Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Checks and Balances.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of March 26, 2003
page 9 of 23
While any male citizen was invited to speak in an Assembly and all male citizens could vote, the topics for discussion and vote were limited by what amounted to a system of checks and balances between the Assembly and the Council.
The Council could pass “Decrees of the Council” (βουλῆς ψηφίσματα) — as opposed to “Decrees of the Assembly” (ἐκκλησίας ψηφίσματα), which the Assembly passed — but only regarding minor matters (for the terms for the two kinds of decrees, see Dem. 19.179; Dem. 23.92; for examples of Decrees of the Council, see the article on Council). Important decrees were passed by the Assembly. The Assembly, too, could act on certain things without any intervention from the Council, such as the business that regularly appeared on the agenda for the Sovereign Assembly in each prytany (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.4), or the annual vote on the laws that took place in the first Assembly of the year (Dem. 24.20).
But in important matters, the Council and the Assembly had to work together. The Assembly could not discuss or vote on a matter that the presiding officials, the Prytaneis, did not put on the agenda, and the Prytaneis could not put anything on the agenda unless the Council had considered it first (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.5). The Council had to approve a probouleuma, or resolution (προβούλευμα), which was read at the Assembly, whereupon the citizens could discuss it and vote on it (Dem. 19.85; Dem. 19.34).
Once the resolution came to the Assembly, it ceased to be a probouleuma and became a psephisma (ψήφισμα), a “thing to be voted on” (Dem. 19.234). A very clear example of this process in action is Dem. 59.4, where the orator mentions a probouleuma passed by the Council asking the Assembly to discuss and vote on how to spend a budget surplus: should it go to military preparations or to public festivals?
It seems that the Council could send two different kinds of probouleumata (the plural of probouleuma) to the Assembly. Sometimes the Council would pass an open-ended probouleuma to the Assembly, which would debate it and vote on it; the ensuing decree, when it was inscribed on stone, would then begin with the words “It was decided by the People that…” (ἔδοξε τῷ δήμῳ) (IG II2 240; IG II2 337). Because the Council had not made a specific recommendation, the decree was credited to the will of the Athenian people. At other times, the Council might send a decree with a specific recommendation, which the Assembly would simply vote on; in these cases, the ensuing decree would begin with the words “It was decided by the Council and the People that#8230;” (ἔδοξε τῇ βουλῇ καὶ τῷ δήμῳ) (IG II2 206). In this case, because the Assembly merely ratified the Council’s decision, the decree was credit to the will of both.
Anyone who introduced a measure in the Assembly that had not been approved by the Council was subject to prosecution for illegal procedure (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.5); the Council would try his case, but if he were found guilty before the Council, he could appeal his case back to the Assembly (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.2).
The relationship between the Council and the Assembly seems to have been a complicated one. Demosthenes, for example, mentions a probouleuma being passed by the Council “in the hopes that it might be ratified by a deluded Assembly” (ἵνα κυρώσειεν ὁ δῆμος ἐξαπατηθείς), which suggests that some Athenians, at least, thought the Assembly to be more easily fooled than the Council, although both were composed of a cross-section of citizens (Dem. 23.18). The rules governing probouleumata and psephismata also seem to have been somewhat ambiguous. One dispute over the interpretation of those rules focused on a law (νόμος) that allowed the Assembly to give an award to the Council, if the citizens thought that the Council had done a particularly good job; on this occasion, the Presiding Official (πρόεδρος) put a motion to the vote, and the Assembly approved it by a show of hands (χειροτονία). The dispute, between Demosthenes and Androtion, was over the legality of this vote. Androtion claimed that because there was already a law allowing the Assembly to make such a vote, no probouleuma was necessary; but Demosthenes argued that the existence of the law merely allowed a probouleuma to be passed, and any vote by the Assembly without a probouleuma was illegal (Dem. 22.5). We do not know, unfortunately, how this particular dispute was resolved.
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