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The History of the Council 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003

page 3 of 7

· The 5th Century BCE ·

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

Most of our evidence regarding the Council comes from the 4th century, the speeches by Attic orators (see Oratory) and Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians(Aristot. Ath. Pol.). But our sources give us a few interesting anecdotes that illustrate the Council in action, as well as some descriptions of the Council’s role in the crises that the Athenian democracy faced during its first 100 years.

Read about the evidence
Diodorus (Diod.).
 
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Sparta (in text as “Spartans”).
Athens.
Lacedaemon.

Diodorus Siculus gives an anecdote that shows the Council conducting foreign policy in the early 5th century. He says that after the Persian Wars, when the Athenians were planning to fortify their city, the Spartans urged them not to build walls (Diod. 11.39.4). “While the Athenians were at a loss what they should do, Themistocles, who enjoyed at that time the highest favour among them, advised them to take no action; for he warned them that if they had recourse to force, the Lacedaemonians [that is, the Spartans— CWB] could easily march up against them together with the Peloponnesians and prevent them from fortifying the city. But he told the Council in confidence that he and certain others would go as ambassadors to Lacedaemon to explain the matter of the wall to the Lacedaemonians; and he instructed the magistrates [the archons, τοῖς δὲ ἄρχουσι — CWB], when ambassadors should come from Lacedaemon to Athens, to detain them until he himself should return from Lacedaemon, and in the meantime to put the whole population to work fortifying the city. In this manner, he declared to them, they would achieve their purpose.” (Diod. 11.39.5).

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Piraeus.
Athens.

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:

Read about the evidence
Diodorus (Diod.).

“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.

Read about the evidence
Thucydides (Thuc.).
Plutarch (Plut. Nic.).
Plutarch (Plut. Alc.).
 
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Argos.

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).

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Antiphon (Antiph. 6).

From a speech by the orator Antiphon, we see the Council exercising a judicial function in the 5th century BCE. At Antiph. 6.35 the speaker says, “I was about to prosecute Aristion, Philinus, Ampelinus, and the secretary to the Thesmothetae [ θεσμοθέτης ) was the name given to six of the nine archons, with the other three being the ‘Archon’ ( ἄρχων ), the ‘King Archon’ ( βασιλεύς ), and the ‘Warlord’ ( πολέμαρχος (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 55.1)— CWB], with whose embezzlements they had been associated, on charges which I had presented to the Council in the form of an impeachment” ( κατηγορήσειν ἔμελλον Ἀριστίωνος καὶ Φιλίνου καὶ Ἀμπελίνου καὶ τοῦ ὑπογραμματέως τῶν θεσμοθετῶν, μεθ᾽ οὗπερ συνέκλεπτον, περὶ ὧν εἰσήγγειλα εἰς τὴν βουλήν ). Shortly thereafter, he mentions that while serving on the Council himself, he had brought charges ( εἰσαγγελίαι ) against several public officials—the Public Purchasing Agents ( πορισταί ), the Public Auctioneers ( πωληταί ), the Bailiffs ( πράκτορες ), and the clerks attached to them (Antiph. 6.49). On this occasion, he requested that the Council conduct an investigation and get to the bottom of the matter ( ὡς χρὴ ζητοῦντας ἐπεξελθεῖν τῷ πράγματι ) (Antiph. 6.49). These cases both involve alleged misdeeds of public officials, hence the intervention of the Council.

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