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The Council 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003

page 12 of 24

· Independent Action ·

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Apollodorus (Dem. 47).

In some circumstances, the Council could pass decrees that went into effect directly, without the participation of the Assembly. For example, a speech by Demosthenes deals with the case of a man named Theophemus, who had served as trierarch (τριήραρχος), an official responsible for the upkeep of a warship. At the end of Theophemus’ term, the speaker alleges, he failed to return some of the equipment that belonged to the ship. The speaker says that he brought this problem to the Council. He then approached Theophemus and demanded the equipment, “since now this decree had passed in the Council, and no one had charged it with illegality, and it had gone into effect” (γενομένου τοίνυν τοῦ ψηφίσματος τούτου ἐν τῇ βουλῇ, καὶ οὐδενὸς γραφομένου παρανόμων, ἀλλὰ κυρίου ὄντος) (Dem. 47.33-34). So in this case, the regulation of trierarchs, the Council’s decrees were immediately valid.

Inscriptions use special language to indicate that a decree came from the Council, as in the case of an inscription recording a Council decree establishing a special relationship between certain foreigners and the Athenian state: “It seemed best to the Council, when the tribe of Oineis held the Presidency, and Dexippus was secretary, and Democles was Chairman, and Monippides made the motion…” (ἔδοξεν τῆι βολῆι· Οἰνηῒς ἐπρυτάνευε, Δεξίθεος ἐγραμμάτευε, Δημοκλῆς ἐπεστάτε· Μονιππίδης εἶπε·) (IG II2 6). Because the inscription does says “It seemed best to the Council,” as opposed to "…to the Council and the People", we can conclude that this was another matter on which the Council could act independently.

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Isaeus (Isaeus 6).

A speech by the orator Isaeus refers to decrees passed by the Council concerning an individual woman, who (according to the speaker) was not allowed to participate in certain religious rites because of reputation for scandalous behavior (Isaeus 6.49-50).

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A passage in Athenaeus suggests that the Council could give itself a vacation by means of a Council decree: “So that the Council might celebrate the Apaturia with the rest of the Athenians, according to the traditional ways, it has been decreed by the Council that the Councilors be dismissed for those days that the other offices have off, that is, five days starting from the day on which the Protenthae celebrate the opening feast of the Apaturia” (ὅπως ἂν βουλὴ ἄγῃ τὰ Ἀπατούρια μετὰ τῶν ἄλλων Ἀθηναίων κατὰ τὰ πάτρια, ἐψηφίσθαι τῇ βουλῇ ἀφεῖσθαι τοὺς βουλευτὰς τὰς ἡμέρας ἅσπερ καὶ αἱ ἄλλαι ἀρχαὶ αἱ ἀφεταὶ ἀπὸ τῆς ἡμέρας ἧς οἱ προτένθαι ἄγουσι πέντε ἡμέρας) (Athen. 4.171e).

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Aeschines (Aeschin. 2).
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The Council could issue decrees regarding official embassies from Athens to other states. The orator Aeschines describes an embassy of which he was a member, and how its departure from Athens was delayed, and cites a decree of the Council as evidence supporting his assertion: “As witness of this I will present the Council, for there is a decree of theirs which commands the ambassadors to set out in order to receive the oaths. Please read the decree of the Council” (καὶ τούτου τὴν βουλὴν μάρτυρα ὑμῖν παρέξομαι· ἔστι γὰρ αὐτῆς ψήφισμα, κελεύει ἀπιέναι τοὺς πρέσβεις ἐπὶ τοὺς ὅρκους. καί μοι λέγε τὸ τῆς βουλῆς ψήφισμα.) (Aeschin. 2.91).

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Eretria (in text as “Eretrians”).

There is some evidence for more substantial decisions made by the Council alone. An inscription recording a “treaty of military alliance between the Eretrians and the Athenians” (Ἐρετριέων συμμαχία καὶ Ἀθηναίων) begins with the phrase “It seemed best to the Council” (ἔδοξεν τῆι βολῆι) (IG II2 16). Had the Assembly been involved in this treaty, we would expect to see the phrase “It seemed best to the Council and the People.” Likewise, another inscription having to do with relationships between Athens and Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, also begins “It seemed best to the Council” (ἔδοξεν τῆι βολῆι) (IG II2 18).

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Lysias (Lys. 13).
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Nevertheless, the Assembly of all Athenian citizens was the definitive institution of the democracy, and the democracy carefully guarded against giving the Council of 500 too much authority. Early in the 4th century BCE, the orator Lysias expresses lingering suspicion about the Council and its role in the oligarchic coup of 411 BCE and the Tyranny imposed by the Spartans in 404 BCE (these events are described more fully in the article on the history of the Council): “The Council which held session before the time of the Thirty had been corrupted, and its appetite for oligarchy, as you know, was very keen. For proof of it you have the fact that the majority of that Council had seats in the subsequent Council under the Thirty. And what is my reason for making these remarks to you? That you may know that the decrees issued by that Council were all designed, not in loyalty to you, but for the subversion of your democracy, and that you may study them as thus exposed” (Lys. 13.19-20). According to Lysias, even in the period between the oligarchy and the tyranny, when Athens was democratic, the Council was dominated by Athenians who favored oligarchy.

It is not surprising, then, that the Council under the democracy had only limited authority to pass resolutions on its own, without the approval or cooperation of the Assembly. We have an inscription that lists various kinds of decisions that the Council was not allowed to make without getting the approval of the Assembly; these include matters of war and peace, death sentences, especially large fines, stripping an Athenian of citizenship, and perhaps (the inscription’s fragmentary state makes this uncertain) the administration of public finances and foreign policy (IG I3 105).

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Demosthenes (Dem. 19).
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Often, it seems, the Assembly would pass a broad decree, and leave management of the details to the Council. So, a decree of the Council and the Assembly (ἔδοξεν τῆι βουλῆι καὶ τῶι δήμωι), recorded on an inscription dating to around 356 BCE, includes the provision that, “If this decree should omit anything, the Council is authorized to act” (ἐὰν δέ του προσδεήηι τόδε τὸ ψήφισμα, τὴν βουλὴν κυρίαν εἶναι) (IG II2 127.34-35 = Tod 157; source for date: M.N. Tod, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions, vol. 2 [Oxford, 1948] 168). This decree, establishing an alliance between Athens and the kings of Thrace, Illyria, and Paeonia, is also mentioned at Dem. 19.86.

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Another inscription also gives the Council the right to manage details by decree, but with more cautious language. The decree of the Assembly, in 325 or 324 BCE, has to do with the Athenian fleet and a colony that the Athenians were sending out to the Adriatic sea (περὶ τῆς εἰς τὸν Ἀδρίαν ἀποικίας). Here, the decree grants the Council limited powers to manage details, but only within the terms established by the Assembly: “Should this decree regarding the expedition omit anything, the Council is authorized to issued decrees, as long as it does not violate any of the decrees passed by the People” (ἐὰν δέ τοῦ προσδέει τόδε τὸ ψήφισμα τῶν περὶ τὸν ἀπόστολον, τὴν βουλὴν κυρίαν εἶναι ψηφίζεσθαι μὴ λύουσαν μηθὲν τῶν ἐψηφισμένων τῶι δήμωι) (IG II2 1629.264-9 = Tod 200; source for date: M.N. Tod, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions, vol. 2 [Oxford, 1948] 284).

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Demosthenes (Dem. 19).
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Demosthenes notes another, special, circumstance in which the Council could act without involving the Assembly. He describes an instance when all of the regularly scheduled meetings of the Assembly in one month had passed, but there was still a need for a decree authorizing an embassy to depart from Athens to meet with Philip of Macedon: “Finding that you had got to the end of the regular Assemblies, and that there was no meeting left, and observing that the envoys were still wasting time at Athens instead of starting at once, I proposed a decree as a member of the Council, to which the Assembly had given authority, directing the envoys to sail immediately, and the general Proxenus to convey them to any place in which he should ascertain that Philip was to be found. I drafted it, as I now read it, in those express terms” (Dem. 19.154). So if there were pressing business, and the Assembly could not meet, the Council could act on its own.

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