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Ps.-Aristotle on the Regime of the Thirty (404-403)


Corinthian helmet. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Corinthian helmet (British Museum)
Among the many gems that can be found in the Corpus Aristotelicum (the collected works of Aristotle of Stagira) is one little gem that was probably not written by the great philosopher himself: the Constitution of the Athenians. As is suggested by the title, the anonymous author, who must have belonged to Aristotle's school (the Lyceum),[1] describes the historical development of the Athenian constitution and offers an in-depth analysis of its functioning in his own days, the age of Alexander the Great.

The Constitution of the Athenians includes an account of the regime of the Thirty, the oligarchic regime that had been put in charge of Athens by the Spartans, who had captured Athens in April 404. Among its members were the moderate Theramenes and the radical Critias, who were divided about the best policy towards the democrats. Some of them, led by Thrasybulus and supported by Thebes (which was fearful of an Athens controlled by Sparta), fled to a fort named Phyle, returned to capture Piraeus, and received support inside the city. In September 403, the Spartan king Pausanias restored democracy; the radical oligarchs received a free conduct to a briefly independent Eleusis (the text of the decree can be found in §39), but after two years, the two parties were reconciled.

The translation of sections 34-40 of Constitution of the Athenians was made by F.G. Kenyon. Ps.-Aristotle's account should be compared to the story told in Xenophon's Hellenica, because there are points of disagreement.

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Bust of the philosopher and scientist Aristotle. Archaeological Museum, Palermo (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Aristotle (Archaeological 
Museum, Palermo)
[34] Six years after the overthrow of the Four Hundred, in the archonship of Callias of Angele [406/405], the battle of Arginusae took place, of which the results were, first, that the ten generals who had gained the victory were all condemned by a single decision, owing to the people being led astray by persons who aroused their indignation; though, as a matter of fact, some of the generals had actually taken no part in the battle, and others were themselves picked up by other vessels.[2]

Secondly, when the Spartans proposed to evacuate Decelea and make peace on the basis of the existing position, although some of the Athenians supported this proposal, the majority refused to listen to them. In this they were led astray by Cleophon, who appeared in the Assembly drunk and wearing his breastplate, and prevented peace being made, declaring that he would never accept peace unless the Spartans abandoned their claims on all the cities allied with them.

They mismanaged their opportunity then, and in a very short time they learnt their mistake. The next year, in the archonship of Alexias [405/404], they suffered the disaster of Aigospotamoi, the consequence of which was that Lysander became master of the city, and set up the Thirty as its governors.[3] He did so in the following manner.

One of the terms of peace stipulated that the state should be governed according to 'the ancient constitution'. Accordingly the popular party tried to preserve the democracy, while that part of the upper class which belonged to the political clubs, together with the exiles who had returned since the peace, aimed at an oligarchy, and those who were not members of any club, though in other respects they considered themselves as good as any other citizens, were anxious to restore the ancient constitution. The latter class included Archinus, Anytus, Cleitophon, Phormisius, and many others, but their most prominent leader was Theramenes.

Lysander, however, threw his influence on the side of the oligarchic party, and the popular Assembly was compelled by sheer intimidation to pass a vote establishing the oligarchy. The motion to this effect was proposed by Dracontides of Aphidna.

[35] In this way were the Thirty established in power, in the archonship of Pythodorus [404/403]. As soon, however, as they were masters of the city, they ignored all the resolutions which had been passed relating to the organization of the constitution, but after appointing a Council of Five Hundred and the other magistrates out of a thousand selected candidates, and associating with themselves ten Archons in Piraeus, eleven superintendents of the prison, and three hundred 'lash-bearers' as attendants, with the help of these they kept the city under their own control.

At first, indeed, they behaved with moderation towards the citizens and pretended to administer the state according to the ancient constitution. In pursuance of this policy they took down from the hill of Areopagus the laws of Ephialtes and Archestratus relating to the Areopagite Council; they also repealed such of the statutes of Solon as were obscure, and abolished the supreme power of the law courts. In this they claimed to be restoring the constitution and freeing it from obscurities; as, for instance, by making the testator free once for all to leave his property as he pleased, and abolishing the existing limitations in cases of insanity, old age, and undue female influence, in order that no opening might be left for professional accusers. In other matters also their conduct was similar.

At first, then, they acted on these lines, and they destroyed the professional accusers and those mischievous and evil-minded persons who, to the great detriment of the democracy, had attached themselves to it in order to curry favor with it. With all of this the city was much pleased, and thought that the Thirty were doing it with the best of motives. But so soon as they had got a firmer hold on the city, they spared no class of citizens, but put to death any persons who were eminent for wealth or birth or character. Herein they aimed at removing all whom they had reason to fear, while they also wished to lay hands on their possessions; and in a short time they put to death not less than 1500 persons.

[36] Theramenes, however, seeing the city thus falling into ruin, was displeased with their proceedings, and counseled them to cease such unprincipled conduct and let the better classes have a share in the government. At first they resisted his advice, but when his proposals came to be known abroad, and the masses began to associate themselves with him, they were seized with alarm lest he should make himself the leader of the people and destroy their despotic power.

Accordingly they drew up a list of three thousand citizens, to whom they announced that they would give a share in the constitution. Theramenes, however, criticized this scheme also, first on the ground that, while proposing to give all respectable citizens a share in the constitution, they were actually giving it only to three thousand persons, as though all merit were confined within that number; and secondly because they were doing two inconsistent things, since they made the government rest on the basis of force, and yet made the governors inferior in strength to the governed.

However, they took no notice of his criticisms, and for a long time put off the publication of the list of the Three Thousand and kept to themselves the names of those who had been placed upon it; and every time they did decide to publish it they proceeded to strike out some of those who had been included in it, and insert others who had been omitted.

[37] Now when winter [of 404/403] had set in, Thrasybulus and the exiles occupied Phyle, and the force which the Thirty led out to attack them met with a reverse. Thereupon the Thirty decided to disarm the bulk of the population and to get rid of Theramenes; which they did in the following way. They introduced two laws into the Council, which they commanded it to pass; the first of them gave the Thirty absolute power to put to death any citizen who was not included in the list of the Three Thousand, while the second disqualified all persons from participation in the franchise who should have assisted in the demolition of the fort of Eëtioneia, or have acted in any way against the Four Hundred who had organized the previous oligarchy. Theramenes had done both, and accordingly, when these laws were ratified, he became excluded from the franchise and the Thirty had full power to put him to death.

Theramenes having been thus removed, they disarmed all the people except the Three Thousand, and in every respect showed a great advance in cruelty and crime. They also sent ambassadors to Sparta to blacken the character of Theramenes and to ask for help; and the Spartans, in answer to their appeal, sent Callibius as military governor with about 700 troops, who came and occupied the Acropolis.

[38] These events were followed by the occupation of Munichia [4] by the exiles from Phyle, and their victory over the Thirty and their partisans. After the fight the party of the city retreated, and next day they held a meeting in the marketplace and deposed the Thirty, and elected ten citizens with full powers to bring the war to a termination.

When, however, the Ten had taken over the government, they did nothing towards the object for which they were elected, but sent envoys to Sparta to ask for help and to borrow money. Further, finding that the citizens who possessed the franchise were displeased at their proceedings, they were afraid lest they should be deposed, and consequently, in order to strike terror into them (in which design they succeeded), they arrested Demaretus, one of the most eminent citizens, and put him to death. This gave them a firm hold on the government, and they also had the support of Callibius and his Peloponnesians, together with several of the Knights; for some of the members of this class were the most zealous among the citizens to prevent the return of the exiles from Phyle.

When, however, the party in Piraeus and Munichia began to gain the upper hand in the war, through the defection of the whole populace to them, the party in the city deposed the original Ten, and elected another Ten, consisting of men of the highest repute.

Under their administration, and with their active and zealous cooperation, the treaty of reconciliation was made and the populace returned to the city. The most prominent members of this board were Rhinon of Paeania and Phayllus of Acherdus, who, even before the arrival of [the Spartan king] Pausanias, opened negotiations with the party in Piraeus, and after his arrival seconded his efforts to bring about the return of the exiles. For it was Pausanias, the king of the Spartans, who brought the peace and reconciliation to a fulfillment, in conjunction with the ten commissioners of arbitration who arrived later from Sparta, at his own earnest request.

Rhinon and his colleagues received a vote of thanks for the goodwill shown by them to the people, and though they received their charge under an oligarchy and handed in their accounts under a democracy, no one, either of the party that had stayed in the city or of the exiles that had returned from the Piraeus, brought any complaint against them. On the contrary, Rhinon was immediately elected general on account of his conduct in this office.

[39] This reconciliation was effected in the archonship of Euclides [403/402], on the following terms.

  • All persons who, having remained in the city during the troubles, were now anxious to leave it, were to be free to settle at Eleusis, retaining their civil rights and possessing full and independent powers of self-government, and with the free enjoyment of their own personal property.
  • The temple at Eleusis should be common ground for both parties, and should be under the superintendence of the Ceryces, and the Eumolpidae, according to primitive custom.
  • The settlers at Eleusis should not be allowed to enter Athens, nor the people of Athens to enter Eleusis, except at the season of the mysteries, when both parties should be free from these restrictions.
  • The secessionists should pay their share to the fund for the common defense out of their revenues, just like all the other Athenians.
  • If any of the seceding party wished to take a house in Eleusis, the people would help them to obtain the consent of the owner; but if they could not come to terms, they should appoint three valuers on either side, and the owner should receive whatever price they should appoint.
  • Of the inhabitants of Eleusis, those whom the secessionists wished to remain should be allowed to do so.
  • The list of those who desired to secede should be made up within ten days after the taking of the oaths in the case of persons already in the country, and their actual departure should take place within twenty days; persons at present out of the country should have the same terms allowed to them after their return.
  • No one who settled at Eleusis should be capable of holding any office in Athens until he should again register himself on the roll as a resident in the city.
  • Trials for homicide, including all cases in which one party had either killed or wounded another, should be conducted according to ancestral practice.
  • There should be a general amnesty concerning past events towards all persons except the Thirty, the Ten, the Eleven, and the magistrates in Piraeus; and these too should be included if they should submit their accounts in the usual way.
  • Such accounts should be given by the magistrates in Piraeus before a court of citizens rated in Piraeus, and by the magistrates in the city before a court of those rated in the city.
  • On these terms those who wished to do so might secede.
  • Each party was to repay separately the money which it had borrowed for the war.
[40] When the reconciliation had taken place on these terms, those who had fought on the side of the Thirty felt considerable apprehensions, and a large number intended to secede. But as they put off entering their names till the last moment, as people will do, Archinus, observing their numbers, and being anxious to retain them as citizens, cut off the remaining days during which the list should have remained open; and in this way many persons were compelled to remain, though they did so very unwillingly until they recovered confidence.

This is one point in which Archinus appears to have acted in a most statesmanlike manner, and another was his subsequent prosecution of Thrasybulus on the charge of illegality, for a motion by which he proposed to confer the franchise on all who had taken part in the return from Piraeus, although some of them were notoriously slaves.[5]

And yet a third such action was when one of the returned exiles began to violate the amnesty, whereupon Archinus haled him to the Council and persuaded them to execute him without trial, telling them that now they would have to show whether they wished to preserve the democracy and abide by the oaths they had taken; for if they let this man escape they would encourage others to imitate him, while if they executed him they would make an example for all to learn by.

And this was exactly what happened; for after this man had been put to death no one ever again broke the amnesty. On the contrary, the Athenians seem, both in public and in private, to have behaved in the most unprecedentedly admirable and public-spirited way with reference to the preceding troubles. Not only did they blot out all memory of former offenses, but they even repaid to the Spartans out of the public purse the money which the Thirty had borrowed for the war, although the treaty required each party, the party of the city and the party of Piraeus, to pay its own debts separately.

This they did because they thought it was a necessary first step in the direction of restoring harmony; but in other states, so far from the democratic parties making advances from their own possessions, they are rather in the habit of making a general redistribution of the land. A final reconciliation was made with the secessionists at Eleusis two years after the secession, in the archonship of Xenaenetus [401/400].

Note 1:
This is, at least, the communis opinio about the authorship of this little treatise. It should be noted, however, that there is room for doubt. For example, another treatise that was long believed to be spurious, On the cosmos, now appears to be genuine (G. Reale & A.P. Bos, Il trattato "Sul Cosmo per Alessandro" attribuito ad Aristotele (1995 Milano). It is possible that a similar reappraisal of the Constitution of the Athenians will one day take place.

Note 2:
Storm had prevented the victorious admirals from picking up the crews of sunken ships. Many of them drowned, and for this, the admirals were held responsible.

Note 3:
The author assumes that the reader knows that at Aigospotamoi, the Athenians lost their navy, which was necessary to keep open the sea and supply the city. The siege of Athens lasted from the autumn of 405 to April 404.

Note 4:
A fortress near Piraeus.

Note 5:
Others were free foreigners living in Athens ("metics"), who received Athenian citizenship (text).

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