The Polemarch lives in the Epilyceum

The Polemarch was one of three senior archons who ran classical Athens.  The job title means war leader, but by the time of my stories his job had changed to being mayor of all the resident aliens in the city, of which there were many.  The resident aliens were a big part of the economy.

Like all archon jobs, people got elected Polemarch for a year, and having done the job once you could never be elected to it again.  Also, if you won the election, you moved home.

The Polemarch had an official residence, called the Epilyceum.  (I'm using the latin form of the name here.  The exact transliteration is Epilykaion.)

Aristotle says that the Polemarch's official residence used to be called the Polemarcheum, but the name changed after one man who held the job, a fellow named Epilycos, totally renovated the place out of his own pocket.  Which was rather clever of him because now he'll be remembered forever.  Though I imagine his real motive was along the lines of his wife saying, "I'm not living in that horrible, drafty, run-down place until you fix it up!"

Some modern historians reject Aristotle on the grounds that epilyceum in Greek means "outside the Lyceum".  Since there happened to be a place called the Lyceum, they take it to mean the Polemarch's residence was next door.

It sounds reasonable, but the problem is they're guessing from a distance of 2,600 years, while Aristotle was passing on what was probably common belief a hundred or so years after the fact.  They can't argue that the name is odd.  There was a comedian called Epilycos, so an archon by that name is perfectly possible.

So now you can say to people at parties that the Polemarch lived in the Epilyceum.

A killing financial problem

Sometimes, it just sucks to be an accountant.  Back in classical Athens, there was a group of ten city officials, elected yearly, called the Hellenotamiae.  They were the official city treasurers, their job to manage the money vault buried beneath the Parthenon.  The sums they handled were vast.

The Athenians, being the untrusting souls they were, checked the accounts on a regular basis.  On one occasion, the numbers didn't add up.  The ten treasurers were instantly charged with embezzlement.

This is what happened, from a surviving court case that mentions this unfortunate incident as a precedent:
Then again, your Hellenotamiae were once accused of embezzlement... Anger swept reason aside, and they were all put to death save one. Later the true facts became known.
This one, whose name is said to have been Sosias, though under sentence of death, had not yet been executed. Meanwhile it was shown how the money had disappeared. The Athenian people rescued him from the very hands of the Eleven, while the rest had died entirely innocent.

The Eleven was the official Athenian body responsible for carry out state executions.  In other words, Sosias had been in the hands of his executioners when they retrieved him.  The implication of the "it was shown how the money had disappeared" is that it was a mistake in the books.

So the other nine treasurers died for an accounting error.


This is going to sound strange, considering how much of modern politics already comes from Athens, but there's one thing we didn't pick up which I think we should have: a fun little system called ostracism.

Ostracism was a method to toss annoying people out of the city for ten years. After that they were allowed back, but if they set foot in Attica during their period of exile, then the penalty was death.

It worked like this. There was a council of 500 citizens, called the Boule, which was an executive administration. Membership of the Boule swapped 10 times every year, so everyone eventually got a turn. Each year during the 6th of those administrations, the council would vote on whether an ostracism should be held. There was no particular victim in mind at this point. In theory, that is. I'm quite sure everyone who voted had an enemy they'd like to see go.

The vote usually failed, but if it passed, then it guaranteed someone was about to be exiled, but no one knew yet who was going.

Two months later, the entire populace then voted to select the victim. Everyone wrote down the name of the person they'd like to see go on a piece of broken pottery. Pottery shards were called ostrakons, from which we get the word ostracism. Ostrakons were the voting slips of the ancient world. You simply scratched the name of your preferred victim into the pottery shard and dropped it into one of the voting urns. As long as there were at least 6,000 votes, the "winner" was given ten days to get out of town, or die.

This might sound bad, but a lot of high profile Athenian politicians took a hit on this. Even the father of Pericles, Xanthippus, got tossed at one point. He was recalled early though, because luckily for him the Persians invaded and the Athenians needed him back. Possibly the most remarkable thing about Pericles is that he managed to avoid being ostracized, unlike many of his friends and enemies.

A zillion of these ostrakons have been discovered because, when your voting slips are solid ceramic, the only thing they're good for after use is landfill. Here are some from Wikimedia:

The top word is Pericles. The bottom is a variant spelling of Xanthippus: Tsan(th)ippo. This is a vote to ostracize Pericles son of Xanthippus. But he survived.

This is Aristeides son of Lysimachus. He lost this vote. There's a famous story about his ostracism. Aristeides was known as the most honest and fair man in Athens. Rare qualities in Athenian politics. Everyone called him Aristeides the Just. When the ostracism was held, Aristeides came across an illiterate farmer who'd come to town to cast his vote. The poor farmer couldn't write, so Aristeides offered to help and asked who he wanted to nominate. The farmer, not recognising to whom he spoke, said he wanted to ostracize Aristeides son of Lysimachus. Taken aback, Aristeides asked the farmer, what had Aristeides ever done to him? The farmer replied, "Nothing. But I'm sick of all this talk of Aristeides the Just this, and Aristeides the Just that." So Aristeides meekly wrote his own name and dropped it into the urn. Ten days later, he left town.

Kimon son of Miltiades. Miltiades was the General who led the Athenians at Marathon, and his son Kimon likewise was a great military man. Kimon was also a super-conservative and the arch-enemy of Pericles. It was Pericles who engineered Kimon into being exiled. Kimon had blocked the democracy, and the moment he was out the city gates, Pericles' friend Ephialtes introduced the democratic reforms. A few days after that, Ephialtes was murdered. and The Pericles Commission begins. This vote was cast within a few days of the opening scene of my first book!

Why America is more like Athens than Rome

I've been having an interesting email conversation with Elizabeth Bowen, who's been lurking on this site for some time, I suspect, without ever making a comment. I'm going to out her (with permission) because she had some interesting things to say about why people learn Roman history more than Greek, the core of which is:
That prevalence -- at least, in the United States -- probably has a lot to do with the parallels between Rome and America. History teachers here (the ones who still bother to teach the classics) tend to drive home this point that the Romans were the Americans of antiquity. (Modest, I know.) So Rome is something people feel they can relate to, whereas Greece can seem a little more remote.
Here are my reasons why America is closer to Athens than Rome. Feel free to tell me how totally wrong I am! (In fact, I'm sort of looking forward to it.)
  1. America is a very strong democracy. Athens was a very strong full democracy. Rome wasn't. (Yes, they had elections, which did have some effect. But the Senate was essentially an oligarchy, and come the Roman Empire, any democratic pretense was gone.)

  2. Any modern democracy has a lot to learn from how the course of the democracy ran in Athens. It's hard to say the same of Rome. Fun though it might be to study the power politics, the correspondence just isn't there.

  3. Pax Romana was implemented by conquering and subsuming anyone who caused trouble. Pax Americana (such as it is) is implemented through economic dominance and diplomatic alliances. This is much closer to how Athens dominated its world. America+NATO is structurally most similar to Athens+Delian League.

  4. The geographic influence of Rome was vast. So also for America. Score one for the Romans. In fact, this is the only close similarity between the two. But also the one everyone notices.

  5. The Athenians were hyper-enthusiastic about their system of government and their culture. So too Americans! The Athenians usually liked to install democracies in any city they conquered (with a few notable exceptions). American behaviour is virtually the same. The Romans were sort of meh on the whole thing and simply imposed their own rule on the countries they captured and never left. (Yes I realize there are some sensitivities with current issues, but if you think back over the last 100 years, particularly around WW2, it's clear US policy is Athens-like, not Roman.)

  6. Athens was a hugely innovative and artistic culture. So too America. Rome was outstanding at implementing stuff, but innovative is not an adjective most people would apply.

  7. America has the most powerful navy in the world. Athens had the most powerful navy in the world. Romans loathed getting wet.
I therefore claim modern America has more lessons to learn from Athens than Rome.

Okay, your turn...

The Voting Age in Athens

Brandi asked a question that made me think, in my post about The Long, Long Childhood of the Greeks. If you were a legal child, did that prevent you from voting?

The answer is no, you could vote even if your father was standing right next to you. (Which he may well have been to make sure you voted the way he wanted.)

But it raised the obvious next question: what was the voting age?

It took me a while to dig out the answer, but here it is. Men who were citizens got the vote from age 18. Aristotle's Athenian Politics, Chapter 42, Section 1, courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library, says in part:

The present form of the constitution is as follows. Citizenship belongs to persons of citizen parentage on both sides, and they are registered on the rolls of their demes at the age of eighteen...

A deme was like a combination of suburb and sub-tribe.

The rule that to be a citizen both your parents had to be citizens was introduced by Pericles himself, and he got hoist on his own petard by that one. Later on, he fell desperately in love with Aspasia of Miletus, and they had a son, also called Pericles, who of course could not be a citizen because his mother wasn't. Pericles had to go to the people and beg them to overlook his own law. He got nowhere until be broke down and sobbed before the entire populace, a major event since Pericles prided himself on his public composure. The people, having had their fun, duly enrolled Pericles the Younger as a citizen.

Only men had the vote. Women were losers, I'm afraid; so were slaves (no surprise there) and resident aliens (called metics) of whom there were lots. The good news is, the franchise extended over not merely the city, but all of Attica, the quite large region of southern Greece controlled by Athens. Of course you had to be physically present in the city to vote, there being a distinct lack of internet at this stage, but people did come in for important issues.

As a percentage of total population, the franchise wasn't huge, but the amazing thing is that there was a franchise at all. This was the world's first democracy and they fiddled with the basic laws constantly to fine tune the system, which was surprisingly complex when you look at it in detail.

Wikipedia incorrectly (as usual) says that men didn't get the vote until after they'd completed their army training, but I can forgive them the error just this once because the two came closely together. Every male citizen as soon as he reached adulthood, was required to serve two years as an Ephebe (trainee-recruit) in the army. So pretty much the moment you got enrolled to vote, you were whisked off for 2 years of no doubt hellish boot camp. No exceptions. Probably the first time lots of men got to vote was when they were released from the army at age 20.

There was a higher age restriction on holding public office. You had to be 30+ years old to be an archon (civil leader), or a strategos (military'll never guess where we get our word strategy from), or be a member of the council which managed the affairs of the general assembly.

Something people in our modern democracies don't entirely get about Athens, is that back then, people were voting all the time. There was none of this modern vote-once-every-4-years-and-then-let-someone-else-run-the-country rubbish. The entire voting populace formed the entire parliament. If you didn't like the way things were going, then there was no one to blame but yourself, because you and your neighbor voted for it.

So when I say at age 18 you were enrolled to vote, what I mean is at age 18 you became a legislator in the ruling government.

There were about 40 voting days in every year. Of course not everyone could attend every assembly, so they set a quorum of 6,000 people. Imagine if your own parliament had a minimum 6,000 members!