Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.

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Archons, kings and democracy: rulership in ancient Athens

Alright, so I'm writing this with a fever. If it makes a little less sense than usual, I'm sorry. Right, on we go. Last week, in a post on my own blog, I listed the mythical kings of ancient Athens. I ended that list with Codrus (Κόδρος), who ruled Athens from 1089 to 1068 BC. His son Medon was (probably) the first who ruled the city-state as archon. From that post:

During the Dorian invasion, the Oracle of Delphi prophecied that the Dorians would win, as long as the king of Athens was not harmed. Hearing of this prophecy, Codrus disguised himself as a peasant and snuck to the Dorian camp. Here, he made a fuss, and was prompty killed. The Dorians retreated upon learning what had happened. It was decreed that no one would be worthy enough to succeed Codrus on the throne, and so, Athens only had archons afterwards.

The archons did not rule as kings; where kings were sole rulers of the city state, archons ruled first in threes, then in nines, then in tens and their power did not extend to law-making. Indeed, the Athenians had a clear understanding of the difference between sovereign power and executive government, and they kept the two separate far more than any modern government.


 The system started with three archons: the 'Archōn Epōnymos' (ἄρχων Ἐπώνυμος), the 'Polemarchos' (πολέμαρχος), and the 'Archōn Basileus' (Ἄρχων Βασιλεύς). Together, these three oversaw the tasks the ancient kings had carried alone.

  • The Archōn Epōnymos was the chief magistrate. He was in charge of the affairs of Athens' citizens. He served as an ancient mayor for the city, and the year was named after him. 
  • The Polemarchos--in the early days--was charged with all affairs of war. The entire army fell to him, and it was up to him to make military decisions for the whole of the city-state. As we will see later on, this part of his job was transfered to the 'stratēgoí' when it became too large a job for one man. From that time on, he would be in charge of the city's métoikos, the resident aliens. He became a mayor in his own right, but for anyone not citizen or slave.
  • The Archōn Basileus were the spiritual inheritors of the mythic kings of Athens. Most notably, the Archon Basileus was in charge of religious and artistic festivals.
As Athens grew, it became impossible for three men to take on this job on their own. Six others were commissioned. These were the Thesmothétai (Θεσμοθέται), 'junior' archons, who worked at the thesmotheteion. A tenth position was added to the árchōntes (ἄρχοντες) around the fifth or fourth century BC. It was called the 'Grammateîs' (γραμματεῖς) and he who took up the role, served as a secretary with a large variety of tasks.

Originally the árchōntes were chosen from the 'eupatridae'--those who were 'good fathered'--by elections every ten years, but after 508 BC the titles were held for only a single year. Other changes came in 487 BC, when the archonships became assigned by lot to any citizen, and the Polemarchos' military duties were taken over by a new class of generals known as 'stratēgoí' (στρατηγοί). The ten stratēgoí were elected from the ten tribes of Athens, and the office of Polemarchos was rotated among them on a daily basis. The Polemarchos himself had only minor religious duties from that point forward, as well as titular headship over the stratēgoí. When democracy was instituted in Athens, the Archōn Epōnymos remained the titular head of state, although his position became a lot less important.

So, how were these people chosen for the árchōntes? Well, the ancient Athenians fiddled with the system quite a bit to get it functioning the way they wanted it, but there was one common element that--as said--was always included: lot. Every single citizen had a chance to serve a term as árchōntes. Each of the ten Athenian tribes supplied candidates, who were selected by lottery from across the tribe. All citizens of Athens then voted on the thee to ten people they thought would do the best job. Some years, this meant that some of the least-capable men of a tribe ruled the entire city-state, but that was something that the citizens just dealt with.

This democracy I just spoke of, by the way, was a lot different than the democracy of modern times. In fact, I think the ancient Hellens would have raised an eye-brow or two if someone were to tell them about our modern ideas about democracy. In ancient Athens, sovereign power was held by the ecclesia, and only by the ecclesia. The árchōntes didn't factor into lawmaking at all. Every citizen in ancient Hellas had the right to vote on new or changing laws and was thus required to be aware of them and have an opinion on them; a direct democracy. Very roughly measured, about a quarter of the inhabitants of ancient Athens were eligible to vote. At the height of ancient Athens, this would have constituted about 25,000 men. 6,000 were needed before any vote even went up. On slow days, serfs who were part of the Scythian Guard literally wrangled citizens(!) into the halls, with a rope smeared with red ochre--called a 'miltos'--to get enough bodies in the seats.

Getting 25,000 people--or even 6,000--to do anything in union is a very daunting task, so the ancient Athenians formed a 'boule' (βουλή), who met at the 'bouleterion'. The term comes from the ancient Greek word for 'citizens': bouleutai (βουλευταί). I touched briefly upon the ten tribes of ancient Athens, and I will do so again now. In the near future, I'll come back to them in greater detail, because to do so now would be beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that every citizen in Athens had to belong to one of the ten tribes, eight of which were named after the mythical kings. The boule was assembled from 50 men, chosen from each tribe, for a total of 500 men. They oversaw the daily workings of the city, administered justices, looked after the placement of orphans, etc.

The boule still consisted of far too many people to get anything done in an orderly fashion. The next step was to dilute an even smaller group from the 500 members of the boule. Five men from each of the ten tribes represented in the boule were chosen to form a subgroup called the 'prytaneis' (πρυτάνεις), for a total of fifty. Membership of the prytaneis was rotated each tenth of a year. This meant that if you were a member of the boule, you would serve roughly 36 days as a prytanis (πρύτανις).

During their days as prytanis, members of the prytaneis ate at public expense in the 'Tholos' (θόλος), a circular edifice constructed for them next to the bouleterion. In effect, they lived there for the duration of their time as prytanis. My guess as to why, is because they would be easy to find that way. Prythaneis were the only people who could summon the ecclesia in case of emergencies so, in case of emergencies, they needed to be locatable.

In short: ancient Athens was ruled by the ecclesia of about 25,000 voting citizens. The ecclesia, in turn, was managed by the boule of 500 citizens, taken from the ranks of the ecclesia. The boule, finally, was managed by 50 members of the boule, called the prytaneis. Everyone in the ecclesia voted, but their votes were tallied by the boule-members of their tribe, who related the votes to the prytanis of their tribe, who then tallied and proclaimed the votes.

With so many people living in modern countries, this system of árchōntes and direct democracy is outdated at best, but in that fever dream I have of a standardized Hellenismos, wouldn't this serve as the perfect base for standardization? With the on-line possibilities we have today, it would be easy for anyone who would want to, to join video conferences, vote through on-line voting tools and remain in contact through yahoo-groups, forums and/or social media. Never going to happen, you say? No, probably not, but a girl can dream, right?

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Elani Temperance is a twenty-seven year old woman, who lives with her partner in The Netherlands. She has been Pagan for a little over twelve years and has explored Neo-Wicca, Technopaganism, Hedge Witchery and Eclectic Religious Witchcraft before progressing to Hellenismos. Although her home practice is fully Hellenic, she has an online Neo-Pagan magazine called 'Little Witch magazine' (www.littlewitchmagazine.com) in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BaringTheAegis

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