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A New Institutionalist Approach to Athenian Deliberation: The Case of the Boulē

Alberto Esu

Universität Mannheim

This paper discusses the role of the Council of Five Hundred as a key deliberative institution of Athenian democracy. Scholars have usually agreed about the constitutional powers of the Council (Rhodes 1972; Hansen 1991) and focused especially on its agenda-setting and administrative functions ([Arist.] Ath. Pol. 43.2-47.1). More recent work has stressed the role of the Council as aggregator of epistemic knowledge (Ober 2008) or have denied any creation of expertise within the formal institution of the polis (Ismard 2015), while other scholars have denied the deliberative nature of the Council and of Athenian democracy in general (Cammack 2018). The Boulē is thus conceptualized and described as either a board of magistrates (according to Hansen’s definition) or as the standing committee of the dēmos which played an ancillary and marginal role in Athenian policy-making vis-à-vis the Assembly.

By adopting an approach informed by the theoretical framework of the Historical Institutionalism (Sanders 2006; Fioretos-Falleti-Sheingate 2016), this paper argues for a more multifaceted and central role of the Council in Athenian decision-making. In particular, the paper examines both the endogenous principles and narratives underpinning the relevant formal rules of the Boulē as well as the role of the Council as producer, rather than an aggregator, of technical expertise for democratic deliberation.

The paper first examines the Bouleutic Oath (Xen. Mem. 1.1.18; Lys. 31.1; IG I3 105 with Koch 1994; Sommerstein-Bayliss 2013, 40-3) and the surviving dokimasia speeches delivered before the Boulē (Lys. 16; 24; 26; 31). The evidence of the dokimasia speeches helps us to flesh out the discursive narratives attached to this institution. These speeches were delivered during the preliminary scrutiny of prospective councilors and archons, and they often refer to clauses of the Bouleutic Oath enshrining the relevant values that the councilors should uphold while acting in the Boulē. Among these values, the notion of good and participative deliberation is marked out as the key concept guiding the working of the Council. I shall argue that this was a constituent value of the Council which was preserved and enhanced throughout the whole Classical democracy according to the notion of path-dependence.

The paper then moves to a close reading of the Demosthenic speech On the Trierarchic Crown (Dem. 51). It shows that the speech was not delivered for a judicial dispute but was an actual bouleutic speech. Through comparison with other bouleutic evidence (And. 1.77; [Dem] 47), I shall demonstrate that the Council played a key role in Athens’ euergetical practice through extensive deliberation. This will also shed light on the issue of the production of expertise and knowledge (e.g. bureaucratic and archival practice, lawmaking, diplomacy and military matters) created by membership and daily session of the Council as the administrative and deliberative center of the polis. Such an active participation in state affairs through the Boulē allowed the Athenians to develop technical expertise and avoid delegating such technical knowledge to other actors such as slaves.

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New Institutionalism and Greek Communities

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