Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Foreign Policy.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003
page 23 of 24
Plot on a Map
The most momentous decisions of Athenian foreign policy, matters of war and peace, were ultimately in the hands of the Assembly. Nevertheless, the Council, the institution of government that was “open” day and night, all year ’round, played an important role in how Athens interacted with the rest of the world. The Council often represented the People of Athens in an official capacity, receiving ambassadors from foreign states, selecting Athenians to represent the city abroad, and taking advantage of its ability to discuss matters in confidence, apart from non-Athenian ears.
As we have already seen, the Assembly could not even debate a matter unless the Council had put it on the agenda by passing a probouleuma, or Preliminary Decree; this fact alone gave the Council a certain authority over matters of foreign policy. Aeschines notes this at Aeschin. 2.60-61, when he accuses Demosthenes of manipulating the Council in such a way that the Assembly was forced to discuss a matter of foreign policy before some Athenian ambassadors had returned from a mission.
The division of authority could go both ways, however. While the Assembly could not act without a Preliminary Decree from the Council, the Assembly could also empower the Council to take over business for which the Assembly itself was not well suited. An inscription bearing a decree of the Assembly on the matter of the Athenian navy demonstates this; the Assembly set the outfitting of the fleet in motion, but it was up to the Council to see the business through. The Athenian navy, of course, was the most active and palpable instrument of Athenian foreign policy:
“If anything is lacking from the present decree regarding the fleet,” the Decree of the Assembly says, “the Council is authorized to make new resolutions, as long as it does not undo any of the decrees of the People” (ἐὰν δέ τοῦ προσδέει τόδε τὸ ψήφισμα τῶν περὶ τὸν ἀπόστολον, τὴν βουλὴν κυρίαν εἶναι ψηφίζεσθαι μὴ λύουσαν μηθὲν τῶν ἐψηφισμένων τῶι δήμωι) (IG II2 1629.264-269).
We can see the Council acting as the institution that represents Athens officially in a decree, preserved on an inscription, having to do with a treaty between the Athenian people and Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily. Here, it seems that the Council, along with the Generals, Cavarly Commanders, and Commanders of Archers were to swear oaths committing Athens to a treaty of mutual military suppoer (ἡ συμμαχία): “It is decreed that the ambassadors who have come from Dionysius will carry the oath concerning the treaty of mutual military assistance, and it will be sworn by the Council, the Generals, the Cavalry Commanders, and the Commanders of Archers” (λαβεῖν δὲ τὸν ὅρκον τὸμ περὶ τῆς συμμαχίας τοὺς πρέσβεις τοὺς παρὰ Διονυσίου ἥκοντας, ὀμόσαι δὲ τήν τε βουλὴν καὶ τὸς στρατηγοὺς καὶ τοὺς ἱππάρχους καὶ τοὺς ταξιάρχος) (IG II2 105.32-34 = Tod 136).
We have already seen that the “Prytaneis” where the fifty Councilors who served, on a day-in and day-out basis, for one-tenth of the Athenian year. It was to these men that messengers from abroad and envoys from foreign states came first, bearing news to the Athenians. Demosthenes describes a dramatic moment when messengers from the north of Greece came to Athens bearing news that Philip of Macedon had captured Elatea; the messengers came directly to the Prytaneis of the Council: “Evening had already fallen when a messenger arrived bringing to the Prytaneis the news that Elatea had been taken. They were sitting at supper, but they instantly rose from table, cleared the booths in the marketplace of their occupants, and unfolded the hurdles, while others summoned the commanders and ordered the attendance of the trumpeter. The commotion spread through the whole city. At daybreak on the morrow the presidents summoned the Council to the Council House, and the citizens flocked to the place of assembly. Before the Council could introduce the business and prepare the agenda, the whole body of citizens had taken their places on the hill.” (Dem. 18.169). This passage shows clearly why it was appropriate for the Council to receive foreign visitors: any action in response to news from abroad, even if that action were the responsibility of the Assembly, would require the Council to, first, call an assembly, and second, put the matter at hand on the agenda of the Assembly by means of a Prelimary Decree.
Aeschines says that it was usual for the Council to allow foreign ambassadors to address the Assembly (Aeschin. 2.58). The Council could also award visitors certain benefits, such as a meal at public expense (Dem. 19.235), or special seats in the Theater (Aeschin. 2.55). But the Council could also treat ambassadors more curtly. Xenophon describes how, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans sent messengers to ask Athens for an alliance against the Spartans: “As for the Thebans, immediately after the battle they sent to Athens a garlanded messenger, and while telling of the greatness of their victory, they at the same time urged the Athenians to come to their aid, saying that now it was possible to take vengeance upon the Lacedaemonians for all the harm they had done to them. Now the Council of the Athenians chanced to be holding its meeting on the Acropolis. And when they heard what had taken place, it was made clear to everyone that they were greatly distressed; for they did not invite the herald to partake of hospitality and about the matter of aid they gave him no answer. So the herald departed from Athens without having received a reply.” (Xen. Hell. 6.4.20).
Athenian ambassadors, too, when returning from a mission abroad, came to report first to the Council, before going to the Assembly. Aeschines describes one such scene, when Demosthenes, serving as Councilor, moved that the Council award the ambassadors (including Aeschines himself) a crown and invite them to a meal at public expense: “On our return, then, after we had rendered to the Council a brief report of our mission and had delivered the letter from Philip, Demosthenes praised us to his colleagues in the Council, and he swore by Hestia, goddess of the Council, that he congratulated the city on having sent such men on the embassy, men who in honesty and eloquence were worthy of the state. In referring to me he said something like this: that I had not disappointed the hopes of those who elected me to the embassy. And to cap it all he moved that each of us be crowned with a garland of wild olive because of our loyalty to the People, and that we be invited to dine on the morrow in the Prytaneum.” (Aeschin. 2.45-46)
Plot on a Map
While the Assembly was responsible for selecting Athenians to serve as ambassadors to other states, it could delegate that authority to the Council. One decree, passed by both the Council and the People (IG II2 117; it begins “It seemed best to the Council and the People…,” ἔδοξεν τῆι βουλῆι καὶ τῶι δήμωι) contains the following provision: “[it is decreed] for the Council to select, at once, ten men as ambassadors, five from the Council and five from among the private citizens, who will receive the oaths from the people of Eretria” (ἑλέσθαι δὲ πρέσβες αὐτίκα μάλα τὴν βουλὴν δέκα ἄνδρας, πέντε μὲν ἐκ τῆς βουλῆς, πέντε δὲ ἐξ ἰδιωτῶν, οἵτινες ἀπολήψονται τοὺς ὅρκους παρὰ Ἐρετριέων) (IG II2 117.19-21).
Foreign policy often requires planning and acting in secret, and for this reason the Council was better suited than the Assembly for discussing sensitive issues. Unlike the Assembly, whose proceedings took place out of doors, for all to hear, the Council could meet privately. Demosthenes says, “The Council of the Five Hundred, thanks to this barrier [the wooden fence that prevented anyone from trespassing on the procedings — CWB], frail as it is, is master of its own secrets, and no private citizen can enter it” (τὸ τὴν βουλὴν τοὺς πεντακοσίους ἀπὸ τῆς [ἀσθενοῦς] τοιαυτησὶ κιγκλίδος τῶν ἀπορρήτων κυρίαν εἶναι, καὶ μὴ τοὺς ἰδιώτας ἐπεισιέναι) (Dem. 25.23).
Aeschines at one point accuses Demosthenes of taking advantage of the Council’s ability to exclude private citizens from its meetings: “Now when we had reported this decree to our Council, and then to the Assembly, and when the people had approved our acts, and the whole city was ready to choose the righteous course, and when Demosthenes had spoken in opposition—he was earning his retaining-fee from Amphissa—and when I had clearly convicted him in your presence, thereupon the fellow, unable to frustrate the city by open means, goes into the senate chamber, expels all listeners, and from the secret session brings out a bill to the Assembly, taking advantage of the inexperience of the man who made the motion” (Aeschin. 3.125-127).
Aeschines’ accusations aside, there were clearly times when the Council needed to act secretly, such as when the Athenians were laying plans to oppose Alexander the Great: “Ultimately they chose as supreme commander the Athenian Leosthenes, who was a man of unusually brilliant mind, and thoroughly opposed to the cause of Alexander. He conferred secretly with the Council at Athens and was granted fifty talents to pay the troops and a stock of weapons sufficient to meet pressing needs” (Diod. 17.111.3).
Plot on a Map
Between the Council and the Assembly, the Athenians had a system whereby the whole body of citizens had a say in how Athens interacted with the rest of the world, while still providing for around-the-clock responses to crises, formal and orderly reception of foreign dignitaries, and (most important) the ability to debate and decide matters secretly. Ironically, Athens’ attempt to oppose Macedonian power, which is the subject of the quotation from Diodorus above, let to the end of the city’s independance as a free democracy. Having happened upon the end of classical Athenian democracy, in this discussion of the Council, it is worthwhile to back up and look at how the institution developed from the earliest days until its most fully developed form in the
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