Aristotle on the Oligarchic Coup

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), 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 a rather technical account of the oligarchic coup that surprised Athens in 411 and was justified with the argument that the democrats were not successfully conducting the Decelean or Ionian War. The coup took place in a climate of terror, but more or less along constitutional lines. First, a law was made that lifted the ban on unconstitutional proposals. Then, powers were handed over to a group of oligarchs, called the Four Hundred, who would draft a new constitution for a moderate oligarchy, the Five Thousand. As it turned out, the Four Hundred did intend to give up power, ruled by an emergency decree, until the loss of Euboea discredited them too, and the Five Thousand came to power. So, in the next fragment, reference is made to several constitutions:

  1. The intended constitution of the Four Hundred
  2. The emergency decree of the Four Hundred
  3. The moderate constitution of the Five Thousand

Ps.-Aristotle's account contradicts, and is often contradicted by, the story in Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War. This makes the Constitution of the Athenians a very important source. The translation of sections 29-33 was made by F.G. Kenyon.

Ps.-Aristotle on the Oligarchic Coup (411)

[29] So long as the fortune of the war continued even, the Athenians preserved the democracy; but after the disaster in Sicily, when the Spartans had gained the upper hand through their alliance with the king of Persia, they were compelled to abolish the democracy and establish in its place the constitution of the Four Hundred.

The speech recommending this course before the vote was made by Melobius, and the motion was proposed by Pythodorus of Anaphlystus; but the real argument which persuaded the majority was the belief that the king of Persia was more likely to form an alliance with them if the constitution were on an oligarchic basis.note

The motion of Pythodorus was to the following effect. The popular Assembly was to elect twenty persons, over forty years of age, who, in conjunction with the existing ten members of the Committee of Public Safety, after taking an oath that they would frame such measures as they thought best for the state, should then prepare proposals for the public safety. In addition, any other person might make proposals, so that of all the schemes before them the people might choose the best.

Clitophon concurred with the motion of Pythodorus, but moved that the committee should also investigate the ancient laws enacted by Clisthenes when he created the democracy, in order that they might have these too before them and so be in a position to decide wisely; his suggestion being that the constitution of Clisthenes was not really democratic, but closely akin to that of Solon.

When the committee was elected, their first proposal was that the Prytanes should be compelled to put to the vote any motion that was offered on behalf of the public safety. Next they abolished all indictments for illegal proposals, all impeachments and pubic prosecutions, in order that every Athenian should be free to give his counsel on the situation, if he chose; and they decreed that if any person imposed a fine on any other for his acts in this respect, or prosecuted him or summoned him before the courts, he should, on an information being laid against him, be summarily arrested and brought before the generals, who should deliver him to the Eleven to be put to death.

After these preliminary measures, they drew up the constitution in the following manner. The revenues of the state were not to be spent on any purpose except the war.note All magistrates should serve without remuneration for the period of the war, except the nine Archons and the Prytanes for the time being, who should each receive three obols a day. The whole of the rest of the administration was to be committed, for the period of the war, to those Athenians who were most capable of serving the state personally or pecuniarily, to the number of not less than five thousand. This body was to have full powers, to the extent even of making treaties with whomsoever they willed; and ten representatives, over forty years of age, were to be elected from each tribe to draw up the list of the Five Thousand, after taking an oath on a full and perfect sacrifice.

[30] These were the recommendations of the committee; and when they had been ratified, the Five Thousand elected from their own number a hundred commissioners to draw up the constitution. They, on their appointment, drew up and produced the following recommendations.

[31] Such was the constitution which they drew up for the time to come, but for the immediate present they devised the following scheme.

[32] The hundred commissioners appointed by the Five Thousand drew up the constitution as just stated; and after it had been ratified by the people, under the presidency of Aristomachus, the existing Council, that of the year of Callias,note was dissolved before it had completed its term of office. It was dissolved on the fourteenth day of the month Thargelion, and the Four Hundred entered into office on the twenty-first; whereas the regular Council, elected by lot, ought to have entered into office on the fourteenth of Scirophorion. Thus was the oligarchy established, in the archonship of Callias, just about a hundred years after the expulsion of the tyrants.

The chief promoters of the revolution were Pisander, Antiphon, and Theramenes, all of them men of good birth and with high reputations for ability and judgment. When, however, this constitution had been established, the Five Thousand were only nominally selected, and the Four Hundred, together with the ten officers on whom full powers had been conferred, occupied the Council-house and really administered the government. They began by sending ambassadors to the Spartans proposing a cessation of the war on the basis of the existing positions; but as the Spartans refused to listen to them unless they would also abandon the command of the sea, they broke off the negotiations.

[33] For about four months the constitution of the Four Hundred lasted, and Mnasilochus held office as Archon of their nomination for two months of the year of Theopompus, who was Archon for the remaining ten. On the loss of the naval battle of Eretria, however, and the revolt of the whole of Euboea except Oreus, the indignation of the people was greater than at any of the earlier disasters, since they drew far more supplies at this time from Euboea than from Attica itself.

Accordingly, they deposed the Four Hundred and committed the management of affairs to the Five Thousand, consisting of persons possessing a military equipment. At the same time they voted that pay should not be given for any public office. The persons chiefly responsible for the revolution were Aristocrates and Theramenes, who disapproved of the action of the Four Hundred in retaining the direction of affairs entirely in their own hands, and referring nothing to the Five Thousand. During this period the constitution of the state seems to have been admirable, since it was a time of war and the franchise was in the hands of those who possessed a military equipment.

[34] The people, however, in a very short time deprived the Five Thousand of their monopoly of the government.note