Structure of Athenian Democracy
Main bodies of governance
Constitution of the Athenians, 4th century BC
There were three political bodies where citizens gathered in numbers running into the hundreds or thousands. These are the assembly (in some cases with a quorum of 6000), the council of 500 (boule) and the courts (a minimum of 200 people, but running at least on some occasions up to 6000). Of these three bodies it is the assembly and the courts that were the true sites of power — although courts, unlike the assembly, were never simply called the demos (the People) as they were manned by a subset of the citizen body, those over thirty. But crucially citizens voting in both were not subject to review and prosecution as were council members and all other officeholders.
In the 5th century BC we often hear of the assembly sitting as a court of judgement itself for trials of political importance and it is not a coincidence that 6000 is the number both for the full quorum for the assembly and for the annual pool from which jurors were picked for particular trials. By the mid-4th century however the assembly’s judicial functions were largely curtailed, though it always kept a role in the initiation of various kinds of political trial.
The central events of the Athenian Democracy were the meetings of the Assembly (ἐκκλησία ekklesia). Unlike a parliament, the assembly’s members were not elected, but attended by right when they chose. Greek democracy created at Athens was a direct democracy, not a representative democracy: any adult male citizen of age could take part, and it was a duty to do so. The officials of the democracy were in part elected by the Assembly and in large part chosen by lot.
The Assembly had at least four functions; it made executive pronouncements (decrees, such as deciding to go to war or granting citizenship to a foreigner); it elected some officials; it legislated; and it tried political crimes. As the system evolved these last two functions were shifted to the law courts.
The standard format was that of speakers making speeches for and against a position followed by a general vote (usually by show of hands) of yes or no. Though there might be blocs of opinion, sometimes enduring, on crucial issues, there were no political parties and likewise no government or opposition (as in the Westminster system). In effect, the government was whatever speaker(s) the assembly agreed with on a particular day. Voting was by simple majority.
In the 5th century at least there were scarcely any limits on the power exercised by the assembly. If the assembly broke the law, the only thing that might happen is that it would punish those who had made the proposal that it had agreed to. If a mistake had been made, from the Assembly’s viewpoint it could only be because it had been misled.
As usual in ancient democracies, one had to physically attend a gathering in order to vote. Military service or simple distance prevented the exercise of citizenship.
Voting was usually by show of hands (cheirŏtonĭa, “arm stretching”) with officials judging the outcome by sight. With thousands of people attending, counting was impossible. For a small category of votes a quorum of 6000 was required, principally grants of citizenship, and here small coloured stones were used, white for yes and black for no. At the end of the session, each voter tossed one of these into a large clay jar which was afterwards cracked open for the counting of the ballots Ostracism required the voters to scratch names onto pieces of broken pottery [Ostraka], though this did not occur within the Assembly as such.
In the 5th century BC, there were 10 fixed assembly meetings per year, one in each of the ten state months, with other meetings called as needed. In the following century the meetings were set to forty a year, with four in each state month. One of these was now called the main meeting, kyria ekklesia. Additional meetings might still be called, especially as up until 355 BC there were still political trials that were conducted in the assembly rather than in court. The assembly meetings did not occur at fixed intervals, as they had to avoid clashing with the annual festivals that followed the lunar calendar. There was also a tendency for the four meetings to be aggregated toward the end of each state month.
Attendance at the Assembly was not always voluntary. In the 5th century public slaves forming a cordon with a red-stained rope herded citizens from the agora into the Assembly meeting place (pnyx), with a fine for those who got the red on their clothes. After the restoration of the democracy in 403 BC, pay for Assembly attendance was introduced for the first time. This promoted a new enthusiasm for Assembly meetings. Only the first 6000 to arrive were admitted and paid, with the red rope now used to keep latecomers at bay.
The presidency of the boule rotated monthly amongst the ten prytanies, or delegations from the ten Cleisthenic tribes, of the Boule (there were ten months in the Hellenic calendar). The epitastes, an official selected by lot for a single day from among the currently presiding prytany, chaired that day’s meeting of the boule and, if there was one, that day’s meeting of the assembly; he also held the keys to the treasury and the seal to the city, and welcomed foreign ambassadors. It has been calculated that one quarter of all citizens must at one time in their lives have held the post, which could be held only once in a lifetime.
The boule also served as an executive committee for the Assembly, and oversaw the activities of certain other magistrates. The boule coordinated the activities of the various boards and magistrates that carried out the administrative functions of Athens and provided from its own membership randomly selected boards of ten responsible for areas ranging from naval affairs to religious observances. Altogether, the boule was responsible for a great portion of the administration of the state, but was granted relatively little latitude for initiative; the boule’s control over policy was executed in its probouleutic, rather than its executive function; in the latter, it merely executed the wishes of the Assembly.
Athens had an elaborate legal system centered on the dikasteria full citizen rights (see atimia).
The age limit, the same as that for office holders but ten years older than that required for participation in the assembly, gave the courts a certain standing in relation to the assembly; for the Athenians older was wiser.
Jurors were required to be under oath, which was not required for attendance at the assembly. The authority exercised by the courts had the same basis as that of the assembly: both were regarded as expressing the direct will of the people. Unlike office holders (magistrates) who could be impeached and prosecuted for misconduct, the jurors could not be censured, for they, in effect, were the people and no authority could be higher than that. A corollary of this was that, at least in words spoken by the jurors, if a court had made an unjust decision, it must have been because it had been misled by a litigant.
Essentially there were two grades of suit, a smaller kind known as dike or private suit, and a larger kind known as graphe or public suit. For private suits the minimum jury size was 201 (increased to 401 if a sum of over 1000 drachmas was at issue), for public suits 501. The juries were selected by lot from a panel of 600 jurors, there being 600 jurors from each of the ten tribes of Athens, making a jury pool of 6000 in total. For particularly important public suits the jury could be increased by adding in extra allotments of 500. 1000 and 1500 are regularly encountered as jury sizes and on at least one occasion, the first time a new kind of case was brought to court (see graphe paranomon), all 6,000 members of the jury pool were put onto the one case.
The cases were put by the litigants themselves in the form of an exchange of single speeches timed by water clock, first prosecutor then defendant. In a public suit the litigants each had three hours to speak, much less in private suits (though here it was in proportion to the amount of money at stake). Decisions were made by voting without any time set aside for deliberation. Jurors did talk informally amongst themselves during the voting procedure and juries could be rowdy, shouting out their disapproval or disbelief of things said by the litigants. This may have had some role in building a consensus. The jury could only cast a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote as to the guilt and sentence of the defendant. For private suits only the victims or their families could prosecute, while for public suits anyone (ho boulomenos, ‘whoever wants to’ i.e. any citizen with full citizen rights) could bring a case since the issues in these major suits were regarded as affecting the community as a whole.
Justice was rapid: a case could last not longer than one day. Some convictions triggered an automatic penalty, but where this was not the case the two litigants each proposed a penalty for the convicted defendant and the jury chose between them in a further vote. No appeal was possible. There was however a mechanism for prosecuting the witnesses of a successful prosecutor, which it appears could lead to the undoing of the earlier verdict.
Payment for jurors was introduced around 462 BC and is ascribed to Pericles, a feature described by Aristotle as fundamental to radical democracy (Politics 1294a37). Pay was raised from 2 to 3 obols by Cleon early in the Peloponnesian War and there it stayed; the original amount is not known. Notably, this was introduced more than fifty years before payment for attendance at Assembly meetings. Running the courts was one of the major expenses of the Athenian state and there were moments of financial crisis in the 4th century when the courts, at least for private suits, had to be suspended.
The system showed a marked anti-professionalism.
No judges presided over the courts nor did anyone give legal direction to the jurors; magistrates had only an administrative function and were laymen. Most of the annual magistracies at Athens could only be held once in a lifetime. There were no lawyers as such; litigants acted solely in their capacity as citizens. Whatever professionalism there was tended to disguise itself; it was possible to pay for the services of a speechwriter (logographos) but this was not advertised in court (except as something your opponent had to resort to), and even politically prominent litigants made some show of disowning special expertise.
These juries formed a second mode for the expression of popular sovereignty; as in the Assembly, citizens acting as jurors acted as the people and were immune from review or punishment.
Shifting balance between Assembly and Courts
As the system evolved, the courts (that is, citizens under another guise) intruded upon the power of the Assembly.
From 355 BC political trials were no longer held in the Assembly, but only in a court.
In 416 BC the graphe paranomon (“indictment against measures contrary to the laws”) was introduced. Under this anything passed by the Assembly or even proposed but not yet voted on, could be put on hold for review before a jury — which might annul it and perhaps punish the proposer as well. Remarkably, it seems that a measure blocked before the Assembly voted on it did not need to go back to the Assembly if it survived the court challenge: the court was enough to validate it. Once again it is important to bear in mind the lack of ‘neutral’ state intervention.
To give an example by way of illustration; two men have clashed in the Assembly about a proposal put by one of them; it passed, and now the two of them go to court with the loser in the assembly prosecuting both the law and its proposer. The quantity of these suits was enormous: in effect the courts became a kind of upper house.
In the 5th century there was in effect no procedural difference between an executive decree and a law: they were both simply passed by the assembly. But from 403 BC they were set sharply apart. Henceforth laws were made not in the Assembly, but by special panels of 1000 citizens drawn from the annual jury pool of 6000. They were known as the nomothetai, the lawmakers. Nomothetai are junior archons, not the jury. Here again it is not anything like a legislative commission sitting down to discuss the pros and cons and drafting proposals, but the format is that of a trial, voting yes or no after a clash of speeches and such.
The institutions sketched above — Assembly, officeholders, council, courts — are incomplete without the figure that drove the whole system, Ho boulomenos, ‘he who wishes’, or anyone who wishes. This expression encapsulated the right of citizens to take the initiative: to stand to speak in the assembly, to initiate a public law suit (that is, one held to affect the political community as a whole), to propose a law before the lawmakers or to approach the council with suggestions. Unlike officeholders, the citizen initiator was not vetted before taking up office or automatically reviewed after stepping down — it had after all no set tenure and might be an action lasting only a moment. But any stepping forward into the democratic limelight was risky and if someone chose (another citizen initiator) they could be called to account for their actions and punished.
The degree of participation among citizens varied greatly, along a spectrum from doing virtually nothing towards something like a fulltime committent. But for even the most active citizen the formal basis of his political activity was the invitation issued to everyone (every qualified free male Athenian citizen) by the phrase “whoever wishes”. There are then three functions: the officeholders organized and saw to the complex protocols; Ho boulomenos was the initiator and the proposer of content; and finally the people, massed in Assembly or court or convened as lawmakers, made the decisions, either yes or no, or choosing between alternatives.
Administration was in the hands of officeholders, over a thousand each year. They were mostly chosen by lot, with a much smaller (and more prestigious) group elected. Neither was compulsory; individuals had to nominate themselves for both selection methods.
By and large the power exercised by these officials was routine administration and quite limited. In particular, those chosen by lot were citizens acting without particular expertise. This was almost inevitable since, with the notable exception of the generals (strategoi), each office could be held by the same person only once. Part of the ethos of democracy, however, was the building of general competence by ongoing involvement. In the 5th century version of the democracy, the ten annually elected generals were often very prominent, but for those who had power, it lay primarily in their frequent speeches and in the respect accorded them in the assembly, rather than their vested powers. While citizens voting in the Assembly were the people and so were free of review or punishment, those same citizens when holding an office served the people and could be punished very severely. All of them were subject to a review beforehand that might disqualify them for office and an examination after stepping down. Officeholders were the agents of the people, not their representatives.
Citizens active as officeholders served in a quite different capacity from when they voted in the Assembly or served as jurors. The Assembly and the courts were regarded as the manifestation of the people of Athens: they were the people, no power was above them and they could not be reviewed, impeached or punished. However, when an Athenian took up an office, he was regarded as ‘serving’ the people. As such, he could be regarded as failing in his duty and be punished for it. There were two methods of selecting people as officeholders, lottery or election. Something like 1100 citizens (including the members of the council of 500) held office each year and about a 100 of these were elected.
Selection by lot (Allotment)
Selection by lottery was the standard means as it was regarded as the more democratic: elections would favour those who were rich, noble, eloquent and well-known, while allotment spread the work of administration throughout the whole citizen body, engaging them in the crucial democratic experience of, to use Aristotle’s words, “ruling and being ruled in turn” (Politics 1317b28–30). The allotment of an individual was based on citizenship rather than merit or any form of personal popularity which could be bought. Allotment therefore was seen as a means to prevent the corrupt purchase of votes and it gave citizens a unique form of political equality as all had an equal chance of obtaining government office.
The random assignment of responsibility to individuals who may or may not be competent has obvious risks, but the system included features meant to obviate possible problems. Athenians selected for office served as teams (boards, panels). In a group someone will know the right way to do things and those that do not may learn from those that do. During the period of holding a particular office everyone on the team is observing everybody else. There were however officials such as the nine archons, who while seemingly a board carried out very different functions from each other.
There were in fact some limitations on who could hold office. Age restrictions were in place with thirty (and in some cases forty) years as a minimum, rendering something like a third of the adult citizen body ineligible at any one time. An unknown proportion of citizens were also subject to disenfranchisement (atimia), excluding some of them permanently and others temporarily (depending on the type). Furthermore, all citizens selected were reviewed before taking up office (dokimasia) at which they might be disqualified. Competence does not seem to have been the main issue, but rather, at least in the 4th century BC, whether they were loyal democrats or had oligarchic tendencies. After leaving office they were subject to a scrutiny (euthunai, literally ‘straightenings’) to review their performance. Both of these processes were in most cases brief and formulaic, but they opened up in the possibility, if some citizen wanted to take some matter up, of a contest before a jury court. In the case of a scrutiny going to trial, there was the risk for the former officeholder of suffering severe penalties. Finally, even during his period of office, any officeholder could be impeached and removed from office by the assembly. In each of the ten “main meetings” (kuriai ekklesiai) a year, the question was explicitly raised in the assembly agenda: were the office holders carrying out their duties correctly?
No office appointed by lot could be held twice by the same individual. The only exception was the boule or council of 500. In this case, simply by demographic necessity, an individual could serve twice in a lifetime. This principle extended down to the secretaries and undersecretaries who served as assistants to magistrates such as the archons. To the Athenians it seems what had to be guarded against was not incompetence but any tendency to use office as a way of accumulating ongoing power.
The powers of officials were precisely defined and their capacity for initiative limited. They administered rather than governed. When it came to penal sanctions, no officeholder could impose a fine over fifty drachmas. Anything higher had to go before a court.
Approximately one hundred officials out of a thousand were elected rather than chosen by lot. There were two main categories in this group: those required to handle large sums of money, and the 10 generals, the strategoi. One reason that financial officials were elected was that any money embezzled could be recovered from their estates; election in general strongly favoured the rich, but in this case wealth was virtually a prerequisite.
Generals were elected not only because their role required expert knowledge but also because they needed to be people with experience and contacts in the wider Greek world where wars were fought. In the 5th century BC, principally as seen through the figure of Pericles, the generals could be among the most powerful people in the polis. Yet in the case of Pericles, it is wrong to see his power as coming from his long series of annual generalships (each year along with nine others). His office holding was rather an expression and a result of the influence he wielded. That influence was based on his relation with the assembly, a relation that in the first instance lay simply in the right of any citizen to stand and speak before the people. Under the 4th century version of democracy the roles of general and of key political speaker in the assembly tended to be filled by different persons. In part this was a consequence of the increasingly specialised forms of warfare practiced in the later period.
Elected officials too were subject to review before holding office and scrutiny after office. And they too could be removed from office any time the assembly met. In one case from the 5th century BC the 10 treasurers of the Delian league (the Hellenotamiai) were accused at their scrutinies of misappropriation of funds. Put on trial, they were condemned and executed one by one until before the trial of the tenth and last an error of accounting was discovered, allowing him to go free. (Antiphon 5.69–70)