The Athenian Constitution

by Xenophon Icon

I do not praise the Athenian constitution as they chose the welfare of the baser folk, as opposed to that of the better class.

But they have preserved it in the right way.

Those other transactions in connection with it, which are looked upon as blunders by

The rest of the Hellenic world sees

, are the reverse.

It is only just that the poorer classes and the Athenians should be better off than the men of birth and wealth. It is the poor who man the fleet and bring Athens to power.

The steersman, the boatswain, the lieutenant, the look-out-man at the prow, the shipright—these are the people who engird the city with power far rather than her heavy infantry and men of birth of quality.

It seems only just that offices of state should be thrown open to every one both in the ballot (8) and the show of hands, and that the right of speech should belong to any one who likes, without restriction.

Many of these offices which, according as they are in good or in bad hands, are a source of safety or of danger to the People, and in these the People prudently abstains from sharing; as, for instance, it does not think it incumbent on itself to share in the functions of the general or of the commander of cavalry.

The sovereign People recognises the fact that in forgoing the personal exercise of these offices, and leaving them to the control of the more powerful (11) citizens, it secures the balance of advantage to itself.

It is only those departments of government which bring emolument (12) and assist the private estate that the People cares to keep in its own hands.

In Athens, the poor and common folk are better regarded than persons of good quality. Many foreigners are puzzled at this.

But this is the keystone of the preservation of the democracy.

  • This is because the wealth of these poor people in great numbers enhances the democracy.

Whereas, a shifting of fortune to the advantage of the wealthy and the better classes implies the establishment on the part of the commonalty of a strong power in opposition to itself.

In fact, all the world over, the cream of society is in opposition to the democracy.

Naturally, since the smallest amount of intemperance and injustice, together with the highest scrupulousness in the pursuit of excellence, is to be found in the ranks of the better class, while within the ranks of the People will be found the greatest amount of ignorance, disorderliness, rascality—poverty acting as a stronger incentive to base conduct, not to speak of lack of education and ignorance, traceable to the lack of means which afflicts the average of mankind. (14)

The objection may be raised that it was a mistake to allow the universal right of speech (15) and a seat in council.

These should have been reserved for the cleverest, the flower of the community.

But here, again, it will be found that they are acting with wise deliberation in granting to (16) even the baser sort the right of speech, for supposing only the better people might speak, or sit in council, blessings would fall to the lot of those like themselves, but to the commonalty the reverse of blessings. Whereas now, any one who likes, any base fellow, may get up and discover something to the advantage of himself and his equals.

It may be retorted: “And what sort of advantage either for himself or for the People can such a fellow be expected to hit upon?”

The answer to which is, that in their judgment the ignorance and baseness of this fellow, together with his goodwill, are worth a great deal more to them than your superior person’s virtue and wisdom, coupled with animosity.

What it comes to, therefore, is that a state founded upon such institutions will not be the best state; (17) but, given a democracy, these are the right means to procure its preservation. The People, it must be borne in mind, does not demand that the city should be well governed and itself a slave.

It desires to be free and to be master. (18) As to bad legislation it does not concern itself about that.

In fact, what you believe to be bad legislation is the very source of the People’s strength and freedom.

But if you seek for good legislation, in the first place you will see the cleverest members of the community laying down the laws for the rest.

The better class will curb and chastise the lower orders; the better class will deliberate in behalf of the state, and not suffer crack-brained fellows to sit in council, or to speak or vote in Parliament.

Under the weight of such blessings the People will in a very short time be reduced to slavery.

Another point is the extraordinary amount of license (21) granted to slaves and resident aliens at Athens, where a blow is illegal, and a slave will not step aside to let you pass him in the street.

I will explain the reason of this peculiar custom.

Supposing it were legal for a slave to be beaten by a free citizen, or for a resident alien or freedman to be beaten by a citizen, it would frequently happen that an Athenian might be mistaken for a slave or an alien and receive a beating; since the Athenian People is no better clothed than the slave or alien, nor in personal appearance is there any superiority.

Or if the fact itself that slaves in Athens are allowed to indulge in luxury, and indeed in some cases to live magnificently, be found astonishing, this too, it can be shown, is done of set purpose. Where you have a naval power (22) dependent upon wealth (23) we must perforce be slaves to our slaves, in order that we may get in our slave-rents, (24) and let the real slave go free. Where you have wealthy slaves it ceases to be advantageous that my slave should stand in awe of you.

In Sparta, my slave stands in awe of you. (25)

But if your slave is in awe of me there will be a risk of his giving away his own moneys to avoid running a risk in his own person. It is for this reason then that we have established an equality between our slaves and free men; and again between our resident aliens and full citizens, (26) because the city stands in need of her resident aliens to meet the requirements of such a multiplicity of arts and for the purposes of her navy. That is, I repeat, the justification for the equality conferred upon our resident aliens.

Citizens devoting their time to gymnastics and to the cultivation of music are not to be found in Athens; (27) the sovereign People has disestablished them, (28) not from any disbelief in the beauty and honour of such training, but recognising the fact that these are things the cultivation of which is beyond its power. On the same principle, in the case of the coregia, (29) the gymnasiarchy, and the trierarchy, the fact is recognised that it is the rich man who trains the chorus, and the People for whom the chorus is trained; it is the rich man who is trierarch or gymnasiarch, and the People that profits by their labours. (30) In fact, what the People looks upon as its right is to pocket the money. (31) To sing and run and dance and man the vessels is well enough, but only in order that the People may be the gainer, while the rich are made poorer. And so in the courts of justice, (32) justice is not more an object of concern to the jurymen than what touches personal advantage.

To speak next of the allies, and in reference to the point that emissaries (33) from Athens come out, and, according to common opinion, calumniate and vent their hatred (34) upon the better sort of people, this is done (35) on the principle that the ruler cannot help being hated by those whom he rules; but that if wealth and respectability are to wield power in the subject cities the empire of the Athenian People has but a short lease of existence.

This explains why the better people are punished with infamy, (36) robbed of their money, driven from their homes, and put to death, while the baser sort are promoted to honour. On the other hand, the better Athenians throw their aegis over the better class in the allied cities.

(37) And why? Because they recognise that it is to the interest of their own class at all times to protect the best element in the cities.

It may be urged (38) that if it comes to strength and power the real strength of Athens lies in the capacity of her allies to contribute their money quota. But to the democratic mind (39) it appears a higher advantage still for the individual Athenian to get hold of the wealth of the allies, leaving them only enough to live upon and to cultivate their estates, but powerless to harbour treacherous designs.

Again, (40) it is looked upon as a mistaken policy on the part of the Athenian democracy to compel her allies to voyage to Athens in order to have their cases tried. (41) On the other hand, it is easy to reckon up what a number of advantages the Athenian People derive from the practice impugned. In the first place, there is the steady receipt of salaries throughout the year (42) derived from the court fees. (43) Next, it enables them to manage the affairs of the allied states while seated at home without the expense of naval expeditions. Thirdly, they thus preserve the partisans of the democracy, and ruin her opponents in the law courts. Whereas, supposing the several allied states tried their cases at home, being inspired by hostility to Athens, they would destroy those of their own citizens whose friendship to the Athenian People was most marked. But besides all this the democracy derives the following advantages from hearing the cases of her allies in Athens. In the first place, the one per cent (44) levied in Piraeus is increased to the profit of the state; again, the owner of a lodging-house (45) does better, and so, too, the owner of a pair of beasts, or of slaves to be let out on hire; (46) again, heralds and criers (47) are a class of people who fare better owing to the sojourn of foreigners at Athens. Further still, supposing the allies had not to resort to Athens for the hearing of cases, only the official representative of the imperial state would be held in honour, such as the general, or trierarch, or ambassador. Whereas now every single individual among the allies is forced to pay flattery to the People of Athens because he knows that he must betake himself to Athens and win or lose (48) his case at the bar, not of any stray set of judges, but of the sovereign People itself, such being the law and custom at Athens. He is compelled to behave as a suppliant (49) in the courts of justice, and when some juryman comes into court, to grasp his hand. For this reason, therefore, the allies find themselves more and more in the position of slaves to the people of Athens.

Furthermore, owing to the possession of property beyond the limits of Attica, (50) and the exercise of magistracies which take them into regions beyond the frontier, they and their attendants have insensibly acquired the art of navigation. (51) A man who is perpetually voyaging is forced to handle the oar, he and his domestics alike, and to learn the terms familiar in seamanship.

Hence a stock of skilful mariners is produced, bred upon a wide experience of voyaging and practice. They have learnt their business, some in piloting a small craft, others a merchant vessel, whilst others have been drafted off from these for service on a ship-of-war. So that the majority of them are able to row the moment they set foot on board a vessel, having been in a state of preliminary practice all their lives.


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