Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of March 26, 2003
page 2 of 23
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
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).
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
page 2 of 23