The Athenians and their Decrees

Peter Liddel reports on his research on Athenian Decrees:

As we saw in an earlier blog-post on the Koinon of the Phrikyladai, new decrees from the ancient Greek world still appear from time to time in the epigraphical evidence. During my semester’s research leave, I spent most of my time thinking about decrees, but, for the most part, those from from Athens that are much better known to historians.

The Athenians in the fourth century BC distinguished between, on the one hand, laws (community-sanctioned rules with permanent and general application) and, on the other, decrees of the assembly (community-sponsored decisions with specific and sometimes temporary application). Typical subjects of decrees included the award of citizenship, the bestowal of an honorific crown, the declaration of war, the enactment of a treaty with another community.

CIG 112

An Athenian Decree (from the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum, 1828)

There is currently a good deal of work being undertaken on the decrees of Athens that are preserved on stone inscriptions: Stephen Lambert has recently published a new edition of the inscribed laws and decrees of Athens from the period 352/1-322/1 BC (IG II3), and has created a website which offers, free of charge, translations of them and other inscriptions. Meanwhile, in a very important book, Mirko Canevaro has demonstrated that most documentary versions of Athenian decrees appearing in literary texts are later forgeries.

In my period of leave, I have drawn together the evidence in the literary sources for Athenian decrees, and have created a Guide to Athenian Decrees of the Period 403/2-352/1 BC in the Literary Sources, which includes texts, translations, commentaries, and bibliography on the testimonia. This adds up to evidence for about 100 firmly-attested decrees, plus another 50 which may (or may not) be identified as decrees. Drawing on this material, I argued, in a paper delivered to the Edinburgh Classics Research Seminar in late 2013, that knowledge about decrees of Athens appears to have circulated through a wide range of mediums: inscriptions, archives, and by word of mouth.

In future research, as well as expanding the coverage of my Guide down to 323/2 BC, I intend to draw out the broader significance of the material I have assembled: in order to understand the place of the decree in the politics and society of fourth-century Athens, we need to consider not only their publication on stone inscriptions, but also the reactions to them that appear in ancient literary texts. I want to explore the ideological implications of Athenian decrees: what were the ideals and principles that were associated with them? What do they reveal about the Athenian community’s reaction to crisis, and its propensity to take risks? What distortions of them were introduced by ancient writers? While, as Robin Osborne has argued, inscribed decrees tone down their political circumstances and present them as the unanimous decisions of the Athenian demos, the literary sources often do the opposite, telling stories about the political intentions and implications of decrees, portraying them alternately as the reasoned decisions of an enlightened people, the policy-errors of a misguided mob, or the political acts of self-interested individuals.

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