Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Public Finance.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003
page 22 of 24
The Council was fully involved in almost every aspect of public finance under the Athenian democracy, from overseeing the collection of money, to managing its distribution where needed, to punishing those who failed to pay to the city what they owed or who misspent what they received from the city. Because the subject of public finance is so complicated, it deserves its own treatment as an aspect of Athenian Democracy, but in this discussion of the Council generally, it will be enough to suggest, through the primary sources, how the Council financed its own activities.
Plot on a Map
A writer in the
“I notice also that objections are raised against the Athenians because it is sometimes not possible for a person, though he sit about for a year, to negotiate with the Council or the Assembly. This happens at Athens for no other reason than that—owing to the quantity of business—they are not able to deal with all persons before sending them away. For how could they do this? First of all they have to hold more festivals than any other Greek city (and when these are going on it is even less possible for any of the city’s affairs to be transacted), next they have to preside over private and public trials and investigations into the conduct of magistrates to a degree beyond that of all other men, and the Council has to consider many issues involving war, revenues, law-making, local problems as they occur, also many issues on behalf of the allies, receipt of tribute, the care of dockyards and shrines. Is there accordingly any cause for surprise if with so much business they are unable to negotiate with all persons?” (Ps. Xen. Const. Ath. 3.1-2).
Read about the evidence
Pseudo-Xenophon (Ps. Xen. Const. Ath.).
Pseudo-Xenophon’s condensed list of the Council’s duties—“war, revenues, law-making, local problems as they occur, also many issues on behalf of the allies, receipt of tribute, the care of dockyards and shrines” (Ps. Xen. Const. Ath. 3.2)—can suggest how and why the Council was, inevitably, deeply involved in matters of public finance, both the acquiring and the spending of public money.
Under normal circumstances, the Council had its own money, a share of the public money, that was apportioned for the Council’s use by the Treasurers (
Another example is this decree, preserved on an inscription, in which the Council has voted to honor a certain Eudodoxos with a gold crown, costing 500 drachmas. The inscription specifies that, “the Treasurers will give the silver [for the crown] from the money apportioned, according to the decrees, for the Council” (
Read about the evidence
Lysias (Lys. 30).
Funds were not always sufficient, and this could lead to trouble. The orator Lysias says, in one of his speeches, that “the Council, whenever it deliberates, as long as it has enough money for its administration, never goes wrong; but whenever it gets into financial difficulties, it is forced to accept impeachments, to confiscate the property of citizens, and to be persuaded by the arguments of the worst sort of orator” (
Since the Council had so much power and handled so much money, the Athenians were careful to ensure that it dealt honestly and openly. Aristotle describes the elaborate system of public accounting and accountability that accompanied the Council’s job of receiving and distributing funds.
For example, when an Athenian citizen held a lease on some public land, he made his payments to the Council once a year, in the ninth prytany (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 47.4). The actual money was not collected by the Councilors, however, but by the ten “Sellers” (
After the funds were apportioned, the Council appointed two groups of auditors to ensure that no one misused funds. One group was the ten Auditors (
So while the Council was at the center of the business of receiving and disbursing public money, the process was carefully designed to prevent corruption. The Councilors did not actually receive the money, nor did they actually keep the accounts, nor did they actually draw up the budget. They witnessed that process, approved the budget, and selected auditors. Even in the selection of auditors, the Council’s power was limited. Selection was by random lot, and in addition to the auditors chosen from among the members of the Council, there was an additional body of Examiners who were not Councilors. If this latter group found evidence of corruption, they did not report to the Council but to the Archons and the jury-courts.
Even though there were 500 Councilors each year, the Athenians treated this institution carefully. It was not as democratic as the Assembly or the Lawcourts, and while it was a necessary part of the government of the city, the Athenians were careful to keep its business open to scruty and its power in check.
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