Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003
page 19 of 24
According to Aristotle, in the early history of the Athenian Democracy, the Council had the power to impose fines, imprison people, and even order them executed; but, Aristotle goes on to say, after the Council had condemned a certain Lysimachus to death, the Athenians saved his life, and the Assembly decreed that only a law-court would have the power to execute (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.1). While in the
A law survives from the beginning of the
Nevertheless, the Council did play an important role in maintaining the health of the democracy, apart from its management of the agendas for meetings of the Assembly. Its job was to watch over the more important public officials of Athens, to ensure that they were fit for their office and that they conducted their duties properly (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.2).
The main process by which the Council watched over the officials of the Athenian democracy was “Scrutiny”, or δοκιμασία (see Aristot. Ath. Pol. 59.4 for use of the noun). Aristotle describes the Scrutiny of the Nine Archons (the six “Lawgivers”, or θεσμοθέται, plus “The Archon”, or ἄρχων, the “King Archon”, or ἄρχον βασιλεύς, and the “Warlord”, or πολέμαρχος), who were the most important officials of the democracy (Arstot. Ath. Pol. 55.1-4):
“As to the officials designated the Nine Archons, the mode of their appointment that was originally in force has been stated before; but now the six Lawgivers and their clerk are elected by lot, and also the Archon, King Archon and Warlord, from each tribe in turn. The qualifications of these are first checked in the Council of Five Hundred, except the Clerk, but he is checked only in a Jury-court, as are the other officials (for all of them, both those elected by lot and those elected by show of hands, have their qualifications checked before they hold office), while the Nine Archons are checked in the Council and also again in a Jury-court. Formerly any official not passed by the Council did not hold office, but now there is an appeal to the Jury-court, and with this rests the final decision as to qualification. The questions put in examining qualifications are, first, ‘Who is your father and to what deme does he belong, and who is your father’s father, and who is your mother, and who is her father and what is his deme?’ Then whether he has a Family Apollo and Homestead Zeus, and where these shrines are; then whether he has family tombs and where they are; then whether he treats his parents well, and whether he pays his taxes, and whether he has done his military service. And after putting these questions the officer says, Call your witnesses to these statements. And when he has produced his witnesses, the officer further asks, ‘Does anybody wish to bring a charge against this man?’ And if any accuser is forthcoming, he is given a hearing and the man on trial an opportunity of defence, and then the official puts the question to a show of hands in the Council or to a vote by ballot in the Jury-court; but if nobody wishes to bring a charge against him, he puts the vote at once; formerly one person used to throw in his ballot-pebble, but now all are compelled to vote one way or the other about them, in order that if anyone being a rascal has got rid of his accusers, it may rest with the jurymen to disqualify him.” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 55.1-4)
This passage shows the role of the Council, and the limits of its authority. The Council conducted the Scrutiny of potential officials, but could not, by itself, deny them their office. If the Council disapproves a candidate, he had recourse to an appeal before a jury. This sentence needs some explanation: “Formerly one person used to throw in his ballot-pebble, but now all are compelled to vote one way or the other about them, in order that if anyone being a rascal has got rid of his accusers, it may rest with the jurymen to disqualify him” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 55.4). Evidently, at one time, if a candidate came up for approval, and no one spoke out against him, the Council (or jury, as the case may have been), conducted a symbolic vote, a mere formality, with one person only placing one vote in favor. Later, according to Aristotle, this was changed to require a serious vote, with all members participating; this would ensure that people could vote against a candidate secretly, in case they were afraid to speak out openly.
Perhaps more important even than the Scrutiny of officials was the Council’s Scrutiny of Young Men, the δοκιμασία τῶν ἐφήβων. Young men could become citizens when they turned eighteen, if they were the legitimate sons of two Athenian citizens (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1). Young men would be inspected in their villages, initially, and added to the roles as new citizens if their fellow demesmen found that they met the requirements, but the final inspection of citizen-roles was the business of the Council, which conducted a Scrutiny of them to make sure that each was actually eighteen years old (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.2). If the Councilors found that any candidates for citizenship were too young, they would fine the members of the candidate’s deme who put him on the list (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.2). After this Scrutiny, all these new candidates were sent off for two years of military training at the hands of selected instructors (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.3-4).
Similiarly, the Concil conducted a “Scrutiny of the Horses”, a δοκιμασία τῶν ἵππων (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 49.1). Athenians who were to serve as cavalry in wartime were listed on a roll (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 49.1), and the state paid them a salary and pay for their horses’ feed. If the Councilors found that a horse was not in good condition, or that it was improperly trained, they could fine its owner to recover the cost of its feed and deny him his cavalry pay (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 49.1-2).
The Council also conducted a “Scrutiny of the Helpless”, a δοκιμασία τῶν ἀδυνάτων (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 49.4): “The Council also inspects the Helpless; for there is a law enacting that persons possessing less than 3 minae and incapacitated by bodily infirmity from doing any work are to be inspected by the Council, which is to give them a grant for food at the public expense at the rate of 2 obols a day each.” This function of the Council is well-attested. The orator Lysias wrote a speech for a man defending his right to receive the pension due to the Helpless; the speech begins with an address, not to a jury (as so many speeches begin), but “O Council” (ὦ βουλή) (Lys. 24.1).
The Council’s role in this “Scrutiny of the Helpless” helps the orator Aeschines make an ironic point in his speech against Timarchus (Aeschin. 1). Among Timarchus’ many personal failings (the orator claims), he abandoned his own uncle to poverty. According to Aeschines, Arignotus was Aeschines’ uncle, an old blind man. Arignotus had always received financial support from his brother, Timarchus’ father, a wealthy man. But after the father died, and Timarchus came to control the estate, “he thrust aside this old and unfortunate man, his own uncle, and made way with the estate. He gave nothing to Arignotus for his support, but was content to see him, fallen from such wealth, now receiving the alms that the city gives to disabled paupers. Finally, and most shameful of all, when the old man’s name had been omitted at a revision of the list of pauper-pensioners, and he had laid a petition before the Council to have his dole restored, the defendant, who was a member of the Council, and one of the presiding officers that day (βουλευτὴς ὢν καὶ προεδρεύων), did not deign to speak for him, but let him lose his monthly pension” (Aeschin. 1.103-104).
Aeschines’ accusation against Timarchus certainly seems damning: Not only did Timarchus fail to perform his duty as the nephew to an old and infirm man, but he failed to perform his duty as a member of the Council by ensuring that one of the “Helpless” citizens, the ἀδυνάτοι, received support from the State.
This orator’s case against Timarchus shows us another area of the Council’s jurisdiction. The Council could discipline its own members and expel them if they failed to act properly. According to Aeschines, Timarchus was accused of corruption during his year as a Councilor. “After this, when the Council had gone into the Council House, they expelled him with the test-vote, but they excused him with the real vote. And it pains me to tell you, though I must say it [Aeschines tells his audience — CWB], that because the Council did not hand him over to the law-court, nor did they expel him from the Council House, you did not give them their end-of-year bonus (δωρεᾶς)” (Aeschin. 1.110-112).
So here, the Council deliberated expelling a member, but failed to do so, and if Aeschines can be believed, that failure cost them their bonus from the Assembly. This passage offers one other interesting insight into the working of the Council. Aeschines says that the council, first, ἐξεφυλλοφόρησε μὲν αὐτόν, “voted him out with leaves,” but later, ἐν δὲ τῇ ψήφῳ κατεδέξατο, “excused him during the pebble-vote” (Aeschin. 1.112). So, it seems, that the Councilors would take test votes using leaves for ballots, but would use pebbles for the official vote. (Demosthenes also mentions the Council voting with pebbles, that is, a secret ballot, rather than by show of hands when it was acting like a jury: Dem. 47.42). Note, too, that Aeschines’ account suggests that Timarchus would have had to go before a jury, if the Council had convicted him.
In addition to conducting Scrutiny of officials as they enter office, and of future citizens as they reach their eighteenth year, the Council could hear accusations that someone should be removed from office, or have his citizenship revoked. In a speech written by Lysias, the defendant has been accused of holding citizenship under false pretenses. He addresses himself to “Gentlemen of the Council,” ὦ ἄνδρες βουλευταί, and notes that he has already “been found, on Scrutiny, to be of legal age” (ἁνὴρ εἶναι ἐδοκιμάσθην) (Lys. 26.21). Extra Scrutinies, beyond the regular ones, could be initiated at any time, either by a member of the Council calling for an investigation of an official (Antiph. 6.49-50), or by any Athenian citizen denouncing someone by means of an “accusation to the Council” (εἰσαγγελία εἰς τὴν βουλήν) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.2; Dem. 24.63; Dem. 47.42-44). When someone brought such a charge to the Council, it would act like a jury-court, hearing arguments on both sides and voting with secret ballots (Dem. 47.42-44). In such cases, the Council’s decision was merely a preliminary verdict (κατάγνωσις), and the accused person could appeal to a law-court (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.2).
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