The ekklēsia was the assembly in the Greek city-state. It is first known from the Homeric poems, in which it is summoned by a king or noble for approval of a decision (e.g., Agamemnon in book 2 of the Iliad). The ekklēsia itself did not debate issues, and members were not encouraged to speak; it was simply a forum for debate and discussion between the king and his advisers. The ekklēsia voted “yes” or “no” to the question that was put to them.
The power of the ekklēsia and the exact nature of its membership varied depending on the type of government of its home state. Oligarchies tended to impose property qualifications for membership in the ekklēsia, making it a body that represented the interests of landowners and the wealthy, whereas in democracies membership was usually open to all. The power of the other branches of government in the state also regulated the power of the ekklēsia: other magistrates could limit how often or when it met, what issues it could discuss, and whether debate on those issues, or merely a straight up-or-down vote, was permitted.
The two assemblies from ancient Greece for which we have the best evidence are the Spartan and Athenian ekklēsiai. In Sparta, members of the ekklēsia were Spartiates, male full citizens with Spartiate parents, and thus by default landowners. The “Great Rhetra,” established by Lycurgus probably sometime in the seventh century bce, redefined the role of the ekklēsia and guaranteed it regular meetings (at every full moon) and final say in all decisions. This gives the impression of a powerful body, and insofar as the ekklēsia elected the ephors (the chief magistrates of Sparta) and the gerousia (the council of elders), this impression is correct. But a later rider to the Great Rhetra gave the kings and the gerousia the power to override a “crooked” decision of the ekklēsia. Members of the ekklēsia probably did not engage in discussion, but instead listened to debates on policy among the kings, ephors, and members of the gerousia. They then voted “yes” or “no” to the proposal before them. Issues brought before the ekklēsia included foreign policy, the succession to the throne if this was in dispute, the decision of which king would lead a military campaign, and helot affairs, especially questions of emancipation. Voting was conducted by shouting or acclamation, including the election of magistrates, and the ephors presided over meetings; they and the kings set the agenda for the ekklēsia.
Whereas in Sparta the ekklēsia seems to have existed from very early on, with very little modification to its powers, in Athens the history of the ekklēsia is also the history of the Athenian democracy. The ekklēsia seems to have existed in the time of Draco and Solon in the seventh and sixth centuries and perhaps was the body that appointed them as lawmakers, suggesting that it at least elected the magistrates of the city. Solon may have created a second council (boulē) to prepare legislation for the ekklēsia; possibly a broader role was created for this council under his reforms in the 580s. Solon made the ekklēsia open to all adult male citizens of any property class, so that even the citizens from the lowest of those property classes, the thētes, were members. It may also have voted on foreign-policy issues. Cleisthenes did not reform the ekklēsia in 508; it next gained more powers and prominence with the reforms of Ephialtes in 462/1. One of these powers may have been that the ekklēsia was now the trial court for magistrates who had been impeached by the council. After Ephialtes, all major decisions that faced Athens were taken by the ekklēsia. Except for two brief hiatuses in the ekklēsia's power during the oligarchic revolutions in 411 and 404/3, the ekklēsia was the primary decision-making body in the state.
The exact population of Athens at any given date is unknown, but by the time of the Peloponnesian War (431–404) the population of adult male citizens, and thus the membership of the ekklēsia, was probably in the range of thirty to forty-five thousand. This included those resident not only in Athens but also in Attica. For this latter group, regular attendance at the meetings would have been difficult, suggesting that the ekklēsia and its decisions were dominated by the city. A quorum of six thousand was required for some decisions, suggesting that this number could be reached but was hardly guaranteed. Attendance was mandatory for anyone in the city proper. Public slaves were sent out to the Agora or marketplace on the mornings that the ekklēsia met to ensure attendance, and they would flog those found outside the ekklēsia, marking them with red ochre; these people would then be forbidden to participate in any business for the rest of the day until they attended the ekklēsia. The introduction of ekklēsia pay at the end of the fifth century would have made participation more attractive to the urban poor at least. The ekklēsia usually met at the Pnyx, a hill located to the southwest of the Acropolis, which probably held only between six and twelve thousand (the higher numbers belong to the fourth century), confirming the suspicions about attendance noted above. Larger meetings were sometimes held in the Theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis.
The Athenian year was divided into ten months, and each of the ten tribes took the presidency of the ekklēsia in turn for a month. Four meetings were held each month, presumably along with extraordinary sessions in times of crisis. Important foreign-policy decisions in particular seem to have required two meetings—one for deliberation, one for voting—perhaps to guard against too hasty action. A quorum of six thousand was required, which again suggests that that number of attendees was not unreasonable but that it could not be guaranteed. The ekklēsia voted by ballot on issues that required a quorum (to ensure that the quorum had been met), but otherwise it voted by a show of hands, which were estimated, not counted. How much debate and free exchange of views was possible in a body of six thousand is dubious; discussion was probably dominated by statesmen and other leading Athenians, and the rest of the body simply took sides. Often demagogues like Cleon (d. 422 bce) held sway; a good path to power in classical Athens was the ability to speak well and persuade the ekklēsia to follow one's chosen course of action.
The ekklēsia's influence extended to almost every decision made by the Athenian state. Nomoi (laws, intended to be permanent) and psēphismata (decrees, dealing with specific issues and not necessarily permanent) could be enacted only by the ekklēsia. Generally the laws and decrees passed by the ekklēsia were subject neither to repeal nor to emendation except under specific circumstances dictated by the law or decree itself. Nor could new decrees contradict existing legislation. Violators of this principle (the graphē paranomon) could be subject to prosecution and exile.
Every issue placed before the ekklēsia must have been the subject of a probouleuma or resolution by the council. Any member of the ekklēsia could speak and propose a measure or rider. The power of the ekklēsia increased over the fifth century as the Athenian democracy grew more and more radical, but it declined during the Hellenistic period, when Athens was in effect ruled by the council, and during the Roman period, when Athens was in effect ruled by the Areopagus.
Almost every Greek state had an ekklēsia, and the practice extended to the Greek federal leagues. The Boeotian Confederacy had an ekklēsia during the period of the Theban hegemony (371–362 bce) over Greece. The Arcadian League in its fourth-century incarnation had an ekklēsia of ten thousand members. Later, in the Hellenistic period, both the Achaean and the Aetolian leagues had assemblies. Voting might be by city instead of by individuals, but the principle was much the same as in the assemblies in individual Greek city-states.
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