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The Council of the Areopagus 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 26, 2003

page 11 of 21

· History: Before the 5th c. ·

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Plutarch (Plut. Sol.).

According to Aristotle, under the “government of Draco” (a figure for whom there is little good historical evidence, and whom we should probably assume to be largely mythical), “the Council of the Areopagus was guardian of the laws, and kept a watch on the magistrates to make them govern in acordance with the laws” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 4.4). According to Plutarch, “most writers” [meaning, of course, most of the writers available to Plutarch in the 2nd century CE — CWB] attribute the founding of the Areopagus to Solon, the Athenian reformer of the 6th century BCE (Plut. Sol. 19.2). But Plutarch reports a law, supposedly written by Solon, that mentions people condemned by the Areopagus earlier (Plut. Sol. 19.3). “This surely proves to the contrary that the council of the Areopagus was in existence before the achonship and legislation of Solon. For how could men have been condemned in the Areopagus before the time of Solon, if Solon was the first to give the council of the Areopagus its jurisdiction?” (Plut. Sol. 19.4). Of course, Plutarch’s evidence does not “prove” anything, since there is no guarantee that the law he quotes is authentic.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

It seems that the Areopagus in the 6th century had broad authority. Aristotle mentions that during the reign of the tyrant Pisistratus (c. 546-528 BCE [source: OHCW — CWB]), the tyrant himself was summoned before the Areopagus on a charge of murder (he presented himself for trial, but his accuser failed to show up) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 16.8). Aristotle also says that Solon, “appointed the Council of the Areopagus to the duty of guarding the laws, just as it had existed even before as overseer of the constitution, and it was this council that kept watch over the greatest and the most important of the affairs of state, in particular correcting offenders with sovereign powers both to fine and punish, and making returns of its expenditure to the Acropolis without adding a statement of the reason for the outlay, and trying persons that conspired to put down the democracy, Solon having laid down a law of impeachment in regard to them” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.4).

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

The Areopagus seems to have consisted of former archons from the earliest times (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 3.6), but the process of selecting archons each year changed, which necessarily changed the nature of the Areopagus. Aristotle says that before Solon—in the early 6th century (source: OHCW)—the Areopagus itself chose the nine archons each year (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.2). Since by choosing archons it was also choosing its own future members, the Areopagus would have been a very exclusive, and almost certainly aristocratic body. Solon’s reforms, according to Aristotle, included a change in the selection of archons. Each tribe (φυλή) would nominate (προκρίνειε) ten candidates, and the nine archons would then be chosen by random lot from these (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.2). This procedure would have made the Areopagus somewhat more democratic.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).

The evidence we have, however, is not consistent. For example, in the Politics Aristotle says that Solon “seemed to to avoid destroying the previously existing institutions, particularly the Council and the selection of archons, but to establish democracy by instituting jury-courts from all the citizens” (ἔοικε δὲ Σόλων ἐκεῖνα μὲν ὑπάρχοντα πρότερον οὐ καταλῦσαι, τήν τε βουλὴν καὶ τὴν τῶν ἀρχῶν αἵρεσιν, τὸν δὲ δῆμον καταστῆσαι, τὰ δικαστήρια ποιήσας ἐκ πάντων) (Aristot. Pol. 1273b-1274a). This seems to say that Solon did not change the way archons were selected. The question remains open, but since Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.2 gives specific details, while Aristot. Pol. 1273b-1274a speaks in very general terms, most historians accept the former, and conclude that Solon did, in fact, change how archons were selected.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

Aristotle also says that “in the archonship of Telesinus (487/6 BCE; source: Rhodes, 272), they elected the Nine Archons by lot, tribe by tribe, from a preliminary list of five hundred chosen by the demes: this was the date of the first election on these lines after the tyranny, the previous Archons having all been elected by vote” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 22.5). This passage suggests that the tyrant Pisistratus (c. 546- 528 BCE, source: OHCW) changed the method for selecting archons from random selection to some method over which he could exert control.

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Arist.).

Plutarch reports another ancient historian, Idomeneus (whose works do not survive) as saying that Aristides was chosen to be archon by election, not by random lot, in 489/8 BCE (Plut. Arist. 1.8; source for date: Rhodes, 273).

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Herodotus (Hdt.).
Plot on a Map

Here too, however, there is some evidence that would seem to contradict this statement. When the historian Herodotus narrates the battle of Marathon, which happened in 490 BCE (three years before the archonship of Telesinus in 487/6; source: OHCW), he says that Callimachus of Aphidnae was polemarch (i.e. one of the nine archons), “chosen by lot [literally, ‘by bean’ — CWB] to be polemarch of the Athenians” ( τῷ κυάμῳ λαχὼν Ἀθηναίων πολεμαρξέειν) (Hdt. 6.109.2). This, then, might be an example of an archon being chosen by lot, rather than by election, three years earlier than Aristot. Ath. Pol. 22.5 would have us believe. The historian N.G.L. Hammond has made an argument that would bring these two seemingly conflicting pieces of evidence together. He has suggested that before between the tyranny and 487/6, nine Athenians were elected to be archons, but were assigned to individual functions by lot (N.G.L. Hammond, JHS 88 (1968) 50, with n. 145). So, we would then read Hdt. 6.109.2 as meaning that Callimachus of Aphidnae had been elected to be one of the nine archons, but had been assigned to be polemarch by lot.

Despite these problems of contradictory evidence, it seems clear that by the early years of the 5th century, the nine archons were chosen by lot, rather than by election.

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