Confronting the law from Dreros regulating the iteration of kosmoi (mid-seventh century bce), commentators have of late ignored the fundamental question:cui bono? This law stipulated that anyone who had been kosmos, the chief political and judicial magistrate, was debarred from holding the office subsequently for ten years. Furthermore, any former kosmos who privately exercised judicial power was liable to a fine double the amount of any judgments rendered and faced political and civil liabilities, perhaps including the loss of citizenship. However, much recent scholarly attention to this law has centered on the enactment clause (“it seemed good to the polis”) and the list of oath takers to the agreement (“damioi,” “the twenty of the polis”); this focus has led to arguments that the law represents an assertion of community identity and influence to limit and regulate elite power at Dreros. In my view, this focus on the “inclusiveness” of the enactment clause clouds interpretation of the statute. Rather, three fundamental questions appertain: first, whether the enactment reflects the concerns of the content; second, why and to whom ensuring the rotation and powers of this office will have mattered; and third, whether the terms used in the enactment clause and the list of oath-swearers are to be taken at face value. Once those questions have been addressed, it becomes possible to apply the principle of cui bono to ascertain whose interests the law best served.
The content of the law concerns the restriction/clarification of eligibility for holding Dreros’ most important magistracy, and lays down penalties for those who disrespect rules on iteration and/or exercise unofficially the duties of the office. Superficially, this problem appears to have been of interest to the wider citizen community. Some scholars have argued that the law responded to a crisis wherein some individual had arrogated alarming power to himself, while others have argued that no crisis need be present: the law manifests the polis’ new-found capacity to discipline and manage elite power sharing, and that the law represents a modification of older rules that could have been remembered by those to whom it applied. I disagree, and maintain that this law speaks directly to the problems of elite power sharing in an archaic polis: while it is true that the larger community may have balked at unrestrained elite competition for power, such competition must have existed for them to wish to regulate it. Further, the law suggests that sufficient demand existed for the private decisions of former kosmoi to create the perception of a problem. Such a demand vitiates the assumption that no such problem existed -- as some experts have held -- and begs the question of why the citizen community would prohibit private judgments from a preferred individual: one presumes that a former kosmos could only act unofficially if citizens sought his adjudication over that of his successors. Finally, we cannot assume the office had existed long enough for understood rules about iteration to have emerged; the seventh-century Athenian archonship would seem to militate against such a development, to take one example. Finally, archaic politeiai generally and Cretan ones specifically often employed more inclusive labels as cover for aristocratic regimes. We cannot therefore assume that the various authorities and witnesses to this law were as inclusive as their names suggest.
If we apply the principle cui bono, the most sensible interpretation is that the Drerian law on kosmoi sought to establish a new rule where no clear norm previously existed, and to prevent the domination of the office or its powers by one aristocrat or a clique of aligned elites. While the wider community may have secondarily benefited from such a law, the primary beneficiaries of the law will have been the elites who wished to ensure the rotation of the office and its powers among themselves.