An Athenian trial usually lasts all day, and perhaps we have been able to witness only the end of it. It may well happen, however, that we cannot attend a dicastery at all. This day may be one which is devoted to a meeting of the public assembly, and duty summons the jurors, not in the court room, but to the Pnyx. This is no loss to us, however. We welcome the chance to behold the Athenian Ecclesia in action.
127. The Rule of Democracy in Athens.—The Ecclesia, or Public Assembly, of Athens is something more than the chief governmental organ in the state. It is the great leveling engine which makes Athens a true democracy, despite the great differences in wealth between her inhabitants, and the marked social pretensions of “the noble and the good”—the educated classes. At this time Athens is profoundly wedded to her democratic constitution. Founded by Solon and Clisthenes, developed by Themistocles and Pericles, it was temporarily overthrown at the end of the Peloponnesian War; but the evil rule then of the “Thirty Tyrants” has proved a better lesson on the evils of oligarchic rule than a thousand rhetoricians’ declamations upon the advantages of the “rule of the many” as against the “rule of the few.” Attica now acknowledges only one Lord—king Demos—“King Everybody”—and until the coming of bondage to Macedon there will be no serious danger of an aristocratic reaction.
128. Aristocracy and Wealth. Their Status and Burdens.—True, there are old noble families in Athens,—like the Alcmeonide whereof Pericles sprang, and the Eumolpide who supply the priests to Demeter, the Earth Mother. But these great houses have long since ceased to claim anything but social preeminence. Even then one must take pains not to assume airs, or the next time one is litigant before the dicastery, the insinuation of “an undemocratic, oligarchic manner of life” will win very many adverse votes among the jury. Nobility and wealth are only allowed to assert themselves in Athens when justified by an extraordinary amount of public service and public generosity.
Xenophon in his “Memorabilia” makes Socrates tell Critobuls, a wealthy and self-important individual, that he is really so hampered by his high position as to be decidedly poor. “You are obliged,” says Socrates, “to offer numerous and magnificent sacrifices; you have to receive and entertain sumptuously a great many strangers, and to feast [your fellow] citizens. You have to pay heavy contributions towards the public service, keeping horses and furnishing choruses in peace times and in war bearing the expense of maintaining triremes and paying the special war taxes; and if you fail to do all this, they will punish you with as much severity as if you were caught stealing their money.”