Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Introduction to Probouleumata.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003
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More important than any other function of the Council was its role in preparing the agenda for meetings of the Assembly, where all Athenian citizens gathered to discuss and vote on decrees.
Plutarch describes the historical foundations of this role, which he says dates back to the time of Solon, who established a body of laws for Athens in the
So Solon’s Council was intended to reduce the “uneasiness” and “boldness” of the Athenian people, by introducing an institution that mediated between the People and the decrees they might chose to pass. This was the role that the Council of the 500 played in the democracy as well.
Aristotle says that the Council originally had sovereign power over many aspects of the democracy (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.1-3), but after the Council condemned a man named Lysimachus to death, without the benefit of a trial by jury, the Athenian people rescued the man and limited most of the powers of the Council. “In these matters therefore the Council is not sovereign, but it prepares resolutions for the People, and the People cannot pass any measures that have not been prepared by the Council and published in writing in advance by the Presidents; for the proposer who carries such a measure is automatically liable to penalty by indictment for Illegal Proposal” (
The Council would vote on “preliminary decrees” (
“You were at that time on the point of sending your entire force to Euboea and Olynthus, and Apollodorus, being one of its members, brought forward in the Council a motion, and carried it as a preliminary decree (
In this case, an existing law required that any surplus funds in the treasury of Athens should be used for military purposes. But despite this law, Apollodorus wanted the Assembly to discuss how to spend the funds. So Apollodorus brought the matter to the Council, which voted to create a preliminary decree. The council approved the preliminary decree. This preliminary decree allowed the Assembly to discuss how to spend the money. Demosthenes goes on to say that the Assembly voted, unanimously, to spend the money on the military (Dem. 59.5).
So, after this lengthy procedure, the Athenian democracy did with its money precisely what an existing law required. But the mechanism of the Council, its probouleuma (
On this one inscription we see the whole legislative process. In the first prytany of the year, Antidotos, a councillor, made a motion before the Council regarding this request by the Citians. One of the Proedroi in charge of running the meeting of the Council put the matter to a vote. The Council voted to send the matter along to the Assembly without making any recommendation to the Assembly for or against the Citians’ patron goddess, where natives of Cyprus could worship while they were visiting or living in Athens (IG II2 337; source for date, M.N. Tod, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions, vol. 2 [Oxford, 1948] 250).
It is important to note that the text and translation given here omit any indication of how the inscription actually looked, and the extent to which modern editors have filled in missing sections; what appears here is considerably cleaned up. It can serve to illustrate the workings of the Council, but should not be taken as indicative of the proper way to present and read an inscription.
Here is the inscription, IG II2 337:
“Gods. When Nikokratos was archon, in the first prytany (that of the tribe Aegeis): Theophilos from the deme Phegous, one of the Proedroi, put this matter to the vote: The Council decided (after Antidotos, son of Apollodoros, from the deme Sypalettos made the motion): Concerning the things that the Citians say about the foundation of the temple to Aphrodite, it has been voted by the Council that the Proedroi, the ones to be chosen by lot to serve as Proedroi at the first Assembly, should introduce the Citians and allow them to have an audience, and to share with the People the opinion of the Council, that the People, having heard from the Citians concerning the foundation of the temple, and from any other Athenian who wants to speak, decide to do whatever seems best. When Nikokrates was archon, in the second Prytany (that of the tribe Pandionis): Phanostratos from the deme Philaidai, one of the Proedroi, put this matter to the vote: The People decided (after Lycurgus, son of Lycophron, of the deme Boutadai made the motion): Concerning the things for which the Citian merchants resolved to petition, lawfully, asking the People for the use of a plot of land on which they might build a temple of Aphrodite, it has seemed best to the People to give to the merchants of the Citians the use of a plot of land on which they might build a temple of Aphrodite, just as also the Egyptians built the temple of Isis.”
On this one inscription we see the whole legislative process. In the first prytany of the year, Antidotos, a councillor, made a motion before the Council regarding this request by the Citians. One of the Proedroi in charge of running the meeting of the Council put the matter to a vote. The Council voted to send the matter along to the Assembly without making any recommendation to the Assembly for or against the Citians’ request. Then, in the second Prytany, Lykourgos, made a motion in the Assembly. The motion was in favor of the Citians’ request, and it was put to the vote by Phanostratos, a Councilor serving as one of the Proedroi who were in charge of running the meeting of the Assembly. The People voted on the matter, and the Citians were allowed to build their temple, just as (evidently) some Egyptians had been allowed to build a temple to Isis.
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