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The History of the Council 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003

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· The 6th Century BCE ·

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Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Plutarch (Plut. Sol.).
 
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Athens.

Even before the Athenians established a democracy, the Council played a central role in the government of Athens. Solon, the Athenian legal reformer of the 6th century BCE (source for date: OCD3), established a Council of 400 citizens, 100 from each of the four traditional tribes ( βουλὴν δ᾽ ἐποίησε τετρακοσίους, ἑκατὸν ἐξ ἑκάστης φυλῆς ), and gave the Areopagus authority as “guardian of the laws” ( ἔταξεν ἐπὶ τὸ νομοφυλακεῖν ) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.4). According to Plutarch, Solon’s Council existed as a check on the power of the people; the 400 Councillors were “to deliberate before the People, and nothing was to be brought before the Assembly without an initial resolution of the Council” ( οὓς προβουλεύειν ἔταξε τοῦ δήμου καὶ μηδὲν ἐᾶν ἀπροβούλευτον εἰς ἐκκλησίαν εἰσφέρεσθαι ) (Plut. Sol. 19.1). Plutarch goes on describe the Council of the Areopagus and this Council of 400 as “just like anchors” ( ὥσπερ ἀγκύραις ), intended to keep the people of Athens quiet (Plut. Sol. 19.2).

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Diogenes Laertius.
 
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Athens.

Ironically, the only source that describes this early Council actually acting, describes how the Council allowed Pisistratus to become tyrant of Athens in the middle of the 6th century BCE (source for date: OCD3). Diogenes Laertius describes how, when Pisistratus was winning favor among the People in his efforts to become tyrant, Solon came before the Assembly wearing a shield and carring a sword, and urged the People to oppose Pisistratus. “But the Council,” Diogenes reports, “being of the party of Pisistratus, said that he was insane” ( καὶ βουλή, Πεισιστρατίδαι ὄντες, μαίνεσθαι ἔλεγον αὐτόν ) (Diog. Laert. 1.49).

The passage from Diogenes Laertius is confusing, however, since Solon appears before the Assembly ( εἰς τὴν ἐκκλησίαν ), while it is the Council ( βουλή ) that accuses him of insanity. This confusion, and the general lack of evidence regarding a pre-democratic Council, do raise questions about the existence of this body before the 5th century.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

On the other hand, in the oligarchic coup of 411 BCE, when the democracy was temporarily overthrown, the first act of the oligarchic revolutionaries was to “set up a Council of 400, according to the ways of the ancestors” ( βουλεύειν μὲν τετρακοσίους κατὰ τὰ πάτρια ) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 31.1; source for date: OCD3). The claim that a Council of 400 was traditional certainly sounds like propaganda, but it might be further evidence that a smaller Council existed before the democracy.

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