N. 5 – 2006 – Memorie


Igor E. Surikov

Russian Academy of Sciences





In any ancient polis the supreme magistracy was one of the main institutes of the public law. It took a key place in the power hierarchy. So it deserves a very attentive study. Regrettably, in the Greek world we have only extremely scarce data on supreme magistracies in most city-states. The exception is Athens. Already from the Archaic period the highest Athenian officials were united in the board called “The Nine Archons” (hoi ennea arkhontes). To be true, in the Classical period, when the board took its final form, it included not nine but ten magistrates: the eponymous archon, the king archon (basileus), the polemarch, six thesmothetes and the secretary[1].

The Athenian archonship was an institute that did not remained static but was in the process of evolution and modification for a long time. The aim of the present paper is to characterize briefly these changes in the history of the archonship, to demonstrate various problems and complexities existing in connection with the institution, and to try solving some of the problems.

The history of the archonship is known better than history of supreme magistracies in other Greek city-states, because we have such a valuable source as the Aristotelian “Constitution of Athens”. In the beginning of this treatise the author gives an excursus on the emergence of the board of archons (Ath. pol. 3). And in the conclusive part of the book Aristotle depicts in detail functions and prerogatives that the archons of the Late Classical Athens had (Ath. pol. 55-59). Aristotle based his account both on his own observations and on the work of several generations of the Atthidographers, the local historians of Athens and Attica[2].

Surely studying Aristotelian data in the “Constitution of Athens” is not without implicit difficulties. The style of the narration is very compressed, and so some passages are not clear and easy to interpret (e.g., Ath. pol. 3.3). Furthermore, Aristotle, like any other ancient writer, was not free of bias and inaccuracies, and so his accounts need critical evaluation. Last (not least), the very beginning of the treatise is lost, so we have to reconstruct first stages of the archonship’s evolution through other sources, which are later and less authentic (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Pausanias, Eusebius the church historian, etc.). There is also epigraphic material, first of all the Athenian archon-list for the 7th –  5th  centuries B.C., that was situated as a marble stele at the Agora of Athens; but only its small fragments are preserved to our time[3].

The Athenian archonship, like the supreme magistracy in any other polis (e.g. like the Roman consulate), emerged from the ancient institution of kingship. However, as far as we can judge, the archonship in Athens had a longer and more complicated way of evolution than the consulate in Rome.

The Athenian kingship in the beginning of the 1st millennium B.C. was in the hands of the so-called Codridae-Medontidae dynasty. During several subsequent centuries the character and volume of their power suffered significant changes, which led to deterioration of these rulers’ status and to restriction of their prerogatives. By a combination of data of Aristotle and data of other authors we can obtain the following picture.

From some unknown[4] but in any case early date the title of the rulers changed: Athenian kings (basileis) became archons. Probably the change was effectuated not through some legal act, but by a purely empirical way: the new title gradually became more common than the old one. For some time the two titles were used in parallel or in the combination “the King Archon”. Strictly speaking, the term “archon” (ruler) was broader in its meaning than the term “basileus”.

At the same stage kingship became elective instead of hereditary. Monarchs turned into magistrates of the emerging polis. To be true, during several centuries they were elected only from the Medontidae family. But now every new king (archon) came to power not automatically, as earlier, but through a sanction of the State (embodied in the aristocratic elite sitting in the Areopagus Council). The term of archonship still continued to be life-long (Arist. Ath. pol. 3.1; Paus. 6.19.13).

The list of life-long Athenian archons is preserved by Eusebius (Chron. I.189 sqq. Schoene); it goes back to Castor, a Hellenistic historian (FGH 250 F 4). This document is rarely considered to be authentic. Sometimes it is thought that it was forged in some epoch for political aims of Attic aristocracy. However, the list is situated at the junction of oral genealogical tradition (that is one of the most stable and authentic elements of collective memory in traditional societies) and the practice of written fixation of supreme magistrates.

As to our opinion, the list is in general quite believable. It includes[5] the following persons (after Codrus): Medon, Acastus, Archippus, Thersippus, Phorbas, Megacles, Diognetus, Pherecles, Thespieus, Agamestor, Aeschylus, Alcmeon. Some of these names are not proper to the Medontidae, but rather to other aristocratic families (the Alcmaeonidae, the Philaidae). It is perhaps due to the fact that Medontid archons took wives from other families, and so names proper to these families found its way into the Medontid onomastical fund[6].

Further “breaking up” of the Athenian kingship, its transition from monarchy to collegial polis magistracy, went in several parallel directions. First, the term of archon’s power began to shorten. In 753 B.C. it was reduced from life-long to ten-year-long (Arist. Ath. pol. 3.1; cf. Paus. 4.13.7). The last life-long archon was some Alcmeon son of Aeschylus; he ruled only two years. Was he removed from power in the course of the reform? Or maybe he was weak and ill ruler, died soon after his ascension, and it became the immediate cause for the reform?

Some decades later, in 683 B.C. the next and final step in this direction was done: the term of archonship became one-year-long. The tradition preserved the name of the first annual archon: Creon. From this time the new order consolidated steadily. An annual archon surely was already by no means a monarch. Besides, now the supreme magistrate was also the eponymous magistrate.

Second, the monopoly of the Medontidae family to the archonship was eliminated. Now any of eupatrids, members of the highest Athenian nobility, could became an archon. According to the traditional chronology, this change took place ca. 713 B.C., in the end of Hippomenes’ reign. Hippomenes was a ten-year-long archon and is said to have executed cruelly his own daughter and so provoked common indignation (Diogenian. 3.1; cf. Arist. Ath. pol. epit. 3; Diod. 8.22.1). Allegedly, he was dismissed from the office, and so the rule of Medontidae came to its end. To be sure, not all in this story can be considered believable; it has some obvious features of an etiological legend. But the very fact of broadening the circle of candidates to archonship seems to be above any doubt. Athenian aristocrats grew stronger and stronger, and they more and more drove the former royal dynasty away from real power. Already in the 7th and early 6th centuries we can see archons from main eupatrid families: the Philaidae (Miltiades[7], Cypselus[8]), the Pisistratidae (Pisistratus the Elder, the archon of 669/8 B.C.[9]), the Alcmeonidae (Megacles[10]). Of course, members of the Codridae also could became archons (such were, e.g., Solon and Dropides), but now such cases were rather exceptions than a rule.

The third (and the most important) trend was reduction of the volume of the supreme magistrate’s power. One of the main features of the emerging polis statehood was prohibition for any single citizen to concentrate in his hands too wide prerogatives. The power began to be divided, in order to match the principle of equality. It was the aristocracy who especially insisted on this principle in the Archaic period. Archaic aristocratic society was a “society of peers” who tried not to allow any of them to be in a position of “the first man”[11]. Exactly for this reason they finished the rule of ancient kings.

Other supreme archon offices were introduced beside the royal one. To all appearances, Aristotle is right when defining the exact order of formation of the archons’ board (Ath. pol. 3.2-4): the basileus, then the polemarch, then the archon as such (the magistrate who was later named the first archon or the eponymous archon), and, last, the six thesmothetes. Only for this later magistracy the time of establishment can be ascertained: it was in the 7th century B.C., after the introduction of the annual archonship. In the second half of the 7th century the board of the nine archons was already in place. E.g., Dracon, the law-giver of 621 B.C., was a thesmotete (Paus. 9.36.8). At this stage archons were appointed to their offices by the Areopagus (Ath. pol. 8.2)[12], and it was quite normal for an aristocratic polis. Besides, the Areopagus by appointing archons took care about “purity” of its own membership. This council was composed of ex-archons. An archon could hold his post only once in his life.

The next reform of the Athenian archonship is connected with Solon. In 594 B.C. he was appointed the eponymous archon. His appointment was extraordinary, and its exact mechanism is by no means clear. It was in the course of the Solonian reforms that the mechanism of appointing archons underwent serious changes. There are some contradictions in the sources (Thuc. 6.54.6; Arist. Ath. pol. 8.1; 13.2; 22.5; Arist. Pol. 1274a 1 sqq.; 15 sqq.)[13]. Some authors speak of selecting post-Solonian archons by lot. But it seems most probable that since Solon archons were elected by the Assembly. In other words, now the personal composition of the board was defined not by the Areopagus but by the demos. We suppose that in 594 B.C. Solon, for the first time in the Athenian history, was elected to the archon’s post by the whole citizen body. It was an extraordinary measure, but since that moment it became a normal one. This is the essence of Solon’s reform of the archonship.

Members of not all four Solonian property classes had the right to be elected archons. Pentakosiomedimnoi (the first class) certainly did; zeugitai (the third class) and thetes (the fourth class) certainly did not. As to hippeis (the second class), they either had such a right from Solon’s times or obtained it later, but in any case before 457 B.C. (Ath. pol. 26. 2).

In post-Solonian Athens archonship, and especially the office of the eponymous archon, became a subject of sharp struggle: now archons were elected by common vote, and the importance of the institution was growing up. During several decades after Solon’s reforms the political conflict in Athens took place exactly in connection with archonship (Arist. Ath. pol. 13. 1-2). By the way, the archon’s post was a convenient start point for seizing tyrannical power. In 582-580 B.C. some Damasias, being the eponymous archon, attempted to retain power illegally after the term of his office expired. After his pushing aside, a strange legal experiment took place: ten archons were elected instead of the one eponymous. The details of this episode are obscure, and in any case it was of no consequences for further practice[14].

In the period of Pisistratidae’s tyranny the importance of archonship was in some decrease. Now the archon was not the first person in the State: there was the tyrant above him. To all appearances, neither Pisistratus nor Hippias undertook any changes in the institution in question. They only tried always to have some of their supporters at the archon’s posts. Hippias himself and his son Pisistratus the Younger were eponymous archons, and beside them – some loyal aristocrats, such as Clisthenes, Miltiades and others[15].

After the overthrow of tyranny in 510 B.C. the role of archonship in Athens became extremely great[16]. The eponymous archon was now like some kind of “president”. The most prominent Athenian politicians of the late 6th and early 5th centuries B.C., the noblest leaders – Isagoras and Aristides, Themistocles and Hipparchus – tried to achieve this post and achieved it.

Clisthenes’ democratic reforms had almost no influence on the archonship. Only the tenth member (the secretary) was added to the board, to correlate its quantity with the number of the ten new Clisthenian tribes. So archonship was incorporated in the political system of the Athenian democracy. For example, the procedure of ostracism was conducted under archons’ supervision (Philochorus FGH 328 F 30).

However, during Clisthenes’ reforms the board of generals (strategoi) was established (Arist. Ath. pol. 22.2)[17]. Initially generals were no rivals to archons and considered officers subordinate to them. Still in 490 B.C. the polemarch archon was (even if nominally) the chief of the army, generals were under him (Herod. 6.109-110). Later the correlation of the two boards changed cardinally.

The fatal moment for the Athenian archonship was the reform of 487 B.C. (Ath. pol. 22.5)[18]. From this date archons were not elected by common vote, but selected by lot. It was this measure that undermined the political significance of the institution. Now not prominent statesmen, as earlier, but fortuitous people became archons. The new archonship couldn’t rival generalship, as generals continued to be elected by the people’s vote and to be responsible representatives of the demos. Moreover, a person can be an archon only once a life, but it was possible to be a general without any such limitations.

The political significance of archonship fell quickly, but its authority remained for a long time. In 457 B.C. zeugitai were permitted to be archons. Later even thetes de facto could be. It means that archons’ offices were still considered prestigious. Nobody would solicit a post with no prestige.

In principle, even in Late Classical Athens the role of archonship in the system of the polis should not be underestimated. It is no accident that Aristotle describes work of archons in such a detail. But the institution eventually seized to be a political one. This is the grand total of its history.




[1] R. Sealey, A History of the Greek City States ca. 700 – 338 B.C. (Berkeley 1976), 155.


[2] On the Attidographers see: F. Jacoby, Atthis: The Local Chronicles of Ancient Athens (Oxf. 1949); L. Pearson, The Local Historians of Attica (repr. ed., Ann Arbor 1981). On their influence on Aristotle see: J.H. Schreiner, Aristotle and Perikles: A Study in Historiography (Oslo 1968), 13-20.


[3] D. Bradeen, “The Fifth-Century Archon List”, Hesperia, 32 (1964), 187-208.


[4] Even Aristotle did not know the exact date (Ath. pol. 3.3).


[5] See the list (with a discussion): P. Carlier, La royauté en Grèce avant Alexandre (Strasbourg 1984), 325 sv.


[6] Cf. M.T.W. Arnheim, Aristocracy in Greek Society (Plymouth 1977), 142 ff.


[7] Paus. 4.23.10; 8.39.3.


[8] The epigraphic archon-list (Bradeen, above, n. 3).


[9] Paus. 2.24.7.


[10] Known in the connection with the Cylonian conspiracy of 636 B.C.


[11] Cf. P.A.L. Greenhalgh, “Aristocracy and its Advocates in Archaic Greece”, Greece & Rome, 19 (1972), 190 ff.


[12] Contra: Sealey (above, n. 1), 96.


[13] Cf. W.G. Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy: The Character of Greek Politics, 800-400 B.C. (London 1966), 164; T.J. Figueira, “The Ten Archontes of 579/8 at Athens”, Hesperia, 53 (1984), 472-473.


[14] See discussion in detail: Figueira (above, n. 13); C. Roebuck, “Three Classes (?) in Early Attica”, Hesperia, 43 (1974), 485-493.


[15] B.D. Meritt, “An Early Archon List”, Hesperia, 8 (1939), 59-65.


[16] On this period in the history of archonship see: E. Badian, “Archons and Strategoi”, Antichthon, 5 (1971), 1-34; D.H. KELLY, “The Athenian Archonship 508/7 - 487/6 B.C.”, Antichthon, 12 (1978), 1-17.


[17] On the Athenian generalship see: Ch.W. Fornara, The Athenian Board of Generals from 501 to 404 (Wiesbaden 1971); D. Hamel, Athenian Generals: Military Authority in the Classical Period (Leiden 1998).


[18] On the reform see: E. Cavaignac, “La désignation des archontes athéniens jusqu’en 487”, Revue de philologie, de littérature et d’histoire anciennes, 48 (1924), 144-148; R.J. Buck, “The Reform of 487 B.C. in the Selection of Archons”, Classical Philology, 60 (1965), 96-101.