was held by the hundreds of superior or inferior magistrates for an annual tenure. The most important were the nine magistrates and the ten military commanders (strategoi). The nine had extended powers even before the full development of democracy, and maintained some of them even after the reforms of the 5th c. They were selected by lot for an annual tenure, which was non-repeatable. Three kinds of magistrates stood out. The eponymous archon (the name-magistrate), after whom the year was named, was the safeguard of people’s wealth, and of the weak. The polemarch (war-magistrate) lost the power to lead the army, but withheld judicial and cult powers in relation to war affairs. He also had jurisdiction over the metics. The archon basileus (king magistrate) administered cult. Along with the three magistrates a board of six thesmothetai was selected, whose main duty was the supervision of the courts. Democracy complemented the nine magistrates with a secretary so that their number was equal to the number of the tribes.

The greatest power was concentrated in the hands of the ten generals (strategoi). Their tenure was annual, but appointment to the office was not made by lot, as it was with the other archons, but by election; they could also be reelected as many times as possible. They had the general command of the army, and of other important matters of the city.

The 139 deme of Athens also played a crucial role in the political life. They selected the archons and the Assembly speakers, they had their own organs, and held meetings in order to work out local problems. To a large degree, the deme were the school of democracy.

Author: Dimitris Kirtatas
  • Herman Hansen, M, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. Οξφόρδη, 1991.
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