Ancient History & Civilisation

4. Administration

As early as 487, perhaps earlier, the method of election in the choice of archons is replaced by lot; some way must be found to keep the rich from buying, or the knaves from smiling, their way into office. To render the selection less than wholly accidental, all those upon whom the lot falls are subjected, before taking up their duties, to a rigorous dokimasia, or character examination, conducted by the Council or the courts. The candidate must show Athenian parentage on both sides, freedom from physical defect and scandal, the pious honoring of his ancestors, the performance of his military assignments, and the full payment of his taxes; his whole life is on this occasion exposed to challenge by any citizen, and the prospect of such a scrutiny presumably frightens the most worthless from the sortition. If he passes this test the archon swears an oath that he will properly perform the obligations of his office, and will dedicate to the gods a golden statue of life-size if he should accept presents or bribes.54 The fact that chance is allowed to play so large a part in the naming of the nine archons suggests the diminution which the office has suffered since Solon’s day; its functions are now in the nature of administrative routine. The archon basileus, whose name preserves the empty title of king, has become merely the chief religious official of the city. Nine times yearly the archon is required to obtain a vote of confidence from the Assembly; his actions and judgments may be appealed to the boule or the heliaea; and any citizen may indict him for malfeasance. At the end of his term all his official acts, accounts, and documents are reviewed by a board of logistai responsible to the Council; and severe penalties, even death, may avenge serious misconduct. If the archon escapes these democratic dragons he becomes, at the end of his year of office, a member of the Areopagus; but this, in the fifth century, is a well-nigh empty honor, since that body has lost nearly all its powers.

The archons are but one of many committees which, under the direction and scrutiny of the Assembly, the Council, and the courts, administer the affairs of the city. Aristotle names twenty-five such groups, and estimates the number of municipal officials at seven hundred. Nearly all of these are chosen annually by lot; and since no man may be a member of the same committee twice, every citizen may expect to be a city dignitary for at least one year of his life. Athens does not believe in government by experts.

More importance is attached to military than to civil office. The ten strategoi, or commanders, though they too are appointed for a year only, and are at all times subject to examination and recall, are chosen not by lot but by open election in the Assembly. Here ability, not popularity, is the road to preferment; and the ekklesia of the fourth century shows its good sense by choosing Phocion general forty-five times, despite the fact that he is the most unpopular man in Athens and makes no secret of his scorn for the crowd. The functions of the strategoi expand with the growth of international relations, so that in the later fifth century they not only manage the army and the navy, but conduct negotiations with foreign states, and control the revenues and expenditures of the city. The commander in chief, or strategos autokrator, is therefore the most powerful man in the government; and since he may be re-elected year after year, he can give to the state a continuity of purpose which its constitution might otherwise render impossible. Through this office Pericles makes Athens for a generation a democratic monarchy, so that Thucydides can say of the Athenian polity that though it is a democracy in name it is really government by the greatest of the citizens.

The army is identical with the electorate; every citizen must serve, and is subject, until the age of sixty, to conscription in any war. But Athenian life is not militarized; after a period of youthful training there is little of martial drill, no strutting of uniforms, no interference of soldiery with the civilian population. In active service the army consists of light-armed infantry, chiefly the poorer citizens, carrying slings or spears; the heavy-armed infantry, or hoplites, those prosperous citizens who can afford armor, shield, and javelin; and the cavalry of rich men, clad in armor and helmet, and equipped with lance and sword. The Greeks excel the Asiatics in military discipline, and perhaps owe their achievements to a striking combination of loyal obedience on the battlefield with vigorous independence in civil affairs. Nevertheless there is no science of war among them, no definite principles of tactics on strategy, before Epaminondas and Philip. Cities are usually walled, and defense is—among the Greeks as among ourselves—more effective than offense; otherwise man might have no civilization to record. Siege armies bring up great beams suspended by chains, and, drawing the beams back, drive them forward against the wall; this is as far as siege machinery develops before Archimedes. As for the navy, it is kept up by choosing, each year, four hundred trierarchs, rich men whose privilege it is to recruit a crew, equip a trireme with materials supplied by the state, pay for its building and launching, and keep it in repair; in this way Athens supports in peacetime a fleet of some sixty ships.55

The maintenance of the army and the navy constitutes the chief expenditure of the state. Revenues come from traffic tolls, harbor dues, a two per cent tariff on imports and exports, a twelve-drachma annual poll tax on metics, a half-drachma tax on freedmen and slaves, a tax on prostitutes, a sales tax, licenses, fines, confiscations, and the imperial tribute. The tax on farm produce, which financed Athens under Peisistratus, is abandoned by the democracy as derogatory to the dignity of agriculture. Most taxes are farmed out to publicans, who collect them for the state and pocket a share as their profit. Considerable income is derived from state ownership of mineral resources. In emergencies the city resorts to a capital levy, the rate rising with the amount of property owned; by this method, for example, the Athenians in 428 raise two hundred talents ($1,200,000) for the siege of Mytilene. Rich men are also invited to undertake certain leiturgiai, i.e., public services, such as equipping embassies, fitting out ships for the fleet, or paying for plays, musical contests, and games. These “liturgies” are voluntarily undertaken by some of the wealthy, and are forced by public opinion upon others. To add to the discomfort of the well to do, any citizen assigned to a liturgy may compel any other to take it from him, or exchange fortunes with him, if he can prove the other to be richer than himself. As the democratic faction grows in power it finds ever more numerous occasions and reasons for using this device; and in return the financiers, merchants, manufacturers, and landed proprietors of Attica study the arts of concealment and obstruction, and meditate revolution.

Excluding such gifts and levies, the total internal revenue of Athens in the time of Pericles amounts to some four hundred talents ($2,400,000) a year; to which is added six hundred talents of contributions from subjects and allies. This income is spent without any budget, or advance estimate and allocation of funds. Under Pericles’ thrifty management, and despite his unprecedented expenditures, the treasury shows a growing surplus, which in 440 stands at 9700 talents ($58,200,000); a pretty sum for any city in any age, and quite extraordinary in Greece, where few states—in the Peloponnesus none—have any surplus at all.56 In cities that have such a reserve it is deposited, usually, in the temple of the city’s god—at Athens, after 434, in the Parthenon. The state claims the right to use not only this surplus, but, as well, the gold in the statues which it raises to its god; in the case of Pheidias’ Athene Parthenos this amounts to forty talents ($240,000), and is so affixed as to be removable.57 In the temple the city keeps also its “theoric fund,” from which it makes the payments annually due the citizens for attendance at the sacred plays and games.

Such is Athenian democracy—the narrowest and fullest in history: narrowest in the number of those who share its privileges, fullest in the directness and equality with which all the citizens control legislation, and administer public affairs. The faults of the system will appear vividly as its history unfolds; indeed, they are already noised about in Aristophanes. The irresponsibility of an Assembly that may without check of precedent or revision vote its momentary passion on one day, and on the next day its passionate regret, punishing then not itself but those who have misled it; the limitation of legislative authority to those who can attend the ekklesia; the encouragement of demagogues and the wasteful ostracism of able men; the filling of offices by lot and rotation, changing the personnel yearly and creating a chaos of government; the disorderliness of faction perpetually disturbing the guidance and administration of the state—these are vital defects, for which Athens will pay the full penalty to Sparta, Philip, Alexander, and Rome.

But every government is imperfect, irksome, and mortal; we have no reason to believe that monarchy or aristocracy would govern Athens better, or longer preserve it; and perhaps only this chaotic democracy can release the energy that will lift Athens to one of the peaks of history. Never before or since has political life, within the circle of citizenship, been so intense or so creative. This corrupt and incompetent democracy is at least a school: the voter in the Assembly listens to the cleverest men in Athens, the juror in the courts has his wits sharpened by the taking and sifting of evidence, the holder of office is molded by executive responsibility and experience into a deeper maturity of understanding and judgment; “the city,” says Simonides, “is the teacher of the man.”58 For these reasons, it may be, the Athenians can appreciate, and thereby call into existence, Aeschylus and Euripides, Socrates and Plato; the audience at the theater has been formed in the Assembly and the courts, and is ready to receive the best. This aristocratic democracy is no laissez-faire state, no mere watchman of property and order; it finances the Greek drama, and builds the Parthenon; it makes itself responsible for the welfare and development of its people, and opens up to them the opportunity ou monon tou zen, alla tou eu zen—“not only to live, but to live well.” History can afford to forgive it all its sins.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!