Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ The Process of Making Laws: the Nomothetae.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
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The procedures for making new laws or revising existing laws was complicated, and seems to have been intended to make the process as democratic as possible, and to prevent any hasty or poorly considered changes to the laws.
When the Athenian democracy published a law (νόμος), as opposed to a decree (ψήφισμα), the text of the law began with the formula: “It was decided by the nomothetae” (SEG 12 87.6-7; decrees began with the formula, “It was decided by the People,” or, “It was decided by the Council and the People,” IG II2 206 4-5; IG II2 206 28-30; IG II2 237.5; IG II2 237 31).
Demosthenes describes process of legislation in detail, in his speech prosecuting Timocrates (Dem. 24). He reminds the jurors that, “In our laws at present in force, men of Athens, every condition that must be observed when new statutes are to be enacted is laid down clearly and with precision. First of all, there is a prescribed time for legislation; but even at the proper time a man is not permitted to propose his law just as he pleases. He is directed, in the first place, to put it in writing and post it in front of the statues of the Eponymous Heroes for everyone to see. Then it is ordained that the law must be of universal application, and also that laws of contrary purpose must be repealed; and there are other directions with which I do not think I need trouble you now” (Dem. 24.17-18).
While any citizen could suggest changes to the laws, laws were not passed by the Assembly or the Council, as decrees were, but were passed by a rather prolonged process involving the “Law givers,” the nomothetae (νομοθέται; the singular form is νομοθετής). Panels of Nomothetae were formed for the purposes of creating new laws and reviewing existing laws; the Nomothetae were drawn from Athenians who had sworn the “dikastic oath,” the oath that jurors swore before entering a courtroom (Dem. 24.27; a passage in Demosthenes, Dem. 24.149-151, purports to be the text of that oath). So these Nomothetae were ordinary citizens assigned the task of creating and revising the laws.
These Nomothetae would get together and conduct legislation under three circumstances: if the Assembly called for revisions to the laws, if an individual Athenian proposed a change in the laws, and if the six Archons called the Thesmothetae (θεσμοθέται; see Aristot. Ath. Pol. 55.1) undertook a scrutiny of the laws (respectively: Dem. 24.20; Dem. 24.33; Aeschin. 3.38).
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