Collections: How to Polis, 101, Part IIb: Archons

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.

Power Overwhelming!

My students stopped getting this joke years ago and it makes me sad.

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).

Via the British Museum (museum number 1816,0610.19), slab V of the Parthenon East frieze, showing (center left) a boy handing a cloth over to a bearded figure generally identified as the Archon Basileus. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that these parts of the Parthenon were removed from Athens in the early 1800s by the British Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, who claimed that he had permission from the Ottoman authorities, a claim that now looks doubtful. Even at the time Elgin was accused of having looted the marbles (including by Lord Byron, inter alia). Greece has repeatedly demanded the return of the marbles and my own view is that the marbles ought to go home.

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.

Via Wikipedia, a Roman copy of a Greek bust of Pericles (the original c. 430). The Corinthian helmet he wears (tipped up in the position you’d wear it when not fighting) was the standard way in Greek sculpture to indicate the subject was an Athenian strategos.

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…

Power Underwhelming!

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).

Via Wikipedia, British Library Papyrus 131, containing the text (as we have it) of Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians (though I should note there remain doubts that this is, in fact, Aristotle’s work and not some later work purporting to be it).

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!

  1. Like all of Gaul
  2. See the first post for full citation, but note that my citations are by page number, rather than polis number
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Both to avoid bothering the reader but also to avoid suggesting perhaps an ungentlemanly level of detailed familiarity and technical knowledge.
  6. Read: civil unrest, disharmony, war.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Just throw a pin in this, but Roman imperium works differently.

130 thoughts on “Collections: How to Polis, 101, Part IIb: Archons

    1. > (meaning that democracies and oligarchies had governments made up of the some component parts)

      some -> same

    2. I haven’t read it yet but you should watch Artosis Casts on youtube to see how expert Korean players use Archons. Usually they’re less useful than high templars but they can still take out a whole stack of Mutalisks all at once. Think they goe through Dark Swarm from Defilers too, not sure. The game sure looks a lot different when you play it in the campaign or on lower levels of play. Practically chess.

  1. If there were perhaps 1,000 politai, this many offices and they were mostly selected by lot it seems like there’s a decent chance that most politai would serve as a magistrate of some sort in their lifetime.

    1. That was certainly the case in early American towns, which had a multitude of offices, some of them quite similar to the ones Aristotle and Bret enumerate. Any reasonably respectable male landowner could certainly expect to spend some time in at least some minor offices.

  2. Really interesting, but I must confess it is pretty difficult to keep track of all these minor magistrates!
    Also, I quite appreciate the joke about De Bello Gallico (though perhaps this is obligatory!)

    1. > I quite appreciate the joke about De Bello Gallico

      thanks, I didn’t get it until I read your comment 🙂

    2. I haven’t read the book, but I know the quote. Come to think of it, why do I know the quote? Why is it famous?

      1. The book is Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of the Gallic Wars. Back in the good old days, every educated man was supposed to know Latin, and the text used in most first year Latin classes was “De Bello Gallico”. Wikipedia puts it:

        ‘The work has been a mainstay in Latin instruction because of its simple, direct prose. It begins with the frequently quoted phrase “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”, meaning “Gaul is a whole divided into three parts”.’

        So if you knew any Latin at all, you knew that phrase. And after not using it for years, that might be all the Latin you remembered.

        1. It’s like (or at least it once was like) “To be or not to be” or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”: even if you don’t remember anything you read in English class, those phrases have broad cultural currency as metonymies for English drama and poetry.

  3. Perhaps only distantly related, but I read a pop history book about Greek settlements in the West that mentioned the Syracusan king Pollis, and that “[his] title, if he ever existed, needs perhaps not to have been of any political significance; he could have been a sort of mayor like in Corinth, a religious functionary like the kings of Athens or a military commander in the fashion of the kings of Sparta”. Does anyone know about an Corinthian office somewhat like archon basileus?

  4. “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), 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 a very American way of looking at executive power. A more Euro-centric viewpoint would stress the limitations on executive power through parliamentary and other institutions. Executive power in many of these instances (including in the UK) is not “delegated down” from the PM, but (at least in theory) from the Cabinet; in some cases from a less formal inner cabinet, though our constitutional experts tend to view that with some trepidation. So, your last sentence certainly wouldn’t be the view of many in Europe, where we don’t tend to have Presidents in the US sense, even in France with its current difficulties. In the UK, executive power is exercised by the whole Government, led by, but not entirely derived from the will of a PM. The limitation of the power of our PM in the UK has been admirably demostrated in recent months.

    1. And further, most modern states have multiple sources of executive power through decentralisation, such as we have to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (usually), and to great metropolitan centres. These executives may have very different policies at variance with the PM.

      1. While that’s true, I would say that devolution is more a sort of nascent federalism (as in the USA, Canada or Germany) than a division of executive power at the national level.

    2. One notes that even in ancient sources there would be a tendency to describe the institutions of others like one’s own

    3. He just noted the presence of cabinets in the passage you just quoted; “In some cases, that power is less vested in the person of a prime minister as it is in the collective cabinet…”. And his argument isn’t that these executive branches are the sole governmental power, and that’s not how the USA works either (though the US certainly has a very powerful executive). Remember the previous post’s notes about how it is the relationship between all the various component parts of government that determines what type of government it is. The executive can structured the same way and have very different powers due to the presence of other governmental elements. That doesn’t change the fact that *someone* wields executive power somewhere in the system, since all the magistracy is is our modern conception of executive power, the power to execute the laws of the polity. It’s not US centric to talk about executive power in a post on executives, since the legislature doesn’t wield executive power whatever powers of oversight it may have.

    4. Actually, the view is even more US-centric (or, possibly, just outright incorrect) than it looks. In continental Europe’s parliamentary republic – at least in the systems I have an intimate knowledge of – the power of the specific ministers is not even delegated from the Cabinet, but rather vested directly in them in a very complex manner of checks and balances. But in the end, a minister is de jure definitely neither subordinate to the prime minister / chancellor, nor to the cabinet, but rather these (ie the cabinet and each minister separately) are all, together with the president, the highest administrative authorities of the state. The chancellor in any case being just “primus inter pares”.

      That said, de facto things do run a bit differently, but that’s mostly due to the “unofficial” distribution of power within the party system: the prime minister usually also being the head of the ruling party, with the ministers being the members. So while a Prime Minister Smith cannot dismiss a Minister of, I dunno, Finance, Jones, Party Head Smith can absolutely, ehr, “indicate” to party member Jones that it would be in his best interest, if he wants to remain a member of the party, to withdraw from the position of the minister. Which is of course even more difficult if the minister happens to NOT be from your own party (which is often the case in parliamentary republics where every “government” is a coalition).

      Oh, and referring to “that sounds like an awkward system, since magistrates might be working at cross-purposes with each other”, you’d be surprised how often and, occasionally, how overtly ministries in European countries act directly against one another. Even when lead by ministers from the same party!

      1. “a minister is de jure definitely neither subordinate to the prime minister / chancellor, nor to the cabinet, but rather these (i.e. the cabinet and each minister separately) are all, together with the president, the highest administrative authorities of the state.”

        Who appoints the minister? Who can fire him?

        I’m Canadian. In theory all ministers serve at the pleasure of the Crown. In practice, the prime minister appoints all ministers. We have had few minority governments; when they exist the supporting party tends not to get ministers, but rather policies enacted in return for their support. I suspect this is so the larger party gets the blame for those policies.

        1. Hereabouts (Austria), the ministers are appointed by the president, upon a proposal of the chancellor. So there is some dependency on the chancellor, yes. But once appointed, a minister is no longer subordinate to the chancellor. Again, in theory – the practice is indeed a bit different, and some ministers are kind-of lead by the chancellor. But not de jure, and DEFINITELY not the ministers belonging to the coalition partner. In practice, how it goes is that two (or more) parties who have parliamentary majority agree on the ministries and split the functions amongst themselves, the designated chancellor goes with this proposal to the president, and the president appoints the ministers and the cabinet. Interestingly, this does not necessarily need to include the party with the most votes – some 20 years ago, there was quite a bit of controversy when the 2nd and 3rd parties made a deal and formed a government behind the winning party’s back.

          Firing is the same: president, upon a proposal by the chancellor. But this actually happens very rarely in practice; either a minister resigns due to internal or external political pressure, or the entire cabinet is dissolved due to a dissolution of the ruling coalition.

          1. It very seems as if you are misunderstanding Bret Deveraux on purpose. The systems of classical antiquity is more like as if you had three chancellors and five presidents, all with equal authority.

          2. A (belated) response to MIcael Gustavsson below:

            No, I don’t think so. In fact, he states this very clearly: “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”. In fact, the statement is quite clearly directed *not* at the discrepancy in the level power (which does exist by virtue of different topics – eg, a finance minister being in some ways even more “powerful” than the chancellor, since he controls the dough), but the legitimation – the “power flow” as Bret puts it.

            Granted, there is a “most” qualifier in his statement that bears some weight there, but I do expect that there are a couple more parliamentary republics out there with the system I was describing.

            And yes, it is in fact like that that we do have a dozen or so ministers (chancellor included) who, in legal theory, do have the same authority. They don’t all have the same *competences* (the chancellor having a bit more), and they certainly don’t have the same power and position (for various reasons), but the *authority* is the same – unelected administrative officials appointed by the president and backed by the (elected) parliament. None of which – this being the most important part, and the part that I minded the most in Bret’s statement – are *subordinate* to each other.

        2. In Finland, this works rather similarly as in Austria. As a further level of complexity, we have, in addition to the government, the Chancellor of Justice, who is a civil servant acting both as the legal advisor for the government, and as the highest supervisor of legality: should the government or a minister disregard his legal advice, he is to inform the parliament and initiate criminal proceedings against the minister.

          In addition, the Chancellor of Justice can investigate citizens’ claims against any public official and order prosecution. As a further check, you have the Ombudsman of the Parliament, an official with almost the same powers as the Chancellor. These magistrates are oversight for each other, and in addition, they can be investigated by the Constitutional Committee of the Parliament. (Originally, the Chancellor of Justice was the Emperor’s legal oversight, while the Ombudsman was the parliament’s tool to keep permanent oversight on the government when the parliament was not in session.)

          On municipal level, the situation becomes even more complex: in many cases, each municipal board is an independent authority. It is quite normal for a city government to appeal to courts against a decision by its own building inspection.

    5. I feel like you are nitpicking, and possibly misunderstandig what is meant? I don’t know much about how the UK are run, but for both France and Switzerland (the two countries I actually know something about), the description is apt. Parliament is not involved in the executive fonction of the governement (sometimes, it’s not even involved in the legislative fonction of the governement!). But there is one (or seven) chief magistrate at the top of the whole executive branch, in opposition to the multiple independant offices of a polis.

    6. Executive power in the US is also checked by Congress and the courts; Congress must approve all appointments of government officers and has control of the budget and the power to overrule regulations. Neverthless the President mostly acts as the sole source of executive power; with a couple banking-related exceprtions they have full power to fire officers, direct their actiions and select new ones.

    7. 1) The presidency in Fifth Republic France is quite a powerful executive position; the president designates the prime minister.
      2) The American executive is in fact quite divided. There is the Federal president, but then there are also the governors of the fifty states.

    8. I feel you’re misreading the comparison to a certain extent. The key point being made here is that Greek poleis didn’t have a “government” in the sense of the executive component of modern democracies. Modern democratic “governments” tend to be headed by a single magistrate (or group of magistrates) who bear responsibility for the policies of their administration that are then carried out by a vast swath of lower magistrates. Greek poleis had a bunch of magistrates who acted as *individuals* without any sort of combined organization or agenda.

  5. Don’t feel bad about students not getting the Starcraft jokes anymore. If it were me, I’d be going on for Archon Ultra jokes ,something about how the Archons occupy the places of power or somesuch. Nobody would be getting that 😛

    Going through the Athenian magistrates though, I’m a bit surprised that there aren’t more who more directly deal with religious matters. Did Athens have some sort of professional priesthood that was distinct from the government, or was the archon basileus sufficient for the public religious duties that Athens had?

    1. I’m familiar with the term “Archons” from reading Gnostic and Gnostic-Christian and that of related dualist religions in the first few centuries AD, it’s used to describe subordinate gods and deities. And I think it’s used in the New Testament too to describe angels or demons, in a couple places. I didn’t realise it had a secular meaning though.

      1. That is interesting, I guess you are in quite a different field of study!
        When it comes to the word in the New Testament, I believe there has been some debate on whether Paul means the Romans or some kind of spirits when he says that “the archons of this age” have crucified Jesus (1 Corinthians 2:8)

        1. It’s not my field of study, haha. I’m in the sciences. I’m just fascinated by dualist religion and cosmology, and by the gnostics in particular.

          That’s interesting, I guess I had just assumed that Paul was referring to evil spiritual powers, but I suppose he might be referring to the Roman secular authorities as well.

      2. I first heard the term “archon” in the context of Gnosticism as well, so while reading this I was constantly weirded-out by imagining cosmic spirits running Athens.

        1. Oddly enough I recently came across the word “boule” in a religious context as well (in a book I was reading about divine sovereignty and free will, and I think borrows the phrase “horismene boule” from Acts of the Apostles 2:23). So it was a bit startling to see it in the context of secular classic history.

    2. Feh! Proper Geeks know that the primary SF reference for archons is the Star Trek TOS episode “The Return of the Archons” (the one where everyone is mind controlled by Landru, a computer, except during a “Festival” of violence.)

      (Yes, I am being facetious here. Someone will be along momentarily with an SF archons reference from the Lensman series or something.)

  6. I always get a little sad thinking about greek sources, considering that Alexander burned one of the major poleis of the greek world to the ground and I always wonder how different our understanding of the classical greek world would be if Thebes hadn’t been destroyed.

  7. Do we have any idea where the business of these various magistrates would be carried out? Were there public buildings with designated offices for these administrative functions as in a modern state, or was any of this stuff simply done in the agora in plain view, or in the private homes of the magistrates?

  8. Since you’re getting to the courts next time, I wonder if you can touch on the very broad question of what’s with all the legal cases anyway? Are most of these attempts to settle private disputes between individuals or prosecutions for violations against the polis itself? Why did ancient Greece need such sophisticated court systems when other civilizations of similar size and capacity(?) got along with a king settling big disputes and smaller disputes being settled on an informal basis? Did the courts in a sense “create their own work” where the fact that they exist at all pushed individuals to take disputes tot he courts rather than attempting to settle them “informally” (whether through violence or personal relationships).

    Did the existence of these courts increase the power of the polis by making sure thousands of minor disputes where definitely settled instead of lingering on as informal disputes that bled the economy and capacity of the citizens from a thousand minor cuts? (Just absolutely swinging for the fences now-) Were the courts in fact the “secret sauce” that made Greek civilization so dominant when every other aspect of the system seemed designed to produce a weak government that shouldn’t be able to accomplish anything?

    1. Why did ancient Greece need such sophisticated court systems when other civilizations of similar size and capacity(?) got along with a king settling big disputes and smaller disputes being settled on an informal basis?

      The fact that most poleis didn’t have kings probably contributes.

      Not just in the sense that “kings can’t be judges if they don’t exist,” also in the sense that courts not backed by the institution and traditions of kingship need to be backed by something else.

    2. We often know even less about the administrative workings of adjacent polities than we do about the Greeks. We do know the Persians had royally-appointed judges and courts (one king had a judicial seat upholstered with the skin of a corrupt judge); we also know of numerous courts and cases in Mesopotamia. Outside these? Very little. So it may not be that the Greeks were exceptional.

  9. This is really interesting. I wonder, though, how (or whether) institutional knowledge was preserved and transmitted.

    Say, for example, that tomorrow I am told that I have been selected as one of this year’s agoranomoi. Now I know my job is to check the markets for counterfeit goods, and maybe I have some idea that any criminals I find need to be remanded to the courts, but do I just make up my own processes? Watch my predecessor for a week to see how he does it and copy that? Read a book detailing the job and follow those written procedures?

    1. You have a public slave who is an expert. Merchants come to you with complaints, or the slave points out violations, and you utter the right words.

  10. I had not been aware that Lord Egin’s claim to have received permission to take the marbles was highly contested. I had always thought the controversy was over the right of the Ottomans to give away a piece of the cultural heritage of a people they had conquered and ruled in an unrepresentative manner.

      1. Well, if the Greek government really feels it has a better claim than the British Museum, I wish they would get on with it and sue.

        Not doing so makes it look like they don’t believe their own claim.

        1. And in which court system would you have them sue/?
          The English courts are either going to be very sympathetic to the English claims to the marbles, or more likely declare that Greece doesn’t have standing to sue in an English court.
          An action in the Greek courts may win (if they accept that they have jurisdiction of the dispute), but the English are unlikely to acknowledge such a ruling as binding on them.
          These points are of course why Greece has long been pursuing its claim via diplomacy, and the court of world opinion.

        2. The Greek government’s moral claim is stronger than their legal one- it is difficult to win a legal case in which all the witnesses are dead, the state in which the theft occurred has been dissolved, and the international laws against this sort of thing hadn’t been written yet. The UK government and the British museum are both officially against artifact theft, and ought to live up to their stated principles even when the law doesn’t formally require them to.

          1. I fancy the Louvre is also against artifact theft today, but they aren’t giving back the Mona Lisa any time soon. Nor are the Venetians giving back the items pillaged from Constantinople.

          2. “the international laws against this sort of thing hadn’t been written yet”

            Well, that actually makes it quite straightforward. Lord Elgin can’t have broken a law which didn’t exist at the time.

          3. @ad

            Theft has basically always been against the law.

            But more broadly, even assuming there was a fair court of competent jurisdiction that would hear a case from 200 years ago, there’s lots of reasons why a country might not choose to sue another country, especially a nuclear power which is a member of the same military alliance.

            Two century old artifact acquisition/theft is essentially never going to be Greece’s highest priority (nor should it be) and the amount of noise/litigation/complaining which the government does about it is going to be essentially unrelated to the legitimacy of the underlying actions.

            Trying to reason from how much noise they’re making, rather than the historical/moral/legal arguments is going to lead nowhere.

          4. eu81: It’s changed recently (what with the geneva conventions and such) but for a long time spoils of war weren’t really considered theft, anymore than killing any enemy combatant was considered murder.

            The Mona Lisa, btw. Wasn’t actually stolen, the one in the Louvre at least was given to one of Leonardo’s apprentices/lovers and he sold it to the king of France.

          5. ECD, the British Museum is not a nuclear power and can be sued by anyone in perfect safety. People sue arms of the British state all the time without being nuked by it.

            And I was responding to Sarachims comment that “the international laws against this sort of thing hadn’t been written yet”.

            If you want to call that claim wrong, the Greek government could instruct their lawyers tomorrow. It would cost no more of government ministers time than talking about it to the press.

          6. @ey81: Considering that the Mona Lisa was either sold or gifted by Da Vinci himself to Francis I of France, I doubt anyone would claim it to be “stolen” or that it ought to be returned to… whom exactly? The descendants of the original commissioner, Francesco del Giocondo? The city of Florence? Da Vinci’s heirs? The Italian Republic?

  11. I cackled out loud when I saw that you made that Starcraft joke, because that’s all I’ve been able to think of every time the word “archon” shows up.

    As a kid, I used to field armies composed only of Zealots and Archons when playing as the Protoss. I figured that the Archons had to be the best and strongest unit in the game because of how cool they looked. As for Zealots, I liked their cool arm swords.

    Ah, to be young again.

    1. That was a legitimate Starcraft 2 composition at one point at least, it balances mineral heavy zealots and gas heavy archons, archons add splash and some anti-air, and requires one advanced building only.

      But the last Starcraft release was in 2016 (Though they allowed custom campaigns somewhat recently, and some people are working on those), and blizzard went from producing lots of stuff before that to nothing new afterwards apart from expected Hearthstone and WoW releases, and than there was the harassment lawsuit that suggest they would run into problems at some point and…yeah, people will forget.

      (I’ve lost interest in computer games as well over the past several years, so they’ve gone from a big part of life to a couple leftovers I’ll play out of habit, that I’ve mostly given up on and forgotten about. This is or various reasons.)

  12. Why are you rendering “ἱερ-” as “heir-” rather than “hier-“? First time I saw it I thought it was a typo, but you did it twice (heiron episkeustai and heiropoioi) so I assume it’s deliberate? But we generally say e.g. “hierophant”, not “heirophant”.

    Well, okay, I suspect many of us do tend to say “heirophant”, but…

    1. How are you saying “heirophant” versus “hierophant”? My first instinct is to pronounce “hei-” to rhyme with “eye”, and “hier-” to rhyme with “ear”, but I think that’s me reading them in German as it’s not a sequence of letters I’m used to in English. (Despite English being my first language.)

  13. How many of these offices were likely to have been full-time jobs, or at least something close to full-time jobs? I count 156 non-military minor officials listed in your post, if Athens had say 300,000 residents* that’s a little more than 1 official per 2000 people, is that about right? I’m trying to get a handle on the scale of the governing that is happening in Athens.

    * This estimate might be totally off; when I see estimates for the population of Classical Athens I never know if they are for Athens proper or all of Attica.

    1. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that a bit over 21 million Americans are employed in government jobs, including over 1.15 million in “management occupations”. (Note that this figure includes public schools, government-owned hospitals, and the US Postal Service.) The US population is 331 million, so that’s about one in sixteen employed by the government and one in 300 in a “management occupation”.

      Of course, directly comparing polities which differ so much (in size, context, structure, etc) is often a fool’s errand. But it can still be a good way to calibrate your intuition. (Assuming that I picked the right numbers from

  14. “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.”

    I think it worth reflecting that in the country in which the term Prime Minister was invented, all executive power is always said to derive from the magistracy currently held by King Charles III.

    The term was invented because people had noticed that the power of the legislative assembly had grown to such a point that no one could rule against the wishes of whoever commanded its support. That person was therefore the real leader of the country, whatever office he held. Calling him the Prime Minister was therefore a bit like calling Augustus the First Citizen. It is not an office or title from which you gain power; you get the title as recognition that you actually hold the power.

    The point is that in a Presidential system, power stems from a supreme magistracy, and the important thing is to get yourself made that magistrate. In a Parliamentary system, power actually stems from some assembly, and the important thing is to get the support of most of that assembly. Rishi Sunak did not get power because he was appointed by Charles III; he was appointed by Charles III because he gained power from winning the backing of a majority in Parliament.

    Last week, mindstalko referred to representative democracies as “elective oligarchies”. I think I would confine that term to Parliamentary democracies. Presidential ones are elective monarchies. If there really is a chief magistrate, and he really is elected, what else can you call them?

    But a Parliamentary system has a chief magistrate only in the sense in which the chief magistrate of Syracuse, while Dionysius the Elder was tyrant, was whoever the eponymous archon was at the time.

    So the Greeks split the chief magistrates power among hundreds of uncoordinated officials, a presidential democracy concentrates it in a single elected official, and a parliamentary democracy splits it among hundreds of coordinated elected officials. In the last case a single person can rule so long as he can get them to mostly coordinate in his support. If he loses that support he loses power, because his power comes from them, not the other way around. Claims to authority may flow through the PM; they don’t start with him.

    1. And as alluded to earlier, the power structure that determines whether or not a minister- even a Prime Minister- actually has that power is often, as in the UK, extra-constitutional via the party system. I don’t know if any ancient sources ever mention it other than perhaps as “followers of Tweedledes” vs “followers of Tweedledon”; but political contention tending to split into two broad camps of Yeas vs. Neas, I wouldn’t be surprised if an extra-constitutional party system was often working behind the scenes.

      1. In a system where much of the power is held by a handful of men with hereditary wealth, I imagine the major non-Constitutional point would be who is related to whom, and what the patterns of inheritance are like.

    2. “what else can you call them?”

      Given the powers of Congress and the Supreme Court, I’d say “elective oligarchy” still works (at least for the US; 1960 Mexico might be another matter, though also not very ‘elective’). As a ‘king’ the president lacks both the powers to make laws and to judge people against those laws. (Complicated with the modern regulatory state, which does fall under his power — but as we’ve seen, executive regulations can be challenged as illegal or at least insufficiently legally authorized.)

      A Prime Minister with a strong and stable majority (and strong party discipline) can act as much more of an elective monarch, with unified legislative and executive power.

      1. “As a ‘king’ the president lacks both the powers to make laws and to judge people against those laws.”

        So did George III, but we are still happy to call him a King. And Augustus III of Poland, for that matter. “King” doesn’t mean “dictator”.

        But our hosts point was that Americans are used to a system in which executive authority is all held by a single man. And in Greece that was not the case.

        This would seem to be the difference between rule by one man – monarchy, and rule by several – oligarchy. Note how everyone seems to think it matters so much who that one man is – they don’t care nearly so much about who holds any other office.

  15. “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.”

    You are here projecting the dynamics of a presidential system onto very different parliamentary/Westminster systems. In such systems, ministers are not subordinates of the Prime Minister, do not serve at his or her pleasure, and power does not flow from the PM downward. Rather, ministers are elected magistrates in their own right who are elected in the same vote (in parliament) as the Prime Minister. ie Parliament does not vote on selecting a Prime Minister, they vote on selecting the Government. Most of the powers of a US President are vested not in the Prime Minister, but in the body of ministers (the Government) voting as a body of nominal equals.

    Now, this distinction is in practice less significant in systems where single-party rule is the norm, e.g. the UK and Canada. There, ministers serve at the PM’s pleasure by virtue of the extraconstitutional internal organization of the party. Whereas in a coalitional system like Germany or Israel, ministers’ independently-elected status is more relevant.

    But, like with poleis, all of these very striking procedural differences produce very different outcomes in a system that is formally extremely uniform across states.

    (Your broader point stands, though: this differs from Greek poleis in that there is a mechanism to exert unified executive power. That power is simply through collective decision-making, which you note does not exist in the polis, rather than in the subordinates of a single presidential authority.)

    1. Please note, “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)” (it was in bold!) plus its footnote.

      1. That is phrased as if collective authority is some exception to a norm of autonomous Prime Ministerial decision making. In fact, collective decision making is the norm in such systems, and is in fact the main distinguishing factors between Prime/First Minister (primus inter pares) and President.

        (I know of only one parliamentary system where ministers are responsible to a legislature-elected head of government, South Africa. And in that case, he’s called President, not Prime Minister.)

    2. I mean it seems like the arrangement in parliamentary systems, as I understand, is that Parliament possesses the executive and legislative powers and exercises the executive power through a board of magistrates. Executive power is therefore (mostly) exercised at the pleasure of Parliament (and, de facto possibly the PM/Chancellor/President depending), a unitary body, by members of that body.

      The most salient way in which this is more like presidential systems like the US than like a Greek Poleis is that, while one may not be able to say that the government acts on the policy of e.g. Scholz (see the current dustup over gas cars) one can still say that there exists a government with a policy (that of the ruling coalition as long as it holds). Thus the executive acts with a purpose, though not as narrowly directed as in the US system.

      1. That’s indeed a valid mental model – in the classic Westminster system, the principle is called Parliamentary Sovereignty.

        But yes, absolutely more similar to the US presidential system than a Greek polis in exactly the way Dr Devereaux points out: the collective body’s single collective decision is paramount.

  16. “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”

    The Swiss government (federal council) is pretty close to this, though not all parties are represented. The council itself is the “head of state” and decisions are made collectively.

    Each year a different member of the council is the “president”, but they don’t have any special powers. The current president is from the socialist party, last year’s was from the liberal party and the year before was from the populist right party.

  17. Didn’t some of the poleis have a single magistrate with broader powers? I vaguely remember reading about a magistrate called a wanax to whom other positions were subservient.

    1. I looked it up. Looks like wanax is a Mycenaean term. I’m not sure if that predates the era of the poleis or would be considered an early phase of it.

    2. Anax or Wanax (same word, originally spelled with a digamma and pronounced as such, but which loses it’s initial w-sound when the digamma drops from Greek) is an old word for ‘king’ and was the title used by Greek kings in the Mycenaean period. It is entirely defunct by the historical period (= the Archaic), replaced in the sense of ‘king’ with the word basileus; it survives only in some compound words and in Homer where it is the title of the kings Agamemnon and Priam.

      So it’s not a magistrate, but the word for Greek kings in the late bronze age, replaced in that role by basileus by Homer’s time.

      1. It turns up in as meaning king in Jerry Pournelle’s “Janissaries” SF novel where aliens keep abducting mercenaries every 600 years to subjugate a secret human planet. Which lets him mix and match historical cultures to suit himself.

      2. Isn’t ther esomething about anax continuining to be in use on one of the islands (Cyprus?) quite a bit after it’s fallen out of use elsewhere?

        And IIRC, the Illiad uses both anax (For Agamemmnon and Priam) and Basileus (for everyone else)

  18. How exactly does “selected by lot” work, in practice? I once read it was a process that basically got a “yes-or-no” answer on a per-person basis, so if you have 1,000 citizens and essentially flip a coin going along the line, do >900 people not even get a chance because the 10 magistrates were selected among the first few dozen contenders? Or was what I read wrong and there’s a more “fair” (from a modern perspective) process, like pulling names out of a hat or something?

      1. Thanks! That’s fascinating, and I’d never made the connection between “lot” and “lottery” before.

  19. I’m just sitting here noticing how complicated it is to describe, in simple terms, how modern governments work. Despite the extensive literature we have access to, despite the fact that we all live within one, we still have trouble describing exactly how our respective countries work to each other (though I think we succeeded in the end). Now imagine the trouble future historians will have a thousand or more years from now, when no one has any direct experience with our forms of governance anymore, and they keep getting our institutional practices confused with systems they use but we haven’t even invented yet.

    That’s the problem confronting the scholar of ancient governments.

  20. Do the ten “tribes” of Athens refer to kin groups, geographical areas, or something else?

    Also, I find it interesting that Athens elected its generals, given that in no modern democratic country that I know of is this even considered as a real possibility. Was this common in pre-modern democracies? If so, when did the shift to unelected generals (even in democracies) occur? Was this a consequence of warfare being seen as requiring a more specialized skillset, or something else?

    1. The Athenian tribes aren’t actual tribal groupings but synthetic political groupings composed of a collection of demes (neighborhoods) from various parts of Attica.

      As for the emergence of the modern professional officer concept…that would be another entirely new post series, but the short version is that it is a product of the transition in military institutions in Europe during the Early Modern period. The ancestor of the modern military officer is not the elected general, but the hereditary noble.

    2. It was common in the USA as late as the Civil War for militia forces to be led either by vote or by the sponsor that organized and equipped them. To the extent that the armed citizens of Athens might be considered militia* rather than draftees into an official state army, their voting on who they trust to lead them fits the historical pattern. Generally, professional officers who are specialized war leaders are a feature of state militaries. In the case of the Civil War the unqualified amateurs were eventually weeded out by officer examinations.

      *”militia”, as constructed from the Latin, is a *plural* noun; so properly one speaks of “the militia”, not “a militia”.

      1. If you recall, at the beginning of the movie “Glory,” Robert Gould Shaw says, “They have elected me captain, of which I am immensely proud.”

  21. You know, I understand now why so often world-building in fantasy and science fiction will often revert to monarchies, usually with feudalism, when it comes time to set up the political systems of a made-up place, because actual systems of government that aren’t monarchical are in the grand scheme of things not just historically rare but also tend to be really, really complicated and would require prodigious amounts of thought that most people don’t want to spare on background details of the story. Of course, monarchical polities and feudal societies can also be pretty complicated, but on the surface level they seem fairly simple, since with a king or queen there’s a basic ‘one person in charge’ model to work with, and everyone remembers the over-simplified crown-lords-knights-peasants feudal pyramid from school.

    1. It can’t be worse than Game of Thrones, complexity-of-politics wise. It would be fascinating to see someone do the research and produce the “Game of Thrones” of ancient Greece or Rome.

      1. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire showcases a pretty simple feudal system overall. You have the king at the top, then his major vassals and their vassals and so on until you get to landed knights or petty lords. The only institutions outside of the feudal hierarchy are a small board of advisors and delegates chosen by the king (the Small Council), and a proto-Prime Minister (the Hand). The Church of the Seven is just sorta there, and has no land holdings. The commoners have no institutions or courts where they can plead their cases, as everything is in the hands of the local lord.

        Westeros doesn’t have, say, sheriffs, or justiciars, or bishop-princes, or the complex tapestry of household officials (seneschals, chamberlains, butlers, chanchellors and constables…) of actual medieval kingdoms. Nor do you have free cities like in Germany or Hungary, self-governing without the interference of the nobility by royal privilege, or even breakaways communes like in Northern Italy.

        1. “The Church of the Seven is just sorta there, and has no land holdings.”

          Probably the biggest failing in my opinion. The Medieval world cannot be separated from the Church. Even ignoring the theological issues (which is sort of like trying to understand the modern world without understanding science, engineering, and computers), the Church played a major role in Medieval affairs. Cluny was regularly chastised by its members (it underwent repeated reformations, sort of like Roman generals repeatedly tightening up discipline) for having too much worldly power, for example–the monastic system was supposed to be all about poverty and obedience (in theory the Benedictine system was supposed to be a training school for hermits when you read the Rule), but they kept getting so rich and powerful that this wasn’t an option. The Church also played a huge role in how the nobles interacted with the peasants. It was one of the few avenues for upward social mobility, for example, and could introduce holy days (meaning days when in theory no work was supposed to be done). For that matter, the Church was the only large body of literate people in existence, meaning that the secular powers needed to rely on them for bureaucracy. “Clerk” and “clergy” share the same roots for a reason.

          Note that all of this is ignoring the Crusades and the whole issue with the Holy Roman Empire! The Church was so integrated into daily life at all levels of the Medieval world that it simply wasn’t possible to HAVE the Medieval world without it.

          Game of Thrones strikes me as similar to the Horatio Hornblower series: It asks the question “How would modern people [for a given value of modern] act in the past?” The Lord of the Rings is more similar to the Jack Aubrey series: It asks the question “How did people in the past live?” Both are questions worthy of literary exploration, but for my part I think the latter question is more entertaining.

          1. Worse than Hornblower, though–the title character knows he’s an oddball, and everyone around him treats him as such. Martin acts like everything is normal.

    2. Perhaps instructive is the system depicted for the city-state of Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchitt’s Discworld fantasy novels. After the execution of the last king of Ankh-Morpork and the defeat of a brief republic by the city’s oligarchs, the “Patrician” system was set up. The Patrician is elected for life (which isn’t necessarily a long time) by the city’s oligarchs. In theory the Patrician is an absolute despot whose word is law; in practice a patrician who fails to keep a supermajority of the city’s principals satisfied will not be around for long because of an extra-constitutional check on his power: The Assassin’s Guild, which serves to literally put a price on the lives of all prominent citizens.

      1. One notes that the practice evolved over the series. In the opening novel, the theory was all that was visible because that was all the novel needed.

    3. I think it’s the lazy option. And in any case ahistorical: royal absolutism (‘l’etat c’est moi’) is early modern, not medieval. Medieval kings had parliaments and councils and multiple domains each with their own law and custom and, earlier, partible inheritance (so multiple co-kings and queens), and of course the church …. (I have written a few stories and it’s not necessary to have a king, and so long as you don’t info-dump something a little more complicated works better for intrigues).

      1. @Peter T: the commenter above didn’t say royal absolutism, but monarch with feudalism.

        1. The common fantasy image is of ‘one person in charge’ – more like royal absolutism than the medieval melange (which, to be fair, could approximate this under a strong ruler – one historian noted that the average notable likely walked out of an interview with Charlemagne happy that he had not had anything taken from him).

          1. I would like to clarify that by ‘one person in charge’ I don’t mean someone who is in charge of everything and has no checks on their power, but just a system that terminates upward with ‘one person, clearly (at least in theory) in charge’ as opposed to something like Classical Athens, where the closest thing to what we would understand as the heads of state are three archons, each of which had a different function, but there are also all these other magistrates who aren’t necessarily clearly subordinate to said archons

          2. you are also absolutely right that this is the ‘lazy’ option for world-building, but I think its understandably lazy because it just makes everything so much simpler

      2. Not to even mention that in a true feudal society the nobles hold considerable military power- indeed that’s their social purpose. There were always potential kingmakers who might decide that a king’s younger brother or nephew or a previous king’s daughter’s son might be better placed on the throne. Royal absolutism is a difficult act to pull off in such a situation.

        1. And even in actual absolutist states the guys surrounding the monarch ahd significant power to influence things: Deciding what letters or reports gets to the king’s desk means you can steer things to a pretty large extent.

          (one thing you note about the guys who actually try to wield absolute power or close to it is that they’re usually workaholics who don’t sleep much: Running a state like that just requires an insane amount of work)

          1. on the other hand, would the main characters know or care about those details? would they affect the details of the story?

          2. For a lot of stories that involve actually interacting with the government, maybe to 1 and yes to 2. If the characters need to petition the king for legal or military aid, they need to know how to get on his schedule, whether he has the power to grant it and if not who else they need to talk to, and potentially who the king listens to for advice so they can persuade the advisor to support them.

            Of course, a lot of stories don’t involve the government much, and a lot of the ones that do will be at a lower level where all that matters is that a tax collector exists and not the background of how they got picked or what the legal theory behind why they can collect taxes is.

      3. Many pseudomedieval fantasies are secretly early modern. Or even a mismash of medieval (from various times), early modern, and completely modern.

        The last tend to be things that never occurred to the author could be different.

    4. One of the things that often gets kinda complicated is that in a LOT of societies monarchies don’t really *make* law. The idea is that the law already exists (by tradition, or written down by God, or whatever) and what the King does is more akin to clarifying it. (and that is in societies that DON’T have lawmaking being an especially delegated function of an assembly, etc.)

      Now this obviously gives the king (depending on how persuasive and how much precedent there is) quite a lot of leeway, but the traditional roles are “Chief Warlord”, “Chief Priest” and “Chief Judge”, note that “Chief Lawmaker” isn’t neccessarily in there.

      1. This is a popular notion, but I don’t think it’s quite right. Medieval law gave a lot of deference to custom, but there are also plenty of instances where laws are made or changed. This is almost always by some kind of assembly or council. The appeal to the past is largely rhetorical – along the same lines as US ‘originalism’.

  22. If the first two grammateis were selected by lot, does that mean that literacy was that widespread among the politai? I know that literacy rates in the Ancient World are usually thought to be much higher than is often assumed outside the field, but still, writing would be a bit more of a specialized skill, wouldn’t it?

    1. To keep things in perspective, always remember that the politai were a restricted group even in democracies like Athens – the larger body of inhabitants of the city was barred from the assembly and the offices.

      But, yes, from what we can tell, most Ancient Greek citizens sent their sons to schools, or had them educated by private tutors. Obviously the quality and extent of this education depended on social and economical class – wealthier citizens could afford better and more in-depth education and learnt history and philosophy and mathematics, whereas the sons of poorer citizens would learn to read and write and then focus on learning a craft -, and it was mostly a private enterprise in which the city-state didn’t intervene, with the notable exception of Sparta.

      Women usually received little to no formal education, and thus it’s likely most Greek women would’ve been illiterate or barely literate. We don’t have a lot of information on non-citizens and slaves, but we do know that there were quite a lot of well-learned slaves (a famous one, albeit perhaps non-historical, is the fabulist Aesop), who could be “employed” by the city to perform specialist roles which necessitated some specific knowledge and therefore education, or were owned by individuals who may even trust them with educating their children! However, the overall enslaved population, consigned to menial labor or forced into prostitution, did not have access to learning for themselves or their children.

  23. My favorite joke about tripartite Gaul comes from Sandra Boynton’s children’s book “Grunt: Pigorian Chant”, in which most of the kinds of animals sing in unison, but the chickens sing in three-part harmony, because Omnes gallinae in tres partes divisae sunt.

  24. This week:

    “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.”

    Last week:

    “Another difference from the Roman model here, it is typically the board that acts; the strategoi collectively have the power to command the armies, not any individual strategos on his own.”

    Seems inconsistent?

    1. I wonder if it’s in the scope of ‘collectively’. So each strategos commands their individual ‘tribal’ group and collectively through these individual commands the army acts, but ‘collectively’ in this case implies far less co-ordination and group decision-making than we’d expect.

      Like an army commanded by a group of independent brigadiers and no general, perhaps.

  25. A possibly naive question, since this is easily the most in-depth article I’ve seen on ancient Greek governance – for positions drawn by lot, could a person only hold one office at a time, or was it possible (if rather unlikely) for them to be selected for multiple offices?

  26. I know this is skipping ahead a lot but do you have recommended reading for how Rhodes worked?

  27. ”ἀρχή, ‘first, preeminent’ ”
    This is hardly true, ἀρχή is not an adjective. Rather, ’beginning, origin, first place of power”.

  28. >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

    I feel that while intuitively our way of thinking makes more sense, particularly for the governments we don’t consider to be representative of their people, this logic breaks down completely when we consider the measures really undertaken supposedly against said governments, but which actually end up targeting the people.

    Even if it’s not an open war (in which the vast majority of these affected are of course the ordinary citizens, too), but just limitations on trade, travel and technology exchange, they hurt “the people of X place” not “the government of X place”, given that modern-day governments are incredibly durable things that can survive for decades in near-total blockade, and civil unrest liable to overthrow such a government needs said blockade to inflict universal, long-lasting misery upon the general citizenry.

    1. And needless to say the confident prediction that the Iraqi people would welcome the Americans who deposed Saddam Hussein didn’t exactly work out.

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