Ancient Greece in the 5th Century BC

Sample from Chapter 5

Ephialtes and Pericles


After defeat at Eurymedon, and the assassination of Xerxes in 465, the Persian threat to the Greek world virtually disappeared. The development of the Delian League and the emergence of Athens as a dominant power in the Aegean caused a fundamental shift in power relations as the Greek world which was divided into two blocs - Athens and its allies and Sparta and its allies. This development upset the balance that Cimon and his oligarchic supporters had pursued for nearly two decades and the emergence of an anti-Cimon, anti-oligarchic democratic faction not only changed the Athenian political scene but was also to have a destabilizing impact on the Greek world. With the emergence of the democrats Athens pursued an aggressive policy over the next sixty years of imperialism that contributed to war throughout the Greek world.

Democracy in Athens

What democracy meant to the Greeks:

  • ' In a democracy there is first that most splendid of virtues equality before the law. Secondly it has none of the vices of monarchy: for all offices are assigned by lot, all officials are subject to investigation and all policies are debated in public.'
    (Herodotus : III, 81)
  • In Euripides' play " The Suppliants" one of his characters says that 'this city is free and not ruled by one man. The people rule as year by year new men succeed to office.'
  • Aristotle collected the constitutions of over 150 states and comments about Athens :
    'The same man is not to hold an office twice, or only rarely, with a few exceptions, notably military. Jury service on all, or most, matters is open to all and always in the case of the most important decisions, such as the annual investigations into officials' conduct of their office, questions of citizenship, and contracts between individuals.'
    (Aristotle : Politics, 1317b)
  • However, the Old Oligarch identifies an important point - the potential power of the thetis in Athenian political life:
    'It is right that in
    Athensthe poor and the common people should have more power than the nobles and the rich, because they provide the rowers for the fleet and thus give the polis its strength.'
    (The Old Oligarch 1,2)
  • There were probably some 40000 citizens in the democracy of Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War.
  • Many of them would attend the public meetings at which the major political decisions of the day - of peace and war, of finance, of alliances - were made.
  • Not every citizen would attend but the underlying principle of this system was that all Athenian citizens had the right to speak and vote at the meetings of this general assembly or ecclesia - the body which had final and supreme power in the state
  • Any decision was immediate and could have a direct impact
  • In early 415 B.C., for example, the ecclesia was locked in a critical debate over whether a fleet should be sent to Sicily
  • Those who voted were supporting a military campaign in which they and members of their families would be sent to war - it was not a case of sending the "army" or "navy", someone else, that was being sent
  • The Sicilian Expedition turned out to be one of the greatest military disasters in Athenian history!


  • Like most mass meetings, the ecc lesia could be swayed by skilful speakers
  • So oratory was important: you became a political leader only if you were able to persuade the ec clesia.
  • There was no party to make you its leader, because parties in the modern sense did not exist
  • Obviously various groups, the farmers, the sailors or shopkeepers, might join together to support a particular proposal
  • A faction might develop around a particular individual
  • But these groupings changed from meeting to meeting
  • The only way to exercise political power was by convincing a majority of your fellow-citizens that your proposals were the best for their interests and the state
  • So, to remain a leader meant that you had to continue to win the approval of the ecclesia, meeting after meeting
  • There was a lot of criticism of the demagogues, as these leaders were called
  • One of them in particular, Cleon, who became the leading politician in Athens after Pericles' death, always gets a bad press
  • Plutarch attacks him for his vulgarity :
    'He was offensive and conceited. ..It was thanks to him that decent behaviour was no longer seen at meetings of the ecclesia. For he was the first popular leader to bellow his speeches, to throw open his cloak and slap his thigh, and to stride up and down on the platform while haranguing the people.'
  • Aristophanes describes him in his play The Knights as being the:
    'filthiest, most blatant, lowest-down liar of all time: ...he sucks-up, smarms, and soft-soaps the Assembly until he has it where he wants; ...he's the tax-extorter, the bottomless pit, the Charybdis of rapacity', who 'helps himself to public money', who 'has a squad of muscle-men, tough young leather-sellers ...'

The Ecclesia and the Boule

  • The Ecclesia or Assembly, normally met three or four times a month
  • It made the most important decisions
  • It enacted laws and imposed taxes and decided expenditure
  • It made alliances and declared war and peace
  • Any citizen who was present at the Assembly had the right to speak, make a proposal or put an amendment to any proposal
  • The concept of probouleusis, which means advanced or prior deliberation, was an important restriction or limitation on the power of the Assembly
  • This was the responsibility of the Boule (Council) which was responsible for the prior deliberation of the business of the Assembly
  • Aristotle writes "It is not permitted to the demos to decree anything which has not been given prior consideration by the Council and has not been put to it by the prytaneis." (Ath. Pol. 45.4)
  • Decisions of the Assembly were made as a result of a simple majority
  • Assembly met on the Pnyx

The Boule

  • The everyday business of government was dealt with by the Boule (Council)
  • This consisted of five hundred citizens, fifty chosen by lot from each of the ten tribes
  • They served for a year, and nobody was allowed to serve on it more than twice
  • The councillors of each tribe served as a prytany (or standing committee) for a tenth of the year
  • They lived in the tholos at public expense.
  • One member became chairman of the prytany for a day and act as chairman of the Boule or Ecclesia for that day
  • He held the keys of the treasuries and the seal of Athens
  • The Boule received embassies and dispatches
  • It decided what matters should be put on the agenda for the consideration of the Ecclesia
  • It was responsible for triremes, dockyards and cavalry horses
  • It was responsible for the general supervision of officials and scrutinized the candidates for elections
  • It also checked the accounts of all officials once in each prytany
  • It is likely that Ephialtes was responsible for the introduction of the prytaneis
  • The Ecclesia met in the Agora in the Bouleuterion and a round house or tholos was used by the prytaneis in the second quarter of the 5 th Century BC

Running Athens

  • The administration of Athens was carried out by various individuals or boards
  • The agoranomoi looked after the markets
  • The metronomoi inspected weights and measures
  • The sitophylakes were in charge of the corn-supply

End of sample