Political Assemblies of Athens

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Editor: John T. Kirby
Date: 2001
From: World Eras(Vol. 6: Classical Greek Civilization, 800-323 B.C.E. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 532 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1080L

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Page 190

Political Assemblies of Athens

Limited Democracy. Athens is considered to be the first democracy in the world. Nevertheless, full participation in it was limited to approximately thirty thousand male citizens over the age of eighteen. Women, slaves, metics (resident aliens), and children had only limited roles to play.

Voting. Every male citizen over age twenty, after two years of military service, could speak and vote in the Ekklêsia (Assembly), which met forty times a year on the Pnyx, a hill overlooking the Athenian marketplace. At least six thousand citizens attended the meetings, which generally lasted only a couple of hours. After debating motions, the Assembly members voted by a show of hands. Its psêphismata (votes) dictated foreign policy and major issues concerning the administration of the polis. The Assembly did not by itself institute nomoi (laws), but appointed panels to create legislation. It also elected the generals and could initiate political trials, such as eisaggeliai (impeachments).

Council. The Boulê (Council) consisted of five hundred members, fifty from each of the ten tribes of Athens. Each fifty-man group served as the prutaneis (presidents) of the polis for one-tenth of the year, with executive responsibilities and the duty to coordinate the meetings of the Council and Assembly. The Council met every day except holidays in the bouleutêrion (Council house) on the edge of the marketplace. It oversaw the activities of approximately six hundred minor and major magistrates who ran everything from the markets to the courts to the religious sanctuaries and festivals. It managed Athens’s finances and considered in advance all motions to be put before the Assembly.

Court System. The dikastêria (popular courts) were selected by lot on a daily basis from a panel of six thousand who swore a special oath each year. For private disputes, panels of 201 or 401 dikastai (judges) were

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Voting tokens with the name of the deme, or village, an abbreviation of the office, and the name of the tribe Voting tokens with the name of the deme, or village, an abbreviation of the office, and the name of the tribe (Agora Museum, Athens)

formed; for disputes that concerned the polis, a court could have from 501 to 1,501 judges. Different disputes were allotted different amounts of time depending on their consequences, but a court could hear and decide several private disputes in a day; public disputes generally each took an entire day. After hearing the prosecution and defense present long, set speeches and then short rebuttals, the judges voted without any direction from a senior magistrate. A majority of votes cast either way decided the dispute.

Protecting the Constitution. The Council of the Areopagus consisted of all those who had served as one of the nine annually elected judicial magistrates, the six thesmothetai and the three archons. Before 462 B.C.E. it had wielded considerable power under its mandate “to preserve the constitution,” but after this date its powers were limited to the hearing of homicide trials.


Mogens H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology, translated by J. A. Crook (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

Charles Hignett, A History of the Athenian Constitution to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3035100110