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→ The Dangers of Bad Government.

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The Assembly 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of March 26, 2003

page 22 of 23

· The Dangers of Bad Government ·

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 19).
Demosthenes (Dem. 2).
Demosthenes (Dem. 13).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 3).

The Athenians themselves were well aware of the potential dangers of direct democracy as exercised by the Assembly, and the orators, particularly, mention them often. Demosthenes says, “A man can do no greater wrong than by telling lies to a popular assembly; for, where the political system is based upon speeches, how can it be safely administered if the speeches are false?” (Dem. 19.184). He complains of partisanship and the dangers it poses to orderly process: “You conduct your politics by syndicates (συμμορίας); each syndicate has an orator for chairman, with a general under him, and three hundred to do the shouting.” (Dem. 2.29). He complains that the Assembly was given to hysteria, describing how, on one occasion, someone broke into the Parthenon and stole a few oars, and at the ensuing meeting of the Assembly “all those coming forward to speak” (οἱ παριόντες ἅπαντες) cried that the democracy was overthrown and all the laws were null and void (Dem. 13.14). Aeschines complains that actions by the Assembly could interfere with justice, noting an occasion on which a jury acquitted someone of corruption, not based on the evidence, but on the fact that the Assembly, earlier, had awarded him a crown (Aeschin. 3.10). He also complains of the reverse, that lawsuits (or the threat thereof) could stand in the way of proper deliberation in the Assembly (Aeschin. 3.146).

Read about the evidence
Xenophon (Xen. Hell.).
Plot on a Map

The most famous example of the Assembly behaving rashly and inconsistently comes from Xenophon. He describes the case of the generals at the battle of Arginousae in 406 BCE, who were accused of failing to rescue the survivors of the ships that had sunk in the battle (the account begins at Xen. Hell. 1.6.24). These men were put on trial for their lives, and when the Prytaneis refused to put the matter to a vote in the Assembly, arguing that the proceedings were illegal (the generals should have been tried individually, not all at once), the Assembly overrode them, and the Prytaneis gave in out of fear of the crowd (Xen. Hell. 1.7.14 - Xen. Hell. 1.7.15). The generals were condemned to death and executed, but after it was too late, the Athenians had a change of heart, and the Assembly voted a complaint against “those who had misled them” (οἵτινες τὸν δῆμον ἐξηπάτησαν) (Xen. Hell. 1.7.35).

Plot on a Map

The affair of the Arginousae generals was one of the darkest moments of the Athenian democracy, an over-reaction following the temporary oligarchic revolution of 411 BCE.

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