Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication

[ link colors: Demos | External Source | Citation to Evidence| Word Tools ]

Demos Home

Summary.

Introduction.

The Demos.

Athenian Democracy: an Overview.

→ Athenian Democracy: the Assembly.

Athenian Democracy: the Council.

Athenian Democracy: Legislation.

Athenian Democracy: the Council of the Areopagus.

Athenian Democracy: the People’s Court.

The End of Athenian Democracy.

Index of Citations

General Index

Demos Home

Athenian Democracy: a brief overview 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of February 28, 2003

page 5 of 10

· Athenian Democracy: the Assembly ·

The Assembly (Ekklesia, ἐκκλησία ) was the regular gathering of male Athenian citizens (women also enjoyed a certain citizen status, but without political rights) to listen to, discuss, and vote on decrees that affected every aspect of Athenian life, both public and private, from financial matters to religious ones, from public festivals to war, from treaties with foreign powers to regulations governing ferry boats.

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Cim.).
Plutarch (Plut. Per.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
 
Plot on a Map
Sparta.
Athens.

The Assembly was the regular opportunity for all male citizens of Athens to speak their minds and exercise their votes regarding the government of their city. It was the most central and most definitive institution of the Athenian Democracy. Before 462 BCE, the Court of the Areopagus controlled legislation in Athens, but in that year Ephialtes instituted a reform that diminished the power of the Areopagus and increased the power of the Assembly of the people (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 25.2; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 27.1; Plut. Cim. 15.2; Plut. Per. 9.5). This Assembly became synonymous with democracy. When Aristotle describes how democratic government was restored, after Sparta defeated Athens in 404 BCE, he says that this restoration happened when the People (Demos, Δῆμος ) became sovereign over affairs (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 41.1). Under this government, he says, the People administers all business by decrees and by law-courts (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 41.2). When Aristotle mentions the People and government by decrees, he is describing the Assembly.

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).
Demosthenes (Dem. 18).
Demosthenes (Dem. 44).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
 
Plot on a Map
Athens.

In the Assembly each male citizen of Athens could speak, regardless of his station. The orator Aeschines says that “the herald, acting as a sergeant-at-arms, does not exclude from the platform the man whose ancestors have not held a general’s office, nor even the man who earns his daily bread by working at a trade; nay, these men he most heartily welcomes, and for this reason he repeats again and again the invitation, ‘Who wishes to address the Assembly?’” (Aeschin. 1.27) The orator Demosthenes could scold his fellow Athenians for failing to recollect certain events, because they “were present at every Assembly, as the state proposed a discussion of policy in which every one might join” (Dem. 18.273). “Everyone,” in this context, refers to the body of citizens who were registered on the Assembly List for their local Deme (Dem. 44.35). Under the Democracy of Aristotle’s time (after 330 BCE), young men were enrolled on this list when they were 18 years old (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1), then spent two years as military cadets, or ephebes, ἔφηβοι (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.4), after which they were members of the citizen body (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.5).

Read about the evidence
Plato (Plat. Prot.).
 
Plot on a Map
Athens.

Of course, some people might be better qualified than others to speak on certain subjects, and the citizens of Athens could be very critical when anyone tried to speak outside of his expertise. The character Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras says that “when the Athenian Assembly is discussing construction, the citizens call for builders to speak, and when it is discussing the construction of ships they call for shipwrights, but if anyone else, whom the people do not regard as a craftsman, attempts to advise them, no matter how handsome and wealthy and well-born he may be, not one of these things induces them to accept him; they merely laugh him to scorn and shout him down, until either the speaker retires from his attempt, overborne by the clamor, or the Archers pull him from his place or turn him out altogether by order of the presiding officials” (Plat. Prot. 319b - Plat. Prot. 319c). But, Socrates continues, when the discussion is not about technical matters but about the governing of the city, the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none (Plat. Prot. 319d).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 18).
Thucydides (Thuc.).
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).
Apollodorus (Dem. 59).
 
Plot on a Map
Attica.
Athens.

There is the question of participation by Athenians living in the countryside of Attica, outside the city of Athens. While these people were certainly citizens of Athens, it may often have been difficult for them to attend a meeting of the Assembly. This would have been especially true when emergency meetings were called on short notice, such as the occasion when news of a military disaster came to the city in the evening, and a special Assembly convened the very next morning (Dem. 18.169). This Assembly, and any others like it, must have consisted mainly of citizens living close to the city. And even when there was more warning before a meeting, we have to wonder how many Athenians living in the countryside of Attica would have made a 50 or 60 mile journey to downtown Athens and back. In the 5th century we can estimate the adult male population of Athens, and thus the number of men eligible to participate in an Assembly, to have been 40,000 - 60,000, and in the 4th century, 20,000 - 30,000. But the number of Athenians in attendance at a given meeting seems to have been considerably lower. Thucydides makes the statement that during the Peloponnesian War (331 - 404 BCE) there were usually only 5000 people at a meeting (Thuc. 8.72), although he may be exaggerating downwards; a better measure of regular attendance might be the fact that 6000 citizens were required for a valid vote conferring citizenship on a non-Athenian (the earliest evidence for this rule dates from 369 BCE) (IG II2 103; Dem. 24.45; Dem. 59.89).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 15).
Demosthenes (Dem. 19).
Demosthenes (Dem. 18).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).
Aristophanes (Aristoph. Ach.).
Demosthenes (Dem. 9).
 
Plot on a Map
Salamis.
Athens.

When the Assembly met, the male citizens assembled to discuss the affairs of the city, and this discussion required that each citizen have freedom to speak his mind. This freedom was vital to the proper functioning of the Assembly, whether the issue at stake was some important public policy (Dem. 15.1), or the rights of a single citizen (Dem. 18.3). In an anecdote from the distant past, Demosthenes suggests that freedom of speech had a long history at Athens, and persisted despite periodic attempts to limit it. He recounts how in the 6th century BCE the island of Salamis had revolted from Athenian control, and the Athenians had forbidden anyone even to propose a war to recover the island; but Solon, a real person whose place in Athenian history became subject of legend, composed a poem on the subject (poetry on the subject was evidently not forbidden), and through this ruse got around the law and convinced Athens to fight for Salamis (Dem. 19.252). By the 4th century BCE, discussions of motions in the Assembly were opened with a general invitation to all the male citizens, as the Herald asked, “Who wishes to speak?” (Dem. 18.191; Aeschin. 1.26; Aristoph. Ach. 46). We might note, here, that Demosthenes claims a certain freedom of speech to have extended even to resident foreigners and slaves (Dem. 9.3), although he is certainly not talking about participation in the Assembly, and we should wonder how much freedom these people actually enjoyed.

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 3).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 2).
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).
Demosthenes (Dem. 19).
Demosthenes (Dem. 13).

This freedom to speak was not absolute or without regulation. Aeschines tells us, for example, that in the early democracy (before the 5th century) citizens over 50 years of age could speak first, and only after those had their say could younger men speak (Aeschin. 1.23; Aeschin. 3.2). Other formal restrictions could apply, such as decrees limiting discussion of certain topics to certain meetings of the Assembly (Aeschin. 2.109), or even laws forbidding discussion of issues already settled in a court (Dem. 24.54). Other, less legitimate (but perhaps more effective) limits could be imposed: the crowd might raise a clamor and refuse to listen to a speaker advocate an unpopular proposal (Dem. 19.111), and this seems to have happened often enough that orators regularly asked, beforehand, not to be shouted down (Dem. 13.14).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).
Demosthenes (Dem. 18).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).

Individual citizens could lose the right to participate in the Assembly by committing various offenses (Aeschin. 1.23). Demosthenes mentions legal penalties for people who attend a meeting of the Assembly while owing a debt to the public treasury (Dem. 24.123), or who have been stricken, for some reason or another, from their deme’s register of citizens (Dem. 18.132). Also prohibited from participating were: anyone convicted of prostituting himself (Aeschin. 1.72; Aeschin. 1.21; and Aeschin. 1.32, where the orator adds, “however well he speaks”), anyone who beat his father or mother, or failed to support them, or who threw away his shield in battle, or who squandered his inheritance (Aeschin. 1.28 - Aeschin. 1.30). Any citizen who suspected another of being unqualified to participate in the Assembly could challenge him to dokimasia, or “scrutiny” ( δοκιμασία ), whereupon the issue would be decided by a jury in a law-court (Aeschin. 1.32).

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).

Citizens were paid for attending the Assembly, to ensure that even the poor could afford to take time from their work to participate in their own government. Aristotle recognized that inclusion of all citizens and freedom to speak are not the only hallmarks of a democratic constitution, but that the most democratic states pay their citizens for attending the Assembly. He claims that in the absence of payment, the Council (Boule, Βουλή ) is the most democratic of magistracies (Aristot. Pol. 1317b), but in states that can afford to, and do, pay their citizens for attending meetings of the Assembly, all the citizens actually take part in it and exercise their citizenship, because even the poor are enabled to be at leisure by receiving pay (Aristot. Pol. 1293a). A historical anecdote recorded in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians (Aristot. Ath. Pol.) further supports this assertion: In 411, when a group of Athenians temporarily overthrew the democracy and established an oligarchy, one of their first acts was to pass a law that no one should receive pay for political activity (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 29.5; and Aristot. Ath. Pol. 33.1, referring to the subsequent regime of 411 and 410). In the 4th century, when Timocrates had proposed that the Athenians loosen enforcement of penalties against those who owe debts to the state, Demosthenes claimed that there would be no money left in the treasury to pay for attendance at the Assembly, and he went on to equate that outcome with an end to Democracy (Dem. 24.99).

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

The traditional meeting-place for the Assembly was the open space on top of the hill of the Pnyx (Thuc. 8.97). The Pnyx was open to the sky, and thus meetings of the Assembly must have been influenced by the weather; the laws that mandated good weather omens before the election of military officers (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.4) might have been as interested in ensuring a comfortable day for discussion as in ascertaining divine favor.

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

In the 4th century, there were 40 regularly scheduled meetings of the Assembly each year, four in each “prytany” (a “prytany” was an administrative unit equal to one tenth of the year) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.3).

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

One of the four meetings in each prytany was the Sovereign Assembly (kuria ekklesia, κυρία ἐκκλησία ), the agenda for which included the confirmation of magistrates currently serving, issues of the food supply and defense, announcements of private property to be confiscated, and announcements of lawsuits regarding inheritance (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.4).

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

In each prytany, there were three regular assemblies in addition to the Sovereign Assembly; these were simply called Assemblies (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.3). It seems likely that in the 5th century only the Sovereign Assemblies were regularly scheduled, because Thucydides mentions a period of 40 days in the year 431 in which there was no Assembly (Thuc. 2.22.1); if there were four scheduled assemblies in each prytany at that time, 40 days could not have passed without a meeting.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).

Apart from the Sovereign Assembly, one of the remaining three was an occasion for any citizen who wished to present a suppliant-branch and address his fellow citizens about any public or private matter that concerned him (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.6). The ability of citizens to voice complaints in this public forum may have deterred certain bad behavior, or at least made the perpetrators think twice. Aeschines recounts how on one occasion some men assaulted a man named Pittalacus. On the next day when Pittalacus was in the marketplace, his attackers came up to him and tried to assuage him; they were afraid that their crime would be published to the whole city, since there was to be an Assembly that day (Aeschin. 1.60).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

The other two regularly scheduled meetings in each prytany were concerned, according to Aristotle, with other things (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.6). Some of this other business was scheduled to happen at particular assemblies during the year. At an Assembly held on the 11th day of the first prytany, the people voted on whether or not to hold an review of all the laws (Dem. 24.21). In the 6th prytany, there was discussion of whether or not to hold an ostracism, discussion of any information against people charged with being informers—in this category, no more than three citizens and three resident foreigners—and discussion of people accused of failing to perform some assigned public service (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.5). A meeting during the 6th prytany was also the occasion for election of military officers (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.4).

Read about the evidence
Apollodorus (Dem. 49).

At least until the middle of the 4th century the Assembly occasionally met to conduct a trial, most often an impeachment (Dem. 49.10).

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 3).
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).

Assemblies do not seem to have taken place on fixed days during each prytany, but they did not happen on days when the law-courts were in session (Dem. 24.80). They seem also to have been scheduled around other important events, such as religious festivals. Aeschines is highly critical of an Assembly that was called on the 8th day of the month Elaphobolion, a day of sacrifices to Asclepius (the orator says that this was unprecedented in memory) (Aeschin. 3.67), and Demosthenes criticizes a motion to have the Assembly meet on the 12th of the month Hecatombaion, a festival day for Cronus (Dem. 24.26).

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 2).
 
Plot on a Map
Athens.
Macedon.
Amphipolis.

In addition to Sovereign Assemblies (kuriai ekklesiai) and Assemblies (ekklesiai), there were Called-together Assemblies (sunkletoi ekklesiai, σύγκλητοι ἐκκλησίαι ); the term appears only in literary evidence (not in inscriptions) during the 4th century, and its meaning is not entirely clear. Sometimes our sources seem to use it to refer to extra meetings, in addition to the normal four that happened in each prytany. Aeschines mentions a time when Athens was in such a panic over Philip of Macedon’s war against Amphipolis, that there were more Called-together Assemblies than scheduled Assemblies (Aeschin. 2.72). But at other times the term seems to indicate an Assembly called at short notice, but not necessarily an extra Assembly.

Officials of the Council called together a meeting of the Assembly, which opened with various religious rituals before the citizens were invited to speak and vote on matters of public business.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Apollodorus (Dem. 59).

The 50 members of the Council serving as Prytaneis—the same word, prytaneis ( πρυτάνεις ) refers to the governmental months, ten each year, and to the members of the Council who were presiding during a given prytany—normally called meetings of the Assembly (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.3), and posted the agenda beforehand (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.4). If the Assembly was to vote on some matter by ballot, the Prytaneis distribute the ballots (Dem. 59.90).

Read about the evidence
Xenophon (Xen. Hell.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 2).

In the 5th century, the Prytaneis actually managed the conduct of a meeting of the Assembly (Xen. Hell. 1.7.14), but in Aristotle’s time (after the middle of the 4th century), the President of the Council appointed nine Proedroi for each Assembly; these were chosen from members of the Council who were not currently serving as Prytaneis (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.2). These Proedroi managed the conduct of the Assembly; deciding when to put a question to the vote (Aeschin. 2.84; Aeschin. 2.68), and deciding when to cut off discussion of a matter (Aeschin. 2.67).

Read about the evidence
Xenophon (Xen. Hell.).

The People did, on occasion, override the will of the officials conducting the meetings, as when, in the late 5th century, the Prytaneis were unwilling to allow a vote, the People overrode them with menacing shouts (Xen. Hell. 1.7.14).

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 3).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 2).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Demosthenes (Dem. 19).

The selection or appointment of Proedroi was potentially subject to corruption, which Aeschines hints at on two occasions (Aeschin. 3.73; Aeschin. 2.90). In addition to these Proedroi, the Assembly elected a clerk (grammateus, γραμματεύς ) to read documents aloud (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 54.5); the orator Aeschines served as a clerk early in his career, although we do not know whether he was the clerk appointed to read in the Assembly (Dem. 19.79).

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 2).
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).
Demosthenes (Dem. 19).
Demosthenes (Dem. 23).
Aristophanes (Aristoph. Thes.).
Demosthenes (Dem. 18).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).
Aristophanes (Aristoph. Ach.).
Aristophanes (Aristoph. Eccl.).

The opening of a meeting of the Assembly was marked by rituals. A sacrifice was made and carried around the area, and there was a prayer, both of these intended to purify the proceedings (Aeschin. 1.23; Aeschin. 2.158; a parody of this prayer is found at Aristoph. Thes. 314). The heralds offered the prayer (Aeschin. 1.23; Dem. 24.20). The herald also called down curses (kataratai, καταρᾶται ) on anyone who would mislead the Assembly (Dem. 19.70; Dem. 23.97; there is a parody of this at Aristoph. Thes. 335). After these rituals, the Herald asked “Who wishes to speak?,” and the Assembly was opened (Dem. 18.191; Aeschin. 1.26; Aristoph. Ach. 46; cf. a possible parody of this at Aristoph. Eccl. 130).

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).
Xenophon (Xen. Hell.).
Apollodorus (Dem. 59).

Most voting in the Assembly was by a show of hands (cheirotonia, χειροτονία ), although some votes were conducted by secret ballot (psephos, ψῆφος , literally “pebble”). Even the most serious of matters were often decided by show of hands, such as the impeachment and condemnation of generals (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 34.1) and the approval of formal laws (nomoi, νόμοι ) (Dem. 24.20) (laws were more significant than decrees; see below). This method of voting limited the business of the Assembly to daylight hours, as this anecdote from Xenophon shows: “It was decided, however, that the matter should be postponed to another meeting of the Assembly (for by that time it was late in the day and they could not have distinguished the hands in the voting).” (Xen. Hell. 1.7.7). Under certain circumstances, the Assembly would vote by ballot (psephos) (Xen. Hell. 1.7.9). Voting by ballot was limited to issues which had to be decided by a quorum of 6000 citizens (Dem. 59.89 - Dem. 59.90).

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 2).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 3).

Once the Assembly had approved something, the decree, its date, and the names of the officials who put the matter to the vote, were recorded and preserved as a public record of the proceedings of government (Aeschin. 2.89; Aeschin. 2.58; Aeschin. 3.75).

[ back to top ]

page 5 of 10