Formal Institutions of Government in Classical Athens

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While the Athenian Assembly made the major political decisions in classical Athens, the Boule (Council) of Athens provided for day-to-day government. The Boule consisted of 500 adult male citizens (councilors), 50 from each of ten tribes. Each councilor served for one year. Every day at least fifty of these councilors would meet. One councilor per day, chosen by lot, was the chairman of the Boule. The chairman held the keys to the treasury and archives, and also held the state seal. About one-half of Athenian men citizens served at least one day as chairman of the Boule.^ Significant participation in Athenian government was thus a normal activity for men citizens.

Symbolic competition was central to the lives of men citizens. Classical Athens was “the most intensely rhetorical culture known to us from antiquity, and perhaps from any time or place.”^ In civic life, men categorized other men as friends or enemies. They sought to help friends and harm enemies. Men’s personal character was subject to broad civic evaluation. Men were intensely concerned about how they measured relative to other men:

Greek philosophers and medical writers discuss male and female in opposition to each other, and, as we shall see, one can find this outlook in the oratorical corpus as well. Yet it is more common to find speakers assessing men, not so much by comparing them to women, as by observing how they measured up to masculine standards in relation to other men.^

Judging by the surviving corpus of fourth-century Attic orators, “standards of manhood were demanding and encompassed almost all aspects of behavior.”^ Men highly valued personal excellence, particularly excellence in speaking and argumentation. Victories in frequent verbal battles demonstrated such excellence.

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