Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Foreign Policy: Sending Embassies.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of March 26, 2003
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Plot on a Map
The Assembly was responsible for the general conduct of Athens’ public business, which included sending embassies to conduct business with other states.
Aristotle, after listing the two special meetings of the Assembly in each prytany, says that the remaining two meetings were reserved for “all other business” (αἱ δὲ δύο περὶ τῶν ἄλλων...προξειροτονίας) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.6). Included in that general category were matters of foreign policy, and especially the appointment and dispatch of embassies (πρέσβεις, πρεσβευταί) to other states. The sources contain many specific references to embassies sent out by the vote of the Assembly. Demosthenes mentions embassies sent by the Assembly to discuss peace with Philip of Macedon (Dem. 18.29; Dem. 19.13), one of three citizens to Philip to discuss his capture of some Athenian grain ships (Dem. 18.75), an embassy to Philip asking him to make war on Persia, and a later embassy to the Persian King asking him to make war on Philip (Dem. 18.75). On one occasion we hear of a private individual, and not even an Athenian citizen, asking the Athenian Assembly to dispatch an embassy: Phrynon of Rhamnus had been captured by pirates and subsequently ransomed, whereupon he asked the Athenian Assembly to appoint an embassy to go to Philip and get Philip to help get his ransom back (Aeschin. 2.13).
Certain embassies were recurring, such as the Hieronomon (ἱερομνήμων) and the Pylagoras (πυλάγορας), who were ambassadors with specific religious duties; Aeschines mentions a decree that orders them to travel to Themopylae and Delphi “at the times appointed by our fathers” (ἐν τοῖς τεταγμένοις χρόνοις ὑπὸ τῶν προγόνων) (Aeschin. 3.127).
The Assembly could appoint citizens to serve on embassies, but a citizen could excuse himself by swearing an oath (ἐχόμνυμι), as Demosthenes claims to have done once (Dem. 19.122). Aeschines cites a law that says that an ambassador chosen by the Assembly can excuse himself only by swearing before the Assembly, not before the Council (Aeschin. 2.95). Once an embassy was approved, the Assembly could also dispatch an Athenian warship to convey the ambassadors to their destination (Dem. 53.5). The Assembly would also give the ambassadors instructions as to how to conduct their business (Dem. 19.6). As evidence that the Athenians regarded their ambassadors as sacred and immune from interference, we have mention of an incident in which Megara arrested some Athenian ambassadors, whereupon the Assembly voted to exclude all Megarians from participation in the Mysteries at Eleusis (Dem. 12.4).
Once an embassy, dispatched by the Assembly, completed its mission, it was to report to the Assembly (Aeschin. 3.125, Aeschin. 2.47). These reports were important: Aeschines mentions a motion to hold a meeting of the Assembly on a sacred day, so that the Assembly could hear an embassy’s report as quickly as possible (Aeschin. 3.67). The Assembly could not make foreign policy decisions until they had heard from their returning ambassadors, and we hear of at least one occasion when the business of several cities, which were engaged in multi-lateral negotiations, came to a standstill until an Athenian embassy reported to the Athenian assembly (Aeschin. 2.60). Demosthenes accuses an embassy, which he claims reported only to the Council, of failing in its duty by not reporting immediately to the Assembly (Dem. 19.19); and the responsibility went in both directions, since Aeschines suggests that a returning had a right to the opportunity to report to the Assembly (Aeschin. 2.121). If the Assembly reacted favorably to the report, it could pass a vote of thanks to the ambassadors and treat them to a meal at public expense (Aeschin. 2.53). But not all reports were so well received, such as that of Epicrates, who was subject to impeachment and condemned to death for mishandling an embassy (Dem. 19.276). There is also a parody of an embassy’s report in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, during which a character complains that an embassy to Persia wasted the city’s money (Aristoph. Ach. 60); the jokes here may reflect a common topic of discussion in the Assembly when embassies reported their activities.
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