Constitution of the Athenians

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search

The Constitution of the Athenians (The Athenian constitution; Greek: Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία Athenaion Politeia) is the name given to two texts from Classical antiquity: one probably by Aristotle or a student of his, the second attributed to Xenophon, but not thought to be his work. The Aristotelian text is contained in two leaves of a papyrus codex discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1879. The other work was traditionally included among the shorter works of Xenophon.

The Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, now in the British Library (Papyrus 131)


A facsimile of the papyrus with the text "Constitution of the Athenians" by Aristotle.

The Aristotelian text is unique, because it is not a part of the Corpus Aristotelicum. It was lost until two leaves of a papyrus codex carrying part of the text were discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1879 and published in 1880.[1] A second, more extensive papyrus text was purchased in Egypt by an American missionary in 1890. E. A. Wallis Budge of the British Museum acquired it later that year, and the first edition of it by Frederic G. Kenyon was published in January, 1891.[2] The editions of the Greek text in widest use today are Kenyon's Oxford Classical Text of 1920 and the Teubner edition by Mortimer H. Chambers (1986, second edition 1994). The papyrus text is now held in the British Library.

Ancient accounts of Aristotle credit him with 170 Constitutions of various states; it is widely assumed that these were research for the Politics, and that many of them were written or drafted by his students. Athens, however, was a particularly important state, and where Aristotle was living at the time, therefore it is plausible that, even if students composed the others, Aristotle had composed that one himself as a model for the rest. On the other hand, a number of prominent scholars doubt that it was written by Aristotle.[3]

If it is a genuine writing of Aristotle, then it is of particular significance, because it is the only one of his extant writings that was actually intended for publication.

Because it purports to supply us with so much contemporary information previously unknown or unreliable, modern historians have claimed that "the discovery of this treatise constitutes almost a new epoch in Greek historical study."[4] In particular, 21–22, 26.2–4, and 39–40 of the work contain factual information not found in any other extant ancient text.[5]


The Constitution of the Athenians (in ancient Greek Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία, Athenaion Politeia) describes the political system of ancient Athens. The treatise was composed between 330 and 322 BC. Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laërtius, state that Aristotle assigned his pupils to prepare a monograph of 158 constitutions of Greek cities, including a constitution of Athens.

The work consists of two parts. The first part, from Chapter I to Chapter XLI, deals with the different forms of the constitution, from the trial of the Alcmaeonidae until 403 BC. The second part describes the city's institutions, including the terms of access to citizenship, magistrates and the courts.

The text was published in 1891 by Frederic George Kenyon. Shortly after a controversy arose over the authorship of the work that continues today.[6]


Included in the shorter works of Xenophon is a hostile treatise about the Athenian Constitution. The author, who appears to be an Athenian, regards the Athenian democracy as undesirable, as giving the mob undue voice in the state; but he argues that it is well-designed for its purpose, if you wanted so vile a thing to be done. The author goes on to say that whilst 'the good', a description he uses to cover the rich and the aristocracy of Athens, are better qualified to run the state due to their wealth and education, this would lead to 'the masses' being disenfranchised as the rich would naturally act in their own interests, leading to the suppression of the lower classes. The Athenian democracy allows the poor to exert their influence, in line with the thetes' crucial role in the Athenian Navy and therefore in Athens' affairs.

Dating and authenticity

In the early 20th century, evidence against Xenophon's authorship was presented, and has become the majority view. The author is now usually called pseudo-Xenophon, or the Old Oligarch, based on the anti-democratic tone of the work. The style is not Xenophon's, who is remarkably clear; this treatise is crabbed and inelegant.

The date of the treatise can only be estimated. The Old Oligarch says that lengthy land expeditions cannot be supplied against a sea power; since Brasidas marched the length of Greece in 424 BC, when Xenophon was about five, the Old Oligarch presumably wrote before that date. On the other hand, he discusses the military advantages of democracy at some length, and in listing the business of the boule puts it first; so it has been argued that he wrote in wartime. There are plausible arguments that this was in fact the Peloponnesian War; but G.W. Bowersock, the editor of the Loeb text, is not convinced this is certain, and argues for a date about 443 BC.

H.B. Mattingly argues, in view of the apparent relevance of the text to the showdown between democracy and oligarchy which resulted in the oligarchic coup of 411, that the treatise was written no earlier than 414.

W.G. Forrest used to quote (although he did not agree with) H.T. Wade-Gery's idea about the date of the Old Oligarch's treatise, which was that it was written and circulated in winter 425, because:

(i) Cleon read in it that poneroi [rascally persons] could not be generals, and so accepted the challenge and got elected;

(ii) Aristophanes read that comic poets did not make fun of the demos, and so accepted the challenge and wrote the Knights;

(iii) Demosthenes read that the Athenians thought themselves weak in the hoplite department, and so accepted the challenge and instituted the Delium campaign; and

(iv) Brasidas read that long marches were not practical, and so accepted the challenge and instituted the Thracian campaign.


  1. F. Blass, in Hermes 15 (1880:366-82); the text was identified as Aristotle's Athenaion Politeia by T. Bergk in 1881.
  2. Peter John Rhodes. A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford University Press), 1981, 1993: introduction, pp. 2–5.
  3. e.g., Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia.
  4. J. Mitchell and M. Caspari (eds.), p. xxvii, A History of Greece: From the Time of Solon to 403 B.C.", George Grote, Routledge 2001.
  5. Rhodes, 1981, pp. 29–30.
  6. , introduction à la Constitution d'Athènes, Le Livre de Poche, n°4688, p. 14 et seq..

External links