Chapter XVI. The Ecclesia of Athens.

127. The Rule of Democracy in Athens. - The Ecclesia, or Public Assembly, of Athens is something more than the chief governmental organ in the state. It is the great leveling engine which makes Athens a true democracy, despite the great differences in wealth between her inhabitants, and the marked social pretensions of "the noble and the good" - the educated classes. At this time Athens is profoundly wedded to her democratic constitution. Founded by Solon and Clisthenes, developed by Themistocles and Pericles, it was temporarily overthrown at the end of the Peloponnesian War; but the evil rule then of the "Thirty Tyrants" has proved a better lesson on the evils of oligarchic rule than a thousand rhetoricians' declamations upon the advantages of the "rule of the many" as against the "rule of the few." Attica now acknowledges only one Lord - KING DEMOS - "King Everybody" - and until the coming of bondage to Macedon there will be no serious danger of an aristocratic reaction.

128. Aristocracy and Wealth. Their Status and Burdens. - True, there are old noble families in Athens, - like the Alcmeonide whereof Pericles sprang, and the Eumolpide who supply the priests to Demeter, the Earth Mother. But these great houses have long since ceased to claim anything but SOCIAL preeminence. Even then one must take pains not to assume airs, or the next time one is litigant before the dicastery, the insinuation of "an undemocratic, oligarchic manner of life" will win very many adverse votes among the jury. Nobility and wealth are only allowed to assert themselves in Athens when justified by an extraordinary amount of public service and public generosity.

Xenophon in his "Memorabilia" makes Socrates tell Critobuls, a wealthy and self-important individual, that he is really so hampered by his high position as to be decidedly poor. "You are obliged," says Socrates, "to offer numerous and magnificent sacrifices; you have to receive and entertain sumptuously a great many strangers, and to feast [your fellow] citizens. You have to pay heavy contributions towards the public service, keeping horses and furnishing choruses in peace times and in war bearing the expense of maintaining triremes and paying the special war taxes; and if you fail to do all this, they will punish you with as much severity as if you were caught stealing their money."

129. Athenian Society Truly Democratic up to a Certain Point. - Wealth, then, means one perpetual round of public services and obligations, sweetened perhaps with a little empty praise, an inscription, an honorary crown, or best of all, an honorary statue "to the public benefactor" as the chief reward. On the other hand one may be poor and be a thoroughly self-respecting, nay, prominent citizen. Socrates had an absurdly small invested fortune and the gods knew that he did little enough in the way of profitable labor.[*] He had to support his wife and three children upon this income. He wore no chiton. His himation was always an old one, unchanged from summer to winter. He seems to have possessed only one pair of good sandals all his life. His rations were bread and water, save when he was invited out. Yet this man was welcome in the "very best society." Alcibiades, leader of the fast, rich set, and many more of the gilded youth of Athens dogged his heels. One meets not the slightest evidence that his poverty ever prevented him from carrying his philosophic message home to the wealthy and the noble. There is no snobbishness, then, in this Athenian society. Provided a man is not pursuing a base mechanic art or an ignoble trade, provided he has a real message to convey, - whether in literature, philosophy, or statecraft, - there are no questions "who was your father?" or "what is your income?"[+] Athens will hear him and accept his best. For this open-mindedness - almost unique in ancient communities - one must thank King Demos and his mouthpiece, the Ecclesia.

[*]Socrates's regular income from invested property seems to have been only about $12 per year. It is to be hoped his wife, Xanthippe, had a little property of her own!

[+]Possibly the son of a man whose parents notoriously had been slaves in Athens would have found many doors closed to him.

Athenians are intensely proud of their democracy. In Aeschylus's "Persians," Atossa, the Barbarian queen, asks concerning the Athenians: -

"Who is the lord and shepherd of their flock?"

Very prompt is the answer: -

"They are not slaves, they bow to no man's rule."

Again in Euripides's "Supplicants" there is this boast touching Athens: -

       "No will of one
Holdeth this land: it is a city and free.
The whole folk year by year, in parity of service is our king."

130. The Voting Population of Athens. - Nevertheless when we ask about this "whole folk," and who the voters are, we soon discover that Athens is very far from being a pure democracy. The multitudes of slaves are of course without votes, and so is the numerous class of the important, cultivated, and often wealthy metics. To get Athenian citizenship is notoriously hard. For a stranger (say a metic who had done some conspicuous public service) to be given the franchise, a special vote must be passed by the Ecclesia itself; even then the new citizen may be prosecuted as undeserving before a dicastery, and disfranchised. Again, only children both of whose parents are free Athenian citizens can themselves be enrolled on the carefully guarded lists in the deme books. The status of a child, one of whose parents is a metic, is little better than a bastard.[*]

[*]Of course women were entirely excluded from the Ecclesia, as from all other forms of public life. The question of "woman's rights" had been agitated just enough to produce comedies like Aristophanes's "Parliament of Women," and philosophical theories such as appear in Plato's "Republic."

Under these circumstances the whole number of voters is very much less than at a later day will appear in American communities of like population. Before the Peloponneisan War, when the power of Athens was at its highest point, there were not less than 30,000 full citizens and possibly as many as 40,000. But those days of imperial power are now ended. At present Athens has about 21,000 citizens, or a few more. It is impossible, however, to gather all these in any single meeting. A great number are farmers living in the remote villages of Attica; many city dwellers also will be too busy to think the 3-obol (9-cent [1914 or $1.55 2000]) fee for attendance worth their while.[*] Six thousand seems to be a good number for ordinary occasions and no doubt much business can be dispatched with less, although this is the legal quorum set for most really vital matters. Of course a great crisis, e.g. a declaration of war, will bring out nearly every voter whose farm is not too distant.

[*]Payment for attendance at the Pnyx seems to have been introduced about 390 B.C. The original payment was probably only one obol, and then from time to time increased. It was a sign of the relative decay of political interest in Athens when it became needful thus to reward the commonalty for attendance at the Assembly.

131. Meeting Time of the Ecclesia. - Four times in every prytany[*] the Ecclesia must be convened for ordinary business, and oftener if public occasion requires. Five days' notice has to be given of each regular meeting, and along with the notice a placard announcing the proposals which are to come up has to be posted in the Agora. But if there is a sudden crisis, formalities can be thrown to the winds; a sudden bawling of the heralds in the streets, a great smoky column caused by burning the traders' flimsy booths in the Agora, - these are valid notices of an extraordinary meeting to confront an immediate danger.

[*]"A prytany" was one tenth of a year, say 35 or 36 days, during which time the 50 representatives of one of the ten Athenian tribes then serving as members of the Council of 500 (each tribe taking its turn) held the presidency of the Council and acted as a special executive committee of the government. There were thus at least 40 meetings of the Ecclesia each year, as well as the extraordinary meetings.

If this has been a morning when the Ecclesia has been in session, nothing unusual has occurred at first in the busy Agora, except that the jury courts are hardly in action, and a bright flag is whipping the air from the tall flagpole by the Pnyx (the Assembly Place). Then suddenly there is a shouting through the Agora. The clamor of traffic around the popular flower stalls ceases; everybody who is not a slave or metic (and these would form a large fraction of the crowd of marketers) begins to edge down toward one end of the Agora. Presently a gang of Scythian police-archers comes in sight. They have a long rope sprinkled with red chalk wherewith they are "netting" the Agora. The chalk will leave an infallible mark on the mantle of every tardy citizen, and he who is thus marked as late at the meeting will lose his fee for attendance, if not subject himself to a fine. So there is a general rush away from the Agora and down one of the various avenues leading to the Pnyx.

132. The Pnyx (Assembly Place) at Athens. - The Pnyx is an open space of ground due west from the Acropolis. It originally sloped gently away towards the northeast, but a massive retaining wall had been built around it, in an irregular semicircle, and the space within filled with solidly packed earth sloping inwards, making a kind of open air auditorium. It is a huge place, 394 feet long, and 213 feet at the widest. The earthen slope is entirely devoid of seats; everybody casts himself down sprawling or on his haunches, perhaps with an old himation under him. Directly before the sitters runs a long ledge hewn out of the rock, forming, as it were, the "stage" side of the theater. Here the rock has been cut away, so as to leave a sizable stone pulpit standing forth, with a small flight of steps on each side. This is the "Bema," the orator's stand, whence speak the "demagogues,"[*] the molders of Athenian public opinion. In front of the Bema there is a small portable altar for the indispensable sacrifices. In the rear of the Bema are a few planks laid upon the rock. Here will sit the fifty "Pryantes" in charge of the meeting. There is a handsome chair for the presiding officer upon the Bema itself. These are all the furnishings of the structure wherein Athens makes peace and war, and orders her whole civil and foreign policy. The Hellenic azure is the only roof above her sovran law makers. To the right, as the orators stand on the Bema, they can point toward the Acropolis and its glittering temples; to the left towards the Peireus, and the blue sea with the inevitable memories of glorious Salamis. Surely it will be easy to fire all hearts with patriotism!

[*]A "demagogue" (=people-leader) might well be a great statesman, and not necessarily a cheap and noisy politician.

133. The Preliminaries of the Meeting. - Into this space the voters swarm by hundreds - all the citizens of Athens, from twenty years and upward, sufficiently interested to come. At each crude entrance stands a crops of watchful LEXIARCHS and their clerks, checking off those present and turning back interlopers. As the entering crowds begin to thin, the entrance ways are presently closed by wicker hurdles. The flag fluttering on high is struck. The Ecclesia is ready for action.

Much earlier than this, the farmers and fishmen from the hill towns or from Salamis have been in their places, grumbling at the slowness of the officials. People sit down where they can; little groups and clans together, wedged in closely, chattering up to the last minute, watching every proceeding with eyes as keen as cats'. All the gossip left over from the Agora is disposed of ere the prytanes - proverbially late - scramble into their seats of honor. The police-archers move up and down, enforcing a kind of order. Amid a growing hush a suckling pig is solemnly slaughtered by some religious functionary at the altar, and the dead victim carried around the circuit of the Pnyx as a symbolic purification of the audience.

"Come inside the purified circuit," enjoins a loud herald to the little groups upon the edge.[*]

[*]Aristophanes's "Acharnians" (ll. 50 ff.) gives a valuable picture of this and other proceedings at the Pnyx, but one should never forget the poet's exaggerations for comedy purposes, nor his deliberate omission of matters likely to be mere tedious detail to his audience.

Then comes a prayer invoking the gods' favor upon the Athenians, their allies, and this present meeting in particular, winding up (the herald counts this among the chief parts of his duty) with a tremendous curse on any wretch who should deceive the folk with evil counsel. After this the real secular business can begin. Nothing can be submitted to the Ecclesia which has not been previously considered and matured by the Council of 500. The question to be proposed is now read by the heralds as a "Pro-bouleuma" - a suggested ordinance by the Council. Vast as is the audience, the acoustic properties of the Pnyx are excellent, and all public officers and orators are trained to harangue multitudes in the open air, so that the thousands get every word of the proposition.

134. Debating a Proposition. - "Resolved by the Boule, the tribe Leontis holding the prytany, and Heraclides being clerk, upon the motion of Timon the son of Timon the Eleusinian,[*] that" - and then in formal language it is proposed to increase the garrison of the allied city of Byzantium by 500 hired Arcadian mercenaries, since the king of Thrace is threatening that city, and its continued possession is absolutely essential to the free import of grain into Attica.

[*]This seems to have been the regular form for beginning a "probouleuma" although nearly all our information comes from the texts of proposals AFTER they have been made formal decrees by the sovran Demos.

There is a hush of expectancy; a craning of necks.

"Who wishes to speak?" calls the herald.

After a decent pause Timon, the mover of the measure, comes forward. He is a fairly well-known character and commands a respectable faction among the Demos. There is some little clapping, mixed with jeering, as he mounts the Bema. The president of the prytanes - as evidence that he has now the right to harangue - hands him a myrtle wreath which he promptly claps on his head, and launches into his argument. Full speedily he has convinced at least a large share of the audience that it was sheer destruction to leave Byzantium without an efficient garrison. Grain would soon be at famine prices if the town were taken, etc., etc. The only marvel is that the merciful gods have averted the disaster so long in the face of such neglect. - Why had the board of strategi, responsible in such matters, neglected this obvious duty? [Cheers intermixed with catcalls.] This was not the way the men who won Marathon had dealt with dangers, nor later worthies like Nicias or Thrasybulus. [More cheers and catcalls.] He winds up with a splendid invocation to Earth, Sky, and Justice to bear witness that all this advice is given solely with a view to the weal of Athens.

"He had Isocrates teach him how to launch that peroration," mutters a crabbed old citizen behind his peak-trimmed beard, as Timon descends amid mingled applause and derision.

"Very likely; Iphicrates is ready to answer him," replies a fellow.

"Who wishes to speak?" the herald demands again. From a place directly before the Bema a well-known figure, the elderly general, Iphicrates, is rising. At a nod from the president, he mounts the Bema and assumes the myrtle. He has not Timon's smooth tones nor oratorical manner. He is a man of action and war, and no tool of the Agora coteries. A salvo of applause greets him. Very pithily he observes that Byzantium will be safe enough if the city will only be loyal to the Athenian alliance. Athens needs all her garrisons nearer home. Timon surely knows the state of the treasury. Is he going to propose a special tax upon his fellow countrymen to pay for those 500 mercenaries? [Loud laughter and derisive howls directed at Timon.] Athens needs to keep her strength for REAL dangers; and those are serious enough, but not at Byzantium. At the next meeting he and the other strategi will recommend - etc., etc. When Iphicrates quits the Bema there is little left of Timon's fine "Earth, Sky and Justice."

135. Voting at the Pnyx. - But other orators follow on both sides. Once Timon, egged on by many supporters, tries to gain the Bema a second time, but is told by the president that one cannot speak twice on the same subject. Once the derision and shouting becomes so violent that the president has to announce, "Unless there is silence I must adjourn the meeting." Finally, after an unsuccessful effort to amend the proposal, by reducing the garrison at Byzantium to 250, the movers of the measure realize that the votes will probably be against them. They try to break up the meeting.

"I hear thunder!" "I feel rain!" they begin shouting, and such ill omens, if really in evidence, would be enough to force an adjournment; but the sky is delightfully clear. The president simply shrugs his shoulders; and now the Pnyx is fairly rocking with the yell, "A vote! A vote!"

The president rises. Taking the vote in the Ecclesia is a very simple matter when it is a plain question of "yes" or "no" on a proposition.[*]

[*]When an INDIVIDUAL had to be voted for, then ballots were used.

"All who favor the 'probouleuma' of Timon will raise the right hand!"

A respectable but very decided minority shows itself.

"Those who oppose."

The adverse majority is large. The morning is quite spent. There is a great tumult. Men are rising, putting on their himatia, ridiculing Timon; while the herald at a nod from the president declares the Ecclesia adjourned.

136. The Ecclesia as an Educational Instrument. - Timon and his friends retire crestfallen to discuss the fortunes of war. They are not utterly discouraged, however. The Ecclesia is a fickle creature. What it withholds to-day it may grant to-morrow. Iphicrates, whose words have carried such weight now, may soon be howled down and driven from the Bema much as was the unfortunate litigant in the jury court. Still, with all its faults, the Ecclesia is the great school for the adults of Athens. All are on terms of perfect equality. King Demos is not the least respecter of wealth or family. Sophistries are usually penetrated in a twinkling by some coarse expletive from a remote corner of the Pnyx. Every citizen understands the main issues of the public business. HE IS PART OF THE ACTUAL WORKING GOVERNMENT, not once per year (or less often) at the ballot box, but at least forty times annually; and dolt he would be, did he not learn at least all the superficialities of statecraft. He may make grievous errors. He may be misled by mob prejudice or mob enthusiasm; but he is not likely to persist in a policy of crass blundering very long. King Demos may indeed rule a fallible human monarchy, but it is thanks to him, and to his high court held at the Pnyx, that Athens owes at least half of that sharpness of wit and intelligence which is her boast.