The archons of Athens

The archons were the city executives.

Athenians had a clear understanding of the difference between sovereign power and executive government, and were careful to keep the two separate. More careful than all modern democracies in fact. The US President not only heads the executive but has influence on what laws are passed. In the Westminster system the Prime Minister is the leader of whichever party holds the most seats. In both cases the sovereign power and executive duties are mixed. An Athenian would have called that sloppy.

By classical times there were nine archons: the Eponymous Archon, the Polemarch, the Basileus, and six others who served as magistrates.

The archons were elected for a year and after serving, could never serve again. If you're wondering how Pericles managed to stay influential for so long, it's because he was at no time an archon! Seriously. He got himself elected year after year to the part of executive government for which there was no limitation: Pericles was an almost perpetual strategos - a military commander - equivalent to being a member of the modern Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There were only three archons originally in archaic times: the three with the über-cool titles. The six magistrates were added as the population grew and the workload became too much.

The Eponymous Archon was in charge of the affairs of citizens. He was something like a city mayor. The Eponymous Archon was the one after whom the year was named. The Pericles Commission takes place in the Year of Conon.

The Polemarch was in charge of the affairs of the many resident aliens, called metics. In archaic times the Polemarch had been the war archon. The word Polemarch is conjoined of war and leader. Military command later became too big for one man and passed to the strategoi. The Polemarch then became in effect the equivalent of the Eponymous Archon for the metics.

The Basileus was the archon in charge of religious and artistic festivals. Basileus means King.

It's obvious if you look at their combined duties that the three main archons were a replacement for the ancient king of Athens. The Eponymous Archon managed civil affairs, The Polemarch led the Athenians at war, and the Basileus led them in worship. No one's too sure when or how it happened, but at some point the kingship was replaced with this triumvirate.

There were a few years in which social upheaval prevented the election of archons. Those years were considered ones of an-archy, literally no-archon. Our word anarchy comes to us direct from ancient Athenian politics.


19 comments:

Amalia T. said...

As always, an excellent and informative post!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Amalia. Of course, Nicolaos has to deal with these guys...

_*rachel*_ said...

So THAT's where the words came from! I refer, of course, to "Basileus" in Megan Whalen Turner's books, and "Polemarch" and "Strategus" in Orson Scott Card's. Any idea where "Hegemon" came from?

This is a good opportunity to geek out. I'd do so, but I need a nap.

L. T. Host said...

I can't wait to read your book. I was excited anyway, but because of all the cool info you share on your blog I will also feel smart!

Is it October yet?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Rachel, yes, that is precisely where Orson Scott Card got his terms from. In fact he more or less copied the Athenian system.

Basileus is an ancient word dating back to at least Mykenaean times. The Basileus worked in the Stoa Basilike (the Royal Stoa), which term the Romans stole for their word basilica as a government office, which of course ended up as our modern basilica: a big church. So you could say St Peter's Basilica owes part if its name to Athenian politics.

As you've obviously guessed, Hegemon is a Greek word too: ἡγεμονία. It means the leader, or more accurately the dominant force of a group. So Philip II of Macedon was called Hegemon of the Greek city states after he trampled all over them.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks L.T.! I'm fairly sure it's not October yet--I'd probably notice. I try to get all the exposition out of my system here so it does not appear in the books.

Loretta Ross said...

Very cool post! Of course, being a total geek myself, the first thing I think of is the original Star Trek episode, Return of the Archons.

Totally out of left field here, is there any connection between the words "basilius" and "basilisk"?

Gary Corby said...

As it happens, yes!

Basiliskos is the diminutive: little king. I have a feeling that's where basilisk comes from.

Lexi said...

Oy! In the UK, Her Majesty the Queen is the sovereign, not, God forbid, Gordon Brown.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Lexi, that is rather a horrifying thought, isn't it?

Her Majesty is the sovereign, but she doesn't wield sovereign power. If she did, she could she set law without the approval of parliament.

You and I are the ones with sovereign power, as expressed via our choice of parliamentary representative.

In your case Gordon Brown is the leader of the elected who wield sovereign power on our behalf. I shan't dwell on the sanity of that decision.

But the point is, since the ministers of state are drawn from the elected, it does mean that sovereign and executive power is mixed.

Sad, isn't it?

Christine H said...

Hey Gary, I just dropped by to tell you this...

Last weekend, after your post about boiling your story down to a short pitch, I actually met someone who owns a small movie production company who wanted to know what my story was about and if I had a screenplay he could see.

Now, I don't think he was serious, and even if he was and I had a screenplay (which I don't), I wouldn't give it to him without researching his company and having an agent and all that, but I was thrilled to be able to tell him what my book was about.

It felt good. It felt professional.

Loretta Ross said...

But see, now I have this mental picture of Gordon Brown in royal drag.

(That's cool, Christine!)

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, I have a feeling that wearing drag might measurably improve Gordon Brown's chances of being elected.

Gary Corby said...

Christine! Yay for you!

It makes me feel good to know something I've written has actually helped someone. Thanks so much for telling me!

T. Anne said...

I love how the Athenian's would have thought our government sloppy. I would have to agree. ;)

Meghan said...

Has anyone seen My Life in Ruins? There's a great line by the heroine who declares (loudly) that the Ancient Greeks would think their modern counterparts "sloppy". I think that would be true, although the Athenians certainly had their own set of problems...

Gary Corby said...

I mean sloppy in the sense they had a much clearer idea of who was responsible for what, and because any citizen could find himself responsible for almost any government post on short notice, they all had to know how their government worked.

In terms of hygiene, they were really, really sloppy.

As it happens I watched My Life In Ruins on my last flight to the US. Some terrific scenic shots but way too much...er...sloppy dialogue.

Judith said...

I love this. Tell me more! You're posts are more interesting than the history channel.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Judith, luckily - or unluckily depending on viewpoint - I'm not likely to run out for some time. There's an awful lot of stuff to talk about from the ancient world. Imagine if you tried to describe our times in blog-sized chunks. It would take forever.