Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Payment for Participation.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of March 26, 2003
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Citizens were paid for attending the Assembly, to ensure that even the poor could afford to take time from their work to participate in their own government. Aristotle recognized that inclusion of all citizens and freedom to speak are not the only hallmarks of a democratic constitution, but that the most democratic states pay their citizens for attending the Assembly. He claims that in the absence of payment, the Council (βουλή) is the most democratic of magistracies (Aristot. Pol. 1317b), but in states that can afford to, and do, pay their citizens for attending meetings of the Assembly, “all the citizens actually take part in it and exercise their citizenship, because even the poor are enabled to be at leisure by receiving pay” (Aristot. Pol. 1293a). A historical anecdote recorded in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians further supports this assertion: In 411, when a group of Athenians temporarily overthrew the democracy and established an oligarchy, one of their first acts was to pass a law that no one should receive pay for political activity (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 29.5; and Aristot. Ath. Pol. 33.1, referring to the subsequent regime of 411 and 410). In the 4th century, when Timocrates had proposed that the Athenians loosen enforcement of penalties against those who owe debts to the state, Demosthenes claimed that there would be no money left in the treasury to pay for attendance at the Assembly, and he went on to equate that outcome with an end to Democracy (Dem. 24.99).
Aristot. Ath. Pol. 4.2 says that under the “Constitution of Draco”, a mostly legendary period in the history of pre-democratic Athens, citizenship was limited to those who could afford to arm themselves. Under the laws instituted by Solon in the 6th century, the Athenians were divided into four property classes, and only those who possessed a certain amount of property could hold office (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 7.4; IG II2 30). This property qualification survived into the 4th century, but came to be disregarded — in the 4th century, candidates for office were asked about their property class, but everyone simply claimed to belong to the higher classes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 7.4; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 47.1). Demosthenes mentions Theogenes of Cothocidae, who was appointed to the office of Archon Basileus, although he was so poor that his friends had to help him meet the expenses that went along with taking office (Dem. 59.72).
But even under the old system, where only the wealthy could hold office, we do not hear of any property qualification for participating in the Assembly; even the poorest citizens were eligible to meet on the Pnyx and speak their minds. As Athens became increasingly democratic, the city began to pay its citizens to attend the Assembly, first one obol per meeting, then two, then three (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 41.3). A character in one of Aristophanes’ comedies (produced in the early 4th century) complains that “in the old days,” when the pay was only one obol, all the citizens stayed at home, but now that the pay is three obols, meetings are too crowded (Aristoph. Eccl. 302; see also the parody of the 3-obol payment at Aristoph. Eccl. 44). In Aristophanes there are several jokes about people getting to the Assembly too late to receive their pay, which suggests that citizens had to be present at the beginning of the meeting in order to receive pay, or perhaps that only the first 6000 citizens to arrive got paid (Aristoph. Eccl. 290;Aristoph. Eccl. 385; Aristoph. Eccl. 395). The rate seems to have remained at 3 obols until around 388, if we can trust a passing reference in Aristophanes’ Wealth (Aristoph. Pl. 330) (source for date: OCD3, s.v. “Aristophanes”). By the 330s and 320s, the payment had increased to one drachma (six obols) for an ordinary meeting, and a drachma and a half (nine obols) for a “sovereign assembly” (κυρία ἐκκλησία, see below) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 62.2). Demosthenes mentions, in a rather vague passage, that taxation alone was not sufficient to pay for the expense of holding meetings of the Assembly, and that various laws ensured supplemental income for that purpose (Dem. 24.97).
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