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The Council 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003

page 15 of 24

· Probouleumata Voted Down ·

Because, in other matters, the Council could, and did, occasionally refuse to approve a probouleuma, it was important to guarantee citizens’ access to the Assembly, so they could make accusations against those abusing or wrongly manipulating the system.

Read about the evidence
Herodotus (Hdt.).
Plot on a Map

Herodotus describes one such occasion, from the early 5th century, that was particularly dramatic. In 479 BCE, the Persians invaded Greece and occupied Athens; the Athenians had evacuated the city and had taken refuge on the island of Salamis (Hdt. 9.3.2; source for date: OCD3). The Persian general Mardonius sent an envoy to the Council of the Athenians, which was still conducting business on the island. This envoy, a man named Murychides from the Hellespont, asked if the Athenians would surrender to Persia now that their city was occupied (Hdt. 9.5.1). Herodotus describes what happened when the Councilors heard the Persian proposal:

Read about the evidence
Herodotus (Hdt.).
Plot on a Map

“Then Lycidas, one of the Councilors, said that it seemed best to him to receive the offer brought to them by Murychides and lay it before the People [that is, the Assembly — CWB]. This was the opinion which he declared, either because he had been bribed by Mardonius, or because the plan pleased him. The Athenians in the Council were, however, very angry; so too were those outside when they heard of it. They made a ring round Lycidas and stoned him to death. Murychides the Hellespontian, however, they permitted to depart unharmed. There was much noise at Salamis over the business of Lycidas; and when the Athenian women learned what was afoot, one calling to another and bidding her follow, they went on their own impetus to the house of Lycidas and stoned to death his wife and his children” (Hdt. 9.5.1-3).

This story shows us several interesting things. First, that even under these extraordinary circumstances—the city occupied and in flames, the Athenians as refugees on a small island—the mechanisms of the Athenian democracy continued to function in a (more-or-less) orderly fashion. The envoy came to the Council, which was normal (the Council’s role in foreign policy is described below). A Councilor proposed a Preliminary Decree which would allow the Assembly to discuss the proposal. The Council rejected the proposed probouleuma. At this point, the normal functioning of the democracy broke down, no doubt because of the difficult circumstances and high emotions. The Councilors, and others, were not merely satisfied with voting down Lycidas’ motion, but stoned the man to death—a violent equivalent to a prosecution for “illegal motion”.

Read about the evidence
Lycurgus (Lyc. 1).

It is worth mentioning that the orator Lycurgus, when describing these events, is careful to note that the Councilors removed the wreaths from their heads before stoning Lycidas to death (Lyc. 1.122). If this is true, then the Councilors were being very careful to separate their actions as an angry mob from their duties as representatives of the democracy—even if this is an embelishment to the story, it shows that later Athenians wanted to emphasize that killing a Councilor for moving an unpopular probouleuma was not a legitimate course of action.

Read about the evidence
Herodotus (Hdt.).

One other thing emerges from this story. Herodotus says that “The Athenians in the Council were, however, very angry; so too were those outside when they heard of it” (Hdt. 9.5.2). Since citizens (and sometimes non-citizens) could often come to meetings of the Council as spectators, the Athenians generally would often know which matters of business were proposed as probouleumata, which were passed on to the Assembly, and which ones were not. So while the Council could prevent the Assembly from discussing some problem or issue by failing to approve a preliminary decree, they could not usually, prevent their fellow citizens from knowing of that issue’s existance.

Read about the evidence
Xenophon (Xen. Hell.).

The historian Xenophon describes a similar incident, one slightly less extreme, from the last days of the Peloponnesian War, at the end of the 5th century. Then, when the Spartans has beseiged Athens from land and sea, “when Archestratus said in the Council that it was best to make peace with the Lacedaemonians [that is, the Spartans — CWB] on the terms they offered—and the terms were that they should tear down a portion ten stadia long [slightly more than one mile — CWB] of each of the two Long Walls—he was thrown into prison, and a decree was passed forbidding the making of a proposal of this sort” (Xen. Hell. 2.2.15). Since a step as momentous as surrendering and tearing down the walls would surely have required the approval of the Assembly, Archestratus must have proposed that the Council approve a probouleuma on this issue. Not only did this proposal fail, but the Council made it illegal for anyone even to make such a proposal.

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