Popular Sovereignty Network

I attended the first meeting of the Popular Sovereignty Network yesterday at Queen Mary, University of London. The first talk, by Melissa Lane (politics, Princeton) was on Athenian democracy. Professor Lane took issue with the assumption that the Athenian franchise for office-holding was open to all male citizens over 30, drawing attention to the Solonic prohibition on the thetes holding office (as opposed to participating in the assembly and courts). The source for the Solonic prohibition is Aristotle’s Politics, VII 3. Scholars like Hansen and Sinclair claim that by the 4th Century the prohibition had become a ‘dead letter’, but there is no real evidence for this.

Her talk then took an unusual turn when she shifted the focus to the election of (some) officeholders, on the basis of universal (by Athenian standards) suffrage. I questioned her on the number of elected offices and she claimed it was 100 (out of around 700); nevertheless she used this to argue that Athenian democracy was not so different from its modern Schumpeterian form, in which all citizens elect officeholders and then hold them to account.

This was all a little odd (why focus on the minority of elected officials?), and not particularly convincing, so perhaps she was just trying to stir things up. But I did find her contrast between office-holding and assembly/courts to be illuminating. She disputed Hansen’s claim that ‘ruling and being ruled in turn’ referred to rotation in office, claiming that it referred more to the assembly and the courts. Jury service did involve very significant rotation and, with the 4th century innovation of the nomothetai, serious legislative power was involved. Membership of the council was a collegial office, so Aristotle’s remark could have referred to this (Hansen claims that most eligible citizens would have served on the council at least once), but note her earlier comments on the Solonic prohibition.

What is of interest is that out of the three Greek-derived terms for forms of government (monarchy, oligarchy and democracy), the first two are based on the stem for political office (arche) whereas democracy alone is based on the stem for power (kratos). This would suggest that the Greeks viewed democracy as all sharing legislative power and participating in holding office-holders to account rather than taking it in turns to hold office. This strikes me as closer to Rousseau than Schumpeter, as the sovereign should be concerned with general principles, the (delegated) magistrates with particular applications. If this is so then it matters less whether the magistrates are appointed by lot, preference election, merit or even a (hereditary) ‘prince’, the system is democratic so long as the sovereign legislature includes the whole citizenry (preferably via descriptive representation by proxy).

2 Responses

  1. It would be difficult to exclude a significant part of the citizenry and still have no one serve in the Boule more than twice.


  2. Yes and, if I’m not mistaken, the thetes made up the majority of Athenian citizens, so it’s all a little odd. But I think we both agree that random selection for the courts is more important than most offices (except, perhaps, the council), so the notion that rule and be ruled in turn applied more to legislative bodies than small collective magistracies is interesting. I’m still puzzled though by her emphasis on election, this strikes me as simply wrong (in all but a small minority of cases). Was it the case though that the council elected some of their own members for particular roles, or was this entirely based on rotation?


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