Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Freedom to Speak.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of March 26, 2003
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The Assembly met so that the male citizens could discuss the affairs of the city, and such discussion required that each citizen have freedom to speak his mind. This freedom was vital to the proper functioning of the Assembly, whether the issue at stake was some important public policy (Dem. 15.1), or the rights of a single citizen (Dem. 18.3). In an anecdote from the distant past, Demosthenes suggests that freedom of speech had a long history at Athens, and that it persisted despite periodic attempts to limit it. He recounts how in the 6th century BCE the island of Salamis had revolted from Athenian control, and the Athenians had forbidden anyone to propose a war to recover the island; but Solon, a real person whose place in Athenian history became subject of legend, composed a poem on the subject (poetry on the subject was evidently not forbidden), and through this ruse got around the law and convinced Athens to fight for Salamis (Dem. 19.252). By the 4th century BC, discussions of motions in the Assembly were opened with a general invitation to all the male citizens, as the Herald (
This freedom to speak was not absolute or without regulation. Aeschines tells us, for example, that in the early democracy (before the 5th century) citizens over 50 years of age could speak first, and only after those had their say could younger men speak (Aeschin. 1.23; Aeschin. 3.2). Other formal restrictions could apply, such as decrees limiting discussion of certain topics to certain meetings of the Assembly (Aeschin. 2.109), or even laws forbidding discussion of issues already settled in a court (Dem. 24.54). Other, less legitimate (but perhaps more effective) limits could be imposed: the crowd might raise a clamor and refuse to listen to a speaker advocate an unpopular proposal (Dem. 19.111), and this seems to have happened often enough that orators regularly asked, beforehand, not to be shouted down (Dem. 13.14).
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