Section 3

The Athenian Bureaucracy

by Xenophon Icon

The Athenian polity, as a democracy, is not to my taste.

But they do seem to me to go the right way to preserve the democracy by the adoption of the particular type (2) which I have set forth.

Another objection to Athenian democracy is that a man is unable to transact a piece of business with the senate or the People, even if he sit waiting a whole year.

This is because of the immense mass of affairs, they are unable to work off all the business on hand, and dismiss the applicants.

And how in the world should they be able, considering in the first place, that they, the Athenians, have more festivals (3) to celebrate than any other state throughout the length and breadth of Hellas? (During these festivals, of course, the transaction of any sort of affairs of state is still more out of the question.)

They have a huge number of court cases they have to judge. This includes:

  • private lawsuits
  • public causes
  • scrutinies of accounts, etc.

They have more than the rest of mankind put together.

Their senate has multifarious points to advise on:

  • peace and war
  • ways and means
  • framing and passing of laws
  • the thousand and one matters affecting the state perpetually occurring
  • endless questions touching the allies

This is on top of their duties in:

  • the receipt of the tribute
  • the superintendence of dockyards and temples, etc.

With all these affairs on their hands, they are unequal to doing business with all the world.

The applicant can address himself to the senate or the People with a fee in his hand to have a lot of business done. Thus, a good many things may be done at Athens by dint of money. A good many more still might be done, if the money flowed still more freely and from more pockets.

One thing, however, I know full well, that as to transacting with every one of these applicants all he wants, the state could not do it, not even if all the gold and silver in the world were the inducement offered.

Here are some of the cases which have to be decided on.

Some one fails to fit out a ship: judgement must be given.

Another puts up a building on a piece of public land: again judgement must be given.

Or, to take another class of cases: adjudication has to be made between the choragi for the Dionysia, the Thargelia, the Panathenaea, year after year. And again in behalf of the gymnasiarchs a similar adjudication for the Panathenaea, the Prometheia, and the Hephaestia, also year after year.

Also as between the trierarchs, four hundred of whom are appointed each year, of these, too, any who choose must have their cases adjudicated on, year after year.

There are various magistrates to examine and approve and decide between.

There are orphans (9) whose status must be examined; and guardians of prisoners to appoint. These, be it borne in mind, are all matters of yearly occurrence; while at intervals there are exemptions and abstentions from military service (10) which call for adjudication, or in connection with some other extraordinary misdemeanour, some case of outrage and violence of an exceptional character, or some charge of impiety. A whole string of others I simply omit; I am content to have named the most important part with the exception of the assessments of tribute which occur, as a rule, at intervals of five years. (11)

Can anyone suppose that all, or any, of these may dispense with adjudication? (12) If so, will any one say which ought, and which ought not, to be adjudicated on, there and then?

If, on the other hand, we are forced to admit that these are all fair cases for adjudication, it follows of necessity that they should be decided during the twelve-month; since even now the boards of judges sitting right through the year are powerless to stay the tide of evildoing by reason of the multitude of the people.

So far so good. (13) “But,” some one will say, “try the cases you certainly must, but lessen the number of the judges.” But if so, it follows of necessity that unless the number of courts themselves are diminished in number there will only be a few judges sitting in each court, (14) with the further consequence that in dealing with so small a body of judges it will be easier for a litigant to present an invulnerable front (15) to the court, and to bribe (16) the whole body, to the great detriment of justice. (17)

But besides this we cannot escape the conclusion that the Athenians have their festivals to keep, during which the courts cannot sit. (18) As a matter of fact these festivals are twice as numerous as those of any other people. But I will reckon them as merely equal to those of the state which has the fewest.

It is not possible for business affairs at Athens to stand on any very different footing from the present, except to some slight extent, by adding here and deducting there.

Any large modification is out of the question, short of damaging the democracy itself.

Many expedients might be discovered for improving the constitution, but if the problem be to discover some adequate means of improving the constitution, while at the same time the democracy is to remain intact, I say it is not easy to do this, except, as I have just stated, to the extent of some trifling addition here or deduction there.

There is another point in which it is sometimes felt that the Athenians are ill advised, in their adoption, namely, of the less respectable party, in a state divided by faction. But if so, they do it advisedly.

If they chose the more respectable, they would be adopting those whose views and interests differ from their own, for there is no state in which the best element is friendly to the people.

It is the worst element which in every state favours the democracy—on the principle that like favours like. (19) It is simple enough then. The Athenians choose what is most akin to themselves.

Also on every occasion on which they have attempted to side with the better classes, it has not fared well with them, but within a short interval the democratic party has been enslaved, as for instance in Boeotia; (20) or, as when they chose the aristocrats of the Milesians, and within a short time these revolted and cut the people to pieces; or, as when they chose the Lacedaemonians as against the Messenians, and within a short time the Lacedaemonians subjugated the Messenians and went to war against Athens.

The objection is: “No one, of course, is deprived of his civil rights at Athens unjustly.”

My answer is, that there are some who are unjustly deprived of their civil rights, though the cases are certainly rare. But it will take more than a few to attack the democracy at Athens, since you may take it as an established fact, it is not the man who has lost his civil rights justly that takes the matter to heart, but the victims, if any, of injustice.

But how in the world can any one imagine that many are in a state of civil disability at Athens, where the People and the holders of office are one and the same?

It is from iniquitous exercise of office, from iniquity exhibited either in speech or action, and the like circumstances, that citizens are punished with deprivation of civil rights in Athens. Due reflection on these matters will serve to dispel the notion that there is any danger at Athens from persons visited with disenfranchisement.


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