Metamorphoses in Democratic Governance

When the Athenians reintroduced democracy in 403 the aspiration was to return to the ‘ancestral constitution’ – the lost golden age of Solon and Dracon (Hansen, 1999, p.175) – democracy type one in Aristotelian parlance. Fifth-century democracy had allowed the people’s judgment to be corrupted by demagogues in the Assembly, hence the wish to recover respect for the laws:

In 403 the Athenians returned to the idea that the laws, not the people, must be the highest power and that the laws must be stable, even if not wholly entrenched. (p.174)

Henceforth the powers of the Assembly would be limited to issuing temporary/specific decrees (psephisma), whereas any change to general/permanent laws (nomos) would be subject to trial by a jury of nomothetai. These were to be composed of persons selected randomly from the group of 6,000 older male citizens who had sworn the Heliastic Oath. The main purpose of the nomothetai was the overtly conservative one of ensuring that proposed changes were consistent with past laws – only if ‘there is no [relevant] law I will give judgment in consonance with my sense of what is most just’ (Heliastic Oath, quoted on p.170).
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