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The Assembly 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of March 26, 2003

page 2 of 23

· Introduction ·

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Cim.).
Plutarch (Plut. Per.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Plot on a Map

The Assembly (ἐκκλησία) was the regular opportunity for all male citizens of Athens to speak their minds and exercise their votes regarding the government of their city. It was the most central and most definitive institution of the Athenian Democracy. Before 462 BCE, the Court of the Areopagus controlled legislation in Athens, but in that year Ephialtes instituted a reform that diminished the power of the Areopagus and increased the power of the Assembly of the people (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 25.2; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 27.1; Plut. Cim. 15.2; Plut. Per. 9.5). This Assembly became synonymous with democracy. When Aristotle describes how democratic government was restored after Sparta defeated Athens in 404 BCE he says that this restoration happened when “the People became sovereign over affairs” (ὅτε δὲ κύριος δῆμος γενόμενος τῶν πραγμάτων) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 41.1). Under this government, he says, the People administers all business “by decrees and by law-courts” (ψηφίσμασιν καὶ δικαστηρίοις) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 41.2). When Aristotle mentions the People and government by decrees, he is describing the Assembly.

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).
Demosthenes (Dem. 18).
Demosthenes (Dem. 44).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
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In the Assembly each male citizen of Athens could speak, regardless of his station. The orator Aeschines says that the herald (κῆρυξ), acting as a sergeant-at-arms, “does not exclude from the platform the man whose ancestors have not held a general’s office, nor even the man who earns his daily bread by working at a trade; nay, these men he most heartily welcomes, and for this reason he repeats again and again the invitation, ‘Who wishes to address the assembly?’” (Aeschin. 1.27) Demosthenes can chide his fellow Athenians for failing to recollect certain events, because they “were present at every assembly, as the state proposed a discussion of policy in which every one might join.” (Dem. 18.273) “Everyone”, in this context, refers to the body of citizens who were registered on the assembly list (πίνακα τὸν ἐκκλησιαστικὸν) for their local district, or deme (Dem. 44.35). Under the Democracy of Aristotle’s time (after 330 BCE), young men were enrolled on this list when they were 18 years old (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1), then spent two years as military cadets, or ephebes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.4), after which they were members of the citizen body (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.5).

Read about the evidence
Plato (Plat. Prot.).

Of course, some people might be better qualified than others to speak on certain subjects, and the citizens of Athens could be very critical when anyone tried to speak outside of his expertise. The character Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras says that when the Athenian Assembly discusses construction, the citizens call for builders to speak, and when it discusses the construction of ships they call for shipwrights, “but if anyone else, whom the people do not regard as a craftsman, attempts to advise them, no matter how handsome and wealthy and well-born he may be, not one of these things induces them to accept him; they merely laugh him to scorn and shout him down, until either the speaker retires from his attempt, overborne by the clamor, or the archers (τοξόται) pull him from his place or turn him out altogether by order of the presiding officials (κελευόντων τῶν πρυτάνεων)” (Plat. Prot. 319b-c). But, Socrates continues, when the discussion is not about technical matters but about the governing of the city, “the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none” (Plat. Prot. 319d).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 18).
Thucydides (Thuc.).
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).
Apollodorus (Dem. 59).
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There is the question of participation by Athenians living in the countryside of Attica, outside the city of Athens. While these people were certainly citizens of Athens, it may often have been difficult for them to attend a meeting of the Assembly. This would have been especially true when emergency meetings were called on short notice, such as the occasion that Demosthenes describes, when news of a military disaster came to the city in the evening, and a special Assembly convened the very next morning (Dem. 18.169). This assembly, and any others like it, must have consisted mainly of citizens living close to the city. And even when there was more warning before a meeting, we have to wonder how many Athenians living in the countryside of Attica would have made a 50 or 60 mile round trip to downtown Athens and back. In 400 BCE we can estimate that there were between 20,000 and 30,000 male citizens in Athens—it is beyond the scope of this article to give evidence and justification for this, but the arguments are presented in Victor Ehrenberg, The Greek State, 2nd English Edition (Methuen, 1969) 31, whose estimate is 20,000-25,000, and in A.W. Gomme, The Population of Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C. (Blackwell, 1933) 26, whose estimate is 22,000—but the number of Athenians in attendance at a given meeting seems to have been considerably lower. Thucydides makes the statement that during the Peloponnesian War (331 - 404 BCE) there were usually only 5000 people at a meeting (Thuc. 8.72), although he may be exaggerating downwards; a better measure of regular attendance might be the fact that 6000 citizens were required for a valid vote conferring citizenship on a non-Athenian (the earliest evidence for this rule dates from 369 BCE) (IG II2 103; Dem. 24.45; Dem. 59.89).

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