Officials in Ancient Athenian Democracy
Created | Updated May 6, 2007
Athens in the 5th Century BC was a democracy1 and its affairs were run by some of its citizens - men occupying official positions with specific responsibilities. These men were leading Athenian citizens and many would be of noble background. For the more important posts they would be the richest class (the pentacosiomedimnoi) or the next richest (the hippeis ie, knights). However, most of the citizens of Athens were ordinary people and nowhere near as rich. Other less important positions were filled by lot.
Types of Officials
There were a great number of officials with different spheres of influence. Some of the most important ones are detailed here.
This means 'one who is in authority'. The term was used either loosely to refer to any Athenian official, or more accurately, to refer only to the nine most senior officials of the city. They were elected until 487 BC, but subsequently selected by lot from each of the 10 tribes of Athens in turn, subject to approval by the Boule2. Originally, only the two richest classes could be Archons, but this was later extended to include the zeugites or hoplite class, the third of the four classes established by the reformer Solon. They were, to put it simply, the 'big cheeses' of early 5th-Century Athens, especially the three most senior Archons, listed below3.
Eponymous Archon - So-called because the year was named after him. He was the Chief Justice and President of both the Boule and Ecclesia (an assembly which all Athenian citizens4 were entitled to attend, and which made most of the important decisions such as deciding to go to war). Athens was therefore a direct democracy, not a representative democracy like most of today's nations. Of course, it was also much smaller!
The Polemarch - The chief military commander of Athens until the later introduction of the Strategoi (see below). He also dealt with legal cases involving Metics (foreigners living freely in Athens) and other non-Athenians.
The Basileus Archon - Meaning 'King Archon'. He was in charge of religious matters.
The Thesmothetai - Meaning 'establisher of judgements'. These officials made up the remaining six positions of the Archons. They acted as legal authorities and as magistrates for public cases as well as any private cases that did not fall under the jurisdiction of the three senior Archons. The Thesmothetai also decided when the jury courts would sit and assigned other officials to cases. This was an important position to hold, as the Athenians loved their law-courts. Their legal system was very advanced for the times and contemporary chroniclers refer to the fact that they were very well known for frequently resorting to the courts over all manner of cases. In fact, it was a point of irritation for many of her subjects in the Empire (see the 'Hellenotamiae' section of this Entry) who got sick of being frequently dragged into court.
This means 'eleven' in Greek, obviously so-named because there were 11 of these officials. They were responsible for deciding on punishments and supervising the running of the state prison.
During the reforms of the Athenian government begun by a man named Cleisthenes, the position of Polemarch became much less important as he introduced the role of the Strategoi. They were a group of ten generals who were elected by the assembly, one man representing each of the ten tribes established by Cleisthenes, into which all Athenian citizens were placed. They took office for one year, but unlike many other official positions, there was no restriction over holding the office on consecutive years. Presumably it was more important to the Athenians to keep successful generals who had proven track records in battle than administrators.
The office of Strategos, and earlier of Polemarch, was extremely important since Greek city-states were often at war with each other as well as with other nations. During the 5th Century, Athens fought the Persians and the Syracusans as well as other city-states in Greece such as Sparta, so it was essential that her military commanders were up to the job. It also gave the holder a position of great power and influence in terms of politics. For instance, the great Athenian statesman Pericles was a Strategos for many years and this was the basis of much of his power.
This means 'treasurers of the Greeks'. They were responsible for supervising the payment of tribute from the Delian League5 and what it was subsequently spent on. However, they were not responsible to other Delian League members, only to Athenians, who also selected them. This was because the Athenians were by far the most powerful state in the League, and over time it turned into a bona-fide Athenian Empire, dominated by Athenian naval power.