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Athenian Governmental Structure

Governing bodies

The Athenian assembly, the Ecclesia, has, to modern eyes, come to symbolize popular democracy. The ability of ordinary citizens to participate in governmental decisions, through a popular assembly, is what makes Athens the democratic ideal. Athens figures so prominently in any discussion that there is a perception that the Athenians invented democracy. The Athenians are credited with the invention of the "legislative" branch. While the assembly was a product of Greek culture, Athens was not the only city to use it and it definitely was not the first.

The movement toward popular government came gradually. Most states began by limiting the power of their kings. In Athens the king's command of the army was given to a polemarch. The Athenians took away other powers of the monarch when they created the office of archon, or regent. It is believed that this occurred as early as 1088 B.C.. The kingship was not abolished, but the archon assumed most of the duties associated with governmental operations. Originally, the archon was appointed for life, but around 750 B.C., the appointment was limited to 10 years, and finally, in 683-2, it was changed again to appointment for a one-year term.

The Ecclesia, the general assembly of all Athenian citizens, probably began developing about the same time as the restrictions on kingship. It probably came closest to the ideal democratic institution, yet, it was cumbersome in operation. It was too cumbersome for drafting legislation and the numbers would overwhelm any debate. It operated at its best when questions could be phrased in terms of yes or no. Decisions to ostracize, i.e., to exile, political leaders, were made by a yes or no vote of the Ecclesia.

Representative government, in Athens, had its origins in the Council of Elders (Council of the Aereopagus), although Athenian citizens may have participated in certain decisions through the Ecclesia. Representive government took a more definite form in 594 B.C., when Solon is believed to have established a Council of Four Hundred. In 508-7 Cleisthenes replaced the Four Hundred with a Council of Five Hundred. This council began to assume a greater role in lawmaking, although the Ecclesia could still veto measures the Council proposed. When Athens experienced political unrest in 411 B.C., the Council of Five Hundred was replaced by a new Council of Four Hundred. Following the Athenian surrender in 404, the size of the council was again reduced to the Thirty.

Qualifications for office

Athenians did not automatically grant citizenship to everyone. That issue however, was not as troublesome as the issue of eligibility for public office. When Solon instituted his reforms in 594 he made wealth the criterion for office, although he classified individuals based on their wealth and restricted access to the higher offices to the wealthiest. Only in 458-7 B.C. were the lower classes made eligible for office. He did make some concessions for citizenship, allowing some of the poorer individuals membership in the Ecclesia.