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The Council 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003

page 18 of 24

· Legislation ·

The Council played an important role in the process of legislation, or “nomothesia” (νομοθεσία). This is a complex subject, and this discussion of the Athenian Council is not the place to describe legislation in detail (for a more complete description, based on the ancient sources, see the article on Legislation). But a short summary of the process will help, as we look at how the Council participated in making laws for the Athenian Democracy.

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 23).

Athenians in the 4th century were governed by laws (νόμοι, or νόμος in the singular) and decrees (ψήφισματα, or ψήφισμα in the singular). Decrees were passed by a vote of the Assembly, of the Council, or both. Laws came into being by a more complicated process. Laws took precedence over Decrees. Demosthenes says, “No decree, either of the Council or the Assembly shall have more authority than a law” (ψήφισμα δὲ μηδὲν μήτε βουλῆς μήτε δήμου νόμου κυριώτερον εἶναι) (Dem. 23.87). Anyone who proposed a decree in the Assembly that contradicted an existing law was subject to prosecution on a charge of “Illegal Proposal” (γραφὴ παρανόμων). Laws were passed through a process called “nomothesia” (νομοθεσία) or “legislation”. Each year the Assembly met to discuss the current body of laws. Any citizen could propose a change in the laws, but could only propose the repeal of a law if he suggested another law to replace the repealed law. If the Assembly decided to change the laws, a board of “Nomothetai” (νομοθέται) or “legislators” was selected to review and revise the laws.

When inscribed on stone for the permanent record, decrees begin with the formula, “it was decided by the People,” or, “It was decided by the Council and the People” (IG II2 206 4-5, IG II2 206 28-30; IG II2 237.5, IG II2 237 31); a law began with the formula, “It was decided by the Nomothetae” (SEG 12 87.607).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).

So, the Council was not responsible for actually making laws, but it was responsible for initating the process by which laws were made. 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, or ῾Εκατομαίων is specified). This is how Demosthenes describes the process, which begins with and annual review of the existing laws:

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).

“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).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).

Demosthenes continues his description of the annual review: “If any law already in force be rejected on show of hands, the Prytaneis of the Council (τοὺς πρυτάνεις) 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 Proedroi (τοὺς προέδρους) 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 shall consist of persons who have taken the judicial oath” (Dem. 24.21). The “judicial oath” was the oath that jurors swore before entering a courtroom (Dem. 24.27; a passage in Demosthenes, Dem. 24.149-151, purports to be the text of that oath).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).

The Prytaneis of the Council were charged with creating a Preliminary Decree that would allow the Assembly to begin the review of the laws. There were severe penalties for Councilors who failed to fulfill this duty: “If the Prytaneis do not convene the Assembly according to the written regulations, or if the Proedroi do not put the question, each Prytanis shall forfeit one thousand drachmas of sacred money to Athene, and each Proedros shall forfeit forty drachmas of sacred money to Athene” (Dem. 24.22).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 24).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

The Council’s role was not complete, however, with the selection of legislators. Dem. 24.27 contains a decree that orders “the Council to cooperate in the legislative process” (συννομοθετεῖν δὲ καὶ τὴν βουλήν) in the matter of convening the Nomothetae, which may mean only that the Council was to ensure that the business appeared on the agenda for the Assembly. The Council did, however, also have a special “legislative secretary” (γραμματεύς ἐπὶ τοὺς νόμους), who made copies of all laws, and attended all meetings of the Council; this suggests that the Council discussed proposals for legislation before sending them on to the Assembly (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 54.4; Agora 15.62.235-6).

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