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Dangerous Counsel: Accountability and Advice in Ancient Greece

Dangerous Counsel: Accountability and Advice in Ancient Greece

by Matthew Landauer

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We often talk loosely of the “tyranny of the majority” as a threat to the workings of democracy. But, in ancient Greece, the analogy of demos and tyrant was no mere metaphor, nor a simple reflection of elite prejudice. Instead, it highlighted an important structural feature of Athenian democracy. Like the tyrant, the Athenian demos was an unaccountable political actor with the power to hold its subordinates to account. And like the tyrant, the demos could be dangerous to counsel since the orator speaking before the assembled demos was accountable for the advice he gave.
With Dangerous Counsel, Matthew Landauer analyzes the sometimes ferocious and unpredictable politics of accountability in ancient Greece and offers novel readings of ancient history, philosophy, rhetoric, and drama. In comparing the demos to a tyrant, thinkers such as Herodotus, Plato, Isocrates, and Aristophanes were attempting to work out a theory of the badness of unaccountable power; to understand the basic logic of accountability and why it is difficult to get right; and to explore the ways in which political discourse is profoundly shaped by institutions and power relationships. In the process they created strikingly portable theories of counsel and accountability that traveled across political regime types and remain relevant to our contemporary political dilemmas.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226654010
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/14/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Matthew Landauer is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

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Accountability and Unaccountability in Athenian Democracy


In his prosecution of Ctesiphon in 330 BCE, Aeschines offers the assembled jurors the following reflections on the fundamental differences between political regimes: "You know well, men of Athens, that there are three types of regime among all mankind — tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. While tyrannies and oligarchies are administered according to the will and pleasure of their leaders, cities with democratic constitutions are administered according to established laws." Democratic Athens could be so governed only because, in contrast to tyrannies and oligarchies, "there [was] nothing in the city that [was] exempt from audit, investigation, and examination." As Aeschines elaborates, "In this city, so ancient and so great, no one is unaccountable [oudeis estin anupeuthunos] who in some way has applied himself to public affairs." The essential difference between democratic and tyrannical or oligarchic regimes comes to light as one of accountability. While the tyrant administers the polis by his own lights and for his own good, political actors at Athens are held accountable and limited by law.

Aeschines' portrait of Athens neatly captures the centrality of accountability to Athenian politics. By accountability, I do not mean anything particularly foreign to our own understanding of the concept. As Peter Euben has noted, "In many respects the Greek idea of accountability has the same range, breadth and ambiguity as our own. To render an account is to provide a story or description of events or situations as well as to explain oneself (often to a superior). To give an account is to give reasons ... to call to account is to hold someone responsible or blame them." Yet there are also important differences between ancient Greek and modern democratic accountability practices. Contemporary democratic theory often cashes out accountability in terms of representativeness and elections: "Governments are 'accountable' if citizens can discern representative from unrepresentative governments and can sanction them appropriately, retaining in office those incumbents who perform well and ousting from office those who do not." Electoral accountability, it is hoped, will produce a government responsive to the beliefs, preferences, and interests of the voting populace. By contrast, election as an accountability (as opposed to a selection) mechanism in Athens played at most a peripheral role. Instead, for Aeschines and his fellow citizens, holding political office — whether elected or chosen by lot — meant submitting oneself to multiple accountability procedures before, during, and after one's service to the polis. Active participants in politics were called upon to give an account of their actions and could be punished by their fellow citizens should their accounts be deemed unsatisfactory. As Aeschines' boasts suggest, Athenian accountability procedures were remarkable in scope and the intensity of their practice. Contemporary scholarship affirms this view, stressing the thoroughness of accountability procedures, their wide applicability, and the potential severity of punishment.

Yet Aeschines' account might also mislead in two ways. First, in spite of his insistence on democratic exceptionalism, measures to hold political officials responsible for their actions in office were not uniquely democratic. As P. J. Rhodes puts it, "Accounting procedures were widespread under regimes of various kinds." What, then, differentiates ancient Greek democratic accountability politics from practices in other regime types? Second, there were exceptions to Aeschines' confident assertion that nothing and no one escaped the purview of Athens' accountability mechanisms. And understanding the exceptions to Aeschines' rule of political accountability will in turn help us answer the first question posed. For there were two important modes of political participation that stood outside of — or better yet, above — the dense network of accountability institutions. Citizens voting (but not speaking) in the assembly (ekklesia) and serving as jurors in the large popular courts (dikasteria) could not be formally called on to explain or justify their votes before their fellow citizens, nor could they be punished for how they voted. At the same time, the unaccountable citizens participating in these institutions played central roles in holding other officials to account. This fundamental asymmetry is the central fact of Athenian accountability procedures: at Athens, accountability was to the people — and the people, in their capacity as assemblymen and jurors, were unaccountable.

Scholars have primarily taken two approaches to the exceptional status of jurors and assemblymen within the system of accountability. The dominant strategy is to note it briefly in passing and then to leave it virtually unexplored. For example, Jan Elster observes that "the system of checks and balances through mutual accountability had an 'unmoved mover' or unchecked checker, in the Athenian people meeting in the Assembly or serving as jurors." He takes this to be a "lacuna" in the system but does not subject it to further investigation. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts has little to say about the unaccountability of jurors and assemblymen in her otherwise thorough Accountability in Athenian Government other than to report that "there were two overlapping groups at Athens who remained unaccountable. These were the private citizens in their capacity as voters in the Assembly and in the Popular Courts (dikasteria). These men nobody could hold to account. A man could be impeached for giving bad advice, but not for taking it." She recognizes that this was fertile ground for those critical of the democracy but leaves her analysis at that.

The second approach, not incompatible with the first, seeks to minimize the degree to which the treatment of assemblymen and jurors really was an exception in Athenian politics. Peter Euben, for example, has argued influentially that Athenian democracy was characterized by a "culture of accountability," which consisted in "the people being accountable to each other and to themselves." He does not consider whether this claim for generalized accountability is undermined by his recognition that "for better or for worse, members of the juries and nonspeakers in the Athenian Assembly ... were not subject to the same intense scrutiny [as other participants in political life]." Other scholars have followed his lead. Elizabeth Markovits has tried to demonstrate the ways in which "the average Athenian (even those who chose a relatively apolitical life) remained tied to [Athens'] overall culture of accountability," instantiated in such practices as drama, the taking of oaths, and gossip and rumor. Moreover, political participation at Athens was extremely widespread. The proliferation of offices and the role of ordinary citizens in holding magistrates to account meant that many citizens would, at different times, both exercise accountability over others and find themselves held to account for their own actions. In this way, as one scholar has argued, the Aristotelian principle of "ruling and being ruled in turn" had a democratic corollary at Athens "in the expectation that rulers and ruled [would] hold and be held to account in turn." These scholars are invested in a view of Athenian accountability as a rich network of mutual and reciprocal ties; the unaccountability of jurors and assemblymen fades into unimportance against the backdrop of a generalized accountability culture.

Neither of these approaches is wholly satisfactory. Popular unaccountability was a central fact of Athenian democracy and deserves more sustained reflection than it typically receives. Attempts to treat it as an unimportant exception to a generalized culture of reciprocal accountability distort our understanding of Athenian democracy and gloss over a fundamental tension in its politics. As I will argue throughout this book, the basic asymmetries in Athenian accountability practices structured Athens' politics in far-reaching ways and are central to understanding the discourse on counsel developed in our fifth- and fourth-century literary sources. In this chapter and the next, I analyze how and why jurors and assemblymen were treated differently from other political actors. I show how Athenian democrats attempted to justify this differential treatment and how critics of democracy exploited it.

I begin with an analysis of Athens' extensive system of political accountability, comparing Athenian institutions and practices with their counterparts in other democratic and in oligarchic regimes. Athenian accountability institutions were popular, discretionary, and asymmetrical: masses of citizens gathered in the assembly and popular courts were given wide latitude in holding political actors to account but could not themselves be held to account for their judgments. Next, I consider institutional and cultural factors that might have served to mitigate popular unaccountability. I argue that practices such as review of assembly decisions, the jurors' oath, and public pressure on juries and assemblymen all plausibly served in various ways to structure and channel popular decision-making. Nonetheless, these factors were different in kind, not just in degree, from the accountability mechanisms all other political actors faced. Finally, I consider how Athenians might have justified to themselves their system of accountability and the role of popular institutions within it. I canvass a number of possible justifications, including feasibility constraints on holding masses of citizens accountable, the Athenian belief in the "wisdom of the masses," and the relationship between unaccountability and a conception of the demos as sovereign. I argue that one promising avenue of justification centered on identifying jurors and assemblymen with the figure of the powerless, amateur idiotes, or "private citizen." Yet as I show, that identification was always a tenuous one. The tension between the relative powerlessness of individual Athenians and the power of the collective demos was not easily resolved.

I. Athenian Accountability in Comparative Perspective

As A. H. M. Jones aptly notes, while Athenian democrats believed that "all citizens could be trusted to take their part in the government of the city ... on one point the Athenians were distrustful of human nature, on its ability to resist the temptations of irresponsible power." This distrust of "irresponsible power" manifested itself above all in the complex machinery of democratic accountability that arose in the fifth century alongside the democracy itself. In this section I outline the major institutions of accountability in democratic Athens, comparing them with institutions from other ancient Greek poleis. I stress the central role played by assemblymen and jurors — ordinary members of the demos — in the accountability politics of Athens and other democratic regimes in contrast with their role in oligarchic poleis. I consider the procedures all Athenian magistrates routinely faced at the beginning and end of their tenures: the dokimasia and euthunai. I also take up two major Athenian institutions used on a discretionary basis to hold magistrates and other politically active citizens to account, including the demos' advisers: the eisangelia and graphe paranomon.

In offering this overview, I highlight three salient features common to Athenian institutions of accountability. First, the institutions were popular. The final arbiters in accountability procedures were large groups of citizens, serving as either voters in the assembly or jurors. Second, the institutions were discretionary. While the laws typically set out specific crimes and acts of malfeasance for which a political actor could be punished, Athenian institutions of accountability characteristically allowed considerable room for judgment on the part of the citizens trying the cases. Third, the institutions were asymmetrical. Members of juries and voters in the assembly could not be called to account for their actions, even while holding others to account. Taken together, these features set Athenian accountability institutions apart from their oligarchic counterparts and explain what was distinctively democratic about Athens' accountability politics.


In fifth- and fourth-century Athens, the day-to-day administration of the democratic polis lay in the hands of perhaps seven hundred magistrates (including the five hundred members of the boule), most of them selected by lot. All magistrates underwent accountability procedures at the beginning and end of their terms of office. The dokimasia ton archon, held before a popular jury, screened potential magistrates selected by election or sortition before they assumed office. At his dokimasia, a putative magistrate could be rejected for failure to meet citizenship or age requirements or if he had been previously found guilty of a crime punishable with atimia (loss of citizenship rights). In addition, any citizen could come forward at an official's dokimasia and require the prospective magistrate to explain and defend his past actions and way of life. For example, in the wake of the oligarchic revolution of 404/3, some citizens were rejected at their dokimasia for harboring oligarchic sympathies. One Mantitheus, suspected years later of complicity with the Thirty Tyrants, used his dokimasia to offer a wide-ranging defense of his character and role in Athens: "In the case of dokimasiai, it is just to give an account of one's entire life." Candidates rejected at their dokimasia could not serve in office but received no further penalty.

Upon completion of their duties, all magistrates were audited through the euthunai. The first phase consisted in a financial audit, with magistrates accounting for their disbursement of public funds during their time in office. This phase was overseen by the ten logistai and ten sunegoroi — the inspectors of Athenian public accounts and their assistants. Accusations of financial misconduct were tried before a popular court. A second phase looked beyond financial matters, with magistrates "made to answer for any other offences they might have committed in the exercise of their duties." Both citizens and metics (resident aliens) could present written accusations to the board of euthunoi (public examiners) against the outgoing magistrate, charging him with "any conceivable offense." Again, serious accusations were adjudicated before a popular court.

Dokimasia and euthunai procedures applied to all magistrates, whether selected by lot or elected. Accountability procedures and the selection of magistrates were thus discrete (if related) processes. The Athenians believed both that magistrates selected by lot still required scrutiny and accountability and that elections alone were not sufficient for holding political actors to account. We might speculate that this was so in part because elections lacked the discursive element common to both the dokimasia and the euthunai. The sanction of declining to reelect, the main tool modern electorates have to hold their leaders to account, may also have been deemed insufficient to the task. The independence of elections from the euthunai and other accountability procedures is nicely illustrated by a detail in Thucydides' history: in 430, the Athenians punished Pericles with a fine, but this did not stop them from reelecting him as general a short time later.

Athens was by no means the only polis to institutionalize regular euthunai or other accountability mechanisms. Eric Robinson has compiled evidence for euthunai in fifth- and fourth-century democracies across the Greek world, including Mantinea, Argos, Arcadia, and Croton. Aristotle takes as a central institutional feature of democratic politics that questions concerning audits (euthunon) be judged by all citizens or by a subset selected from all. Even in democratic cities where regular euthunai are not directly attested, Robinson has argued that "an abiding concern for keeping officials in line can be detected in other ways," ranging from imprecation decrees to high-profile trials of generals and other leading politicians. Regularized institutions of accountability are also attested in nondemocratic regimes. The early predemocratic (pre-Solonian) Areopagus council played a role in supervising officials and holding them to account. In Sparta, the ephors, annually elected officials who were themselves unaccountable, were instrumental in holding other Spartan officials to account. Important political trials in Sparta were held before a court consisting of ephors, the council of elders, and the kings.


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Table of Contents



1 Accountability and Unaccountability in Athenian Democracy
2 The Tyrant: Unaccountability’s Second Face
3 The Accountable Adviser in Herodotus’ Histories
4 Responsibility and Accountability in Thucydides’ Mytilenean Debate
Parrhēsia across Politeiai
6 Demagoguery and the Limits of Expert Advice in Plato’s Gorgias



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