Citizens The Historical Emergence of the Athenian Democratic Constitution

The Athenian citizen came about as the consequence of a number of now famous attempts first to solve conflicts between rich landowning aristocrats and poor peasant farmers and then to unify separate human groups divided by social, familial, territorial and religious customs. From the early sixth-century populist reforms of the poet—legislator Solon (650—561), when debts and debt bondage (loans on the security of the debtor's person) were cancelled (594/3), obligations in the form of produce, rent or tribute owed by a dependent peasant to a landlord disappeared.25 Solon seems to have ended the status of peasant dependence as well as to have cancelled their debts. From then onwards, Athenian agriculture was free from relations of juridical dependence and the 'cause of the common people' was furthered, as the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens puts it.26 Solon also created a new Council (Boule) of 400 to perform 'advance deliberations' on topics before the meeting of the Assembly of citizens. And he extended to any person the right to take legal action on behalf of an injured party, thereby allowing any citizen to contribute to the enforcement of the laws. Plutarch27 recounts that when Solon was asked which is the best-run city, he answered that it is the one in which wrongdoers are prosecuted and punished no less by those who have not been wronged than by those who have. The determination of what actions violated the laws and were, therefore, detrimental to the well-being of the polis was no longer the preserve of the upper classes. The people (demos) became the court of last resort and from this the later popular sovereignty of Athens was to develop.28

Between the times of Solon and Kleisthenes, an urban demos appeared and a city-dwelling group of wealthy business families with it. An urban—rural continuum was established when Kleisthenes, in part seeking to acquire power for himself and his own family and friends against the dominant dynastic faction in the late sixth century, devised a system to neutralize aristocratic, dynastic rivalries and to ensure that the power of the people could at least counterbalance that of the upper classes in the making of political decisions (508/7).29 As part of a new political order he reorganized the citizens into ten new tribes. He also introduced new regional units, demes, largely based on existing villages, as the smallest political entities by which citizens were to be identified. Demes not only enjoyed local self-government but also acted as constituencies and contributed a quota to those 'elected' in the Council (Boule), now a body of 500, which set the agenda for the Assembly. Through his deme a man became a citizen and his deme identity followed him despite changes of abode. Deme identity became more important than the name of one's father or ancestor (patronymic), so that political identity was linked to a group that had resulted from an artificial mixing of geographical and social origins. Anyone who was registered in a deme acquired the name of the deme, however humble his origins. The ten new tribes, and the allotment of parts of demes to

25 Lintott, Violence, pp. 43—8; M. Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: law, society and politics in fifth-century Athens (Berkeley, 1986); Bryant, Moral Codes and Social Structure, pp. 68-73 on Solon's reallocation of civic rights on the basis of wealth rather than birth.

28 Ostwald, Popular Sovereignty, p. 15.

29 Lintott, Violence, pp. 54-5, 125-6; Herodotus, V. 62.2-63.1; Aristotle, AP 19.3-4.

each, meant that each tribe had a share in all the regions.3" These demes were created to break up a range of traditional allegiances including important religious cults that had previously been dominated by aristocratic dynasties.3' Kleisthenes also created ten generals (strategoi), one from each tribe, to command Athens' armed forces. At the height of Athens' military power in the fifth century, these generals became the political leaders of Athens as well.32

Then, in 462/1 Ephialtes transferred to more representative bodies those politically important powers that had been exercised by the council of the Areopagus, whose members had been appointed on the basis of their good birth and wealth. From this time onwards, Athens was self-consciously democratic.

Until the death of Perikles in 429 bc, there remained property qualifications for eligibility to high office so that birth and wealth were still preconditions for political leadership in Athens.33 But in most cases the people as a whole, in Assembly, elected these men to offices. Indeed, the leadership of the armed forces was determined by popular vote although those originally 'permitted' to fight voluntarily under a general's leadership were hoplites, that is, members of the top three property classes. This signals that although major decisions or legislation could not be made or implemented without the approval of the Assembly of all citizens,34 and the common people had the right to elect their magistrates, a full voice and participation in polis activities were initially only secured by those of hoplite status. By the mid 450s, however, and during the leadership of Perikles, himself the grand-nephew of Kleisthenes, the democracy was further opened out to ordinary citizens, not least by his institution of pay for jury service. Normally, it was up to individual citizens to prosecute someone even on 'public' charges. Some saw this as a major Athenian vice. Aristophanes' comedies (e.g. Acharnians, Knights) blame Perikles for turning Athenians into wage-earners (an observation paralleled in Plato's Gorgias,515e, 5—7), resulting in a breed of sycophants who flattered the demos and took care of their stomachs by getting the rich brought to court, thereby securing the confiscation of their money which then went into the 'state' coffers to pay the wages ofjurors! But justice was now to be dispensed by paid amateur magistrates or, in more important cases, by large juries made up of citizens over thirty years old. These magistrates and juries were concerned as much with the merits of the litigants making their case before them and with what they took to be the 'best interests' of the polis, as with the strict application of the laws. Litigants were required to plead their own cases within an allotted amount of time, although they could hire someone to help them in writing their speech. By instituting pay for jury service and by increasing his focus on the Athenian people in Assembly who required convincing of the soundness of his proposals, Perikles further opened out the democracy to wider public participation.

30 Aristotle, AP 21, ii, m, iv, vi; the citizens were mixed together, overriding kinship and regional distinctions in favour of collective self-governance.

31 J.-P. Vernant, Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs, études de psychologie historique, vol. 1 (Paris, 1981), p. 211 speaks of Kleisthenes as the founder of a new religion-politics.

32 See O. Murray, Early Greece (London, 1980), ch. 15; D. Whitehead, The Demes of Attica (Princeton, 1986).

33 OsVwald, Popular Sovereignty, pp. 15—23.

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