This is the second part of the second part of our three(ish) part look at the governing structures of the Greek polis (I, IIa, IIb, IIc, III). Last time, we looked at the basic institutions of governance, how nearly every polis has magistrates, an assembly, and one or more councils which function together to govern the polis. We also discussed how altering the balance of power between those institutions could make a polis a democracy or an oligarchy, without necessarily removing any of them (meaning that democracies and oligarchies had governments made up of the same component parts), while subverting those institutions was how tyrannies formed (and thus even tyrants didn’t abolish polis government structures).
This week we’re going to take a deeper look at magistrates, the officials that actually carry out most of the polis‘ decisions. Magistrates (when they weren’t selected ‘by lot’ which is to say at random from among the politai) were understood by our ancient sources as bastions of oligarchic power, but despite this both democracies and oligarchies had to have magistrates because after all someone needs to do all of the nice things that the council or the assembly has decided to do. We’re going to cover magistrates here in three parts:1 first what we can and can’t know about them, then the common sorts of high magistrates (‘archons’) that a polis might have, and finally a detailed look at minor magistrates. That last section is going to be extremely Athens-focused because Athens is the only polis where we have a more or less complete accounting of all of the minor sorts of officials a polis would have. The advantage to us is that because Athens is unusually big, wealthy and complex, it seems to have had the ‘complete set’ of minor magistrates (whereas most poleis might have needed far fewer).
I had hoped we’d also get to discuss courts here, but that’s going to have to wait as this post is already long and my time already short.
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The Limits of Information
We should start by noting at the outset how this overview is going to be influenced by the presence and absence of evidence. The thing is, our understanding of the political systems of most poleis is patchy. By way of example, here is the paragraph on the constitution of Corinth – one of the largest and wealthiest poleis in Greece and a major player in Greek affairs – from the Inventory2 – to give a sense of what our information on even a large and powerful polis not named ‘Athens’ or ‘Sparta’ might look like:
Monarchy gave way to the Bacchiad aristocracy in C8m (Diod. 7.9; Salmon (1984) 55-56). The tyranny of the Kypselids lasted from C7m to C6e (Arist. Pol. 1315b22-26; Salmon (1984), 186-230). Thereafter, an oligarchic constitution characterized Corinth throughout C6, C5 and C4, interrupted only by a brief period of democracy 392-386 (infra) and the tyranny of Timophanes in 366 (Arist. Pol. 1306aa21-24). A Council of Eighty comprised of eight probouloi and seventy-two ordinary members (Nic. Dam. FgrHist 90) fr. 60.2; cf. Will (1955) 605-15) existed by C4 and probably goes back to the time of the tyranny. This council is probably the γερουσία mentioned by Diod. (16.65.6,9) as involved in the dispatch of Timoleon to Sicily in 346/5 (Salmon (1984) 231). Thuc. 5.30.5 mentions a Corinthian ξύλλογος in 421, which must be an assembly.
(Inventory, 467; that section was written by Ronald P. Legon)
And that’s more or less it for what we know (for the Archaic and Classical period at least; a few Corinthian magistrates come into view in the Hellenistic, but no knowing if they predate the period). We’ve got a gerousia, a reference to something we’re pretty sure is an ekklesia, a board of what might be eight presiding magistrates (but also possibly just a select committee or the gerousia) that run the gerousia and functionally no other attested magistrates. This is again, one of the ‘big four’ poleis in Greece (Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Corinth), one of the most important ancient Greek states and we know practically nothing about its constitution.3
In part the problem is our literary sources; outside of direct discussions of political structure,of which there are very few,4 the literary sources rarely go into depth on a polis constitution beyond noting its general character (oligarchy/democracy/tyranny). Remember that our sources are mostly ‘gentleman historians’ as it were, amateur dabblers writing for an audience of amateur dabblers. As a result, they tend to avoid technical terminology and close technical descriptions.5 So instead of, say, “Representative such-and-so proposed a bill in the House of Representatives, to match the bill passed in the Senate the previous month, which was then signed by the president and passed into law on <date>,” they’d write, “The Americans passed a law.” If you are very lucky, they might add ‘in Congress’ but more often than not they’d leave that out. Indeed that is by far the most common way the report political activities, ‘the Athenians’ or ‘the Corinthians’ or ‘the Syracusans’ or ‘the Spartans/Lakedaimonians’ or ‘the Plataeans’ are simply reported to collectively have done something, by which we are to understand that whatever government they might have did it, through whatever processes it might have (indeed, this usage does not change even for very narrow oligarchies).
(Indeed this is an important fact about how the Greeks understood their politics: there was often little distinction made between the action of the politai and the action of the polis. The frequent modern distinction ‘we disapprove of the government of X place, but have no quarrel with the people of X place’ is mostly quite alien to the way the Greeks think about politics (except in cases of stasis).)
Meanwhile, even when some sense of the internal politics is necessary, our sources generally assume you already know (or can find out) the constitution of a given polis, so we might get, “Now then because the Thebans were in stasis,6 it happened that Ismenias and Leontiades, who were each polemarchs, were at odds with each other…” (Xen. Hell. 5.2.25). How many polemarchs does Thebes have? What are their powers and responsibilities? How long has the institution existed? Who knows! (Xenophon, but not us!) Indeed, this is, as far as I can tell, the only attestation of polemarchs at Thebes. Presumably, since ‘polemarch’ means ‘war leader’ these are military officials of some sort (but Thebes generals are usually the Boiotarchs, so perhaps these are organizational or administrative figures, as with the Athenian polemarch?), but that’s thin gruel to be sure.
Consequently, there’s going to be a fair bit of Athens and Sparta here simply because those are the two poleis for which we have detailed descriptions of their political structures. The fortunate thing is that, as we’ve been discussing, the bulk of Greek writing about politics tells us pretty clearly that poleis governments shared lots of institutions and when we can see inside of them, we see sets of magistrates and courts that do not look too dissimilar to Athens and Sparta. Consequently it seems fairly safe to generalize from what we have, with a light admixture of what we know of other states. Still, we should be aware that we are generalizing from two case studies – case studies which are unusual given their size.
With that out of the way, on to Archons.
We’re going to start with senior magistrates and here we can engage in at least a little bit of cross-polis comparison because these most senior magistrates tend to be the only sort that show up regularly in our sources. As noted last time, the general term for these senior magistrates was archons (ἄρχοντες, archontes, literally ‘leaders,’ from ἄρχω, ‘to begin, to be first’ and thus ‘to lead, to rule.’ Note also ἀρχή, ‘first, preeminent’ but also ‘power, empire or an office.’), but every poleis‘ archons were likely to be a bit different, with their own particular local terms, numbers and sets of powers.
Numbers however is the first key difference here. Most modern governments have a single magistrate – a president or prime minister – from whom flows all executive power, delegated down to subordinates who are often unelected and whose power thus derives from the one chief magistrate at the top.7 In some cases, that power is less vested in the person of a prime minister as it is in the collective cabinet (where the cabinet wields power and notionally takes responsibility collectively),8 but there is still one line of power, reaching from the people, through a single executive person or body, then down to many functionaries whose role is to implement the will of the single executive.
This is not how ancient Greek magistrates (or indeed, ancient magistrates generally) worked.
Instead, Greek magistrates were a product of efforts to weaken royal power by dividing it, which of course only works if executive power was truly divided, that is vested in different autonomous figures. Thus it is important to not to see these magistrates as organized into a ‘chain of command’ or even engaged in collective decision-making. Instead, the best way to understand most magistrates is to imagine them as individual actors whose powers are restricted to a single sphere of action (that is, they have a specific job) and that a city might have many of them. Thus there isn’t one executive power in a polis, but many. Even in cases where magistrates function as a board, it is often the case that each member of that board carries the full power of the magistracy – it is a board of ten magistrates, not a board of ten acting as a magistrate, which means the individuals can act independent of the board.
So instead of one executive, what you have in a polis are many independent, little executives, each with a fragment of the overall executive power.9 And if you are thinking, ‘that sounds like an awkward system, since magistrates might be working at cross-purposes with each other,’ well, yes. There’s a reason we don’t generally structure governments this way. But the Greeks did and they liked it that way, because this sort of structure keeps the powers of the magistrates in check.
So what might the high magistrates of a polis do exactly? Though there are many different configurations for high magistrates, they tend to do the same basic set of jobs (again, split up usually). You need magistrates to 1) lead the armies and fleets (not usually a distinct job; strategoi are generals and admirals), 2) manage and organize the law courts (which may or may not include making summary judgements in minor cases), and 3) conduct key religious rituals on behalf of the community. Those who have been here a while will note how this maps on neatly to the three roles of kingship (chief general, chief judge, chief priest), though the shift from royal law maker-enforcer-judge to ‘court scheduling specialist’ is a meaningful one.
So at Athens, we have the initial three archons which slot neatly into these roles: the polemarch (πολέμαρχος, polemarchos, lit, ‘war-leader’) was in charge of the army, the archon basileus ( ἄρχων βασιλεύς, lit, ‘king archon’) who filled in for the king in religious rituals which required his presence but had no broader non-religious powers, and finally the eponymous archon, who lent his name to the year (“in the year of the archonship of so-and-so” being a standard dating form) and ran the courts. It seems fairly clear that early on the eponymous archon often stood as judge and initially also presided overs the meetings of the Athenian boule and ekklesia as its chief magistrate (and so supervising the law making process as well).
Over time these offices in Athens were weakened or supplanted, breaking power up further in order to buttress the democracy against both oligarchic power (remember: strong magistrates are a tool of ‘the few’) and tyranny (strong magistrates have a good position to overthrow the democracy and institute a tyranny). The eponymous archon slowly lost most of his power; the boule came to be a select council which ran the ekklesia and in turn there was an even smaller select council, the prytaneis who acted as a select of the boule and presided over it. Meanwhile, the polemarch became mostly an organizational, ‘managing the home front’ figure, while the war leading role was replaced with a board of ten generals, the strategoi. The strategoi ended up being a pretty key office. As everyone understood you needed generals with expertise, it was an office where one could be elected multiple times in succession and was never determined by lot the way the archonships were; that meant a capable politician could secure a permanent role in the state by getting elected over and over again as strategos; this is for instance the position Pericles held.
As for the courts, these got bigger even as the eponymous archon got smaller and so the Athenians created six lesser archons, the thesmothetai (θεσμοθέται, sing. θεσμοθέτης; “law-giver”) who operated the courts (but did not dispense justice; these are jury courts). Still the eponymous archon kept some vestigal legal powers, like a supervisory role over the epikleroi, sometimes translated as ‘heiresses’ (although that’s not quite right – they weren’t and indeed under Athenian law couldn’t inherit, but rather property was passing through them to legally valid inheritors – they were required to marry into their paternal line in order to generate a husband who could be such a valid inheritor – which in most poleis had to be male.).
At Sparta, the ephors and the two hereditary Spartan kings filled the role of high magistrates; the existence of the two hereditary kings is, we know, quite unusual but the board of ephors is not. We know that several other poleis had ephors and evidently on Crete they had kosmoi (described by Aristotle but epigraphically attested at Eleutherna, Eltynia, Gortyn, Knosos, Lyktos, etc.; Inventory 1159, 1160, 1164, 1169, 1175) whose powers were apparently much like the ephors. Ephors and kosmoi appear invariably as boards of officials with a wide range of executive powers: the Spartan ephors (of whom we are best informed) handled most foreign policy, served as a high court and could propose legislation to the assembly. At Sparta the ephors had the job of making sure the kings did their job, including their religious role, but also had some of their own ritual functions, like the ritual declaring of war on the helots (Plut. Lyc. 28.4). As you might imagine, a board of magistrates with such wide-ranging powers tended to be tools of ‘the few’ and indeed Aristotle notes that the Spartan ephors were easy to bribe (Arist. Pol. 2.1271a) while the Cretan kosmoi monopolized power to produce an effectively hereditary oligarchy (Arist. Pol. 2.1272b). Also notably it seems like one of the ephors or kosmoi was always eponymous, giving their name to the year just like the Athenian eponymous archon.
Athens and Sparta weren’t the only poleis with these kinds of high officials, of course, but as noted the magistrates of other poleis are often very poorly attested. Thebes had an eponymous archon (of unclear powers) and at least two polemarchs by 382 (Inventory, 455); the Boeotian confederation, of which Thebes was the leading power, also had seven Boiotarchs (Βοιωτάρχης, a fusion of βοιωτία (the name of the region) and that ἀρχ- root meaning ‘leader’), elected for a term of one year who led the combined armies of the Boeotian poleis. Argos’ assembly had a presiding magistrate attested in inscriptions, who was assisted by a secretary with a six month term of office; they also had board of five strategoi who commanded the army reported by Thucydides as well as a board of treasurers (ἀρτῦναι, artunai; Inventory, 604).
Demiourgoi (‘public workers’) appear in a number of poleis, often as a board or group of magistrates (Larissa had these, Arist. Pol. 1275b; Inventory 696), though the role of demiourgoi seems to vary from polis to polis as you might expect with so general a name (at Larissa they were apparently able to make new citizens, but the title was also used for the officials of the Hellenistic-era Achaean League (a federal alliance of poleis) and the representatives of the Peloponnesian League (Dem. 18.157) among quite a few others.) That said, demiourgos is a word with a wide range of meanings, to include magistrates but also skilled workers in public employ as well as being used in a philosophical sense to mean a kind of ‘creator god,’ so it’s a tricky word.
All told then what should you expect in terms of the high magistrates of a polis? Well, first that the key jobs here are leading the army, organizing the courts (and/or acting as a court as a board) and filling religious roles; you should expect these jobs to split over multiple magistrates. In democracies, offices that don’t require a lot of technical know-how may be selected by lot, but the rest tend to be elected (in oligarchies often from a subset of the polis, defined by wealth). In either case, magistrates serve relatively short terms, usually just one year (but sometimes a little longer or shorter). It is generally only the ‘specialist’ offices (read: generals) that can be held multiple times consecutively. The more powerful the magistracy, the more likely it is to be organized as a board of magistrates.
Now those are the most important and central magistrates, but a large polis with thousands of politai (and even more non-citizens) is going to need a slew of other state officers to handle a lot of the day to day matters. That brings us neatly to minor magistrates…
Now if you thought the information on high magistrates was limited, the problem is even worse here. Small officials doing things like regulating markets or inspecting grain simply aren’t going to show up in our sources when they are documenting major political events (usually war), though they might crop up here or there in inscriptions. As noted, we have very few political treatises that survive; Aristotle was supposed to have written the constitutions of 158 Greek poleis, of which only one survives: Athens. Nevertheless, that’s useful here because Athens has a pretty complete battery of minor magistrates, so by just running through them we can get a sense of all of the minor figures you might have in a very large polis and Aristotle lists quite a few of them (beginning in Arist. Ath. Pol. 47ff). In a smaller polis it’s almost certain a lot of these positions would be combined, or would fall under the authority of one of the major magistrates.
(Note that I do not quite follow Aristotle’s order here; he organizes magistrates in terms of how they relate to the Athenian boule, but I thought organizing them by their titles and areas of competence made more sense, so I am jumping around a bit).
He starts with the tamiai (ταμίαι, lit. ‘dispenser,’ we might say ‘controller’ or ‘treasurer’) who serve in a board of ten selected by lot exclusively from the wealthiest class of citizens; their job is to have custody over state funds stored in the treasury. Another tamias, evidently not one of the ten (Aristotle gets to him later, Ath. Pol. 49) has the looking after for the adunatoi – persons who are both poor and also incapable of work – the state pays them 2 obols a day each for food (which is not nothing, but also not a lot). Another board of ten hieron episkeustai (ἱερῶν ἐπισκευασταὶ, literally, ‘temple fixers’) are assigned 30 minae (that’s 18,000 obols, for comparative reference) to use to restore the temples that most needed it.
Next were a board of ten poletai (πωληταί, note the different spelling in Greek, this word means ‘seller’ or ‘contractor’) who let out public contracts; they too were selected by lot. They actually have quite a few jobs because there are lots of public contracts; Greek poleis use public contracts both to contract to have things done (so you might let out a contract for a certain amount of money to repair a temple, for instance) but also for certain kinds of revenue. We know for instance that these poletai let out the contracts for operating Athens’ publicly owned mines (where the ‘buyer’ of the contract would give the state money in exchange for the right to exploit the mine for a period of time); a similar system was used for the letting of some lands and taxes. They also hold auctions of the property of individuals who have been banished from the city and their property seized as the result of being convicted at trial. Notably, they do all of these things ‘in the presence of the council,’ so the boule is continually keeping an eye on these fellows. Then we have the very clearly related office of the ten apodektai (ἀποδέκται, lit: ‘receivers’), also chosen by lot, a board responsible for verifying monies paid to the state – so the poletai create a record of payments due and then as those payments are received the apodektai wipe off from the tablets the payments given.
Then we have magistrates in charge of executing a few specific functions: five hodopoioi (ὁδοποιοί, literally ‘path-maker’ but here ‘road builder) who oversee the public slaves who maintain the roads. There are also a bunch of religious magistrates here called hieropoioi (ἱεροποιοί, ‘rite-makes’) in different groups: ten for expiatory rites, another ten for annual or four-yearly festivals (except the Panthenaia).
We also have a set of what we might term market-regulating magistrates. There are ten astunomoi (ἀστυνόμοι, a word combining astu (town) and nomos (law, custom) to make ‘city warden’), elected by lot, five of whom in the city proper and five more in the Piraeus (Athens’ port). Their job is to supervising the renting out of enslaved female musicians (flute, harp and lyre players; αὐλητρίδες, ψάλτριαι and κιθαρίστριαι respectively), whose fees were limited by statute to two drachmas (both ensuring the limit was observed and settling disputes over who got to hire which musician). The astunomoi also had the job of making sure the building codes were followed (no balconies over the road, no water-overflow into the road, etc), that no one deposited human waste in the city and also removing any bodies found in the streets for burial (a task Aristotle is quick to note that was done by public slaves, which the astunomoi merely supervised).
Likewise split between the Piraeus and Athens were ten agoranomoi (ἀγορανόμοι, combining agora (market) and nomos (same as above) to make ‘market supervisor’ or ‘market warden’), and ten metronomoi (μετρονόμοι, are you noticing a pattern? Metron is a weight or measure, so these are ‘weights and measure inspectors’), both chosen by lot. The former check for counterfeit goods and the latter check weights and measures (these fellows would have also been in charge of enforcing in Athens the stipulations of the Athenian coinage decree which mandated the use of Athenian coinage, weights and measures within the cities Athens controlled as well as Athens itself). The sale of grain was important enough to get its own officials, originally ten but eventually thirty five sitophulakes (σιτοφύλακες, lit: ‘grain warden’) who regulated the price of grain (in all stages of production, so grain, meal and bread) as well a fixing the standard weights (so these fellows do the job of both the agoranomoi and the metronomoi but only for grain and bread). Finally there are ten emporiou epimeletai (ἐμπορίου ἐπιμεληταί, the latter word meaning ‘curator’ or ‘superintendant’ (one who has charge of a thing), so ‘curators of ports’) who manage the harbor markets and deal with foreign traders (in particular to ensure that regulations designed to compel the import of grain to keep prices of it low in the city are followed).
Next we have the ‘keeping the other magistrates honest’ magistrates, the logistai (λογισταί, which can mean this official, but also a math teacher or a calculator (as in a person who does math), so we might call these fellows ‘accountants’), as well as the euthynoi (εὐθύνοι, lit: ‘corrector’); there are ten of each selected by lot, the logistai selected from the members of the boule and the euthynoi from the ten tribes writ large. The logistai‘s job is to keep the official records of the actions of the prytaneis, a rotating presidency of the boule, while the euthynoi had the job of recieving any and all complaints about magistrates who had finished their term of office. Each euthynos was expected to sit in all of the tribal meetings of their tribe (Athens has ten of those, so one euthynos per tribe) and take all complaints, assisted by a pair of paredroi (πάρεδροι, lit: ‘those sitting nearby’ but here ‘assessors’ or ‘councilors’). The idea here is that to avoid corruption, every official with real power also has an official whose sole job is to field complaints. The euthynoi took those complaints, assessed if they were valid and then referred them to the appropriate court (major charges going to the thesmothetai).
In addition we have a bunch of minor magistrates involved with the day-to-day running of the justice system. The hendeka (ἕνδεκα, lit: ‘the eleven’) are eleven citizens chosen by lot to guard the jail as well as execute thieves and bandits (either after a confession or after trial); note that the jail here just holds people pending trial, as Athenian law doesn’t punish with long-term imprisonment. Then there are five eisagogeis (εἰσαγωγεῖς, ‘announcer’ or ‘introducer’) who have the job of introducing into court a variety of financial cases, except for those involving public contracts which fall under the authority of the apodektai. Small claims go before a board of forty citizens chosen by lot, while larger claims are sent to be decided by a diaitetes (διαιτητής, ‘arbitrator’), citizens over 59 years, chosen by lot, whose decision can then be appealed before a fully jury if it isn’t acceptable.
We’ve also got some functionaries for the council: several grammateis (γραμματεῖς ‘clerks’). One clerk for the prytaneis who keeps their official documents and pronouncements, another who sits in on the boule and makes copies of all of the laws and finally a last clerk who reads documents to the boule or the ekklesia. The first two are selected by lot, but the proper reading of official documents was evidently more important so the last reader is elected by a show of hands.
There are also a set of minor military offices. We have already mentioned the ten senior military officials, the strategoi, but they have a slew of subordinate military commanders, also elected: one commander for each tribal contingent (a taxiarch, ταξίαρχος, a taxis being a unit of the phalanx), who then appoint their subordinate officers. The list of Athenians wealthy enough to own horses and thus required to serve as cavalry (the hippeis) were kept by a board of ten katalogeis (καταλογεῖς, lit: ‘writer-down’ or ‘enroller’), who, being military officials, are elected rather than chosen by lot. They don’t command the cavalry, that is done by a pair of elected hipparchs (ἵππαρχοι, ‘horse-leaders’) who have ten elected subordinates the phularchs (φύλαρχοι, ‘tribal commanders’ since they’re one for each tribe) who work like the taxiarchoi, but for the cavalry instead of the infantry). There are also a few odd commanders, a cavalry commander specifically for the island of Lemnos and a treasurer to command the Paralus, a sacred messenger trireme. All military officials are elected through a vote (by show of hands) rather than by lot, because war cannot be trusted to any random citizen.
And that’s the list! I am sure I have missed some offices here or there, either because Aristotle doesn’t report them or because I missed them while reading through Aristotle. As you can see, this is quite a lot of minor officials, each with their own unique area of competency, which is how we tend to see magistrates organized: lots of individual magistrates or boards each of which only has power over one or two very specific things. Crucially in Athens, at least, these magistrates aren’t overseen by the archons or any supreme or chief magistrate; instead it is the boule which has the job of overseeing them, so each magistrate or board of magistrates is their own nominally independent decision-maker and law-implementer – a massively fragmented rather than unitary executive.
And because this is once again getting very long and my time getting quite short, we’ll go ahead and stop here for now. We’ll pick up with court systems and a bit of Greek law next in this series, but not next week – I am going to be away from home giving a talk so I am lining up (hopefully) a guest-post to fill the space which I hope you will all enjoy. Until then!
- Like all of Gaul
- See the first post for full citation, but note that my citations are by page number, rather than polis number
- Except, I should note, that it was oligarchic. Our sources tend to be quite clear about this one thing even if they tell us nothing else about a polis‘ government: if it had a democracy, an oligarchy or a tyranny.
- Chiefly Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus or Solon, Aristotle’s Politics or the Constitution of the Athenians, or Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lakedaimonians (=Spartans). You may note the strong bias to two particular poleis here.
- Both to avoid bothering the reader but also to avoid suggesting perhaps an ungentlemanly level of detailed familiarity and technical knowledge.
- Read: civil unrest, disharmony, war.
- Yes, many parliamentary systems might have both a president and a prime minister, but often in those systems one of those two doesn’t wield meaningful executive power.
- Going to go ahead and just bold this sentence because it seems like this caveat is being missed. Even in parliamentary systems where cabinet ministers are responsible to the legislature the process of forming a government is typically understood to be supposed to create a cabinet that functions as a coalition. If you want to understand the difference, imagine if a parliamentary-system government always had ‘national unity’ governments, featuring members of all of the parties (and a few independents) in various positions – so maybe the Chancellor is SPD (I’m using German parties here), but the Minister of Finance is someone from AfD he absolutely hates and the minister of Defense is from The Left he’s never met before (and won’t bother to meet with over the next year) and so on. Executive power is far more fragmented in most ancient poleis than in modern ones; thus only the most centralized systems of magistracies (like the ephorate) begin to resemble parliamentary cabinets.
- Just throw a pin in this, but Roman imperium works differently.