Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ The 5th Century BCE.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003
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Most of our evidence regarding the Council comes from the
Diodorus Siculus gives an anecdote that shows the Council conducting foreign policy in the
This function of the Council, as a body that was democratic, like the Assembly, but also able to keep secrets, because of its smaller size and indoor meetings, appears in another anecdote from Diodorus. Here, Themistocles has plans to fortify the Piraeus, the harbor of Athens. We can see from the passage that the Athenians were worried not only about their (potential) enemies, the Lacedaimonians (another name for the Spartans), but about Themistocles’ own intentions; was he aiming to become tyrant? The Athenians wanted to know what Themistocles was up to, but did not want the whole world to know what Themistocles was up to. Diodorus describes the solution:
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“Now as Themistocles pondered these matters, he decided that he should not make public announcement of his plan, knowing with certainty that the Lacedaemonians would endeavour to stop it; and so he announced to the citizens in Assembly that he wished both to advise upon and to introduce important matters which were also to the advantage of the city. But what these matters were, he added, it was not in the public interest to state openly, but it was fitting that a few men should be charged with putting them into effect; and he therefore asked the people to select two men in whom they had the greatest confidence and to entrust to them to pass upon the matter in question. The people acceded to his advice, and the Assembly chose two men, Aristeides and Xanthippus, selecting them not only because of their upright character, but also because they saw that these men were in active rivalry with Themistocles for glory and leadership and were therefore opposed to him. These men heard privately from Themistocles about his plan and then declared to the Assembly that what Themistocles had disclosed to them was of great importance, was to the advantage of the state, and was feasible. The people admired the man and at the same time harboured suspicions of him, lest it should be with the purpose of preparing some sort of tyranny for himself that he was embarking upon plans of such magnitude and importance, and they urged him to declare openly what he had decided upon. But he made the same reply, that it was not to the interests of the state that there should be a public disclosure of his intentions. Thereupon the people were far the more amazed at the man’s shrewdness and greatness of mind, and they urged him to disclose his ideas secretly to the Council, assuring him that, if that body decided that what he said was feasible and advantageous, then they would advise it to carry his plan to completion. Consequently, when the Council learned all the details and decided that what he said was for the advantage of the state and was feasible, the people, without more ado, agreed with the Council, and Themistocles received authority to do whatever he wished. And every man departed from the Assembly in admiration of the high character of the man, being also elated in spirit and expectant of the outcome of the plan” (Diod. 11.42.1-6).
In this instance, the Assembly took two courses of action, one after another. First, it went along with Themistocles’ suggestion by appointing two citizens to confer with him privately and to report their opinion back to the Assembly. But the Athenians still seem to have been uneasy with the idea of acting on the recommendation of only two men. Instead, they took advantage of the nature of the Council—it was fully democratic and included a number of citizens (500 in all, 50 sitting each month), but could also confer in private, away from potentially hostile ears.
Thucydides tells the story of how the Athenian Alcibiades manipulated the Athenians into forming an alliance with Argos by presenting certain information to the Council and different information to the Assembly (Thuc. 5.45; Plut. Nic. 10.4-6; Plut. Alc. 14.4-6).
From a speech by the orator Antiphon, we see the Council exercising a judicial function in the
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