“The Athenian definition of “liberty” was, in private matters, “living as one pleases,” and in public matters, “ruling and being ruled in turn.
” The political landscape of Athens was not defined by a written document. According to Aristotle’s “Politics”, the Athenian constitution was the structure of the political system. The layout and system break down given by Aristotle in “Politics” gives an accurate explanation of how the political system of Athens was developed, how it worked, and the consequences for violating the system. However his view of the system and its effectiveness may be skewed by his own opinions.It is very interesting to note that the Athenian constitution draws it’s origin from warfare.
According to Aristotle it was not a militaristic system. The highest ranking military men didn’t rule or make the decisions. The three classes of Athenian society are listed in “Politics” as the “Horseman”, the “Yokemen”, and the “Menials.” The classes were separated by rather simplistic methods. The Horsemen were able to afford horses, the Yokemen couldn’t so employed oxen and the Menials couldn’t afford either and were forced to be hired for work rather than being independently wealthy like the Horsemen or own their own businesses like the Yokemen. Aristotle explains that these three classes contributed to the rise of democracy in Athens in two ways: first, members of the ruling class (the Horsemen) found it useful to grant the lower classes political rights. This gained them popularity with the lower classes and support for their own clandestine agendas against other members of the ruling class.
Secondly, Athens as a nation was dependent on its navy and therefore on the menials as the rowers who manned the naval vessels. This gave a great amount of leverage to the menial class.As with other government systems or organizations the Athenian state was divided into legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The legislative branch was divided into two separate bodies known as the Council of 500 and the Assembly of 6000.
Neither of these bodies consisted of elected officials, but officials selected by lots or sortition according to Aristotle. These selections were completely random because the Athenians believed that elections were anti-democratic. Aristotle explains that for a person to be elected he must be well known or famous already.
This would give an unfair advantage to an already prominent person during the election. Thus the random selection process enables a completely democratic system. The Council was used to prepare the business for the Assembly which met less often. All major decisions were made by the Assembly of which all every male member of Athenian society was a part. This was done because the Athenians did not trust the politicians. The Assembly made all the important decisions, but not everyone in the Assembly was as active a participant as some.
Speakers or Rhetors would address and speak about issues that had been called to vote. The explanation of this branch of the Athenian government is clear and concise. The judicial system was staffed or selected in the same way as the legislative branch. Aristotle explains how the system divided cases between public and private arbitration.
The private arbitration results were regarded as final and binding with no appeals permitted. Public arbitrations differed in that appeals were allowed. Aristotle goes on to describe the trial process in Athens and the punishments that could be handed down by the Jury Courts. The executive branch is described by Aristotle as minor officials and functionaries. These people were also selected by lot for one-year terms. The officials of the executive branch were charged not with running the government but with carrying out the limited routine duties entrusted to them by the Assembly. “It was not the rulers of the city who were chosen by lot, but the officials charged with limited routine duties, for which little more than a sense of decency and fair play was required.
Furthermore it must be remembered that a magistrate had to pass a preliminary examination, which was, it is true, usually formal, but gave his enemies an opportunity for raking up his past; was liable to be deposed by a vote of the assembly taken ten times a year; and after his year was subject to a scrutiny in which his accounts were audited and any citizen could charge him with inefficiency or abuse of authority.” Therefore power struggles in politics were unusually limited in the Athenian system.Aristotle goes on to explain that the Athenians were very careful about guarding their democratic system.
They knew their history and how the tyrants of the past had come to rule them by posing as champions for the people. They were determined not to let it happen again. One of the safe guards that were used to ensure this was the act of formal ostracism. Basically any person could be expelled from the city if the people voted as a whole against him. If a person was suspected of trying to perform a coup or of trying to take over the government, a proposal was put before the Assembly to perform an ostracism. If the proposal went through the people voted on who the city would best do without.
The person who was voted for the most was forced to leave the city for ten years.Aristotle describes the system of politics and the practice of it as an art form combined with a science. He further explains that politics is the most authoritative science because it prescribes which sciences are to be studied with in the city state. He points out that other areas such as military and household management are with the purview of politics and tend to fall under its authority.
Politics is a practical science he claims because “it is concerned with the noble action or happiness of the citizens. He compares the politician to a craftsman. This is the area where Aristotle’s description of the Greek political system is flawed. He allows his own opinions of the right and wrong of politics to be the base for an argument. The facts become a secondary consideration. He expands on the ability of any community to possess order as long as there is a ruling element or authority.
In this, I believe, is the opinion that describes what the political system in ancient Athens is defined. There was no ruler or king but a body of randomly selected people who merely organized the coming business for the Assembly. The common people made the decisions. “Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community and that every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone does something for the sake of what they believed to be good), it is clear that every community aims at some good, and the community which has the most authority of all and includes all the other aims highest, that is, at the good with the most authority.”Aristotle gives an accurate account of the democratic system of Athens as he saw it. One must note that though the facts are present and some are supported by other writers in other pieces, the writings of one man are not always without prejudice. In describing the system and how it works, Aristotle explains the system well but not the basis behind the system.
Greek political history is or was the democracy of its time which was guarded by its citizens more zealously than anything we know today or in years preceding the Athenian society.