Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Legislation Initiated by the Assembly.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
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At the first meeting of the Assembly for the year, in the month of Hekatombaion, the Athenians held votes on the whole body of laws (Dem. 24.20; see Dem. 24.23 where the month of Hekatombaion is specified). This is how Demosthenes describes the process:
“In the first presidency and on the eleventh day thereof, in the Assembly, the Herald having read prayers, a vote shall be taken on the laws, to wit, first upon laws respecting the Council, and secondly upon general statutes, and then upon statutes enacted for the nine Archons, and then upon laws affecting other authorities. Those who are content with the laws respecting the Council shall hold up their hands first, and then those who are not content; and in like manner in respect of general statutes. All voting upon laws shall be in accordance with laws already in force” (Dem. 24.20).
This passage tells us several things. First, it suggests that the laws of Athens were divided into several categories. There were laws concerning the Council (περὶ τῶν βουλευτικῶν); this presumably included laws governing the Nomothetae and the procedure for legislation itself, since it was the Council that appointed the panels of Nomothetae (Dem. 24.27; Dem. 24.47-48). There were laws “common” to all Athenians (τῶν κοινῶν). There were laws having to do with the nine Archons (οἳ κεῖνται τοῖς ἐννέα ἄρχουσιν). And there were laws having to do with “other authorities” (τῶν ἄλλων ἀρχῶν). This passage also tells us that the Assembly voted on the existing laws by a show of hands (χειροτονία) (Dem. 24.20).
Demosthenes continues his description of the annual review: “If any law already in force be rejected on show of hands, the presidents [τοὺς πρυτάνεις, the ‘Prytaneis’ described in the article on the Council — CWB] in whose term of office the voting takes place shall appoint the last of the three meetings of the Assembly for the consideration of laws so rejected. The commissioners [τοὺς προέδρους, the ‘Proedroi’ — CWB] who preside by lot at the Assembly are required, immediately after religious observances, to put the question respecting the sessions of the Nomothetae (τῶν νομοθετῶν), and respecting the fund from which their fees are to be paid. The Nomothetae (τοὺς δὲ νομοθέτας) shall consist of persons who have taken the judicial oath” (Dem. 24.21).
So, if the Assembly voted against any of the current laws, several things happened. First, the Prytaneis (those in charge of the Council for that month, who set the agendas for meetings of the Assembly) would set aside the last meeting of the Assembly in that month for discussion of the laws. The Nomothetae, ordinary citizens selected out of those who had sworn the oath that all jurors swore, would conduct the actual process of legislation, but the Assembly would decide certain details regarding the meetings of the Nomothetae. Specifically, the Assembly would discuss payment for the Nomothetae (mentioned here at Dem. 24.21), and how much the Nomothetae should be given to conduct their business (this is mentioned more specifically at Dem. 21.23).
The Athenians took this process very seriously, as Demosthenes tells us, and specified severe penalties for any official who deviated from the proper procedure: “If the Prytaneis do not convene the Assembly according to the written regulations, or if the Proedroi do not put the question, each president shall forfeit one thousand drachmas of sacred money to Athene, and each commissioner shall forfeit forty drachmas of sacred money to Athene, and information thereof shall be laid before the Thesmothetae in such manner as when a man holds office being in debt to the treasury; and the Thesmothetae shall bring before the Court according to the law all persons against whom such information is laid; otherwise they shall not be raised to the Council of the Areopagus, as obstructing the rectification of the statutes” (Dem. 24.22).
So the punishment for failing to follow the proper procedure was a 1000 drachma fine, and in the case of one of the archons, disqualification from serving on the Council of the Areopagus after his term in office.
Before this meeting of the Assembly, when the Athenians voted on the existing laws, anyone who wanted to change the laws was supposed to make public specific proposals for new laws: “Before the meeting of the Assembly any Athenian citizen who wishes shall write down the laws proposed by him and exhibit the same in front of the Eponymous Heroes, to the end that the People may vote on the question of the time allowed to the Nomothetae with due regard to the total number of laws proposed. Whosoever proposes a new statute shall write it on a white board and exhibit it in front of the statues of the Eponymous Heroes on every day until the meeting of the Assembly” (Dem. 24.23).
This must have meant that the vote on the existing laws was equivalent to a vote on the proposed changes. If the citizens liked the suggestions posted beforehand, they could vote against the existing laws, thus starting a process of legislation. If the citizens did not like the posted suggestions, they would vote in favor of the existing laws. Requiring proposed changes before the meeting would allow the Assembly to make an informed decision regarding how long the Nomothetae should take to conduct their business (see also Dem. 20.94; Dem. 24.36; Aeschin. 3.39).
Demosthenes says, elsewhere in his speech against Timocrates, that it was lawful for any citizen to propose changing an existing law, but only if he suggested a new law to take its place (Dem. 24.33).
The Assembly, at this first meeting of the year (on the 11th day of the month Hekatombaion), would also choose five citizens to “speak in defence of laws proposed for repeal before the Nomothetae” (Dem. 24.23). This suggests that the process of legislation was very much like a trial in a courtroom, with some people “prosecuting” the existing laws (and advocating new laws), and others defending the existing laws (Dem. 24.23; Dem. 24.36).
After this first meeting of the Assembly for the year, if the voting determined that the laws should be reviewed and possibly changed, there was a delay, presumably to let people consider matters. No further action happened at the next meeting of the Assembly in that month, but at the third meeting, the Assembly decided how long the Nomothetae should spend legislating, and details of their pay (Dem. 21.24).
The Nomothetae were not chosen until the actual day assigned for legislation; on the morning of that day they were chosen by lot from those who had sworn the Heliastic Oath that all jurors swore (Dem. 24.27). A board of nomothetae could be huge: Demosthenes reports that in
The meeting of the Nomothetae was conducted by Proedroi (τοὺς προέδρους mentioned at Dem. 24.33). One of these served as chairman (ἐπιστάτης τῶν προέδρων) (IG II2 222.41-52). The meeting was conducted like a trial, with advocates speaking in favor of the existing laws (τοὺς συναπολογησομένους τὸν δῆμον τοῖς νόμοις; Dem. 24.23), and others speaking in favor of changing the laws (τοὺς συνηγόρους) (Dem. 24.36). When both parties had spoken, the Nomothetae voted by show of hands (Dem. 24.33).
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