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The Council 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 23, 2003

page 14 of 24

· Exceptional Decrees ·

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 22).

In one of Demosthenes’ speeches, we can see that there could be disagreement over the absolute necessity of a preliminary decree from the Council, before any business could be discussed in the Assembly. The issue at Dem. 22.5 was whether the Assembly could vote a gift of thanks to the members of the Council at the end of their year of service. Demosthenes claims that a certain Androtion has defended the practice of voting for such an award, in the Assembly, without first getting a Preliminary Decree on the matter from the Council. It is not hard to see why this would seem reasonable—it would surely be awkward to ask the Council to pass a decree awarding a gift of thanks to itself. But, Demosthenes argues, that is precisely what should happen: “There is one plea which he thinks a clever defence of the omission of the Preliminary Decree. There is a law, he says, that if the Council by its performance of its duties seems to deserve a reward, that reward shall be presented by the People [i.e. the Assembly — CWB]. That question, he says, the chairman of the Assembly put, the People voted, and it was carried. In this case, he says, there is no need of a Preliminary Decree, because what was done was in accordance with law. But I take the exactly contrary view—and I think you will agree with me—that the Preliminary Decrees should only be proposed concerning matters prescribed by the laws, because, where no laws are laid down, surely no proposal whatever is admissible” (Dem. 22.5).

So, if there was already a law (νόμος) allowing the Assembly to do something, did the Assembly nevertheless need a Preliminary Decree? Demosthenes says so, and it does make sense. The law might make it legal for the Assembly to award the Council a gift of thanks from time to time, but it remained to be decided whether such a gift was appropriate in any given year. That decision could only be made through discussion in the Assembly, and such discussion could problably not take place without a Preliminary Decree from the Council.

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 22).

Demosthenes goes on to note that in previous years the Assembly had voted awards to the Council without a preliminary decree (Dem. 22.6), but condemns that historical precedent as being illegal. It is very likely that Demosthenes is correct—that such an action in the Assembly was unconstitutional—but that no member of the Council would be so churlish as to object to the Assembly’s voting them a gift of thanks, even without a Probouleuma.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

When Aristotle describes meetings of the Assembly, he mentions certain regular pieces of business that were to be conducted at each κυρία ἐκκλησία, that is, each of the four regular meetings that took place during each prytany (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.4); this business included votes of confidence in officials, matters of the food supply and security, a public invitation for any citizen to make certain kinds of accusations, and various public announcements (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.5-6 also specifies other regular business that was supposed to take place only once a year).

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

We do not know whether this business was an exception to the rule that “nothing is permitted [to happen in the Assembly — CWB] without a Preliminary Decree from the Council” (οὐκ ἔξεστιν οὐδὲν ἀπροβούλευτον) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.4). Perhaps these were exceptions to that rule that allowed ordinary citizens to participate, in certain ways, in the Assembly without needing the intervention of the Council. Or, perhaps the Council automatically included these orders of business when it drew up the agendas for those regular meetings of the Assembly.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

Since Aristotle mentions these regularly occuring pieces of business for the Assembly (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.4-5) immediately after describing how the Council’s job was to prepare the agenda for meetings of the Assembly (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.4), it seems more likely that the Council automatically put that business on the Assembly’s agenda.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
Plot on a Map

Two of these regular items of business that Aristotle mentions are particularly important for the democratic governance of Athens. First, he mentions that, at one meeting of the Assembly during each prytany, there was supposed to be the opportunity “on that day for whoever wished to make public accusations” (τὰς εἰσαγγελίας ἐν ταύτῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοὺς βουλομένους ποιεῖσθαι) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.4). And in the sixth prytany, at one of the meetings of the Assembly, there was supposed to be an opportunity for people to bring “accusations against people, either Athenians or resident foreigners, informing on others maliciously (not more than three accusations against Athenians and three against foreigners), and and against anyone who promised to do something for the People but did not do it” (καὶ συκοφαντῶν προβολὰς τῶν Ἀθηναίων καὶ τῶν μετοίκων μέχρι τριῶν ἑκατέρων, κἄν τις ὑποσχόμενός τι μὴ ποιήσῃ τῷ δήμῳ) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.5). And at one meeting (Aristotle does not say which one) there was the opportunity “for supplications, in which whoever wants to may place a suppliant-branch [ἱκετηρίαν] and make a request of the People regarding whatever he wishes, either public business or private business” (ταῖς ἱκετηρίαις, ἐν θεὶς βουλόμενος ἱκετηρίαν, ὑπὲρ ὧν ἂν βούληται καὶ ἰδίων καὶ δημοσίων, διαλέξεται πρὸς τὸν δῆμον) (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 43.6). [The business of supplication is discussed at greater length in the article on the Assembly. — CWB]

By having these as regular orders of business at pre-determined points in the year, the Athenian democracy allowed its citizens to make public complaints about citizens acting illegally or failing to live up to their responsibilities, to lodge complaints against citizens or foreigners misusing the court system, or simply make a request of the democratic government. But while most business had to go to the Council before appearing before the Assembly, in at least these matters citizens had guaranteed access to the Assembly, without having to seek special permission from the Council.

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