Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Athenian Democracy: the Council.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of February 28, 2003
page 6 of 10
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The Council of 500 represented the full-time government of Athens. It consisted of 500 citizens, 50 from each of the ten tribes, who served for one year. The Council could issue decrees on its own, regarding certain matters, but its main function was to prepare the agenda for meetings of the Assembly. The Council would meet to discuss and vote on “Preliminary decrees” (probouleumata, προβουλεύματα), and any of these that passed the Council’s vote went on for discussion and voting in the Assembly.
Each member of the Council (boule, βουλή) was a Councilor (bouleutes, βουλευτής, in the plural, bouleutai) (see for example Aeschin. 1.104; Andoc. 2.14). Aristotle lists service on the Council among those offices chosen by lot (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 62.1). He elsewhere says that in a democratic city, the Council was the most important board of magistrates (Aristot. Pol. 1322b). Through most of the
Although participation in the Council was paid, and considered an office, it also seems to have been considered an unexceptional part of a citizen’s life, rather than a part of a political career. In Plato’s Apology of Socrates (an account, perhaps largely fictional, of the speech Socrates gave when on trial for impiety), Socrates says that he served on the Council (Plat. Apol. 32a-b), but also says that he never participated in politics (Plat. Apol. 31c-d). So, in Plato’s account, it seems that service on the Council did not indicate political ambition, or even any special interest in politics.
Read about the evidence
Lysias (Lys. 26).
Lysias makes the claim that the law of scrutiny was primarily intended to deny political office to men who had participated in one of the short-lived oligarchic coups of the
The Nine Archons underwent scrutiny before taking office (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 55.2), as did the ten generals (Lys. 15.1-2), as did priests, advocates, heralds, and ambassadors (Aeschin. 1.19-20). In fact, according to Aeschines, any citizen could call upon any other citizen to undergo scrutiny at any time, to determine whether he deserved the privilege of speaking before the Assembly (Aeschin. 1.32). Furthermore, every young Athenian man underwent a scrutiny before the members of his deme before he was enrolled in the list of citizens (Dem. 44.41; Lys. 26.21).
The scrutiny of newly selected Councilors was managed by the Thesmothetae, the lower six of the nine archons (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 59.4), but it was the outgoing Council that decided whether each of the 500 new Councilors was eligible to take office (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.3).
This scrutiny took into account almost every aspect of a citizen’s life, public and private, and we can learn much about the values of the Athenian democracy from the questions asked during a scrutiny, and grounds for which a candidate could fail his scrutiny. According to Aristotle, a candidate for the Council was asked, “Who is your father and to what deme does he belong, and who is your father’s father, and who your mother, and who her father and what his deme? Then whether he has a Family Apollo and Homestead Zeus, and where these shrines are; then whether he has family tombs and where they are; then whether he treats his parents well, and whether he pays his taxes, and whether he has done his military service” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 55.3-4). According to Xenophon, they were also asked if they honored their family graves (Xen. Mem. 2.2.13).
After the candidate answered the questions, and any accusers had come forward, the Council voted by show of hands (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 55.4). According to Aristotle, originally the vote of the Council was the last word in a scrutiny, but in his time (the middle of the
Read about the evidence
Lysias (Lys. 26).
A passage from a speech by Lysias confirms that a candidate who was rejected by the Council could appeal to a jury, while noting that this appeal could take time, and might result in the year beginning without a full body of magistrates in office (Lys. 26.6).
The newly appointed Councilors swore an oath, the terms of which are preserved by passing mentions in various sources. According to Xenophon, they swore “to advise according to the laws” (Xen. Mem. 1.1.18). According to two passages from Lysias, they swore “to advise what was best for the city” (Lys. 31.2; Lys. 30.10). Demosthenes mentions Councilors swearing “to advise what was best for the People” (Dem. 59.4), and this: “Nor will I imprison any Athenian citizen who provides three people to guarantee his debt, guarantors who are in the same tax-bracket, except anyone found guilty of conspiring to betray the city or to subvert the democracy, or anyone who has contracted to collect taxes, or his guarantor, or his collector who is in default” (Dem. 24.144). A passage from a speech attributed to Andocides claims that the “oath of the People and the Council” included a promise “not to exile, nor imprison, nor execute anyone without a trial” (Andoc. 4.3). According to Lysias, again, Councilors swore an oath, “to let it be known if he knows of anyone who has been selected by lot but is not fit to serve on the Council” (Lys. 31.2), and “to crown a man as worthy of public office only after scrutinizing him” (Lys. 26.8).
Five hundred Councilors served on the Council for the year, but practical concerns required that they be divided into smaller groups. Accordingly, the legislative year was divided into ten parts, each called a “prytany”; for each prytany, the fifty Councilors from one of the ten tribes served as “presidents,” or prytanes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.2-3).
The order in which the Councilors from each tribe served as presidents was random, determined by lot (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.2). The random determination seems to have taken place at the end of each prytany (rather than all at once at the beginning of the year), so no one could predict which tribe would serve next. An inscription makes reference to “the presidents, whichever ones might hold that position after the tribe of Oineis” (IG II2 553.16-17). When the decree was written, the Councilors from the tribe of Oineis were serving as prytanes, or presidents; the decree needed to refer to the next group of presidents, but that group was clearly not known. So, we can infer from this that the selection must have happened toward the end of a prytany. Obviously, during the ninth prytany of the year, it would be obvious that whichever tribe had not yet served would hold the presidency for the final prytany.
This elaborate randomization of the presidency was probably intended to limit possibilities for corruption. No one could plan to introduce business to the Council when a particular tribe held the presidency, and no Councilor could know in advance when he would serve as a president.
The presidents ate their meals together in the Tholos, the “Round House.” They planned and organized meetings of the Council and posted an agenda for each meeting beforehand (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.3).
Aristotle tells us that “There is a chairman of the presidents, one man, chosen by lot; this man chairs for a night and a day—no longer—and cannot become chairman a second time” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.1). This chairman kept the keys to the treasuries and archives of Athens, as well as the state seal (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.1).
In addition to a daily meeting of all the presidents, the chairman and one third of the presidents were required to be on hand in the Tholos constantly (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.1); presumably only the chairman was on duty for a full 24 hours, and the other presidents could divide the day into 8 hour shifts. These men, on-call in the Tholos, represented the whole government of Athens in a time of crisis, at least until the full Council or Assembly could be convened. Heralds and envoys from other states came to the presidents in the Tholos first, as did messenger bearing official letters (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.6).
Demosthenes describes a dramatic scene, that shows clearly the function of the presidents and the chairman. In
“Evening had already fallen when a messenger arrived bringing to the presiding councilors the news that Elateia 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 next day 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. The Council arrived, the presiding Councilors formally reported the intelligence they had received, and the courier was introduced” (Dem. 18.169-170).
So, in a crisis, the safety of Athens lay first in the hands of the presidents and the chairman. It is worth noting that because there were 354 days in the legislative year (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.2), more than two thirds of all Councilors would serve as chairman for a night and a day in a given year.
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There are further implications, if we accept the estimate of two scholars that in
A citizen had to be 30 years old to serve as a Councilor (Xen. Mem. 1.2.35). For the sake of argument, we might assume that the average citizen would then have an active political life of 30 years, until he was 60. During that time, there would need to be approximately 10,000 chairmen, each controlling the state seal and the treasuries, and presiding over the presidents of the Council for a day and a night (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.1). Since no one could serve as chairman twice (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 44.1), this office would have to go to 10,000 different Athenians. It follows, then, that approximately one half of all Athenian citizens would, at some point during their lives, have the privilege and responsibility of holding this office, arguably the closest equivalent to a Chief Executive in the Athenian democracy.
While any male citizen was invited to speak in an Assembly and all male citizens could vote, the topics for discussion and vote were limited by what amounted to a system of checks and balances between the Assembly and the Council.
The Council would vote on preliminary decrees (probouleumata, or in the singular, probouleuma, προβούλευμα) (Dem. 23.92). According to the
“You were at that time on the point of sending your entire force to Euboea and Olynthus, and Apollodorus, being one of its members, brought forward in the Council a motion, and carried it as a preliminary decree (probouleuma) to the Assembly, proposing that the people should decide whether the funds remaining over from the state’s expenditure should be used for military purposes or for public spectacles. For the laws prescribed that, when there was war, the funds remaining over from state expenditures should be devoted to military purposes, and Apollodorus believed that the people ought to have power to do what they pleased with their own; and he had sworn that, as a member of the senate, he would act for the best interests of the Athenian people, as you all bore witness at that crisis” (Dem. 59.4).
In this case, an existing law required that any surplus funds in the treasury of Athens should be used for military purposes. But despite this law, Apollodorus wanted the Assembly to discuss how to spend the funds. So Apollodorus brought the matter to the Council, which voted to create a preliminary decree. The council approved the preliminary decree. This preliminary decree allowed the Assembly to discuss how to spend the money. Demosthenes goes on to say that the Assembly voted, unanimously, to spend the money on the military (Dem. 59.5).
So, after this lengthy procedure, the Athenian democracy did with its money precisely what an existing law required. But the mechanism of the Council, its probouleuma, and the Assembly allowed all of the citizens to deliberate, in an orderly manner, on the extent to which the existing law was appropriate under these circumstances, a war in Euboea and around Olynthus.
An inscription that survives in fairly good condition illustrates vividly the course of an actual motion through the Council, to the Assembly by means of a preliminary decree, and into the body of Athenian policy as a decree of the Athenian People. This inscription dates from around
It is important to note that the text and translation given here omit any indication of how the inscription actually looked, and the extent to which modern editors have filled in missing sections; what appears here is considerably cleaned up. It can serve to illustrate the workings of the Council, but should not be taken as indicative of the proper way to present and read an inscription.
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Citium (in text as “Citians”).
“Gods. When Nikokratos was archon, in the first prytany (that of the tribe Aegeis): Theophilos from the deme Phegous, one of the Proedroi, put this matter to the vote: The Council decided (after Antidotos, son of Apollodoros, from the deme Sypalettos made the motion): Concerning the things that the Citians say about the foundation of the temple to Aphrodite, it has been voted by the Council that the Proedroi, the ones to be chosen by lot to serve as Proedroi at the first Assembly, should introduce the Citians and allow them to have an audience, and to share with the People the opinion of the Council, that the People, having heard from the Citians concerning the foundation of the temple, and from any other Athenian who wants to speak, decide to do whatever seems best. When Nikokrates was archon, in the second Prytany (that of the tribe Pandionis): Phanostratos from the deme Philaidai, one of the Proedroi, put this matter to the vote: The People decided (after Lykourgos, son of Lykophron, of the deme Boutadai made the motion): Concerning the things for which the Citian merchants resolved to petition, lawfully, asking the People for the use of a plot of land on which they might build a temple of Aphrodite, it has seemed best to the People to give to the merchants of the Citians the use of a plot of land on which they might build a temple of Aphrodite, just as also the Egyptians built the temple of Isis.”
On this one inscription we see the whole legislative process. In the first prytany of the year, Antidotos, a councilor, made a motion before the Council regarding this request by the Citians. One of the Proedroi in charge of running the meeting of the Council put the matter to a vote. The Council voted to send the matter along to the Assembly without making any recommendation to the Assembly for or against the Citians’ request. Then, in the second Prytany, Lykourgos, made a motion in the Assembly. The motion was in favor of the Citians’ request, and it was put to the vote by Phanostratos, a Councilor serving as one of the Proedroi who were in charge of running the meeting of the Assembly. The People voted on the matter, and the Citians were allowed to build their temple, just as (evidently) some Egyptians had been allowed to build a temple to Isis.
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