1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Constitution of Athens

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“CONSTITUTION OF ATHENS” (Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία), a work attributed to the philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), forming one of a series of Constitutions (πολιτείαι), 158 in number, which treated of the institutions of the various states in the Greek world. It was extant until the 7th century of our era, or to an even later date, but was subsequently lost. A copy of this treatise, written in four different hands upon four rolls of papyrus, and dating from the end of the 1st century A.D., was discovered in Egypt, and acquired by the trustees of the British Museum, for whom it was edited by F. G. Kenyon, assistant in the manuscript department, and published in January 1891. Some very imperfect fragments of another copy had been acquired by the Egyptian Museum at Berlin, and were published in 1880.

Authorship.—It may be regarded as now established that the treatise discovered in Egypt is identical with the work upon the constitution of Athens that passed in antiquity under the name of Aristotle. The evidence derived from a comparison of the British Museum papyrus with the quotations from the lost work of Aristotle’s which are found in scholiasts and grammarians is conclusive. Of fifty-eight quotations from Aristotle’s work, fifty-five occur in the papyrus. Of thirty-three quotations from Aristotle, which relate to matters connected with the constitution, or the constitutional history of Athens, although they are not expressly referred to the Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία, twenty-three are found in the papyrus. Of those not found in the papyrus, the majority appear to have come either from the beginning of the treatise, which is wanting in the papyrus, or from the latter portion of it, which is mutilated. The coincidence, therefore, is as nearly as possible complete. It may also be regarded as established by internal evidence that the treatise was composed during the interval between Aristotle’s return to Athens in 335 B.C. and his death in 322. There are two passages which give us the latter year as the terminus ad quem, viz. c. 42. 1 and c. 62. 2. In the former passage the democracy which is about to be described is spoken of as the “present constitution” (ἡ νῦν κατάστασις τῆς πολιτείας). The democratic constitution was abolished, and a timocracy established, on the surrender of Athens to Antipater, at the end of the Lamian War, in the autumn of 322. At the same time Samos was lost; it is still reckoned, however, among the Athenian possessions in the latter passage. On the other hand, the foreign possessions of Athens are limited to Lemnos, Imbros, Scyros, Delos and Samos. This could only apply to the period after Chaeronea (338 B.C.). In c. 61. 1, again, mention is made of a special Strategus ἐπὶ τὰς συμμορίας; but it can be proved from inscriptions that down to the year 334 the generals were collectively concerned with the symmories. Finally, in c. 54. 7 an event is dated by the archonship of Cephisophon (329). We thus get the years 329 and 322 as fixing the limits of the period to which the composition of the work must be assigned. It follows that, whether it is by Aristotle or not, its date is later than that of the Politics, in which there is no reference to any event subsequent to the death of Philip in 336.

The only question as to authorship that can fairly be raised is the question whether it is by Aristotle or by a pupil; i.e. as to the sense in which it is “Aristotelian.” The argument on the two sides may be summarized as follows:—

Against.—(i.) The occurrence of non-Aristotelian words and phrases and the absence of turns of expression characteristic of the undisputed writings of Aristotle. (ii.) The occurrence of statements contradictory of views found in the Politics; e.g. c. 4 (Constitution of Draco) compared with Pol. 1274 b 15 (Δράκοντος νόμοι μέν εἰσι, πολιτείᾳ δ᾽ ὑπαρχούσῃ τοὺς νόμους ἔθηκεν); c. 8. 1 (the archons appointed by lot out of selected candidates) compared with Pol. 1274 a 17, and 1281 b 31 (the archons elected by the demos); c. 17. 1 (total length of Peisistratus’ reign, 19 years) compared with Pol. 1315 b 32 (total length, 17 years); c. 21. 6 (Cleisthenes left the clan and phratries unaltered) compared with Pol. 1319 b 20 (Cleisthenes increased the number of the phratries); c. 21. 2 and 4 compared with Pol. 1275 b 37 (different views as to the class admitted to citizenship by Cleisthenes). It will be observed that the instances quoted relate to the most famous names in the early history of Athens, viz. Draco, Solon, Peisistratus and Cleisthenes. (iii.) Arguments drawn from the style, composition and general character of the work, which are alleged to be unworthy of the author of the undoubtedly genuine writings. There is no sense of proportion (contrast the space devoted to Peisistratus and his sons, or to the Four Hundred and the Thirty, with the inadequate treatment of the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars); there is a lack of historical insight and an uncritical acceptance of erroneous views; and the anecdotic element is unduly prominent. These considerations led several of the earlier critics to deny the Aristotelian authorship, e.g. the editors of the Dutch edition of the text, van Herwerden and van Leeuwen; Rühl, Cauer and Schvarcz in Germany; H. Richards and others in England.

For.—(i.) The consensus of antiquity. Every ancient writer who mentions the Constitution attributes it to Aristotle, while no writer is known to have questioned its genuineness. (ii.) The coincidence of the date assigned to its composition on internal grounds with the date of Aristotle’s second residence in Athens. (iii.) Parallelisms of thought or expression with passages in the Politics; e.g. c. 16. 2 and 3 compared with Pol. 1318 b 14 and 1319 a 30; the general view of Solon’s legislation compared with Pol. 1296 b 1; c. 27. 3 compared with Pol. 1274 a 9. To argument (i.) against the authorship, it is replied that the Constitution is an historical work, intended for popular use; differences in style and terminology from those of a philosophical treatise, such as the Politics, are to be expected. To argument (ii.) it is replied that, as the Constitution is a later work than the Politics, a change of view upon particular points is not surprising. These considerations have led the great majority of writers upon the subject to attribute the work to Aristotle himself. On this side are found Kenyon and Sandys among English scholars, and in Germany, Wilamowitz, Blass, Gilbert, Bauer, Bruno Keil, Busolt, E. Meyer, and many others. On the whole, it can hardly be doubted that the view which is supported by so great a weight of authority is the correct one. The arguments advanced on the other side are not to be lightly set aside, but they can scarcely outweigh the combination of external and internal evidence in favour of the attribution to Aristotle. An attentive study of the parallel passages in the Politics will go a long way towards carrying conviction. It is true that a series such as the Constitutions might well be entrusted to pupils working under the direction of their master. It is also true, however, that the Constitution of Athens must have been incomparably the most important of the series and the one that would be most naturally reserved for the master’s hand. There are no traces in the treatise either of variety of authorship or of incompleteness, though there are evidences of interpolation.

Contents.—The treatise consists of two parts, one historical, and the other descriptive. The first forty-one chapters compose the former part, the remainder of the work the latter. The first part comprised an account of the original constitution of Athens, and of the eleven changes through which it successively passed (see c. 41). The papyrus, however, is imperfect at the beginning (the manuscript from which it was copied appears to have been similarly defective), the text commencing in the middle of a sentence which relates to the trial and banishment of the Alcmeonidae for their part in the affair of Cylon. The missing chapters must have contained a sketch of the original constitution, and of the changes introduced in the time of Ion and Theseus.

The following is an abstract of Part I. in its present form. Chapters 2, 3, description of the constitution before the time of Draco. 4, Draco’s constitution. 5-12, reforms of Solon. 13, party feuds after the legislation of Solon. 14-19, the rule of Peisistratus and his sons. 20, 21, the reforms of Cleisthenes. 22, changes introduced between Cleisthenes and the invasion of Xerxes. 23, 24, the supremacy of the Areopagus, 479–461 B.C. 25, its overthrow by Ephialtes. 26, 27, changes introduced in the time of Pericles. 28, the rise of the demagogues 29-33, the revolution of the Four Hundred. 34-40, the government of the Thirty. 41, list of the successive changes in the constitution. It may be noted that the reforms of Solon, the tyranny of Peisistratus and his sons, and the revolutions of the Four Hundred and the Thirty, together occupy considerably more than two-thirds of Part I.

Part II. describes the constitution as it existed at the period of the composition of the treatise (329–322 B.C.). It begins with an account of the conditions of citizenship and of the training of the ephebi (citizens between the ages of 18 and 20). In chapters 43-49 the functions of the Council (βουλή) and of the officials who act in concert with it are described. 50-60 deal with the officials who are appointed by lot, of whom the most important are the nine Archons, to whose functions five chapters (55-59) are devoted. The military officers, who come under the head of elective officials, form the subject of c. 61. With c. 63 begins the section on the Law-courts, which occupied the remainder of the Constitution. This portion, with the exception of c. 63, is fragmentary in character, owing to the mutilated condition of the fourth roll of the papyrus on which it was written. It will thus be seen that the subjects which receive fullest treatment in Part II. are the Council, the Archons and the Law-courts. The Ecclesia, on the other hand, is dealt with very briefly, in connexion with the prytaneis and proedri (cc. 43, 44).

Sources.—The labours of several workers in this field, notably Bruno Keil and Wilamowitz, have rendered it comparatively easy to form a general estimate of Aristotle’s indebtedness to previous writers, although problems of great difficulty are encountered as soon as it is attempted to determine the precise sources from which the historical part of the work is derived. Among these sources are unquestionably Herodotus (for the tyranny of Peisistratus, and for the struggle between Cleisthenes and Isagoras), Thucydides (for the episode of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and for the Four Hundred), Xenophon (for the Thirty), and the poems of Solon. There is now among critics a general consensus in favour of the view that the most important of his sources was the Atthis of Androtion, a work published in all probability only a few years earlier than the Constitution; in any case, after the year 346. From it are derived not only the passages which are annalistic in character and read like excerpts from a chronicle (e.g. c. 13. 1, 2; c. 22; c. 26. 2, 3), but also most of the matter common to the Constitution and to Plutarch’s Solon. The coincidences with Plutarch, which are often verbal, and extend to about 50 lines out of 170 in cc. 5-11 of the Constitution, can best be explained on the hypothesis that Hermippus, the writer followed by Plutarch, used the same source as Aristotle, viz. the Atthis of Androtion. Androtion is probably closely followed in the account of the pre-Draconian constitution, and to him appear to be due the explanation of local names (e.g. χωρίον ἀτελές), or proverbial expressions (e.g. τὸ μὴ φυλοκρινεῖν), as well as the account of “Strategems” such as that of Themistocles against the Areopagus (c. 25) or that employed by Peisistratus in order to disarm the people (c. 15. 4). Whether the anecdotes, which are a conspicuous feature in the Constitution, should be referred to the same source is more open to doubt. It is also generally agreed that among the sources was a work, written towards the end of the 5th century B.C., by an author of oligarchical sympathies, with the object of defaming the character and policy of the heroes of the democracy. This source can be traced in passages such as c. 6. 2 (Solon turning the Seisachtheia to the profit of himself and his friends), 9. 2 (obscurity of Solon’s laws intentional, cf. c. 35. 2), 27. 4 (Pericles’ motive for the introduction of the dicasts’ pay). But while the object (οἱ βουλόμενοι βλασφημεῖν, c. 6) and the date of this oligarchical pamphlet (for the date cf. Plutarch’s Solon, c. 15 οἰ περὶ Κόνωνα καὶ Κλεινίαν καὶ Ἱππόνικον, which points to a time when Conon, Alcibiades and Callias were prominent in public life) are fairly certain, the authorship is quite uncertain, as is also its relationship to another source of importance, viz. that from which are derived the accounts of the Four Hundred and the Thirty. The view taken of the character and course of these revolutions betrays a strong bias in favour of Theramenes, whose ideal is alleged to have been the πάτριος πολιτεία. It has been maintained, on the one hand, that this last source (the authority followed in the accounts of the Four Hundred and the Thirty) is identical with the oligarchical pamphlet, and, on the other, that it is none other than the Atthis of Androtion. The former hypothesis is improbable. In favour of the latter two arguments may be adduced. In the first place, Androtion’s father, Andron, was one of the Four Hundred, and took Theramenes’ side. Secondly, the precise marks of time, which are characteristic of the Atthis, are conspicuous in these chapters. In view, however, of the fact that Androtion in his political career showed himself not only a democrat, but a democrat of the extreme school, the hypothesis must be pronounced untenable.

Value.—It is by no means easy to convey a just impression of the value of Aristotle’s work as an authority for the constitutional history of Athens. In all that relates to the practice of his own day Aristotle’s authority is final. There can be no question, therefore, as to the importance, or the trustworthy character, of the Second Part. But even here a caution is necessary. It must be remembered that its authority is final for the 4th century only, and that we are not justified in arguing from the practice of the 4th century to that of the 5th, unless corroborative evidence is available. In the First Part, however, where he is treating of the institutions and practice of a past age, Aristotle’s authority is very far from being final. An analysis of this part of the work discloses his dependence, in a remarkable degree, upon his sources. Occasionally he compares, criticizes or combines; as a rule he adheres closely to the writer whom he is using. There is no evidence, either of independent inquiry, or of the utilization of other sources than literary ones. Where “original documents” are quoted, or referred to, as e.g. in the history of the Four Hundred, or of the Thirty, it is probable that he derived them from a previous writer. For the authority of Aristotle we must substitute, therefore, the authority of his sources; i.e. the value of any particular statement will vary with the character of the source from which it comes. For the history of the 5th century the passages which come from Androtion’s Atthis carry with them a high degree of authority. It by no means follows, however, that a statement relating to earlier times is to be accepted simply because it is derived from the same source. And in passages which are derived from other sources than the Atthis a much lower degree of authority can be claimed, even for statements relating to the 5th century. The supremacy of the Areopagus after the Persian Wars, the policy attributed to Aristides (c. 24), and the association of Themistocles with Ephialtes, are cases in point. Nor must the reader expect to find in the Constitution a great work, in any sense of the term. The style, it is true, is simple and clear, and the writer’s criticisms are sensible. But the reader will look in vain for evidence of the philosophic insight which makes the Politics, even at the present day, the best text-book of political philosophy. It is perhaps hardly too much to say that there is not a single great idea in the whole work. He will look in vain, too, for any consistent view of the history of the constitution as a whole, or for any adequate account of its development. He will find occasional misunderstandings of measures, and confusions of thought. There are appreciations which it is difficult to accept, and inaccuracies which it is difficult to pardon. There are contradictions which the author has overlooked, and there are omissions which are unaccountable. Yet, in spite of such defects, the importance of the Constitution can hardly be exaggerated. Its recovery has rendered obsolete any history of the Athenian constitution that was written before the year 1891. Before this date our knowledge was largely derived from the statements of scholiasts and lexicographers which had not seldom been misunderstood. The recovery of the Constitution puts us for the first time in possession of the evidence. To appreciate the difference that has been made by its recovery, it is only necessary to compare what we now know of the reforms of Cleisthenes with what we formerly knew. It is much of it evidence that needs a careful process of weighing and sifting before it can be safely used; but it is, as a rule, the best, or the only evidence. The First Part may be less trustworthy than the Second; it is not less indispensable to the student of constitutional history.

Bibliography.—A conspectus of the literature of the Constitution complete down to the end of 1892 is given in Sandys p. lxvii., and, though less complete, down to the beginning of 1895 in Busolt, Griechische Geschichte, 2nd ed. vol. ii. p. 15. In the present article only the most important editions, works or articles are mentioned.

Editions of the text: Editio princeps, ed. by F. G. Kenyon, 30th January 1891, with commentary. Autotype facsimile of the papyrus (1891). Aristotelis πολιτεία Ἀθηναίων, ed. G. Kaibel et U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Berlin, Weidmann, 1891). Aristotelis qui fertur Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία recensuerunt H. van Herwerden et J. van Leeuwen (Leiden, 1891). Teubner text, ed. by F. Blass (Leipzig, 1892). Edition of the text without commentary by Kenyon.

Most of these have passed through several editions. The fullest commentary is that contained in the edition of the text by J. E. Sandys (London, 1893). The best translations are those of Kenyon, in English, and of Kaibel and Kiessling, in German.

Works dealing with the subject: Bruno Keil, Die Solonische Verfassung nach Aristoteles (Berlin, 1892); G. Gilbert, Constitutional Antiquities of Sparta and Athens (Eng. trans., 1895); U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Aristoteles und Athen (2 vols., Berlin, 1893), a work of great importance, in spite of many unsound conclusions; E. Meyer, Forschungen, vol. ii. pp. 406 ff. (the section dealing with the Four Hundred is especially valuable). Articles: R. W. Macan, Journal of Hellenic Studies (April 1891); R. Nissen, Rheinisches Museum (1892), p. 161; G. Busolt, Hermes (1898), pp. 71 ff.; O. Seeck, “Quellenstudien zu des Aristoteles’ Verfassungsgeschichte Athens,” in Lehmann’s Beiträge zur alten Geschichte, vol. iv. pp. 164 and 270.  (E. M. W.)